As she looked at a picture in a science magazine, Janet, one of my sixth grade students exclaimed, "That's all? That little puddle is the source of the huge Mississippi River? How does the river get so big?" Answering these questions provided the opportunity to examine in depth the social studies standards theme * PEOPLE, PLACES AND ENVIRONMENTS. (1) Since my goal in teaching geography is to open a larger world for my sixth graders, Janet's questions prompted me to find a way to help my students discover the variety of ways rivers might affect the environment, culture, and history of the people along their courses. In this article, I describe two versions of a successful project that I use with my students when they study geography. (2)
The model river project combines geographic knowledge and research skills. Each year, I select the type of project we will do in light of the amount of class time available. I believe that a longer, one-month project (described below), which requires students to examine and report on life along the entire length of a river, is superior. It provides students with an opportunity to test their ideas about the relationship between people and the river in several settings. (The relationship often changes as the landscape changes.) A shorter, two-week project does provide opportunities to teach and practice geographic research and presentation skills, but it may not provide as much depth of understanding of social geography. The longer project also provides greater opportunity for students to solve problems creatively as they work on their model of a river valley.
The Project Begins
When studying the regions of Asia, I used the model river project as a culminating activity and an authentic assessment of student learning. Five rivers--the Ganges, Indus, Mekong, Huang He (Yellow) and Chang (Yangtze)--originate in the Himalaya Mountains. This region possesses a wide range of cultures and relationships among people along each river system and illustrates the many benefits that rivers provide to human society over time. Each student creates a three-dimensional (contour) model of a river system and a fact book about that river. If they choose, students can work with a partner, but each is required to make a plan (and have it approved by the teacher) that spells out what the division of labor will be for creating the model and the report.
To begin, I give each student a detailed, written description of the rivers project, which includes requirements, directions, suggestions, and a summary of how the project will be assessed (Handout, p. M13). I instruct students on how to use a card filing system to collect data for the fact book. (Although some students may have access to a computer, I have found that using cards is the best way for them to learn research skills.) I show students an example of a well-researched book, with data organized in charts and lists. I do not require students to write everything in complete sentences in this activity. The models of river valleys, made on a base of foam board or plywood, are described in the handout, as is the rubric for assessment.
Resources for Research
A preliminary check of resources in the library and on the Internet indicated that there was adequate information close at hand for students to complete the project (See References). For the students, however conducting research was sometimes complicated by their inability to gain access to the information they needed in a timely manner. Thus, I made sure that a variety of useful resources were present in the classroom. Photographs and diagrams are important in helping students identify the various parts of the river systems, and several travel websites proved a useful source of pictures. Companies that plan adventure tours provided online photographs of remote and isolated regions. General references such as encyclopedias, atlases, travel books and magazines, and National Geographic and Smithsonian magazines provided sufficient information for my first two classes to successfully complete the project. …