Flatboats at Foothills

Students build boats to explore depths of Pistol Creek

What was it like to navigate the waterways in 1780? What hardships and struggles did the early pioneers experience?

At Foothills Elementary, more than 125 fourth grade students discovered the answers to these questions during a hands-on lesson that encompassed literature, history, geography, exercise and a whole lot of fun.

“By creating the flatboats, they learn the hardships and dangers the pioneers faced,” Melissa LaFollette said.

The unit began with each fourth grade class reading the classic novel “Buffalo Knife” by William Steele.

Teacher Cynthia Chandler said the book follows 9-year-old Andy and 10-year-old Isaac along with their families as they ride a flatboat a thousand miles along the Tennessee River.

LaFollette said the book showed the students how different life was in 1780 compared to their lives today. Chandler echoed this. “Without television and video games, kids had to create their own entertainment, like exploring their surroundings and telling riddles and playing games.”

The students continued the lesson with the assignment to build a flatboat using materials available during the 1780s. The students concluded the lesson by getting their exercise and walking from Foothills Elementary along the greenway trail beyond the Greenbelt pavilion to the perfect spot to float their boats on Pistol Creek.

“It was adventurous to see it float down the river,” said Abigail Chrisman, a student in Stacy Haralson’s class. Abigail added that she was afraid her boat might sink, but it didn’t. Abigail said she also liked watching her friends’ boats.

Fourth-grader Lucas Blair said he liked working with his father in their garage building his flat boat.

“I’d like to do it again,” Blair said. His boat fared well, even though it flipped over, got stuck along the creek and the chimney broke apart.

The students used everything from balsa wood, twigs from their backyard to authentic river cane in their flatboat designs. The assignment required the students to construct living quarters on their boats. The boats were not to exceed 10 inches by 12 inches. Waterproof glue was permitted, although it didn’t always help the boats stay together as they floated down the rapids and rocks of Pistol Creek.

“It was fun building it and seeing how long it would last,” said fourth-grader Sophie Lifheit.

Jessica Bailey in Lisa Hensley’s class said her boat floated fine the first time down the waterway, but the second time it got beat up a little.

According to Foothills Elementary fourth grade teacher Jimmy Reagan, he enjoyed his first experience with the students and their flatboats. He was assigned the responsibility along with Haralson and LaFollette of wading knee-deep in the water to retrieve the students’ boats. Chandler donned rubber boots so she could place each boat one at a time in the water to set sail down the creek.

Foothills Elementary fourth graders have been participating in this project for more than 10 years.

“This is the field trip that I look forward to the most,” LaFollette said.

The fourth graders also learned geography as they located the cities on the map that were discussed in the book. The students read about the history of the area and the encounters the early settlers had with Native Americans.

“The part of the book that was exciting was when the Indians were throwing flaming arrows,” fourth grader Hannah Morgan said.

While there were no flaming arrows during the students’ field trip, Pistol Creek was still unforgiving for some of the flatboats. Several students had to recover pieces of their boats that were retrieved from the water by Reynolds with her pool skimmer.

“It was really thrilling when all the boats were going down and to see which ones got stuck,” said fourth grader Faith Bartos.

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