A River, Trail, Mountain or Settlement Runs Through It: Going Global by Starting with Features Close to Home

Guest blog by Kelly Clark

My colleagues and I were preparing for an ArtsLit Academy in Owensboro, Kentucky, a town on the banks of the Ohio River with a long and rich culture based on and around this vital natural feature. In preparing to lead K-5 teachers through experiential learning based on a sense of place, I searched for children’s books that spoke to the power of a river in the life of town. I couldn’t find them. What I did find were books about all the geographical elements in a state, books about boats or bridges, fictional histories or memoirs that used or relied upon the river as a backdrop, and books about the water cycle and the place of rivers within that cycle.

Each of the books I found had separated the river into distinct content areas: geography, engineering or transportation, history and fiction, or science and climate studies. It seemed evident that there is a gap in the literature, or perhaps more accurately, an outdated way of thinking about texts to support teaching.

If we want teachers to cover an increasingly large amount of content at a deep and meaningful level, we have to approach the concepts intentionally so that that content, woven together, is covered through relevant and authentic learning while students grow in skills and global mindedness.

When I talk with elementary school teachers about adding global elements to lessons, one of the biggest stumbling blocks they mention is that they don’t have time to add content to an already packed day. My suggestion is that by reframing the content around local landmarks or geographical landmarks and extending that learning from the local to global, they make connections while building a sense of civic pride and understanding about their own cultures.

Space does not allow for a full scale discussion of all the rivulets and streams that would emerge when students immerse themselves in inquiry-based learning on the river flowing past their front door. But I can offer some suggestions for ideas to form essential questions that might start the wondering that would shape the class learning.

Bringing the river into the classroom would seem most at home in social studies, most likely under Human-Environmental Interactions, but it could also have geography and economic components. In addition, there are plenty of opportunities to add in art, music, math, history, engineering and science strands. To provide some food for thought, I have grouped sample questions about rivers into three categories.


  • Where am I? What is around me?
  • Where does this river go? If I can’t see the end or beginning how do I know where it starts and ends?
  • Using maps, where are other places that have rivers? Are there towns like mine on rivers in other countries?
  • Why is our town on a river? How does a river both help and hurt a town?


  • Why are there boats on the river? What are the boats carrying?
  • Thinking about goods, how do people get the things they need? Does everything we need and use come from our own town?
  • How much does a boat carry? What is the cost?
  • Is the river the best way to travel and move goods from place to place?
  • When your town was young, and travelers came by river, what did they bring with them?
  • Are people, cultures and goods still moving on the river today? Who and where are they coming from?


  • Why is water important? What are the ways we use water?
  • Why is this river important to our town? To other towns on the river?
  • Are there ways for towns to get water without being on a river? How?
  • What happens when the water dries up or goes away?
  • What happens when the water becomes polluted?
  • What life forms depend on the river?

Any one of these questions could form a unit of study that can both be global in comparisons and historical in looking at the past, present and future of our rivers. The scope and breadth is huge, and, as such, does not fit easily into a children’s book, which is where I began my original search. Instead, use the local feature as your text and have the students create their own river books to demonstrate the depth of their understanding in an authentic way that honors their sense of place as well as their learning.

Kelly Clark is the state lead for Global Competence at the Kentucky Department of Education. Kelly enjoys supporting all Kentucky students in being prepared for a globally interconnected and inquiry based world. @KyDeptofEd @KellyAClark

Kelly Clark, KY Leads

Kelly Clark is the Global Competence Lead at the Kentucky Department of Education.

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