“Hills of Friends”

Cultural Watersheds in the Sixth Grade


Sioux Adamson-Towner

When Professor Hoelscher asked me if I was interested in teaching a cultural watershed lesson during my student teaching assignment, I was enthusiastic. I felt that the activity had deep significance for me, and I was curious how sixth graders would respond to the metaphor. Although people have said that sixth-grade students are not ready for abstract thinking, I had seen some evidence suggesting otherwise. I also felt that they might rise to the occasion, given the opportunity.


Middle School Landscapes

Translating this introspective activity into a sixth-grade level turned out to be not so difficult. Two lessons, the first 45 minutes and the second two hours, were enough for 95 percent of the students to complete the project.


Lesson 1: Definitions and Examples

We discussed the definition of a watershed and of the water cycle and listed their various features. Living in the wet northwest, these students see evidence of the water cycle almost daily. Water quality had been a topic in local and state news.

A second list, of cultural attributes, was not easy to generate. With several examples, though, students started to catch on. Items ranged from the very concrete and immediate (“candy and snow boarding”) to the more general (“grandparents and church”). Without hesitation, students started to think of connections between items or concepts recorded in the watershed list and items or concepts noted in the culture list. These first connections were sometimes more obvious than metaphorical. For example, if snow boarding was a personal, cultural attribute, then a snow board went on the snowy mountain. This bridging of lists, however, gained meaning and complexity as the project continued.


Lesson 2: Art and Poetry

The second lesson began with an example. Seeing my cultural watershed mural helped clarify the concept for the students. Although I was reluctant to present a model for fear of eliminating creative responses, in retrospect I feel that it helped a great deal. The students seemed to have a better sense of personal landscape after seeing and hearing about mine. It was as if the significant events in their lives as well as the many other aspects of culture became more apparent to them. Questions like “Can I put in really important things?” and “Is it okay to put in sad parts?” started to erupt from the class as I shared my watershed.

Next, I gave the students a mini painting lesson so that they would feel more confident in visually representing an idea. I assured them that there was no wrong way to represent their ideas and that grades would not be attached to this exercise. I made five suggestions about technique:

> The white of the paper will jump out at the viewer, so it is good to tone down most parts with a light wash.

> Lines in nature are rarely straight.

> Practice brush techniques and color mixing on a scrap of paper.

> Lightly sketch your idea on the mural with a pencil before you paint.

> Paint large features (mountains) first; then go back and do detail (trees, raindrops).

A well-timed break allowed the under-paintings to dry before students added the final details. This last hour of activity was filled with sharing, contemplation, and reflection revealing that the skills and concepts I had been teaching had indeed taken hold. It was as if, in their unstructured conversation, they had moved into the landscapes drying on the paper, each student with his or her own unique collection of life experiences and cultural influences.


A Gallery of Experiences

There was a large variation in the approach taken by different students: one designed a very cohesive mural; another dabbled in the many possible symbols available. Some students drew their watershed on the basis of a dominant personal attribute, while others became absorbed in the process of painting, and later tagged the resulting shapes. I tried to practice restraint by not giving much advice or making connections for them.

One student labeled the dominant peaks “My family range,” with the student, siblings, and parent ranges being of equal height. Out of the mountain flows “the stream of education,” which pools into a “lake of schooling,” out of which flows a “river of scouts,” which finally empties into a “bay of information.” On the land, a “forest of computers” grows up the sides of four hills: “hiking,” “California,” “reading,” and “friends.” The student wrote on the back, “This describes me because my family is the largest and most important [thing] to me. The information is the water which occupies the second largest area. The hills are what I like to do and the experiences I’ve had. The forest is computers, which are a major part of my life.”

Another student painted “dark skies in my life” as a backdrop for two main peaks, “my father’s action” and “my mom.” Between these two is a large lake labeled “the worst of times,” which narrows into a smaller river, “my dad died,” which then pools up behind a “dam in life.” On either side of the river are the hills “extra privileges” and “my stepfather.” A small knoll on the stepfather hill reads, “best of times coming.” “Brothers and sisters” are small islands in a bay, which is labeled “easy time in life.” On the back of the mural is written, “This stuff reminds me of my life.”



The ease that accompanied this creative endeavor was a surprise to those of us who had witnessed it in a university setting. Not only were the sixth graders willing to jump into the creative expression of a watershed, but they were also willing to explore various personal experiences and how they might be represented within this metaphor. As is typical of children, they didn’t appear to agonize or hesitate while reflecting. I found that they were enthusiastically sharing many different parts of their personal and cultural selves, including stories of loss and hardship. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that, for these students, the “sense of community” was strengthened.


About the Author

Sioux Adamson-Towner recently completed a K-8 teacher certification program at Western Washington University and is teaching at Skagit River Middle School in Sedro Woolley, Washington.

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