Heather Purple: Boat a School

Heather Purple, JKL Bahweting School


I’m Heather Purple and I’m really humbled and honored to be here to share with you our story. I’m a middle school science teacher in Sault Ste. Markie Michigan at JKL Bahweting School. We’re a Native American Tribal school affiliated with the Sioux Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

We have an up and running Boat to School that we do with our sixth grade students every spring. We’re in our fourth year of it, we generally do it in May. Where did this need arise?

Sault Ste. Marie is located on the St. Mary’s river and Lake Superior, so fishing’s always been historically a big industry in our area. In recent years, many fishing families both tribal and non-tribal are no longer in existence. They don’t do commercial or noncommercial fishing anymore. Also the number of commercial, recreational, and subsistence fishers has decreased in our area. So, getting kids and students to know and understand number one, where foods come from and what local foods are out there, we started with fishing, specifically white fish but we do work with different species as well.

Another thing we noticed in our schools, especially amongst middle schoolers, is healthy diets are on the decrease or disappearing. This can be from economics, as some families can’t or don’t think they can afford it, or the time to prepare healthy foods. Middle school students are able to and independent enough to prepare some of these foods themselves, so we just bring it to them and try to teach them.

What you’re seeing here is we do this Boat to School Program. I’m all over the place, because it’s a week long program with lots going on. We work with a variety of different agencies – here you see an MSU Extension SNAP-ed representative who is amazing. He comes in one of the days and does, not just a cooking demo but engages the students, has them actually cutting, dicing, chopping and cooking. So, the students learn how to make white fish tacos. They’re not the batter-fried white fish tacos they might get at Buffalo Wild Wings, that’s probably not white fish, but whatever. They are not fried, and the kids love it. They find that they actually like it. There are never leftovers. I’m not saying every single kid likes them, but we do generally get them all to try it, so that’s pretty exciting.

Along with Boat to School week we also engage them in the whole process of, “Where does your food come from?” Many of them either have tried or like fish, but they don’t know where it comes from. Even though it’s in our area, a lot of the fish they’ve had is not a local food.

This is from our local commercial fishery. If any of you are familiar with the U.P. or Sault Ste. Marie, St. Ignace is about 45 minutes south of us, and Masse’s is a big commercial fishery down in that area. We take a field trip down there where they see the fish actually coming off the boat, being processed in the processing factory area. The kids get to throw the fish into the processor, see it being scaled. They love it. I know some adults probably are more squeamish than the kids are, but it’s good for them to see where it comes from.

They also get the kids to see it processed and, believe it or not, they’re still ready to eat because they’re teenagers and they’re always ready. They do a smoked white fish dip for them and put out a really nice spread, so the kids see how the fish is processed and then also get to try that right at their processing plant.

We do this with the students so that, again, to try to get them to like and engage with healthy foods. They also, as a middle school science teacher, do ecology lessons with it. Our Local Lake State University students come in and do a fish dissection with them so they learn the parts of the fish, they learn how to filet a fish. We also go to the tribal stock ponds. The Sioux Tribe has their own fish and wildlife area where they raise Walleye to be planted into the waterways. So, it’s a whole week where every sixth grade student in our school, which is roughly 75 students, is engaged in Boat to School and seeing the whole process through.

One of the best parts about this program for me is that it’s really led to brainstorming other ideas. We now, from this, do a Manoomin Madness (I don’t know if anyone knows what Manoomin is but it’s wild rice). Our eight graders now, actually it’s this Friday, we have somebody come over from Wisconsin where they are actually learning how to parch and dance on rice and then they prepare that rice. That’s kind of come from this, trying to make sure each grade has some traditional, local foods experience.

In seventh grade last year we had Leek Week, where we go out and harvest wild leeks and then make different dishes with those as well. There’s also the science behind it, but I know most of you aren’t as interested in that. We really are trying to get our students to try these local, healthy foods. And it’s been a wonderful experience for them as well as me. I think I have the best job in the world because I get to do all of this stuff and have fun with kids. That’s our story, and it’s been an amazing experience. We’re always looking for more ways to get local foods into the classroom and to have kids experience, so that’s our story!

She asked how I got involved as a science teacher. I think that’s probably one of the tough things, is making those connections and networking. We are a smaller area but I can tell you there are so many teachers out there willing to work with anybody. I happen to work with somebody from our local MSU Extension who contacted me. We just did a Cider-palooza week a couple of weeks ago, where they bring in a cider press and do that. It started with my connection with her on that project and then we kind of brainstormed this with the SNAP-ed person. It just seems like there’s always people, and it started with that one relationship.


Local Fish (Photo provided by Heather Purple)