Cunningham Elementary: Water is Life

Arts Education, Health and Career Education, Language Arts, Science, Social Studies

School: Cunningham Elementary School

Teacher: Doreen Unrau

Artist Collaborators: Laura Barron

Class: Grade 3 4



Through an interdisciplinary artistic exploration that included poetry, song writing, dance, visual art and theatre elements, Water is Life  asked the students to consider how water is critical to their every day life.  The students made global connections as they explored how water issues have even greater impact on international communities further a field.  Throughout this inquiry, students created water-based instruments (with rainsticks, ice rattles, water drums, and bottle xylophones); with which they created an original musical performance using their own poetic lyrics. 


Connection to the Vancouver Biennale Exhibition

Ren Jun’s sculpture, Water #10 was used to launch the discussion about global warming, melting ice caps, and human’s relationship to this global issue.


Other Resources

Water Songs

  • Under the Sea
  • Singin’ in the Rain
  • Water Music 12, Handel (Hornpipe – Sailor Dance)
  • Die Forelle, Schubert (The Trout)
  • La Mer 2nd mvt., Debussy  (The Waves)
  • Moldau, Smetana (River)
  • Arnold, Three Shanties (Fisherman Work Song)


All living things sense and respond to their environment.


Guiding Questions

How is water a critical resource for the residents of Vancouver; BC; Canada; and throughout the globe?

How can we more mindfully use this finite resource?

How does our own human behavior have global consequences that can dramatically affect water issues on our planet?

Cross-Curricular Access

Arts Education and Language Arts – create a poster that demonstrates water conservation in your home and community

Social Studies –

  • learning the ways of life of local First Peoples:
  • the importance of water to the survival of the Haida (living near the ocean)
  • how the indigenous societies value the well-being of self, land, spirits and ancestor
  • understanding how we learn from the indigenous peoples to honour Earth, to respect her gifts of water, air and fire

 Science – biodiversity in our local environment – understanding that all living things and their environment are interdependent

Physical and Health Education – 

  • learning the importance of nutrition and hydration choices to support different activities and overall health
  • learning that personal choices and social and environmental factors influence our health and well-being

Inquiry Challenges

Following their own curiosity about the natural world, students consider their own ethical responsibilities in regards to global water issues.  Throughout the project, students increase their awareness about various threats to our local and global water supply (global warming, pollution, consumption); they develop greater empathy for global communities with even graver water conservation issues than those they experience in their immediate environment; and they cultivate an appreciation for the importance of this critical resource, and for the need to exercise mindful use of BC’s seemingly abundant water supply.

The artistic tools employed throughout this project involve multiple literacies (auditory, visual, verbal, and kinsethetic), allowing points of entry for all kinds of learners. The students were introduced to relevant media including classical, folk, and rock songs about water; viewing videos of performances on bottle flutes, crystal glasses, water drums and rain sticks; and a performance of Toque’s Geographical Fugue.


Learning Process and Timeline

WEEK ONE – Feb 9 – Music

  • Body Percussion Rain Storm
  • Critical Resource Brainstorm
  • Show Water Instrument Videos

WEEK TWO – March 2 – Movement

  • Human Water Machines Activity (Waterwheel, Washing Machine, Boat, Fountain, Water Pump – selected by students)
  • Water Crisis Mapping/Vignette Sculptures
    • (African Scarcity, California Draught, Calgary Flood, Japan Tsunami, Melting Artic Icecap, Indian Contamination, Central America Girls Fetch/No School – Crises identified through collective student brainstorming, and research on &
    • Play Water Songs (Classical, Pop, Folk)

WEEK THREE – March 9 – Writing

  • Build Rhyme and Syllable Bank
  • Create Water Rap
  • Write Water Conservation Tips – Top 10 for month of April until Earth Day, 22nd
  • *Homework: extra credit Homemade Rainstick

WEEK FOUR – March 30 – Theatre (Students make posters with Ms. Unrau)

  • Create Stories and Actions for Vignettes
  • Practice Rap (make rain sound vocal backing track)
  • *Homework: Bring in Bottles, Balls, Bowls, and Buckets

WEEK FIVE – April 6 – Music

  • Make Water Xylophones & Drums
  • Practice Rap w/ instruments (add xylophone chorus: Singing in the Rain)
  • *Classroom Work: Make conservation tips list & posters – by April 7th

WEEK SIX – April 13 – Theatre/Movement (April 10th announcements begin)

  • Start choreographing Umbrella Dance
  • *Homework: bring in Umbrellas

WEEK SEVEN – April 20 – Movement

  • Practice Umbrella Dance
  • Finish Vignettes

WEEK EIGHT – April 27 – ALL

  • Practice Dance, Vignettes, Music

WEEK NINE – May 11 – ALL

  • Final Rehearsal – Singin’ in the Rain Water Xylophones, Umbrella Dance, Global Water Crisis Physical Theatre Vignettes, Drip Drop Rap

WEEK TEN – May 18

  • Performance


Student Creation

Students created water-based instruments constructed from entirely reclaimed materials including bottles flutes, ice rattles, water drums, rainsticks, and water bottle xylophones.  And the students then used these to perform an original composition.

For the lyrics of this composition, word games were used to focus on text related to ‘water as a critical resource’.  Students composed rap lyrics for their original musical composition, and the syllabic patterns of the verse created the rhythms for their water instruments.  Through this process, the students can easily remember the rhythms by identifying them with the corresponding words. Students experiment with creating a body percussion rainstorm.

To illustrate their learning about various global water crises, these students, (who demonstrated far greater comfort with non-verbal modes of expression), decided to perform physical theatre pieces that represented several water issues they mapped and identified around the world (burst dam in california, japanese tsunami, central american water scarcity, traffic-induced global warming and melting icecaps).  They called this piece the Butterfly Effect, recognizing the interrelationships between their actions and environmental consequences around the world.

As a celebration of the abundant water the students enjoy in BC, they choreographed and performed an original dance, to the melody of a existing water-themed song of their choice – Singin’ In the Rain).



Teacher – Doreen Unrau

The interdisciplinary approach of this project helped to enhance and solidify the students’ learning by allowing them to access and represent their learning through a variety of avenues.

Having learned about the continents and oceans of the world, the students were able to represent the continents by positioning their bodies on various parts of the carpet and quickly identify where water disasters have taken place.  This school year, we have focused on social responsibility as well as the importance of fairness and a sense of community.  And as this was an underlying theme in this project, the students were quick to embrace it, generate thoughtful ideas and contribute to each mode of expression – vignette sculpture, dance, body percussion, water rap, poster.  We had meaningful conversations about our interconnectedness and how our actions in one part of the world can affect others in different parts of the world.  As such, leading up to Earth day, the students made school wide PA announcements sharing their ideas on how to conserve water in our daily lives.  This was a valuable project in bringing critical thinking, social awareness and creativity together.

It was an effortless partnership with Laura.  Her passion for the arts and joy of working with children created an engaging and supportive environment.  Laura’s flexibility, allowing the students creative license to take the project in directions in which they wished and felt comfortable, kept them engaged and gave them ownership over the project. Through working together, communicating and connecting ideas with each other, sharing roles and responsibilities, solving challenges, supporting each other and contributing positively to a collective project, the students took great pride in their final presentation and expressed their sadness over its completion.  The students not only made global connections around the theme of water but also received the gift of connecting with our wonderful artist, Ms. Laura Barron.

Student Reflection

The following are a few excerpts from the students’ reflections:

“On the first week I was nervous but on the last, I was confident.”  By Pavi

“I learned how much carbon dioxide gets put into the air every year because of pollution.”  By Zac

“My favourite part was when I did the xylophone part of the song Singing in The Rain.” By Kiya

“Ms. Laura came and worked with us to create a water performance.  What I liked was when we did the drumming because it was fun.  I also liked it when we got to present to other classes.  What I really, really liked was when we created the water rap.  When Ms. Laura showed us people making music with glass bottles with different amounts of water, I thought it was pretty spectacular.  I would like to thank the Vancouver School Board and the Vancouver Biennale for donating money for Ms. Laura to work with Division 7.” By Jacky

“I really enjoyed making the water conservation posters to put up around the school.  I also learned that our actions have consequences that can cause droughts or floods in other parts of the world.  It was also fun making the announcements.”  By Cynthia

“My favourite part of the project was drumming with my friends.  When we performed in front of a crowd, I wasn’t scared because I had rehearsed.”  By Khoa

“The performance was a blast!” by Lawrence

Artist – Laura Barron

Having led a similarly-themed project, previously, I looked forward to evolving the concept with a new student population, and with the added lens of making global connections related to water issues.   Through student-led brainstorms, I was highly impressed with their collective knowledge about various global water crises.  And while I originally intended for them to create poetic or theatrical reflections around their discoveries in this inquiry, it became clear, early on in our engagements, that this group was not very comfortable with verbal expression (public speaking, writing, acting).  However, they quickly revealed a passion and aptitude for using their bodies to express themselves.  So, their teacher  Ms. Unrau and I decided that it would be more appropriate of them to co-create dance and physical theatre pieces to reflect their learnings.

These students were also initially quite reticent to perform  But as their skills and confidence built, their enthusiasm grew tremendously, as demonstrated by their request to repeat their performance for more of their school peers (since the only available performance room in this space-challenged school could accommodate about 60 audience members).  Ultimately, after both performances at Cunningham, I debriefed with the students and they were unbelievably proud of themselves.  They said that their confidence and performance skills improved from a 3 to a 10 out of 10 in just our short time together.  And while the performance content was quite simple, its elements required them to develop rhythmic, melodic, kinesthetic and theatrical literacies that most of them had never exercised before.  The entire class expressed their strong desire to have me to return to their school because they so enjoyed our engagements.  And all of the visiting classes expressed that their students thoroughly enjoyed the performance and learned a lot about water as a critical resource.  In fact, the morning class had already made a thank you card for Ms. Unrau’s class, with their positive reflections, by the end of our second performance.

All of this is to say that the impact of this project was highly evident, both as an enriching artistic, social, emotional, and intellectual experience.

Finally, I have worked as a partnering artist with over 30 BC educators, and Doreen Unrau is one of the most collaborative, contributing, competent and willing teaching partners with whom I have ever worked. Her open communication and efforts to continue the project activities outside of my sessions truly enhanced the students’ experience.  And I learned tremendously from her classroom management skills and lesson planning strategies.