The St. Croix River is a good place to call home. For kids who grow up along it, the river and its valley offer abundant natural places and experiences. It’s a fertile environment for one’s formative years.
Some young students at River Grove Elementary School in May Township, Minn. recently completed an in-depth unit called “Our River Home,” which immersed them in all things about the St. Croix. (My children also attend River Grove, but were not in these classes.) The kids shared what they learned with the community one afternoon in early November at the school, which is currently located on the storied and ecologically important Wilder Forest area.
The first-graders stood or sat by displays scattered among a towering stand of red pines. Some objects were on folding tables, while others were spread out on blankets on the ground. They beamed as they told visitors about different aspects of the homeland they were getting to know. Parents and teachers mingled among the trees and children, asking questions and listening to answers that were sometimes timid, and sometimes spoken so fast that young minds got ahead of their mouths.
The event also represented something of an arc for the school, one teacher in particular, and even St. Croix 360. “Our River Home” was the brainchild of Mrs. Jaime Souza, first-grade teacher and St. Croix River enthusiast. Before becoming a teacher at River Grove, Jaime was an outdoor educator first in California, and then at the St. Croix River Association (now Wild Rivers Conservancy).
In 2018-2019, my then first-grade daughter’s class participated in programs offered by Jaime through the Rivers Are Alive curriculum, a partnership between Wild Rivers Conservancy and the National Park Service. I got to chaperone a couple times and the kids had a blast, and clearly, so did Jaime. (I wrote about it here and here.)
Since then, Jaime followed her passion to getting a Masters degree in education and starting as a first-grade teacher at River Grove in September 2021. Now, she was leading this giggling gaggle of children through a celebration of the St. Croix.
The displays offered information about many aspects of the river. The kids had worked in small groups to learn and then create interactive experiences on topics ranging from geology to birds, logging to mussels. It was a little like a science fair focused solely on the St. Croix.
At one table, a group of boys told their audience about Indigenous people who have long been at home on and along the St. Croix River. Their remarks were brief, but included the idea of reciprocity. They explained many Native Americans recognized three types of ways nature helps humans: food, medicine, or home — and thus people ought to return the favors.
On the table in front of them were examples of nature’s gifts. There was a thermos of hot water and white pine branches, which they used to make tea for anyone who wanted to try the traditional drink, which is rich in Vitamin C. They also had maple syrup to taste, and containers of manoomin, or wild rice, to admire. A basket made of birch bark sat nearby.
Later, I found myself winding through the trees searching out photos of aquatic insects attached to the trunks. When I found a dragonfly nymph or water strider, I did my best to draw it on a piece of paper and clipboard I had been given. The kids told how these creatures need clean water and are an important part of the food web in the river.
A couple kids talked to me about the loggers who cut down the region’s vast forests. The “river pigs” who performed the dangerous work of moving the lumber down the St. Croix River to the mills were often teenagers, and a girl spoke with admiration for the legendary workers, but said there was no way she would want such a dangerous job when she is a teenager.
There was a watershed display where visitors could crumple up a piece of paper to make a rough hill, draw with a blue marker where they thought water would run, and then sprayed it with a bottle to simulate rain, watching how the water followed gravity. There was a game of Go Fish, where a child told me her favorite St. Croix fish species was the flathead catfish, because of its whiskers. At another station, kids handed out binoculars and pointed their parents toward pictures of birds that had been clipped to the branches of nearby trees.
After everyone had a chance to visit the displays, the kids and visitors reconvened. With the program’s close connections to the Rivers Are Alive program, both the National Park Service and Wild Rivers Conservancy were represented. The National Park Service ranger informed the children they had all earned the rank of Junior Ranger, and they were awarded badges. Then Jaime ended with one more activity and a few comments pointing out how lucky the kids are to live where they live.
“There are not many kids who have a National Park in their backyard,” she said.
The final activity was making a web of life, explaining how all the topics we had just learned about were connected. Getting the students in a circle, Jaime handed out long pieces of string to some of them. One child might represent the sun, which provides energy to living things on Earth. The other end of their string connected to a kid who represented plants, who photosynthesize the sun’s energy. Other connections were made between the many natural forces at work along the river.
When the web was complete, Jaime pointed out the most important connection: between the kids and their river.
“You have a really important job ahead of you,” Jaime said. “To be protectors of this place.”
The kids nodded solemnly. Then they were dismissed and ran around, playing in the forest.
Note: As has been recently reported, River Grove Elementary School is losing its home at Wilder Forest because the St. Paul-based Wilder Foundation has accepted an offer from the Minnesota Catholic Youth Partnership to purchase the land.
MCYP plans to open a summer camp for Catholic youth at the site, to be operated by Ohio-based company Damascus, which has a mission to “awaken, empower, and equip a generation to live the adventure of the Catholic faith through world-class programs and an environment of encounter.”
River Grove has pledged it will continue its mission at a new location to “utilize the natural resources, history, arts, and civic stewardship of the community as a foundation for the study of language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, physical education, art, and other curriculum subjects.”