Or, A Different Kind of Streaming

The Wikipedia page on the rivers of the United Kingdom is rather excellent. And even though it wasn’t my first thought on rivers and activism in the classroom, it lists each by location and the named tributary rivers and brooks that feed them. I didn’t count every entry, but a different site notes almost 1,500 separate river systems in the UK. Over 200,000 km in total. That’s five times the circumference of the Earth at the equator. However, some rivers in other countries make ours look like trickles. Yet, in the UK, you’re never far from a river or running water of some sort.

Maps of river systems might remind some of a tree or nervous system. Paths link and link to form a spine that can span continents. And as spines support all vertebrates, rivers support both ecosystems and economies. Humans have depended on rivers for millennia. For food and irrigation, power, invasions (and defence), transport… and waste disposal. More on how rivers and activism in the classroom coming up.

Rivers don’t just fall into geography on the UK curriculums. The importance of waterways will come up when learning about Ancient Egypt (Nile), Rainforests (Amazon), The Industrial Revolution and Empire (Thames) and RE (Ganges), for example.

Although there are many wonderful river-related fiction books, I will focus on nonfiction. And they may be of use in other areas of learning, but they all in some way link back to geography – be that physical or human. Ah, the river system of learning where all subjects feed into an unstoppable force which powers into the wider world. A book which illustrates this overly-poetic metaphor is Rivers by Peter Goes (Gecko Press).

One of the joys of reading this book is realising how much importance rivers have had across the world. It’s an atlas of rivers with illustrated maps showing the path of rivers from their source to the body of water it flows into. Not just the ‘famous’ ones either. Well, famous to the western world. How often do we learn about a river in Papua New Guinea? It’s less physical and more historical/human geography, but wonderful for locational knowledge. Some readers will also find it more engaging than cartographically accurate maps. With all sorts of information, there’s something for any curious mind. Even one that isn’t all that curious in rivers.

Geared for KS1 and geography lessons in particular is Rivers of the United Kingdom by Catherine Brereton (Raintree). The ‘more attractive’, highly illustrated books can, and do, overshadow ones like these. But they have just as much, if not more, use when it comes to specific learning objectives. Supportive of studying rivers in the lower end of the school, this book consists of basic vocab, simple maps, aerial photography and recognising landmarks. This book not only does all those things but also goes beyond the curriculums mentioning wildlife and pollution. Key vocabulary is in a bold font and found in the glossary. And it does this in 32 economically worded, pages.

The Horrible series, which isn’t at all, includes Horrible Geography. Raging Rivers contains everything an interested reader would want. As you might expect, there’s a lot of history but also plenty of physical geography, science, and the natural world. Anyone familiar with these books will know the ‘simple’ illustrations, and the ones that particularly caught my eye were the crude maps in each river profile. Using these as a basis for lessons drawing physical features and land uses would put into perspective the similarities and differences of rivers everywhere. 

Another part of the curriculums is the fieldwork aspect: getting involved by studying rivers first-hand. And a good way to introduce a more detailed approach to rivers and activism in the classroom. Recently, reports of water companies exploiting heavy rainfall to dump sewage into waterways in the UK have been making the news. Despite the government’s claim that the UK has a “highly successful water industry” which can “operate to the highest levels of environmental protection” (.gov) water companies have failed to upgrade sewer systems, which overflow into watercourses (The Guardian, 2021). Any fieldwork conducted in actual rivers is going to have to take this into account for safety, primarily. However, this can also be an opportunity to get children to actively learn first-hand about the environmental concerns around our rivers.

Books do contain pages on water pollution. Raging Rivers section titled Revolting Rivers explains the situation well. Sewage, factory waste and farms pollute the Yangtze. Water by Catherine Barr and Christiane Engel is also environment-heavy. Great! But… and don’t get me wrong, Water is a brilliant book with wonderful double spreads and important social information. But, along with Raging Rivers, the pages on pollution cover rivers in developing nations. They are far more polluted, sure. But that doesn’t let the UK off the hook.

We need to raise awareness of contaminated water in the UK in the classroom. Rivers and activism in the classroom both educate and inspire. I’m sure the communities on our coasts are all too aware of the quality of water where they live. It’s part of their livelihoods. And the health of children is suffering at the hands of private companies. Children WILL rally behind children. So are we doing enough to show the effects (and causes) of pollution in this country?

One last book I want to mention is Go Wild on the River by Nosy Crow and The National Trust. An “Adventure Handbook”, it contains a multitude of ways rivers can be enjoyed and learnt about. It would be a good book to look at when researching possible fieldwork ideas, and then going into much more detail. A relevant page was how to measure the quality of water, and something classes could explore much further. A yearly study measuring water quality on a local river would be a true legacy-in-learning for pupils. Past, present, and future. Rivers and activism in the classroom doesn’t have to be a one-off. You keep at it. Not just until change happens, but to make sure it stays that way too.

The “idyllic” British waterways are under threat. Even though their health is vital for the economy and the environment, as a country we seem to be intent on prioritising quick profit above anything else. As usual, the classroom can be the foundation of the fight. And hopefully, for future generations, society will be more Wind in the Willows than Heart of Darkness.

If you are interested in rivers, you might like this episode of our In The Reading Corner podcast, in which Angela Sangma Francis talks about her books Amazon and Everest. At the time of writing, both books are currently reprinting but will be back in print soon.

You might also be interested in this event with Catherine Barr and Kate Alcock discussing the importance of water security.

And here are some more sparking river books to dive into from our Rivers collection!