A Keeper of the Great Lakes

Photo by Clare Ruen

Photo by Clare Ruen

Clare Ruen has always lived where the water was. A true child of the Great Lakes, nothing enamors her like Lake Superior and Lake Michigan’s unchanging blue horizon.

But the world’s water supply is not limitless. And Ruen knows the clock is ticking.

As a dancer and District 65 teacher, Ruen shares her appreciation for the Great Lakes with Evanston public schools. Since 2009, she has spearheaded a collaborative project with the Alliance for the Great Lakes Curriculum—bringing 3rd and 6th graders to field trips and special lessons on understanding the environment, with a focus on water.

“I have just some strong connection with the clear clean water,” Ruen said. “It’s cold; its ability to smash and destroy things is amazing. My brother and I, after a year away, we’d go back to Lake Superior and notice which rocks had been thrown around.”

This year, Ruen’s educational program expanded from five schools to the entire district’s 13 schools when she was awarded a coastal management grant from the Department of National Resources. Currently, the budget of the entire project is close to $90,000. More than 42 teachers and about 1,500 students total will participate in the program.

The series of field trips actively engages students with nature. The kids participate in tasks such as cleaning up a beach, touring a water treatment facility, and working with watershed models. Through the curriculum’s assignments, students learn how to collect data and monitor aspects of sites, such as litter control.

Ruen also teaches kids a form of dance that expresses water in motion, which she calls “lake dance.”

“I’m not a politician, not a lawyer, not a scientist,” Ruen said. “So the thing that seemed available was teaching kids through movement. It was a logical deduction, and they have a lot of fun with it.”

The lyrical, interpretive movement of Ruen’s signature lake dance evokes the natural flow of rivers and waves. Ruen, who performed these dances long before she went into schools, says such poetic movement puts a creative twist on education.

“I know it’s a relief to get out of their seats,” Ruen said. “I get them outside as often as possible. There are kinesthetic learners who don’t get it until they act it out.”

Ruen first became enraptured with the environment after reading The Great Lakes Water Wars, a book detailing water rights and conservation of freshwater lakes in the Midwest.

“That book was really the catalyzing moment,” Ruen said. “My hope with this program is to have children grow up appreciating the Great Lakes and have some sense of global significance so they can write policy to sustain them.”

Since finishing that book, she has become hyper-aware of the precarious situation of the world’s resources. Living in the water-rich town of Evanston, she never thought of the world’s scarcity of usable water. Now, she considers every wasted drop of storm water and leaking faucet. She has no room to be what she considers “oblivious to the peril of the future.”

“I guess I just feel a strong kinship with the parts of creation that seem to thrive in spite of humans,” Ruen said. “Almost everything has been touched, and all of those wild things that continue on in spite of us, I feel connected to.”

Posted on November 19, 2014 and filed under Evanston Community.