How Can You “Lose” a River?

BIQs and Children’s Literature

Kathleen A. J. Mohr

Most of us tend to take the natural resources around us for granted. Often we learn to appreciate and protect the resources in our communities only after they have been damaged or partly destroyed. One approach to helping students appreciate their own surroundings and those of diverse populations is to use multicultural literature that examines cultural perspectives from about the world. A feature of the physical world that is often found in traditional literature is rivers. Studying rivers affords an opportunity to integrate the study of geography, communities, transportation, cultures, and environmental science with strong language arts activities. This topic also invites students to extend their prior knowledge about waterways and expand their understanding of rivers and their importance to people and communities around the world.

Because students generally know something about rivers, this lesson stimulates their prior knowledge and uses a question framework and a Zapotec Indian legend to enlarge their understanding of rivers and cultural values. More specifically, the following lesson is intended as a literature-based, cross-curricular investigation for third or fourth graders. The lesson attends to the Social Studies standards 1 Culture; 2 Time, Continuity, and Change; 3 People, Places, and Environments; and 10 Civic Ideals and Practices. Its main objectives include:


Initiate the lesson by introducing the Basic, but Important Questions (BIQs) Framework and its first question: What is a river? Have students generate a definition of the term “river” and write a definition based on their prior knowledge in the first box on the framework.

Next, ask students: What are some important rivers that you know of? Allow students to list their responses on the board. Then, focus the students’ discussion by asking them if they know the names of any rivers in Mexico. (This question may allow students from Mexico to contribute significantly to the discussion and to highlight the geography of a neighboring region.) If necessary, help students look at a map or atlas to locate rivers in Mexico, then add them to the list. On the basic, BIQs framework, students can list (using capital letters for proper nouns) the names of rivers they can find on a map.

The third question on the BIQs Framework asks, Why is a river important? Be prepared to spend several minutes helping students to understand rivers as a natural resource. Ask students if their ideas would also apply to rivers in Mexico. After sufficient discussion, have students write at least three reasons that rivers are important onto their copies of the BIQs Framework (see handout).

The fourth key question of this lesson is, How can you lose a river? Allow students to hypothesize answers to this question. Use student responses to explore the interaction between people and their environments. Ask students if they are aware of any rivers that have been lost. A logical extension would be to query “Have any rivers been found?” A related question is “If you lose a river, can you get it back?” Allow students to discuss these possibilities as a whole class or in small cooperative groups. How can a river be reclaimed if it has been polluted or damaged?

After discussion of the first four questions, introduce students to the selected text, The Woman Who Outshone the Sun (La Mujer que Brillaba Aún Más que el Sol) by Jose Cruz Martinez. The text is a version of the legend of Lucía Zenteno and originates in the folk literature of the Zapotec Indians of Oaxaca, Mexico. This legend exemplifies the values of these native Americans and gives students insights into a Latin American culture and community. Remind students of the BIQs Framework questions already addressed and tell them to listen to the story in order to compare their ideas with those presented in the book. Following the reading, ask for students’ response to the story.

Continue the questioning process with the next BIQs item: How does this reading add to your understanding of rivers? In this case, the text is a legend and if your students are unfamiliar with this genre, a brief discussion of the characteristics of a legend might be helpful. Legends are stories that include both fact and fiction, that inspire and entertain, that reveal something important about a people and their way of looking at the world. More specific discussion questions could ensue: What is probably true about this legend? What elements are probably mythical? What is its main message? What does the story seem to teach the readers about the Zapotec Indians and their culture?

The last regular question in the BIQs Framework is: How has my thinking about rivers changed? This question might be difficult for some students to answer because it requires them to assess their own learning process. But, it is a valuable step in helping students monitor their understanding of the topic. Returning to the title question of the lesson “How Can You Lose a River?” might be a helpful way to prompt students at this point in the discussion.

What’s Next? After sufficient discussion of the story, ask students about possible next steps for this lesson. Allow students to brainstorm their own suggestions for extending this lesson. Some students may want to read more information about the Zapotec Indians, while others may want to hear more Latin American legends as part of a study of the genre. One valuable extension could be to compare the text used in this lesson with the book, A River Ran Wild by Lynn Cherry. This picture book is an historical narrative of the Nashua River in the northeast United States that was both lost and found in ecological terms. It provides a great comparison from both a literature and social science perspective. Another extension is to use Hands-on Latin America: Art Activities for All Ages by Yvonne Y. Merrill to plan art activities that allow students to represent their understanding of the legend in a more affective and aesthetic manner.

The success of this lesson depends on the skilled use of key questions and the ability to encourage students to discuss their prior knowledge and expand their understanding of the topic. A powerful benefit of this lesson is familiarity with a useful discussion tool, the Basic, but Important Questions (BIQs) Framework. The graphic organizer (which follows) can be used for a variety of topics in science, social studies, or literature. For example, try using the framework questions to investigate topics such as forest fires, spiders, federal courts, or human relations topics such as friends or grandparents. The questions in the framework are intentionally basic, but they encourage student involvement and the connections that can be made between prior knowledge and literature-based information.



Cherry, Lynn. A River Ran Wild. New York: Scholastic, 1992.

Cruz Martinez, Jose. The Woman Who Outshone the Sun: The Legend of Lucia Zenteno. San Francisco, CA: Children’s Book Press, 1987.

Merrill, Yvonne. Hands-on Latin America: Art Activities for All Ages. Salt Lake City, UT: KITS Publishing, 2001.

Sammons, Laney and Jeannie Waters, “Rollin’ Down the River: An Interdisciplinary Study,” Social Studies and the Young Learner 12, no. 4 (March-April, 2000): 10-13.


Kathleen A. J. Mohr is an assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education and Administration at the University of North Texas in Laredo.

Basic, but Interesting Questions:
Rivers and Stories about Them

1. What is a river?

2. What are some commonly known or important rivers?

3.Why is a river important?

4. How can you “lose” a river?

5. How can a polluted or damaged river be reclaimed?

6. How has my thinking about rivers changed from this study?

7. What’s Next? My plans for helping to clear up a waterway or to learn more about rivers.