Cultural Watersheds: Diagramming One’s Own Experience of Culture


Karen J. Hoelscher

As teachers, many of us need a personal invitation of sorts before we feel comfortable discussing cultural differences in front of a class, or even one-to-one. We may not believe that we possess unique cultural characteristics, but in fact, every human being does. As a college social studies teacher, I often find that pre- and in-service elementary teachers (a predominantly white, middle-class group) need to explore their own cultural background and its uniqueness before they can guide students through the landscape of human culture—a landscape that can be as exciting as it is diverse.


Melting Pots and Rainbows

Immigrants have often struggled to fit into American society at the expense of preserving their cultural heritage. The usual pattern was to hide one’s unique cultural heritage, and, instead, to adopt the norms of the dominant culture. The “melting pot” of American society might be understood as a kind of fierce peer pressure. But, especially since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, there has been a major shift in the way cultural differences are viewed in America. The metaphor of the melting pot is giving way to those of quilts and rainbows. We are learning to take pride in our uniqueness, as well as in the values that unite us.

The metaphor of the cultural watershed was introduced on our campus in the spring of 1998 by Running-Grass, director of the Three Circles Center for Multicultural Environmental Education in Sausalito, California.1 He encouraged us to contemplate our self-identity using the metaphor of a watershed, in which various cultural characteristics, represented as features of the landscape, influence the course of our lives. He also defined culture very broadly (as described below), an approach that was embraced immediately by students. Each of them suddenly became part of the larger conversation about cultural diversity. Each was someone unique. They had culture!

The watershed metaphor is used for three reasons. First, the watershed is an environmental phenomenon that is all around us—although we might not be aware of it. Likewise, our cultural roots provide the base upon which we build our lives—although it is usually not easy to see the sources of our own behavior. Second, the water cycle within our watershed enables life to occur in various places and forms. Our cultural characteristics have a similar definitive role and changeable, fluid quality. Third, the watershed metaphor encourages us to reflect on connections between and among the cultural elements in our lives, providing an opportunity to know ourselves in a deeper way. By depicting our understanding in a concrete form (a mural about land and water), we can share our own cultural background with others.


A Watershed Exercise

On the basis of the seminar held by Running-Grass, I developed a unit of study, Cultural Watersheds, for my in-service teachers. I give them the following information, suggestions, and assignments over several days. I believe that this unit could be modified appropriately for elementary, middle, or high school classes. (For example, see the next article, written by sixth-grade teacher Sioux Adamson-Towner).


1. Consider the goal

We are all cultural beings, each of us made up of a rich variety of cultural attributes. The goal of this assignment is for you to create a mural in which a watershed (its land forms and the movement of water upon it) is used as a metaphor for your cultural identity (in all its various aspects) and the course of your life.


2. Contemplate your cultural characteristics

Let’s define culture broadly, as including your family’s place of origin and structure, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, spirituality, religion, language, age, and abilities and handicapping conditions.2 Which characteristics are most prominent in your life? How have they helped you become the unique person you are today? Which cultural elements are not as fully developed or important to you right now? Which ones are missing entirely from your personal landscape? How do your core cultural characteristics work together in your life? How do particular elements cause disturbances or challenges for each other? Which cultural characteristics most define you? Think about how these elements might fit together, like a puzzle.


3. Study watersheds, in brief

What is the definition of a watershed? (It is an area of land upon which all of the water ultimately drains into a particular river, lake, or ocean.) What is the Continental Divide in the United States? What is the ultimate fate of rainwater that falls on this campus? How are the cleanliness and health of a river or bay related to its watershed?


4. Study the water cycle, in brief

Define and explore the water cycle (the movement of water through air, land, and ocean, propelled by the energy of the sun) and learn how a watershed works.3 List all the forms that water takes (for example, glacial melt, rain, hail, snow, fog, mist, streams, rivers, oceans, and ground water). Using the library and Internet resources, find out about the processes of the water cycle (evaporation, condensation, precipitation, surface runoff, infiltration, and transpiration) and how they link together.


5. Link your cultural characteristics to land forms

Integrate what you have learned by creating a mural. First, sketch a mountainous landscape, with peaks of varying sizes and shapes. Label each peak with a major cultural characteristic (or, if you wish, a traditional aspect of your culture) related to your identity. Consider carefully which of the peaks should be the highest or most rugged, which should be hidden or less visible, which should be prominently featured. Then include other land forms, hills, plateaus, plains, and shorelines or deltas. These could be labeled with minor (or more modern) cultural influences in your life.


6. Link changes and movement in your life to the water cycle

Illustrate the paths water takes as it flows from your mountain tops to a “river of life” below. Use as many terms from the water cycle as possible to connect your cultural characteristics to the watershed you have developed.

Does your spiritual identity evoke the metaphor of transpiration in your life, as your “roots” absorb emotional water from the soil, nourishing your stem on the way to your leaves? Does your family structure evoke the metaphor of infiltration, helping filter impurities out as rain water passes over, soaking into the ground through layers of soil and rock? Do aspects of your life resemble mist, fog, hail, and sleet? Do your own abilities and activities affect your culture and society, like cascading water that smoothes jagged rocks over the years?


7. Exhibit your work in a gallery

Create a gallery of cultural watersheds. Craft a clear, spare message to viewers to be displayed near your mural. Try to capture the essence of your mural to share with viewers who walk by. What will help them interpret the visual images and water activity they see in your mural? Post your more extensive notes next to the mural. These notes should help explain the connections among and between the cultural elements within the watershed.

Host a gallery “opening” with your classmates. Serve refreshments if you wish. How have the influences in your life been similar to other “landscape artists” whose works are hanging in the gallery? How are they different? What did you learn about your cultural identity during this assignment? How effectively did you represent this learning through the creation of your mural? How would you revise your cultural watershed, after participating in this activity (that is, what have you learned that would be useful or relevant to consider adding next time)?



The cultural watershed activity is now a regular part of my social studies methods course, with modifications that were suggested by my first group of cultural watershed creators. It is always an enjoyable moment when the students (and invited guests) browse the range of watersheds in the gallery, sipping cider, nibbling finger foods, maybe listening to inspirational music, discussing the similarities and differences of their cultural backgrounds and their different uses of metaphor. On the walls, the images of land and water have names like “Tower of the Ancients,” “Volcano of Gender and Sexuality,” “Sandbar of My Disability,” “Swamp of Uncertainty,” and “Bay of Becoming.”

ýinally, students participate in a debriefing session in which they discuss their perceptions of the personal and professional value of the watershed activity. Overwhelmingly, student remarks have been favorable, including those coming from students who resisted the idea initially. These soon-to-be teachers have experienced firsthand the power of cultural ownership and the freedom that comes from tolerance of cultural differences. After examining their personal culture, they might be more confident when leading students in the discovery and celebration of theirs.



1. Running-Grass, “Multicultural Environmental Education: Teaching Strategies and Future Directions” (Symposia conducted at Western Washington University, Bellingham, WA, April 29, 1998). The biannual Journal of Culture, Ecology, and Community is published by the Three Circles Center for Multicultural Environmental Education, Post Office Box 1946, Sausalito, CA 94965.

2. Eleanor Schmid, The Water’s Journey (New York: North-South Books, 1989); Arthur Dorros, Follow the Water from Brook to Ocean (New York: Harper-Collins, 1991); Gregor G. Beck and Clive Dobson, Watersheds: A Practical Handbook for Healthy Water (New York: Firefly, 1991). Websites of interest include and

3. For a global perspective on cultures, for grades 3-6, see Gerry Edwards, Discovering World Cultures Through Literature (Glenville, IL: Good Year Books, 1995); for a multicultural focus, grades K-2, see Marti Abbott and Betty Jane Polk, Celebrating Our Diversity: Using Multicultural Literature to Promote Cultural Awareness (Carthage, IL: Simon & Schuster, 1993).

About the Author

Karen J. Hoelscher is an associate professor in the Department of Elementary Education at Western Washington University in Bellingham.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.