Students, Teachers, Rangers “Write the River” at Niobrara National Scenic River

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The air was cool, the Niobrara River was running smoothly, some places shallow, some deep, when 13 high school students accompanied by National Park Service Rangers launched canoes into the Niobrara National Scenic River.  This launch started the first leg of the “Write the River: Creative Writing and Art Float”, a joint student experience organized by Teacher Consultants of the Nebraska Writing Project and Rangers from the Niobrara National Scenic River.

Students from Valentine High School participated in two sections: one group of writers canoeing the river accompanied by local English teachers and NPS Rangers; and another group of four artists painting the scenery of the river with their art instructor. NPS Rangers instructed students on canoeing and safety on the river before launching.

Ranger Travis assisting with canoe safety

Rangers and Teacher Consultants asked student writers to focus on the environment with an opening discussion about mindfulness and to consider how trash can be made into treasure art. 

The first stop for information and a writing experience was at the Buffalo Bridge, a bridge used to move American bison at the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge from one pasture to another. The students learned about the Buffalo Soldiers–African American soldiers stationed at Fort Niobrara in the late 1880’s. 

Another lesson focused on the impact of hydrology (water science). Rangers also instructed on native animals; paleontology, as this area has a wealth of fossils; and the use of plants by Indigenous tribes.  

After the NPS Rangers spoke on these topics, three teacher consultants from the Nebraska Writing Project facilitated writing experiences: Brenda Larabee, Janell Stoeger and Jan Knispell.

Brenda Larabee’s “A Moment in Time” writing experience asked students to segment their writing by time intervals-minutes, hours, and years.

Stoeger’s lesson was connected to the bones/skulls and prints that Ranger Travis talked about. Stoeger guided students to consider Natalie Goldberg’s ideas in Writing Down the Bones, emphasizing experiences and how our bodies process those experiences. In addition, Stoeger highlighted the process of decomposition and how time/nature have to do their work. She tasked students to document experiences of the day with as much specific detail as possible. 

Jan Knispel led students through writing on native plants, based on a reading from Loren Eiseley’s essay “How Flowers Changed the World.” She asked students to take ten steps recording their observations of the kinds of plants and other items on the ground at each step, then to combine those observations into a single piece. This activity was an adaptation of a lesson shared by Kevin Hodges on the National Writing Project’s Write Now Teacher Studio webpage.

           The Nebraska Writing Project Teaching Consultants represent the variety of teaching experiences that build up the wealth of knowledge and expertise within the Writing Project. Jan Knispel is an adjunct professor for MidPlains Community College, Valentine campus, and member of the Nebraska Writing Project advisory board. Brenda Larabee is the English/Speech instructor from Stuart High School, Stuart, Nebraska, also on the Nebraska Writing Project Advisory Board. Janell Stoeger is a Valentine Middle School English instructor. 

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