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Twinfield’s Canoe Journey Project

by Joyce Kahn
Photo by Joyce Kahn.
Photo by Joyce Kahn.

Twinfield Union School’s eighth-graders don’t just graduate from middle school with a simple ceremony and enter high school the following September. Their modern day right of passage involves building a cedar strip canoe together, crafting individual paddles and participating in a four-day wilderness canoe trip in the Adirondacks.
This was the fifth year of the Canoe Journey Project, the brainchild of middle school humanities teacher Tracey McNaughton and design technology teacher Trevor Tait. The graduating eighth-grade class of 25–30 students spends one day a week for five weeks during the spring semester’s “explorations” unit, crafting individual paddles from white cedar trees harvested from Twinfield’s woods. Using hand tools, each student shapes and sands the paddle, and then designs and personalizes his or her paddle’s handle and blade with symbols reminiscent of Native Americans’ use of totem animals. The Canoe Journey Project is clearly more than learning how to use tools in shop: it is an integrated curriculum, incorporating the disciplines of math, humanities and science with hands-on learning and personal challenges in a natural environment.
While each student makes and keeps his or her paddle, the canoe they build is a joint enterprise, and the canoe becomes part of the fleet. The 50-pound canoe uses a traditional cedar strip design for the core, which is sandwiched between layers of modern-day fiberglass. Students can tell you what they specifically did on the canoe, such as steam-bending the stems or setting the strips on one side. After ten canoes have been made, subsequent canoes will be raffled as a fundraiser.
Having the widespread support of the community and principal Mark Mooney is essential for such an endeavor. Students do all the fundraising. Donations and the late March breakfast fundraiser and silent auction with chef Jimmy Kennedy keep the costs low. Menus are planned, tents are borrowed and stoves and tarps are donated.
McNaughton explained that school doesn’t stop just because they are away from the classroom. Students work together and also challenge themselves. They might decide to take on the wildlife challenge with fishing; or the creativity and observation challenge, in which they sketch their scientific observations; or the hiking or navigation challenges, which involve endurance.
Several graduates from former trips spoke with me about how much they loved the trip and how connected their class had become afterward. I left Twinfield feeling optimistic about our schools, excited and energized by the dedication and innovation of Tait and McNaughton, and just a tad envious of the opportunities available now to students.
Contact trevortait@twinfield.netor call 426-3213 if you can donate any of the following:a 4- person tent, 5-gallon water jugs, old canoes.