Cultural Watershed

The Cultural Watershed activity is designed to bridge and align personal identity and landscape through reflection, art and dialogue.  After introducing students to the concept of a watershed, the watercycle and the “factors of diversity” that shape their identities, they are invited to sketch an imaginary watershed mural that includes as many forms of water and identity as possible connecting the two metaphorically, e.g. rain as artistic ability.  These murals are then shared in a mural walk followed by student presentations.  The presentations can be followed by deep dialogue on the factors of diversity, e.g. race, culture, class, gender, etc. that shape identities and the relationship of identity to place.

For  further explanations and expressions of the activity, see Hoelscher, (1999), Cultural Watersheds: Diagramming One’s Own Experience of Culture, National Council for the Social Studies and  Jessica C. Levine’s take on the activity, featured below.

Multicultural Environmental Education: Personal Watershed Project by Jessica C. Levine


Engaging a diverse student population in any discipline requires educators to personalize curriculum and adapt it to students. Education that is relevant and meaningful in this way can be transformative and effective. Reaching students where they are and growing together from that place often allows for student and teacher reflection; in that reflection, content and concepts solidify, and personal character has space to develop.

I have been engaging students in creative, hands-on, relevant environmental science activities for over ten years. The Personal Watershed Project is one such project. The Personal Watershed Project was inspired by a sketch created by Running-Grass, director of The Three Circles Center, when I met him in Seattle in the late 1990s. The Three Circles Center proposes that the circles of culture, ecology and community are symbiotic and connected. From his lens as a multicultural environmental educator, he suggested and sketched out how students might metaphorically become water. This idea made a big splash with me. Running-Grass and I recently reconnected and I shared the outcomes I created from his initial ripple. What follows is reflection of that curriculum development, lesson overviews, and student work samples.


I designed The Personal Watershed Project as the culminating activity for a Watersheds unit. A watershed is an area of land defined by the area of water drainages. Watersheds are the most natural of regions and can be scribed with an understanding of topography. How the landforms affect the flow of water is a critical concept in ecology, geology, and environmental education. In addition, the mechanisms of the water cycle exemplify cycles of Science. At the end of the unit, students were able to indentify basic features of a watershed; define, map, and delineate a watershed; recognize the features of a topographic map that create watershed boundaries; and connect personally with the concepts of a watershed by creating an artistic piece.

Students began to investigate such questions as:

  • How does topography affect the flow of water?
  • Where does the water flow? and
  • What is the water cycle?

by modeling watersheds. I guided students to create models with a variety of accessible and familiar activities, among them a large scale topographic model of one school site and “Branching Out” from Project Wet. Finally, students explored an additional question that offered personal and creative connections to the content:

  • How is your life like a watershed?

The goal of the Personal Watershed Project was to explore the metaphor of life as water.  Once we had engaged in activities to build background knowledge, students and I generated a list of possible features in a watershed and stages of the water cycle: mountain, valley, lake, cliff, waterfall, ocean, river, stream, banks, clouds, water vapor, ground, ground water, spring, evaporation, precipitation: rain, snow, sleet, hail, glaciers, pollution, and so on.  We then brainstormed descriptive words for those features.   For example, a waterfall may be described as dynamic, vibrant, rushing, or powerful. Those features and their descriptive terms would metaphorically represent personal identity categories that influence, contribute to, enhance, or threaten your life. Students then listed general categories such as gender, family, school, sports, spirituality or religion, friends, activities and hobbies, habits, and other traits.

I provided some prompts to get students thinking about their own metaphors and to plan their project. “My (identity/trait/influence) is like (watershed/water cycle feature) because…”  Upon completing the prompts, students sketched designs and hunted both in class and at home for images to collage. Class time was given for the assignment, and additional time at home was also expected.

Student Samples

Students created original artwork, either in collage, drawing, or painting to illustrate the landscape features and water cycle processes in their life as a watershed. In addition, I asked them to create a written expression or conclusion that explained the art piece and the question: How is your life like a watershed? Whether in poetry, prose, or free verse, students created meaningful and content-heavy work revealing the relevance of the science to their personal teenage culture.

“Every day I flow through life, every day I don’t think twice
I try and find an easy way, the quickest way toward the bay
A river clashed, a constant re-hash, a neurological smash
Evaporation is opposite my imagination, against my mental creations
It takes my thoughts from the bay, pulls them every which way
My thoughts are then condensed compressed rearranged
The water never stays or sways it rushes away everyday
Every day I flow through life, every day I don’t think twice.”

—Foster Allen, age 13, 2002


This is an interdisciplinary project: art, literacy, creative writing, and science content (earth science and physical science) all find their place in the Personal Watershed Project. In fact, some students indicated that they enjoyed the project simply because the science was only one of the many aspects.

Using a rubric, students were given an opportunity to self-assess their project prior to teacher review. The assessment rubric is attached. Equally as important as the science content, this project allows for individuality, self-worth, and value to shine. These turning points are pivotal in the life of a middle school student.

Download a PDF of this lesson overview including handouts referenced.

Resources referenced in this article:  Project Wet, Three Circles Center, and EEAW

For additional curriculum projects by Jessica C Levine, see her website at or contact her at at gmail dot com



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