Clean Rivers For All

Clean rivers require awareness of what our actions can do to them. They may be polluted by carelessness or intent. They may be monitored by volunteers — citizen scientists, revived, used and enjoyed. Government, businesses, communities and individuals all have roles. 
Download Classroom Worksheets (PDF) 

We focus on the rivers in the Washington, D.C., area, and the Chesapeake watershed. Students will be introduced to the volunteers of the Anacostia Riverkeepers and Potomac Riverkeeper Network and the return of dolphins and sturgeons. For good measure, we travel to the coral reefs off the north coast of Jamaica to swim with restoration efforts.


Plastics cannot be overlooked whether massed and swirling in the Pacific Ocean, discarded on our beaches or covering the products we buy. Whether seen through the visual commentary of Tom Toles and Ann Telnaes or Post reporters or case studies, pollution can be seen through many lenses and responses.


With the proper training and ongoing collection of data, monitoring and analysis can lead scientists (including citizen scientists) to answer questions such as: Is the water contaminated? What is the source of pollution? Is the water safe for the organisms within the watershed as well as for human recreation? Our resource guide, Hands on Science, provides many approaches for your students to become citizen scientists, including the possibility of being involved in international data collection. Be sure to read the introduction and Water Quality Assessment.


Daily awareness, special days and involvement in group and family projects can make a difference. Observances include Zero Waste Week, March 16-April 24; Drinking Water Week, May; World Water Day, March 22; Plastic-Free Tuesday; and International Plastic Bag Free Day, July 3.


Whether for yourself or others be mindful of the need for and pleasure in clean rivers.


MARCH 2020

Coral Challenge
Resource Graphic 

Read the Editorial Cartoon
Art, Journalism, Marine Biology, Visual Arts


Before reading the editorial cartoons, teachers may visit the NOAA website to read the National Ocean Service section, A Guide to Plastic in the Ocean.

This page may also be visited with students after discussing the editorial cartoons to get information from a science and government perspective.


Two Takes on a Plastic Issue, editorial cartoons addressing the same issue, has several entry points. Teachers may first discuss river, stream and ocean debris. Teachers may present the two cartoons and discuss the stylistic differences.


Read Tom Toles’ “Did life begin in the ocean? Will it end there?” Questions are provided to guide reading and discussing.


Before reading Ann Telnaes’ “Plastics are killing our oceans,” we encourage teachers to show students the photographs of the mobiles and sculptures/standing mobiles by Alexander Calder that are hung and exhibited in Tower 2 of the National Gallery of Art, East Building. Students will have a much stronger understanding of her note: “with apologies to Calder.” And how she brought her point of view to an exhibit that many have seen, but inspired her to make a different connection to her concerns.

• Compare elements in the Smithsonian exhibit that Telnaes includes in her visual commentary.

• Contrast the objects in Calder’s “Finny Fish,” the fish mobile, with Telnaes’s fish.

Questions are provided to guide discussion of her editorial cartoon.


In addition, teachers may wish to show students an example of Telnaes’ animated cartoons: Our (Over) Use of Plastics, February 24, 2020.


Halt Plastic Littering
Economy, Environmental Science, Government, Marine Biology


Simon Denyer reports on Japan’s Osaka Blue Ocean Vision to “halt additional plastic waste reaching the seas by 2050.” Is such a goal reachable without world leaders’ approval and leadership? Read and discuss “As plastic piles up in the oceans, leaders struggle to take action.”


Teachers might assign students the roles of the Group 20 leaders; reach the position taken by each country and its leadership. Questions to answer include:

• Since G-20 nations together represent 80 percent of the global economy, what influence might they have on plastic production?

• Where does most of the world’s plastic use take place?

• How and where is most of the world’s plastic waste handled?

• What is the impact of having no plastic waste management program locally? Nationally? Globally?

• What does the country you represent do to handle plastic waste, curb marine plastic pollution, and solve the plastic use dilemma?

• What do you think should be the first steps to lowering the use of plastics? To eliminating plastic debris on beaches, in parks and streams?


In addition to his article, Simon Denyer shot a video of shopping for vegetables in a Tokyo grocery store. Questions could include:

• What do you first note about the vegetables before the voiceover begins?

• Why do you think the individual wrapping is done?

• How would you compare his plastic pile to one at your home after a shopping trip to a grocery store? To a farmer’s market for vegetables?


Additionally, teachers might discuss with students Tom Toles’ June 17, 2019, editorial cartoon, “Did life begin in the ocean? Will it end there?” and Denyer’s statement: “scientists predict that by 2050 there will be more plastic by weight in the oceans than fish.”


Think Like a Reporter
Journalism, Marine Biology, Media Literacy

The Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists states the “highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public.” This is a worthy goal of student media as well. Use the issue of plastic pieces in rivers and oceans to provide a model of how students can inform, make a global issue local and serve the public.


Give students Think Like a ReporterServe the Public. After reading and discussing the introduction, form four groups, each with a different example. After students have had time to read the article, considered the source of the article and the approach taken to communicate, ask each group to present its findings to the class. Continue through the activity, answering questions and discussing how best to localize the issue in your community.


View a Ghost Fleet Sanctuary
Business, Ecology, Journalism, Marine Biology, U.S. History, Visual Arts

Before taking a kayak ride with Post columnist John Kelley, review terms found in his column: Atlantic Kayak, cargo ship, hydrilla, preservation and wildcatter.


Teachers may take students to the National Marine Sanctuary System site to familiarize them with the purpose and goals of this NOAA program. Students could be asked to read more about one of the eight featured sanctuaries or to select one of the sanctuaries indicated on the map or to explore sections of the home page. They should be able to answer these questions:

• Why have certain locations been designated as marine sanctuaries?

• What are some of the activities that take place in the sanctuaries?

• Who benefits from the National Marine Sanctuary System?


Read John Kelly’s column, “Jagged remains of more than 100 ghostly ships rest forever in Mallows Bay.”

Committed to Clean Water
Resource Graphic 

Map It
Geography, Marine Biology

Locate Jamaica on a map before reading the KidsPost article “Coral gardeners slowly restore Jamaica’s ‘forest under the sea.’” Teachers may use the North America Color Map With Nations Named. Maps are found on the NIE homepage: skim down to More Resources and select See Our Maps.


Plant a Forest Under the Sea
Biology, Economy, Marine Biology

For an example of a project to restore damaged coral reefs, read the KidsPost article “Coral gardeners slowly restore Jamaica’s ‘forest under the sea.’”


Discussion and discovery questions are provided in Forest Under the Sea.


For additional photographs and more information about the process of saving and restoring damaged coral, read “How NOAA Uses Coral Nurseries to Restore Damaged Reefs.”


Jamaica’s restoration efforts on the north coast (Alligator Head and Discovery Bay) were visited in 2016 by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography 100 Island Challenge team. They were “excited to find reefs in various stages of recovery with occasionally abundant sea urchin and coral populations including endangered species of Acropora and Dendrogya. The capacity of Jamaica’s reefs to recover despite decades of decline provides hope for future restoration efforts.”


Observe Dolphins
Biology, Marine Biology

Read and discuss “Dolphins thrive — in the Potomac.” Questions would include

1. On a map locate the Chesapeake Bay, Potomac River, James River, Virginia’s Northern Neck

2. Dolphins were given names. How they be distinguished from one another?

3. What evidence is there that breeding and birthing of dolphins is taking place on these rivers?

4. What is the challenge of studying marine mammals?

5. In what ways did an outbreak of cetacean morbillivirus influence research study of dolphins?

6. Visit the Mid-Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin Catalogue. What information is found here?

7. What do you find the most interesting aspect of the appearance of bottlenose dolphins in this region?

Teachers may combine Karin Brulliard’s article with this February 2020 article, “The Roving Dolphins of the Potomac River,” from Earth Island Journal. 


Seek Sturgeon

Biology, Marine Biology

Kidspost covers another recovery on the nearby and international waters. Read and discuss “Sturgeon are making a comeback in America’s waterways.” Discuss the history of sturgeon and the influence of fads on their populations, efforts made to increase their numbers, and their discovery on the James River.


Students may be asked to do an e-Replica search for other examples of the return of fish and other water creatures to rivers.


Conduct Case Studies

Business, Economics, Environmental Science

Students are provided the tools to conduct three case studies. Sources represent different points of view. Students should be encouraged to find two to three more sources of information about the issue and outcome.

Read and Write About Water

Monitor Water
Health, Mathematics, Science

Read and discuss “Reviving ‘dirtiest’ D.C. waterway.”

[Note: Teachers may ask students if the article gives examples of the online headline: “Rock Creek is Washington’s ‘dirties’ waterway. New testing might help nurse it back to health”]


Several streams are mentioned in the article — Melvin Hazen Run, Rock Creek, Normanstone Run. These may be used in the Water Quality Assessment Activity 1 or select another stream near your school. Read the introduction to the activities collected in resource guide Hands on Science.


For additional perspective on river quality and efforts to achieve cleaner rivers read:

• “Taking a swim in the Potomac? Weekly readings will reveal water quality and bacteria levels.”

• “From smelly to sparkling: A $2.7 billion cleanup of Anacostia, Potomac rivers”


Review Reports for Perspective
Biology, Business, Economics, Government, Journalism

Each of the cases in “Case Study | 3 Ways to Keep Rivers Clean” was a focus of the Potomac Riverkeepers Network. For the cases students are given the Riverkeepers’ position, news coverage and government reporting.


Teachers could form three groups with each group given one of the online resources. Take on the roles of the stakeholders. 



What’s a Watershed?
Geography, Hydrology, Science, Topograpy

The Alice Ferguson Foundation provides an introduction to watersheds for kids. Visit “Ways of a Watershed.” Be sure to take the “Raindrop Road Trip.”


Older students could begin looking at maps to locate your watershed. Teachers may begin with the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. Virginia has rivers running in many directions. Montgomery County, Md., is made up of eight major watersheds, for example. Find the following Potomac River, Patuxent River, Rock Creek, Seneca Creek.


Read and discuss “Reviving ‘dirtiest’ D.C. waterway.” Several streams are mentioned in the article — Melvin Hazen Run, Rock Creek, Normanstone Run. These may be used in the Water Quality Assessment activity or select another stream near your school.


Read About Environmental Activists
Biology, Career Education, Environmental Science

KidsPost focuses on three women who were committed to helping the planet. Read “Women environmental activists are nothing new.” Teachers will note that a photograph of Sylvia Earle appears on the cover to our resource guide, Hands on Science.


Be an Environmental Activist
Civics, Government, Science

Environmental activism seeks to influence the political process by lobbying legislators, protesting wrongdoing, informing others, and working in communities in order to protect natural resources and ecosystems. The public is more aware than ever of the interrelatedness of human activity and the consequences to our planet. 

Students must be able to interpret what they read, see on social media, or hear in a debate. In addition, they need to be able to take their interpretation and communicate to others, making their voice heard whether in a classroom presentation, town hall meeting, or lobbying on Capitol Hill.  

Have students review the EPA Trash-Free Waters page. For a project involving your campus plastic footprint, check out EPA’s Marine Debris and Plastic Source Reduction Tooklkit for Colleges & Universities and Other Institutional Settings. This could also serve as a resource for students exploring how their food service handles plastic disposal. 



Post NIE Guide Editor | Carol Lange
Post NIE Guide Art Editor | Donna McCullough



The Washington Post covers many people, issues and topics. Establishing an e-Replica alert will allow you to select a subject to receive an alert. For example, just after publishing the March 2020 curriculum guide, the following articles were published that relate to this month’s focus.

• In KidsPost: “Otters play a vital role in ecology of rivers
March 18, 2020

“Playful North American river otters often sound like squeaky toys as they wrestle each other, slide down riverbanks or frolic in water. Spotting these cute, furry animals is not only good fun, it’s also good news for the environment.”


In Metro, Courtland Milloy column: “An environmental warning from the Patuxent Riverkeeper
March 18, 2020

“We can hardly imagine the clarity of the water and the bounty of life that it sustained when Algonquin-speaking Native Americans lived here 400 years ago,” Tutman said. “We have been poor stewards of the land.”


Resource Graphic 
In The Know 


When the island completely subsides beneath the water leaving a ring of growing coral with an open lagoon in its center


Anything associated with or occurring on the bottom of a body of water such as a river, lake or ocean.


Found around the world, providing vital habitats, corals are composed of hundreds of thousands individual polyps. They are an invertebrate species.Sometimes called ecosystem engineers because they build three-dimensional reefs

Coral reefs

When free-swimming coral larvae attach to submerge rocks or other hard surfaces along the edges of islands or continents. The reefs characteristically may be fringing, barrier or atoll. Corals form when a single polyp attaches to a hard surface and starts replicating. Visit the Baltimore National Aquarium site for photographs of coral reef inhabitants.

Microplastics   Tiny to microscopic bits of plastic made when sunlight breaks down larger pieces of plastic 
 River Large Natural stream emptying into an ocean, lake or other body of water, and usually fed along its course by converging tributaries 
Watershed Land area that drains water to a particular stream, river or lake; its boundaries can be identified by locating the highest points of lands around the waterway. The watershed consists of surface water — lakes, streams, reservoirs, and wetlands — and all the underlying ground water.

ANSWERS. “Dolphins thrive — in the Potomac”

1. Locate on map; 2. Identified by distinct fins or marks on their bodies; 3. Researchers have witnessed breeding and even a rare dolphin birth; 4. So much of their activity is underwater; 5. Their migratory paths, “residential” populations, longevity and interaction could help researchers study the spread of disease; 6. Photographs of dolphins, name, actions such as foraging to mating — a behavior study; 7. Answers will vary.

District of Columbia Public Schools Academic Content Standards 

The District of Columbia has adopted the Common Core State Standards in reading and mathematics. In addition, DCPS has adopted new learning standards in arts, health and physical education, science, social studies, technology and world languages.

Maryland Academic Content Standards 

Earth and Human Activity. Students who demonstrate understanding can apply scientific principles to design a method for monitoring and minimizing a human impact on the environment. (MS-ESS3-3)


Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics. Students who demonstrate understanding can design, evaluate and refine a solution for reducing the impacts of human activities on the environment and biodiversity. (HS-LS2-7)

Virginia Academic Content Standards 

Earth Science. The student will investigate and understand how freshwater resources are influenced by geologic processes and the activities of humans. Key concepts include

e) dependence on freshwater resources and the effects of human usage on water quality; and

f) identification of the major watershed systems in Virginia, including the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. (ES.8)


Earth Science. The student will investigate and understand that oceans are complex, interactive physical, chemical, and biological systems and are subject to long- and short-term variations. Key concepts include

a)     physical and chemical changes related to tides, waves, currents, sea level and ice cap variations, upwelling, and salinity variations;  

b)    importance of environmental and geologic implications;

c)     systems interactions;

d)    features of the sea floor as reflections of tectonic processes; and

e)     economic and public policy issues concerning the oceans and the coastal zone including the Chesapeake Bay. (ES.10)



Academic Content Standards may be found at

Common Core Standards 

Language. L.9-10.5 Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.


Science & Technical Subjects, Key Ideas and Details. Follow precisely a complex multistep procedure when carrying out experiments, taking measurements, or performing technical tasks, attending to special cases or exceptions defined in the text. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.9-10.3)


Science & Technical Subjects. Integration of Knowledge and Ideas. Translate quantitative or technical information expressed in words in a text into visual form (e.g., a table or chart) and translate information expressed visually or mathematically (e.g., in an equation) into words. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.9-10.7)




Common Core standards may be found at