Educator Spotlight: Local Watersheds for Global Understanding

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Nichole Von Haden, this week’s Educator of the Week, created a comprehensive unit on watersheds that promotes critical thinking across multiple disciplines. The unit uses a local context as a gateway for students to understand global problems. Nichole is an educator mentor in Madison, Wisconsin.

A lifelong learner, Nichole spent time learning about archaeology at Mesa Verde National Park this summer. Photo courtesy Nichole Von Haden

What does it mean to you to be an educator mentor?
As a general trend in our country, education has high turnover rates. In many cases, the most struggling students in the highest poverty areas are taught by the youngest teachers with the least amount of experience.

So in our urban school system in Madison, the other mentors and I are working hard to create a comprehensive induction system for new teachers, principals, and other individuals in our district. We want every student to have access to a really strong teacher from day one. The mentors work collaboratively in the classroom to design lessons, field questions—and ultimately to get teachers settled in their first year.


You created a unit on watersheds that’s designed to be adaptable across grade levels and subjects. Why is watershed a useful and flexible theme?
It’s a topic you can pick up and teach from anywhere. Everyone interacts with and is affected by their watershed in so many ways, though we don’t always notice it.

When I was in school, we were taught discrete subjects, and we rarely saw how those concepts interacted in the world. We learned a very limited amount about the water cycle, for example, and were tested on our ability to memorize its components.

But there are so many interesting questions to build upon that baseline knowledge: How is the water cycle different when you are living in a rural or urban setting? How is it related to city planning, water conservation, water shortage, and pollution? These questions can lead us from science to social studies to ELA to math, blurring their boundaries as they are blurred in the real world.


Can you give me an example of one or two activities in the unit that were particularly effective?
To introduce freshwater ecosystems, a middle school geography teacher I worked with used 10 glasses of salt water and a smaller glass of freshwater. The students taste-tested the water without knowing which glass was salted and which was fresh.

The activity was fun, and it reminded them of the impossibility of drinking salt water. They could also see the proportion of salt water to freshwater on a micro scale, and that visual helped them understand the critical need to preserve freshwater.

Students created another powerful visual by designing posters about the school’s location within the scope of the universe. First, they created posters of their schools that showed the exact latitude and longitude. The next poster showed a zoomed out illustration of their city, then an even more zoomed out illustration of the state, then the US, and eventually all the way out to the Milky Way galaxy. The students displayed these posters in their hallway so kids walking by could really see that they are part of the larger world.

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Do you have advice for other teachers who want to teach about the outdoors and our interconnected world but aren’t sure where to begin?
Consider the lived experiences of the kids in your classroom. Really know your community and know the narratives that are mixing and competing around you. What are the issues that your students are wrestling with? What are their parents and community leaders talking about?

Mimic the events from the world around you in the classroom. Present students with a problem, through images or other platforms they can connect to, and get them thinking and wondering. You may even want to reach out to community leaders or experts and bring them into the school. Then let the students’ inquiries and varying approaches to problem solving guide the lessons within the constraints of the class standards.


You were a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow in 2014. How did that experience shape the way you approach lessons in the classroom?
The experience was profound, and I am continuing to discover new ways it has enriched my life and my teaching. I went to Antarctica, and I brought home this special connection to a remote location and a place entirely different from what I am used to. On the surface, now I have a fuller context of the area and my teaching has improved on related subjects like compacted ice and penguins.

But more importantly, I can bring a global perspective to my teaching. I can help remind educators—whether they’ve traveled extensively or not—to bring their life experiences to the classroom.


blue nominateDo you know a great educator who teaches about our world? Nominate a colleague or yourself as the next Educator of the Week!

The Educator Spotlight series features inspiring activities and lessons that educators are implementing with their students that connect them to the world in bold and exciting ways.

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