Rollin’ Down the River:
An Interdisciplinar
y Study


Laney Sammons and Jeannie Waters

The Ocmulgee River glistens in the Georgia sun as it rushes by fifty second grade students. One group of students watches as a volunteer from the Ocmulgee River Initiative takes a sample of river water for quality testing. A second group explores the brush, grasses, and flowers found along the riverbank. A third group pantomimes the life cycle of a tree; earlier in the day they had read The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.1öLater, on a grassy overlook, students create a mural of the sparkling river scene before them. This outdoor activity is the culmination of an exciting interdisciplinary unit of study on the Ocmulgee River and the community that grew beside it.


Preparing for the Journey

Winship Geography/History Magnet School is a public elementary school in Macon, Georgia. We begin the year with a school wide unit of study on the city of Macon. This unit integrates social studies, science, the fine arts, literature, and writing. The second grade teachers decided to focus the study of Macon on the river that runs through it, the Ocmulgee.

Our first task was to select a book to be the keystone of our unit. We wanted a book that would describe a river and a small city, like Macon. We decided to use Follow the River, by Lydia Dabovich, which traces the course of a river, and the human activity beside it, from its source to the sea.2 Big books (14" x 20"), teacher guides and audio cassettes are available. We applied for funding to purchase class sets of this book with support materials and to provide a field trip. Within a few weeks, we were delighted to learn that we had been awarded the requested funds.3

Then brainstorming began! Teachers met frequently to collect ideas for lessons from books, videos, Internet searches, discussions with local experts, materials from the Ocmulgee National Monument,4 and our own teaching files. We wanted our students to understand the interrelationships between bodies of water, plant and animal life, and man. Therefore, we hoped to highlight the five themes of geography: location, description of place, human-environment interaction, movement, and regions. As we became more involved in this project, it seemed as if we discovered connections to the river in almost every aspect of our lives. As the new school year began, we launched our “Rollin’ Down the River” unit.


Keep Your Eyelids Up

The new second graders gave wide-eyed stares as they strolled through a “river habitat” in the hallways of Winship Magnet School on their way to class. A recording of the soft sound of crickets chirping and frogs croaking filled the hallway. One classroom had been transformed into a beaver lodge. A cardboard structure covered with sticks surrounded the door. A three foot paper beaver sat on a fallen cardboard tree trunk that rested on our paper river covering much of the hall walls. Bushes overhung the rippling paper river, and cattails “grew” along the marshy areas.

Past the beaver lodge, students found a raccoon den. Branches from a real tree gracefully surrounded the door of the other second grade room. A stuffed raccoon perched on a tree stump that was constructed by covering a tall stool with heavy paper. The classrooms were titled “Mrs. Sammons’ Lodge” and “Mrs. Waters’ Den.”

On the hall bulletin board, we displayed a map depicting the Ocmulgee River flowing past the Ocmulgee Indian Mounds (an area whose history of inhabitation dates back to Paleolithic man). The title read “Follow the River… Through Macon.” Students would later add their own artwork to this river scene.


Testing the Water

We began the unit by asking students to tell us everything they already knew about rivers. We recorded this on a “river” of heavy paper, cut to form gently rolling “waves.” Throughout the weeks, the “river” of ideas provided a word bank as well as a way of remembering initial conceptions; thus any initial misconceptions could be corrected as we learned more about these bodies of water.

For our weekly poem, we read Charlotte Zolotow’s “River Winding,” which we had copied on chart paper along with words and phrases that relate to the concept of rivers.5 We demonstrated the use of a dictionary and a glossary, and the children recorded their findings in a learning log. They pasted a copy of the poem in their poetry books and added illustrations.

Students learned that the word Ocmulgee means “bubbling waters” in the language of the Creek Indians who once lived here. Students found the Ocmulgee River on a map of Macon, and we discussed water transportation of the past. The children made figures of themselves by using paper scraps and yarn for clothing and hair, and placed these figures in paper canoes. A display, “Paddling Down the Ocmulgee,” was then created on the classroom door. At the close of the first day of school, our second graders marched past the door beaming with pride and a newfound interest in our community and its river.


Natural History

One of our favorite books, River Life by Barbara Taylor, explores a river in vertical sections, starting at the river bed and continuing up to the river bank.6 Each day we read a portion of the book, studied the plants and animals in the section described, and performed a related activity. For example, after reading about the river bed, the children shaped pieces of gray, black, or brown construction paper into “rocks” and stuffed them with newspaper strips. As we placed the “rocks” in the “river bed” in the hallway, we munched on rock candy and listened to an audio tape of river sounds.

In a healthy river, the riverbed is a place where animals work and play. The children were fascinated by real river bed animals that visited our classrooms—crayfish! They discovered that these remarkable creatures inhabit our middle Georgia rivers and require clean water to live. What a perfect time to instill the importance of caring for our river and other natural resources in our community! Each child created a “crayfish” by painting part of an egg carton with brown tempera and adding pincers, eight other (pipe cleaner) legs, and a tail. These amazing animal models were moved to the “river” in the hallway where they “climbed” on the “rocks.” Signs were displayed on walls so that we could share our discoveries with the rest of the school.

Next, using a book published by the Georgia Fish and Wildlife Commission, the class researched the kinds of fish that inhabit the Ocmulgee River.7 After creating a word web about fish, students drew diagrams of fish in their Learning Logs and then labeled body parts. The students also created fish prints using real frozen fish brushed with tempera paint.

Dr. Al Smith, a professor at Mercer University, shared his expertise on the insects and reptiles that live in the river and on its banks. He brought into the classroom a variety of live turtles and a butterfly collection. The children were fascinated to learn about local animal life. They asked many questions based on the river studies they had already done. Later, using pasteboard paper plates, paper scraps, and green macaroni, the second graders crafted river reptiles (snakes and turtles) to add to our hall river environment.

River banks are rich with mammals such as deer, squirrels, beavers, otters, raccoons, and bats. We read a collection of trade books, both fiction and nonfiction, to discover characteristics of these animals. A ranger with the Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge, Mr. John Gahr, visited our classroom with stuffed specimens of birds and mammals that inhabit the Ocmulgee River region. After comparing and contrasting these animals, the children used the facts they had learned to create animals of their choice using construction paper, scissors, and glue.


Human History

At this point in the unit, we challenged the students to recall what they had learned in order to infer why the city of Macon is located on the banks of the Ocmulgee. The classes suggested possible reasons for the development of this area. Through our research, we discovered the history of human inhabitation of this region, how man has been shaped by his surroundings and how he has shaped his environment through his interactions with it.

Creating a time line of the different peoples and cultures that have lived and thrived along the Ocmulgee, we learned that people make their homes along the river banks for many of the same reasons animals do.

The readily available supplies of food and water attracted early man to the area as far back as 9000 BC. Indians built large mounds of earth for ceremonies and burials between 900 and 1100 AD. Later, the river provided a means of transportation for the E ropean people who moved into the area, bringing their own culture and traditions with them. Their occupation of this land eventually led to the forced removal of the Native Americans to Oklahoma in the Trail of Tears in 1838-1839. To help our students learn more about the earlier inhabitants of the river, we invited some members of the Creek Nation of Okmulgee, Oklahoma (that town is spelled with a “k”) to visit our class when they were in town for an Ocmulgee Indian Celebration.

As we discussed the past, we noted the significance of quilts as American historical artifacts. The children enjoyed storybooks about families and their quilts. Each child designed a square for a paper quilt depicting the history of our community and how it relates to the history of the river.8

Man and the river are still interdependent. In cooperative groups, some children brainstormed ways in which man depends on the river, and others listed ways in which the future of the river depends on us. The children surveyed their families to determine daily uses of water, which included recreational activities, cooking, bathing, cleaning, and fire fighting.


Special Trips and Events

Our students were amazed to learn that their drinking water comes from the Ocmulgee River. It is treated and pumped into the city. So that students could see for themselves how the process worked, we visited our water treatment plant. When we returned to school, the children drew a flow chart to illustrate the processes that the water goes through between the river and the water fountain.

Our school holds an annual Winship Social Science Fair, for which our younger students (grades K-3) complete a class project. (In grades 4-6, each student completes an independent project.) The second grade class projects usually focus on topics related to the river. For example, after discussing the plans for an Ocmulgee Heritage Greenway (a plan for a “linear park” along the river that is being promoted by several community organizations), each class selected a question to explore with the use of a proscribed research plan. One class surveyed students to determine how many people use the river for recreation and in what ways. The other class polled students to discover the types of recreational areas they would like to see included in the plans for a greenway (such as a trail for walking, biking, or in-line skating; picnic sites; boat launches; and environmental education centers). The results were tallied and graphed, papers were written, and illustrations were drawn by our students. We proudly displayed our projects at the Winship Social Science Fair.

Using the results of their research, the students designed plans for the greenway including picnic areas, walking trails, and fishing docks. Later, Winship’s second graders etched their names in clay bricks that will be fired and then used in the construction of a planned Gateway Park within the greenway.



As we “journeyed” through the Ocmulgee River region—exploring its natural resources, reviewing its history, visiting its banks, and dreaming about its future—our eager second graders developed an appreciation for our river heritage and an awareness of the importance of the river in Macon’s future. We believe these young people will grow up to be curious students of the social studies—and responsible stewards of “their” rollin’ river.9



1. Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree (New York: HarperCollins, 1964).

2. Lydia Dabcovich, Follow the River (Littleton, MA: Sundance, 1980).

3. Funds were awarded by the Community Foundation of Central Georgia’s Public Education Fund.

4. The Ocmulgee National Monument is a memorial to the antiquity of man in this corner of the North American continent. From Ice-Age hunters to the Creeks of historic times, there is evidence here of 12,000 years of human habitation. The monument today consists of two units separated by three miles of river bottom wetlands along the Ocmulgee River. (

5. Jack Prelutsky, ed., The Random House Book of Poetry for Children (New York: Random House, 1985). See also Jack Prelutsky, ed., The 20th Century Children’s Poetry Treasury (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999).

6. Barbara Taylor, River Life (New York: Dorling Kindersley, 1992).

7. Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Georgia Sport Fish (Seattle, WA: Outdoor Empire, 1996).

8. Tony Johnston and Tomie dePaola, The Quilt Story (New York: Scholastic, 1985). See also Judith R. Marrou, “Piecing It Together: America’s Story in Quilts,” Social Studies and the Young Learner 12, no. 3 (January/February 2000); Ava L. McCall, “Including Quilters’ Voices in the Social Studies Curriculum,” Social Studies and the Young Learner 7, no. 1 (September October 1994).

9. Other topics for higher grade levels could include: sewage and industrial waste treatment, watershed and runoff, the past and present regional economy and the river, and public policy and the use of rivers.

Children’s Literature

Bailey, Donna, and Christine Butterworth. Alligators and Crocodiles. Austin,TX: Steck-Vaughn, 1991; also Alligator’s Home.

Cannon, Janelle. Stellaluna. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, 1993.

Cole, Henry. I Took a Walk. New York: Greenwillow Books, 1998.

Dabcovich, Lydia. Busy Beavers. New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1988.

Dorrow, Arthur. Follow the Water from Brook to Ocean. New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

Jeuness, Gallimard, and Pierre-Marie Valat. Water. New York: Cartwheel Books, Scholastic, 1996.

Julivert, Maria Angels. The Fascinating World of Bats. Barcelona, Spain: Barron’s, 1994.

MacDonald, Amy, and Sarah Fos-Davies. Little Beaver and the Echo. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1990.

Parker, Steve, Eyewitness Books: Pond and River. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.

Peters, Lisa Westberg. Water’s Way. New York: Macmillan/McGraw Hill, 1991.

Rauzon, Mark J., and Cynthia Overbeck Bix, Water, Water Everywhere. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books for Children, 1994.

 Schmid, Eleonor. The Water’s Journey. New York: North-South Books, 1989.

Stephen, Richard. Our Planet: Rivers. Mahwah, NJ: Troll, 1990.

Stidworthy, John. Ponds and Streams. Mahwah, NJ: Troll, 1990.

Yolen, Jane. Letting Swift River Go. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1992.

Teacher Resources

“Eyewitness Pond and River” video, Dorling Kindersley Ltd./BBC Worldwide Americas, 1996.

Selected issues of magazines such as Kids Discover, Your Big Backyard, and Ranger Rick.

“Water Wise” program provided by Georgia Power’s Environmental Teachers Corps.

American Forest Foundation. Project Learning Tree Environmental Education Activity Guide (Washington, DC: AFF, 1996).

Western Regional Environmental Education Council. Aquatic Project Wild (Boulder, CO: WREEC, 1987).

About the Authors

Laney Sammons and Jeannie Waters are second grade teachers at Winship Geography/History Magnet School, Bibb County Public Schools, Macon, Georgia. This school was selected as a Social Studies School of Excellence by the Georgia Council for the Social Studies.