Grade 6 Humanities Views the World Through Water

It’s not unusual for middle school students to learn about the water cycle: Evaporation, condensation, precipitation, and so on. But at Rivers, students in Grade 6 Humanities go way beyond that to a broader “water cycle” that studies humanity’s relationship to water, both past and present, and looks at the role of water in global conflicts, power struggles, and opportunities.

The World and Water has long been the framework for the year-long Grade 6 Humanities class, as part of the Middle School humanities curriculum that combines English and social studies under one umbrella. “It’s a very interdisciplinary curriculum,” says Grade 6 Humanities teacher Sarah Cohen. The first order of business for these newly minted Rivers students is explaining just what is meant by “humanities.”

“They’ve never had it before. They’ve had English and they’ve had social studies, but they’ve never had an interdisciplinary class,” says Cohen. But the key is found in the name of the program itself. “What comes to mind when they hear the word ‘humanities’ is that the word ‘human’ is in there,” she continues. And that helps unlock understanding: “How do humans get to know each other, their values, and their experiences?” asks Cohen rhetorically. “Through stories, through art, through laws, through architecture—so many ways. Once the students realize humanities is not just a subject they will take but an avenue to explore the world and themselves, the learning takes off, as we look at it through the lens of humans and their relationship with water.”

It’s an enormous topic, and one that can be approached in any number of ways. Indeed, the course has changed significantly over the many years it has been taught at Rivers, evolving to reflect current thinking about the use of resources, climate change, and our relationship to the natural world. 

One example of that change, says Cohen, is that a unit on the study of the American whaling industry has evolved into an exploration of the relationship between humans and whales. “It’s gone from ‘How do we hunt whales?’ to ‘How do we relate to them?’ and ‘How have our actions impacted whales over time?’ and ‘What is our responsibility to protect them?’ Power, conflict, and opportunity are terms we think about a lot in sixth grade humanities.”

Perhaps fittingly for students at Rivers, the year begins with a study of one of the world’s great rivers, the Ganges. “As we study the Ganges,” says Cohen, “students learn about why communities grow up along rivers, our physical reliance on the Ganges, and its spiritual significance. We also began to think about the ways humans both control and are controlled by water and the ways we both impact and protect water sources.”

In the spring, students visit a fresh-water resource closer to home, working with The Charles River Watershed Association to pick up trash along the nearby Charles. For many students, this provides a new way of looking at a river they may know in a different context. Rather than going there for recreation, they consider the river’s health and work as a group to clean it up. “It allows them to take something so present in their lives and think about it in a different way,” says Cohen. 

It also sets the stage for one of the course’s culminating moments: Each student must do an independent research project on a fresh-water issue somewhere on earth. They delve deeply into the project and create trifold presentations that are shared with parents, caregivers, and the community at a special event in May. At the most recent presentation of the independent water projects, students looked at water bodies ranging from the Seine River to the Amazon, from Lake Michigan to Lake Victoria. One student was interested in the Great Barrier Reef, but since the project must focus on a fresh-water issue, Cohen helped the student redirect her inquiry to the rivers that feed into the reef and how the fertilizer they carry affects the entire ecosystem of the coast. Students look at physical pollution, at access issues, at scarcity issues—any aspect of a water challenge that helps them tie together much of what they’ve learned throughout the year. 

Inevitably, climate change is part of the curriculum, and Cohen is mindful of the need to keep the students optimistic even as they learn about this seemingly intractable issue. “We try to protect their sense of joy. We’re teaching very curious kids about climate change, but we’re also doing a good job as a sixth grade team to help them feel empowered and hopeful.”

By design, the curriculum is challenging on many levels. But, says Cohen, by the end of the year, students have not only gained knowledge, they have learned to cohere and collaborate. “They really get to know one another and appreciate one another. They’ve been through a lot together; they’ve had hurt feelings, they’ve reflected, they’ve supported one another. They learn so much about life and accountability,” says Cohen. “It’s a beautiful group by the end of the year.”
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