At the picnic table, students labor over camp stoves. One stirs a pan of red peppers sauteing in butter. Another is boiling pasta. Nearby, a guitarist jams, providing background music for the chefs. Later, the group of about 20 students gathers around a fire. Some read passages from Aldo Leopold, headlamps on page. Others are away, writing about the day’s long soggy bike ride in journals also lit by headlamps. At wakeup the next day, they swim in the Milwaukee River. Don’t worry, they sampled the water in this northern locale and it tested out safely swimmable. They grab some breakfast, break camp then put on their orange life vests to set off south in canoes.
Pictured Above: Shorewood students and teachers arrive at Milwaukee River and begin their journey via canoe.
Is this home economics? Is it English? Or music? Physical education?
The answer: Yes. It’s all those things, wrapped up in one unconventional class: Watershed Wisdom.
“The main reason I love Watershed would be the people, but also the experiences and how you’re able to get through things that you never thought you’d be able to get through,” said Lena Essak, a student who took the class in 2017.
What was true then is also true today, and was true way back in 1998, when Shorewood High School English teachers Peter Piaskoski and Eric Gietzen first offered the course. It came in response to a call from the district to create courses that offered an authentic learning experience. It immerses students in a deep exploration of the place they call home: the Milwaukee River Watershed. Open to sophomores and juniors, the course spans spring and fall semester and confers one credit each in English, Science and Art.
Field trips include surfing in Lake Michigan, biking the Oak Leaf Trail and canoeing the Milwaukee River. Each class does a 10-day overnight trip in June that involves hiking, biking, swimming, canoeing and camping. They stay relatively close to home with an experience that feels far, far away.
“Out in the field, life became a little more simple, a little more pure,” said Bobby Joehnk, one of the 400 students who’ve taken the class. “You’re away from your main group of friends, you’re away from social media. All the distractions from everyday life are gone.”
They read and write and do scientific experiments about big topics: invasive species, urban sprawl, land use and natural history. They also use the surprises and unpredictability of nature as their teacher.
A log’s down over the main channel. Can we sneak under it, team up to move it or should we just portage around it?
A storm’s brewing ahead. Do we ride through it — it’s just rain, after all — or does the sky foretell lightning that’s warning us to stop before we get fried?
“It’s designed to give them experiences they can write about, they can be curious about,” Gietzen said. “Taking kids surfing is fun, and it’s a great workout, and once they’re hooked on surfing they want to know about things like weather, and they learn about things like the Niagara escarpment, which is a shelf of rock that extends all the way from here to Niagara Falls.”
Gietzen notes that the class has become sought-after, described by many students as a highlight of high school. Being able to provide it and sustain it takes resources due to the heavy equipment needs.
SEED donors have been a consistent and enthusiastic supporter of the class. Most recently, donors raised $13,745 during the Swing Online Auction, under what is called a “Wish List Item.” With these funds, the program was able to purchase eight new canoes and a trailer to haul them. The new fleet revolutionized the Watershed experience for this year’s students and hundreds of future Watershed cohorts. Without the SEED funding, the program would have to rely on an unsustainable jigsaw of rental boats and trailers, many of which were substandard quality and lacking many features that help provide a safer experience for students. The new equipment gives another generation of students the opportunity to navigate waters near to them while seeing horizons far beyond!
Above: Canoes are unloaded off of the trailer
SEED’s annual Swing with Shorewood gala will be taking place on May 6th, with the online auction being open the week prior. Each year there are “Wish List” items such as this, along with others from SIS and the elementary schools as well. In 2022, donors also raised money for Circuit Board Playgrounds, for SIS students, and the Urban Ecology program at Atwater and Lake Bluff. The online auction is a great way to purchase gift cards, experiences, gift baskets, or Wish List items, all of which goes towards funding our schools.
Your contributions have helped to keep programs such as Watershed Wisdom sustainable. We hope we can count on you to partner with SEED this year during our online auction and gala to raise funds for our district schools, ensuring all our beloved classes and programs can continue. You can also choose to make a direct donation by clicking the link below:
This SEED Story was contributed by: Dan Simmons