October 14, 2016

Having A Global Experience - Close to Home

Tang Fellow Mark Cutler launches “Confluence” with the August Immersion
by Jenny Corke

A total of 10 students and four adults from four schools in the Merrimack Valley traveled throughout the region by canoe and by foot to begin to get to know the local rivers and figure out how they can help make life along them better for the community. They connected with one another, the outdoors, and different cultures, indeed finding “confluence” close to home.

When a group of students and faculty members from Phillips Academy and several other schools walked into a Hispanic grocery store in Lawrence, Mass, called “La Frutería,” many felt as if they were in another country. Almost everyone in the store was speaking Spanish, and the colors and smells of spices and piles of fresh produce enlivened their senses. There were stacks of meats and cheeses; ice cream in flavors like mantecadoand almendra; crackers with brand names in Spanish; and a large sign greeting them, “¡Bienvenidos!” Many of the students selected guanábana-flavored frozen tropical fruit pops for a treat on that hot day, as they had traveled throughout the Merrimack Valley region as part of the new, yearlong Learning in the World program, “Confluence: Environment, Culture, Community.”

“You don’t need to go far to have a global experience–and that’s what Confluence is all about,” said Tang Fellow Mark Cutler, who is a Spanish Instructor at PA and one of the program leaders. “This grocery store was almost identical to any market in Latin America that I’ve visited. It is located at the northern end of the Spicket River Greenway; but, when we walked in, we felt instantly transported to another land and excited to have found an unexpected adventure.”

2016-08-06-15-12-35The noun “confluence” means the junction of two rivers or the merging of things, both central themes to the Learning in the World program. Through outdoor excursions and yearlong projects, students will work with their local communities to revitalize the watershed regions at the intersection of the Merrimack and Shawsheen rivers. Stemming from Cutler’s project with the Tang Institute, “Place-based Learning,” Confluence is a collaboration among five schools in the Merrimack Valley: Andover High School, Greater Lawrence Technical School, Lawrence High School, Notre Dame Cristo Rey High School, and Phillips Academy. (Lawrence High School did not participate this year.) The August Immersion, which ran from August 6 to August 10, 2016, brought the group together for canoeing, hiking, camping, and bonding with one another and the local area.

Environment, Community in Focus

According to American Rivers, the Merrimack River is listed as the 8th most endangered river in the United States, based upon pollution. The area’s clean waters are threatened by runoff from rapid development and loss of forests. Debris like plastic bottles and chip bags litter the banks, along with other signs of the time like a bag of cast-off drug needles.

“We want to enhance the health of the river, give dignity where the river has lost its dignity since the Industrial Revolution, and give greater access to open spaces that people of all walks of life can use,” said Cutler.


One of the main goals of Confluence is for students and community members to work together as social scientists, reimagining new gathering spaces along the banks of the Merrimack and Shawsheen rivers. Students will go out into neighborhoods to ask residents what they think will help their communities to enjoy the rivers and, depending upon feedback, will then work with local organizations to add improvements–such as steps down to the banks, boat launches, clearings for fishing, playgrounds, pocket parks, and recreation paths. Scientific work might include water-quality testing, species observation and management, and determining habitat needs following the removal of a dam.

All of these literal pathways also will help to build figurative ones, says Cutler, citing subsequent interpersonal, intergenerational, and intercultural benefits. Overall, he says students are excited about the possibilities for revitalizing these areas, although bringing change to the region may be an uphill battle at times.

“We need to get as many others as possible in the community involved so that this boat can float!” said Claudia Beltrán, a teacher at Greater Lawrence Technical School and one of the program leaders. “If the community is in on this, then it will benefit all of us. I know we’re working toward something great.”

Bridging Diverse Perspectives

Beltrán, who came to the United States from Colombia when she was young, says she is particularly excited about the medley of different perspectives that the students, adults, and community members bring to the program. Although most of the students reside in Lawrence or Andover, they hail from diverse cultural backgrounds, ranging from Korean and Chinese, to German and Latino—particularly Colombian, Dominican, and Mexican.2016-08-07-10-52-27

During the August Immersion, students cooked meals over the camp fire together and conversed, sharing ideas about food, music, religion, and differences they bring to the group. They also took part in team-building activities, such as the blind man and the elephant exercise, and kept daily journals, often comparing notes with one another.

Jessica Jaime, a senior at Notre Dame Cristo Rey High School in Lawrence commented that, for her, confluence means bringing together different perspectives in order to develop a project that matters to everyone. Another student jotted down a quote by Henry Ford in her journal to capture the spirit of Confluence:

“Coming together is a beginning, keeping together is progress, working together is success.”

Cutler comments that outcomes of bringing young people together to work on a common project like this are empathizing with one another and learning to be engaged citizens.

“We have more in common than we might think,” he said. “The local schools we all come from couldn’t be more different, on the surface, yet we are striving for many of the same goals.”

In addition, the fact that this program emerged from a partnership among several, neighboring schools offers the possibility for collaboration on other potential projects and for growing channels of communication within the local community.

“At the core of this experience is partnership. The students involved in this program are role models for the collaborative spirit and intentional community that we hold up as the vision for this program,” said Eric Roland, director of partnerships at the Institute. “The students and faculty involved serve as both change agents and community ambassadors.”

Effecting Change

Environmental degradation is a global issue, and the Confluence program leaders are excited to see young people getting involved to help bring change to their local communities and the biosphere. Beltrán comments that she thinks of her young son and how important it is for everyone to work together to sustain our planet for the future.

“It’s so important for our youth to get into the moment of helping our environment,” said Beltrán. “We need our rivers; we need water; global climate change is upon us.”

imga0366As the academic year unfolds, students will be involved in a host of activities to stay connected with one another and to engage in meaningful work along the rivers. Each student is part of a team that will focus weekly on specific tasks, in collaboration with their project mentors. Five of the students will work with Susan Stott, Andover Village Improvement Society (AVIS) trustee and faculty emerita of Phillips Academy, on extending the “Penacook Trail” (aka the “Merrimack River Trail”) from the Tewksbury line, through Andover, and into Lawrence. The other five students will work with Alan French, a visionary of the Bay Circuit Trail & Greenway and former PA parent, on the “Tri-Town Trail Connection,” which unites Andover, North Andover, and Lawrence where the Shawsheen meets the Merrimack.

Every other month, the full group will convene in person to share and reflect upon their projects; and, during the intervening months, they will post reflections on their Google site. Products of their engagement may include proposals to municipal governments and the spreading of awareness of issues related to their work through public events and various media. Currently the students are working on a Google My Maps assignment that will introduce them to this mapping tool as well as help them to gain a lay of the land as they dive into their projects.
The program will culminate at the end of the 2017 school year with a “watershed moment”—a public presentation of projects and an urban whitewater rafting adventure on the Concord River in Lowell. But work won’t stop there for the students, leaders, and organizations involved. Current students will continue to serve as stewards of Confluence, helping to ensure a smooth transition of work to the next Crew of students. Merrimack River Trail and Tri-Town Trail Connection will still need a lot of help. Nevertheless, an important milestone is in view.

“Hopefully next May we can say: Look at the idea we started with and look at what we have accomplished,” said Cutler.

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