Go with the flow in the classroom on water

29th March 1996 at 00:00
Pam Cooley follows a primary group's expedition along the River Severn

The River Severn runs just three miles from Astley C of E Primary School in the heart of rural Worcestershire. When it came to planning a term's work on Rivers, a thematic study for key stage 2 geography, form teacher Graham Campbell did not have to look far for inspiration to help him interpret the programmes of study. The Severn offered, he says, "almost endless possibilities for exciting material." So, for one day last June, the river became "a classroom on the water" for 25 Year 5 and 6 children.

A racing canoe coach, Graham spends many hours on rivers. He is also associated with The Main Academy, an educational organisation that uses specially designed Bell Boats to bring people of all ages together. See "Making Waves" by Gerald Haigh, TES 6.11.92). The Bell Boats, 9m long catamaran canoes, are fastened together with a walkway on which a teacher or coach can stand, between each hull. They can seat up to 14 children rowing with single bladed paddles and are very stable.

With the enthusiastic support of headteacher, Sue Durant and an adventurous mother supervising one of the boats, Graham undertook the important procedure of allocating key roles at the start of the trip. "Everyone has his or her own place in the crew," he says.

Kitted out with buoyancy aids, the class took to the water in Stourport. By the time they had paddled through the middle of the town, negotiating a lock for a visit to the canal linking the Severn to the Midland canal network, the children had acquired the basic skills of paddling, stopping and steering. Canals were later to be thoroughly investigated with maps and surveys at school.

Paddling gently downstream they saw Stourport from a totally new viewpoint. Much of the local carpet making industry is situated along the river. The history of the industry, why it was centred in the area and surveys of families who had worked in the factories became part of classroom follow-up work.

An old sign warning boat users to beware of cross currents from the outflow of a former power station, now replaced by factory units and a housing estate, gave the first of several examples of how land use had changed. They passed a marina where power boats were lined up alongside rusty ships that once traded down to Bristol and the sea.

The two Bell Boats, tied together, drifted to a halt in midstream. "In the middle of the Severn the classroom on the water came into its own, says Graham. " There were so many things they had asked about as we went along, but I was just trying to focus their minds on a few things." On one side of the river the undercut base of a red sandstone cliff some 30 metres high and pitted with ancient caves used by monks in the past and by local people until 90 years ago, provided a question and answer session on erosion. "Now erosion is not just a word," says Graham. "They have seen it, they know what it is."

Approaching a weir, the focus shifted as Graham manoevred the boats to a fully automatic river lock, after a pause for a snack the lock was opened to allow them to paddle in. Then dropping some six metres from one level to another and paddling round to the bottom of the weir, there was a pause to speculate on the amount of water flowing into the lock and to learn the history of the navigation system on the river.

A small diversion brought them to where the local tributary, Dick Brook joins the Severn. They eased the boats into the mouth of the brook before they turned back to Astley. "For the first time in their class history, not one child had wanted to use the toilet in nearly four hours!" Graham commented. After lunch in a parent's garden they walked through the lanes back to school.

Geography was not the only subject to benefit from the expedition. The action of the paddles in the water, the effect of the exercise and many aspects of the flora and fauna of the riverside were a useful reinforcement of classroom science.

Two weeks later, this time on foot, the class traced Dick Brook from the school, through meadows and cuttings, under main roads, past old mill and furnace sites, dams and sluices to the river. Playing "Pooh sticks" with a stopwatch to measure the flow of the current led to some serious maths work.

One of the most rewarding pieces of follow up work, embracing both geography skills and English, was a planning enquiry to discuss the building of a marina and leisure centre on a conservation area. The children took different roles: developers, solicitors, people who wanted to berth boats, representatives of Friends of the Earth and the local conservation association. They all had to submit written evidence, before passionately arguing their case.

"I had an agenda of the national curriculum things I wanted to cover in the classroom before we lost the thread of what had happened out there on the water, but they wanted to talk about all the other things that had caught their attention. Sometimes they wanted to do too much too soon," says Graham, adding: "In the end we had touched on nearly a third of the geography curriculum. Current, flow, tributaries, channels, deposit, valleys and waterfalls, the effect of the river on landscape, settlements and historical change - all become clear when you have been on the river."

There are now Bell Boats in many parts of the country. The adult in charge must hold a British Canoe Union certificate - the Union runs week-end courses. With appropriate adult help, younger children and those with disabilities are all enjoying them.

The Main Academy, Bell Boat Coach House, Glen Villa, Fladbury, Near Pershore, Worcs. WRl0 2QH.Tel:01386 861 034 More details and curriculum references of work covered in "the classroom on the water": Graham Campbell, Cottars End, Sheriffs Lench, Evesham. WR11 5SR. Tel: 01386 870072

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