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 A student in white face makeup with a top hat, gloves, and a cane, hands upraised, mimes in front of the snow-covered bridge railing above the misty  Mississippi River. Snowy, curving riverbanks are in the background.

Renee Barron recites Sara Teasdale's poem, "The River" ("From Rivers to the Sea").

Singing for their final grade and the Mississippi River

By Pauline Oo

December 16, 2005

A giant fish recited the evils of water pollution, a maid with a feather duster sang "River in the Rain" as a character from the musical "Big River," and a duo with an African drum and an ocarina--wind instrument shaped like a potato--performed their version of Sarah Teasdale's "The River."

Over two days this week, 53 students from a University of Minnesota General College (GC) class read river-themed poetry, danced, and played a character or a musical instrument along the Washington Avenue pedestrian bridge on the Twin Cities campus in Minneapolis. Not only were they vying for the attention of curious onlookers, they were also trying to impress their instructors for a good final grade.

The Mississippi river empties into the gulf

" is the great circulation of the earth's body, like the blood of the gods, this river in which the past is always flowing..." poem by Lucille Clifton.

"The students did well," says GC teaching specialist Heather Dorsey. "We had two groups and each student had to give a one-hour performance. Some of them created their own songs and accompanying music; others read poetry by Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, and Lucille Clifton. Whatever they chose to do, they had to stay in character and repeat their performance for the entire hour."

The mighty river

* The Mississippi River is the longest and largest river in North America, flowing 3,705 kilometers from its source at Lake Itasca in north Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. "Mississippi" in Ojibwa means "great river" or "gathering of waters."

* Of the world's rivers, the Mississippi ranks third in length and second in watershed area.

* Millions of birds--such as ducks, pelicans, geese, bald eagles, ospreys, and herons--use the Mississippi River each year as a food source during fall and spring migration.

Source: U.S. Geological Survey

The outdoor performance makes up 20 percent of the students' grade for the course, "Identity, Culture, and Community in the Performing Arts" (GC 1312). Dorsey coteaches it with University of Minnesota anthropology professor Mark Pedelty. The course examines different forms of art and how they relate to who we are and society as a whole. In addition to studying poetry and plays like Shakespeare's "Hamlet," the students explore popular music and the musicians, such as Bob Dylan, who wrote music for political or social injustice reasons.

A student dressed in a gray-fabric fish costume, singing inside the Washington Avenue Bridge walkway.
University student Kaylee Smith dresses up as a fish for her poetic rendition about the dangers of river pollution.

"We try as instructors to find different tools to help students explore who they are and how they are connected to each other, as well as to the local community," says Dorsey. "This is the first time we are using the Mississippi River as a theme and a location for that investigation. We selected the Mississippi River because it's so pertinent to our identity and it runs through campus."

The class also collected about $50 from curious onlookers for Friends of the Mississippi River, a nonprofit organization that protects and enhances the river in Minnesota.