New education program to bring living history to living rooms

The educational center is now located in the historic Snapp House on 360 River Road along the Coast Fork of the Willamette River greenway.

Singing Creek Educational Center is developing a unique approach to learning

Singing Creek Educational Center is exploring new models of teaching and learning for Cottage Grove kids — amid mandates for social distancing — by bringing its unique programs into families’ homes.

The center develops historically-inspired educational programs which typically target an age range from 6 to 11.

“We provide hands-on living history education for children and families,” said Karen Rainsong, executive director of the Singing Creek Educational Center. “We teach all about the native indigenous peoples as well as pioneer settlers and explorers such as Lewis and Clark and our own local folk such as Opal Whiteley here in town.”

The center’s interactive history programs (which include dressing in period costumes), field trips and crafts classes are designed to connect kids to history and nature in meaningful ways.

Recently awarded general operating grants from the Cottage Grove Lions Club at $1,250 and the Woodard Family Foundation at $1,000 have helped keep the center afloat this summer.

“It really helps us,” said Rainsong. “It just supports us at a ground level so that I can do a lot of this work.”

With the challenge posed by COVID-19, however, the center is exploring new avenues of education.

While Singing Creek Educational Center has only been in Cottage Grove about a year, it has a history in the area.

From 2007 to 2015, Rainsong coordinated educational programs at the Alvord Farm and Museum in West Eugene, which included summer camps, workshops, field trips and special events like visiting with baby farm animals.

Following that, the center operated out of a farm in Junction City for four years before moving to its current location in Cottage Grove.

“So I’ve been doing this about 12 years now,” Rainsong said.

The educational center is now located in the historic Snapp House on 360 River Road along the Coast Fork of the Willamette River greenway.

The location is also adjacent to a city park, which allows room for outside activities as well as its inside programs.

The house, built in 1886, bears the name of one of Cottage Grove’s first physicians, Dr. G.O. Snapp.

The doctor built the house to serve as his residence and office and was later moved to its current location to preserve it.

As well as the house retaining many of its historical features, the Cottage Grove Prospectors and Golddiggers Club has furnished the historic building with period furniture that was common when it belonged to Dr. Snapp.

The center’s programs take deep dives into local Oregon history and attempt to bring the experience alive to children.

“We really focus on kids,” said Rainsong.

The programs center around concepts such as sustainable living skills, how to “live lightly” on the land and how to recycle and reuse materials through the lens of historical methods.

“We’ve always done crafts and activities and food-making and things that revolve around these ideas, but now we want to emphasize them and bring them more into our everyday, modern lives,” Rainsong said. “We want to start as far back as we possibly can with learning about indigenous people’s relationship with the land and how they used plants and animal resources in a way that was sustainable as well as ethical.”

The ideas of human reciprocity with the landscape, a natural flow of give and take and getting kids in touch with nature are key elements to the process.

The age of technology, Rainsong said, can often be a barrier to this in daily life.

“It’s really easy to become distanced from nature and see yourself as separate from it, so we attempt to remedy that,” she said.

The center’s curricula may tie into pioneer settlers’ lives, for example, by visiting with domesticated animals and participating in activities like grinding grain and churning butter.

Even older skills such as making cordage out of native plants are employed.

“So we have a volunteer that comes in with dried, stinging nettle stocks — that don’t sting you anymore — and he is an expert cordage maker,” said Rainsong. “It’s these kinds of skills that are often lost in our modern culture that we’re helping bring back.”

While Singing Creek Educational Center has used the Snapp House to teach crafts and conduct other programs, it also has shown up at school sites when requested.

“Whenever a teacher would order the program … we would come into the classroom and do a half-an-hour to 45-minute presentation,” said Rainsong.

One program developed by the center, for example, helps teachers meet state standards for literature and writing by letting children engage with fictional letters based on real journals from the Oregon Trail.

Rainsong is also looking to expand with a program looking into local the mining history.

Meeting the Challenge

Meeting this standard of “living the experience” amid the pandemic, though, is a new challenge.

“We’ve really had to adapt with this pandemic and it’s tough because what we do is hands-on, in-person — that’s who we are,” said Rainsong.

The sudden halt of attendance due to health-based state mandates has slowed the center’s momentum, too, putting newly developed classroom-based programs and field trips on hold.

In its first activity since March, Singing Creek Educational Center has recently started up a light version of its summer camp.

“The kids are wearing masks and we’re hand sanitizing a lot, so we’re trying to stay as safe as possible,” said Rainsong.

Now with an eye on fall, the center is readying itself with new ideas.

“Our exciting new project is bringing homeschool online,” said Rainsong. “This is really big for us and I’m really excited about it.”

Once a month, the center plans to publish an educational video online and email resources for parents to use at home with their children.

“So it’s almost going to be like a kids’ history TV channel with all the different videos I’m going to be doing,” said Rainsong.

The project is slated to start in September and run through next May and Rainsong is hoping to work with community partners who will help create video interviews at sites such as farms or animal rescue ranches.

Each month will be characterized by a different theme, starting September off with a seasonal approach to cooking and gardening.

Rainsong plans to have a youth ambassador who will lead kids on the video tours on each of these monthly visits.

There is also a Facebook group page called the Singing Creek Center Community on which students are encouraged to post work online to share with others.

For the more hands-on projects which require materials, parents will be provided with a list of resources to find those materials.

Rainsong also emphasized that the center will focus more on “decolonization training” this fall and winter by representing indigenous voices is their programs.

“We want to start each video with a land acknowledgement,” said Rainsong.

In particular, she hopes to provide the native Kalapuya perspective in the videos through storytelling and other resources.

At a subscription price of $15 a kid per month, she believes that with enough sign-ups, the project will be financially sustainable.

To achieve these goals, though, local volunteers and partners must be willing to play a part.

Rainsong is looking for volunteers with specific skills including video editing or locals willing to provide locations and native perspectives for the video tours.

“I’m also looking for community partners that are related to sustainable living or historical things such as a history museum,” she said.

The center also relies on donations and Rainsong anticipates needing to invest in the center’s own video equipment should the COVID-19 restrictions continue.

With this new project on the horizon, though, Rainsong is optimistic that the center’s popularity and magnetism for community participation will continue.

“It’s going to be a challenge, but the more engaging we can make the videos and make them speak to children — not talk down to them, but speak to them at their level — then I think they’ll watch and get engaged,” said Rainsong. “We have had pretty good, consistent attendance all these years. 

“Being here in Cottage Grove, I feel that we’re really poised to be a big part of the community and have a lot more participation.”

Donation options and more information can be found online at www.singingcreekcenter.org.

The center can be contacted by phone at 541-968-1986 or by email at [email protected].

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