Velma Johnson
Rock Bridge Elementary School
5151 S. 163 Highway
Columbia, Missouri 65203

As I was doing my “background” readings for last summer’s Institute, I never realized what a profound impact they would have on my life. My awareness of place was heightened by the experiences of this past year--both at home and on my visit to China in October. Dr. Melosi’s Garbage in the City came to mind when I saw an open-sewage “stream” in the heart of downtown Beijing. The names of Jane Addams and Alice Hamilton also came to mind as I toured Beijing, Chunjing, Hangzhou, and Shanghai. Does China have like-minded people (women) who are trying to improve their environments? The Jungle by Upton Sinclair was also in my thoughts as we witnessed “food-service” on the street. We were taken to the “finest” restaurants. I didn’t get sick, but I really wondered about sanitation--especially when I visited one of the restrooms. (After that I always tried to wait until our return to the hotel before using the facilities.) I have experienced humankind’s influence and interaction with the environment in both positive and negative ways. As an example of this, I live in an area where our water treatment systems are state of the art--at both ends of the cycle. I visited a country where the only water I could drink or brush my teeth in came from a plastic bottle. I mention these experiences only because I feel they deeply influenced my teaching this year. I now have an even greater sense of place in south Boone County, Missouri.

My class began the year by reading Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder. In fact, we pretty much followed the plans that I submitted last summer.

Later in the year we divided into “pioneer” groups traveling west. We learned about life in the 1840s and 1850s as pioneers to Oregon or Santa Fe. During this time we participated in our Mini-Society simulation. The children were actively involved in making and carrying out the rules they deemed necessary--much like the real pioneers had to do. They produced their own money system and acted as entrepreneurs during our two business days--much like some of the pioneers did after reaching their destinations. The class visited Arrow Rock, an 1840s town which was the first stop on the trail to Santa Fe (the pioneers having set out from Franklin, Missouri, across the river from Arrow Rock). The children toured the buildings and experienced a glimpse of life of that time by carding wool, carrying water, and exploring the area for plants and animals that pioneers might have used.

One of the really fun activities that we did was to gather cattail reeds from the pond in our Outdoor Classroom at school. Each child then had to build a raft that would float and be capable of carrying our wagons and supplies across rivers and streams-- actually our pond. For some children this proved to be a valuable learning experience-- either their rafts came apart or capsized. It was a happy time when everyone finally got safely across. (One of the children noted--after we’d been to Arrow Rock and crossed the Missouri River--that the pioneers might not have gotten second and third chances because they didn’t have the Missouri River Bridge at Rocheport.)

The children had a wonderful time with these activities. They became more aware of their environment and began to develop a sense of place. They also learned ways to interact with the environment without changing it in a negative way.

After the beginning of 1996, I offered our Rock Bridge Elementary third-graders the opportunity to become Conservation Pioneers, which is a program offered by the Missouri Department of Conservation. I had 40 children enroll (which was about half of our total third-grade population). We divided into two groups and learned about the plants and animals in our environment. Next weekend we will camp overnight--cooking over campfires, cleaning up the area--as a culmination to the year’s activities. The children have asked that next year fourth graders be allowed to be members, too.

As a result of my experiences with the People, Prairie, Plains Institute, my children are beginning to develop a real sense of place and are much more conscientious about their environment. As for myself, I’m not where I want to be in relation to environmental history, but--hopefully--my new career as a school librarian will open new areas and opportunities for me and my students to learn and grow.

Rivers and Streams As “Obstacles”

Velma Johnson

Overview: As my students learned more about the westward movement of the pioneers in the mid-1800s, we discovered that rivers and streams could often be major obstacles. This lesson is intended to help the students realize that pioneers often had to use available materials to help solve problems they faced.


To identify the various ways pioneers used to get their wagons and belongings across rivers and streams.

To identify and examine different native materials that might have been used by pioneers to construct rafts and boats.

Behavioral Objectives: The students will:

  1. describe types of boats that could be made from natural materials: raft, animal skin boat, bark boat, and dugout.

  2. identify natural materials that could be used to build boats or rafts.

  3. increase their understanding of the value of plants growing in river and creek bottoms.

Connection to the Curriculum: Social Studies and Art.

Materials, Resources, Equipment:

cattails, rushes, reeds, and other buoyant materials scissors
string, or plant fiber substitute (such as milkweed)
small rocks or pebbles
markers and other art materials water to float boats in (either in a pan or pond in Outdoor Classroom)

Time Required: One or two class periods.

Assessments: The children will float their boats. A successful boat will be able to carry “supplies”--in this case, the rocks or pebbles, without spilling them into the water.

The children will write a descriptive paragraph about their boat and its construction.

The children will compare the various designs and constructions to determine the most useful for pioneers.


  1. The children will first go to the pond in the outdoor classroom to gather materials to be used in their boat or raft construction. Each student should have eight to ten 12-inch pieces of plant material.

  2. The children are to plan and build their own boats or rafts. They may decorate them if they wish--although the pioneers probably didn’t take the time for decorations.

  3. Once completed, the students put pebbles inside their boats or on their rafts and gently lowered them into the water. (My class took one class period in planning and construction and one class period for sailing and writing.)

  4. Have the students write a story about how this boat or its life-size counterpart could actually have been used in the 1800s to transport materials or to explore the countryside.

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