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A (Rough) River Curriculum
Humanities Oriented

The goal of this course of study is to introduce students (8th to 10th grade) to the study of rivers via history and literature. This curriculum is ideally but not specifically designed for a class which takes a week long rafting/kayaking trip down the Main Salmon river in Idaho. Lewis and Clark’s expedition dubbed that river The River of No Return; there is a rich history to be discovered.

The major theme we focus on is transformation. In each of these texts characters or speakers undergo transformations, not always easily. But, significantly, these characters are not the only ones transforming. The descriptions of the landscapes, particularly riverscapes mirror the changes in the characters. As we see characters at war with themselves or society, we also witness humankind at war with nature (and sometimes at peace!) Ultimately, the students find that they must question their own relationships with nature and by doing so, they may learn more about their understanding of themselves.

Literature Texts:

  • Scott Russell Sanders, "After the Flood"
  • Langston Hughes, "A Negro Speaks of Rivers"
  • Ted Hughes, "River"
  • Scott Levy, RedFish BlueFish
  • Robert Frost, "Too Anxious for Rivers"
  • Norman Mclean, "A River Runs Through It"
  • Robert Frost "West Running Brook"
  • David James Duncan, "River Teeth"
Obviously, other texts may be substituted or added.


  1. Personal Narrative – In the vain of Sanders “After the Flood” I ask the students to write a personal narrative about a particular experience on or with a river.
  2. Poetry Explication – After studying each of the poems and looking in depth at poetic devices such as metaphor, simile, irony, personification, paradox, I ask the students to find a poem about a river and then write a one page explication.
  3. Transformation Paper – After finishing the two novels (Mclean and Duncan) I ask the students to identify two characters who change and then explore the reasons behind that change. Of course if students come up with topics that appeal to them and demand that they do close readings of the text, I will always let them write on the topic they discovered, they are usually more invested in their papers when they come up with the idea. I provide this topic for those students who can’t quite come up with one and they need a place to start.
  4. Humanity and Nature – After viewing RedFish BlueFish and in light of all the other texts we’ve studied, the students should be capable of reading the metaphor of the kayakers and the salmon. The film is essential to taking the students to the next level in their thinking, asking them to consider not only personal experience but also how humans interact with nature and how our personal transformations are mirrored in nature or how changes in society demand changes in nature (and the implications of those changes.) They write a paper on a current issue which explores the dynamics of such a relationship.

This is optional, but since our class floats the River of No Return I expect them to learn something of the history. The McCunn book tells the story of Polly Bemis, a Chinese woman who was sold into slavery in China and ended up on the Salmon River in Idaho. It’s also a story of transformation. Our class stops at her cabin which is well preserved. The Carey & Conley book is a quick history of the characters and settlers of the Main Salmon. These texts are starting places for the students.

History Texts:
Johnny Carey & Cort Conley, "The River of No Return"
RuthAnne Lum McCunn, "A Thousand Pieces of Gold"


  • Ten Minute Speech – I assign each student a research topic catered to the area of river we travel. These topics can range from historical figures to current political topics: Grizzly bear reintroduction, mining, dams and salmon, fire management, what “wilderness” is… etc. Ideally, they research before we leave for our river trip and they report on the river. If we come upon remnants of mining, the student who researched that topic would speak then. They are aware that they may be called upon to speak at any time during the trip.

RedFish BlueFish script, songs, preview & order
Discussion forum
Library of topics from the film
Tutorial on the Salmon issue
Contact information
Award winning film RedFish BlueFish
each effect is itself a cause