Homeschool Share: an online homeschool curriculum cooperative hosting over 500 unit studies, lapbooks, printables, and other resources.

Letting Swift River Go by Jane Y

Letting Swift River Go

Author: Jane Yolen
Illustrator: Babara Cooney
ISBN: 0316968609


Literature Based Unit Study written by Ami Brainerd 


Geography:  Massachusetts

This story takes place in the Swift River towns in western Massachusetts.   You may want to give your student some tracing paper and allow him to trace the state outline of Massachusetts in order to help remember which state it is. 

Massachusetts State Flag

Outline of the state of Massachusetts
Massachusetts Study Project
Massachusetts state bird/flower coloring page


Social Studies:  Saying Goodbye--"Letting Go"

Sally Jane loves the place where she grew up-- the place where she made her childhood memories.  Explain to your student that sometimes we have to say goodbye to someone or something when we don't want to.  Ask your child if he has ever had to do this (he may talk about a loved one who passed away, a friend or family member that moved away, or something different).  Discuss "letting go" and why it is important.    Why did Sally Jane have to let go of the lightning bug?  (It would've died).  In the same sense, she had to let go of Swift River.  She didn't have to forget the memories, but she had to release the anger and the hurt.  If not, it could have deadly results. 


History:  Drowning the Town

Read the author's note at the beginning of the book with your student. 

In the 1920's Eastern Massachusetts did not have a large enough water supply to meet its demands. Eastern Massachusetts inhabitants looked  westward at Swift River wondering if their need could be met. This river flowed through a series of small towns nestled in the valley. Through a series of "buyouts" the inhabitants of these towns were tossed out of their homes in preparation for construction of a reservoir.  Houses were bulldozed, bodies dug up (except for Native Americans), factories demolished and acre after acre of trees were cut down. Four towns Dana, Enfield, Greenwich and Prescott were wiped off the face of the Earth and seven other towns were affected. A half mile long dam was built on the Swift River in Belchertown MA and one of the longest tunnels in the world was constructed to carry the water a hundred miles to the east. Flooding of the valley started in mid August 1939.The valley slowly filled with water and in 1946 the reservoir was filled to capacity ( 412 bilLion gallons) and nearly 40 square miles were covered with water. The new reservoir, Quabbin,  was named after a Native American chief of a local tribe (Nani-Quaben); the name means "well watered place."

More information on the Quabbin Reservoir and the history of the Swift River towns

Language Arts:  Repetition

Jane Yolen gives us some details at the beginning of the book--
wind whispered
fireflies winked on and off
she listed to the trains starting and stopping along Rabbit Run

at the end of the story, she begins to refer back to these earlier references...she is building up to her final repetition where she remembers what her mom says "You have to let them go, Sally Jane"-- of course, this time she isn't referring to the lightning bugs, but to her friends, her memories, her past.  This is a very effective way of writing (and of making me cry!)--through the use of repetition.


Language Arts:  Simile

Jane Yolen has written this story in a beautiful, poetic style. You will encounter many similes as you read through this story with your student.   In all simplicity, a simile is a comparison using like or as.   After your student understands what simile is and is able to find them, let her try writing some.
Examples from the story--

"He had bites under his eyes, swollen like tears"

"They were stacked like drinking straws along the roads"

"the windows of one wall stared out like empty eyes"

"they rose like unfriendly neighbors"

"winking on and off and on like fireflies"


Language Arts:  Vocabulary
I don't really consider this a true vocabulary list; this list is more of a list of words that you should probably explain to your child after the first reading.

A quilt stuffed with the down of the eider duck
The crop that ripens or is gathered in a season

In engineering a watertight structure to allow work underwater. They are typically used in the construction of piers or        

             foundations of buildings near bodies of water or repair of ships
        centuries-A century is a period of 100 years.


Art:  Cool Color Palette

Look through the book with your student and note the colors that are prominent (greens and blues).  Green and blue are both colors on a cool palette (vs. red, orange, and yellow which make a warm palette).  As you have probably studied in the past, a warm palette gives the reader a feeling of coziness, love, and happiness.  What does a cool palette make you feel?  (the feeling of loneliness and sadness.)  The story of Swift River is sad.  In the end, it is somewhat redeeming because Sally Jane learns to let go; she smiles at the end, but this is not enough to make it a warm, happy book.  Discuss these things with your student.  You may want to present your student with some cool colored paints and let him create his own cool palette picture.   


Science:  Light Absorption

Certain frequencies of light are neither reflected nor pass through substances.  Instead, the radiation (sun's rays) is absorbed by the substance and usually transformed  from one energy to another.  Black surfaces are better absorbers of incoming radiation, which is turned into heat.  This concept is referred to in the book "the black one that stayed warm all day by soaking up the hot summer sun" and can be demonstrated by the following experiment.

Supplies needed:
White Sand
Black Potting Soil
Light Grey Gravel
Three Thermometers

Three clear glass bowls
Place sand, gravel, and soil in each of the three glass bowls and insert one of the thermometers just below the surface of each material. Leave the containers in sunlight for several hours.   Allow your student to compare the temperatures to see how the differently colored materials absorbed the radiation (sun's rays) and turned it into heat.   
After your experiment is complete, you can ask your student-- "If you want to stay cool on a hot summer day, what color should you wear?"  

Another (fun!) and more simple way to do this is to place different colored M&M candies in dishes (one per dish) and watch to see which ones crack first (the ones that crack first should be the ones getting the most heat).  If you have already completed the other experiment, let your student hypothesize which M&M will crack first, second, third, etc.  
Note: I haven't tried this on my own yet!  I hope it works! ;)


Science:  Maple Sugaring

If you decide to read this book in February, you may be able to go on a maple-sugaring field trip (depending on which region of the country you live in).  If you can't make it to see some maple trees tapped, then you may want to consider buying some real (100%) maple syrup the next time you are at the store.  Does your student realize that maple syrup comes from trees? 

(a big thanks to Colleen Yoder for the following information!)
Maple Sugaring begins late in the winter when the temps go above freezing during the day, and below freezing during the night.  This gets the sap flowing up the trees (and therefore "running" out the spiles) during the day.  During the night, the sap goes back down the tree until the warmth/sunshine draw it back up the tree again.  We like to get long "runs", lasting several weeks.  In Ohio, the weather is more volatile and the seasons can be cut short abruptly by a warm trend in the weather.  When the sap stays up in the trees, the season is over.  As the leaves come out, the sap becomes bitter.
As for technical drill holes in trees and lightly tap spiles into them.  Some people hang buckets on the spiles.  Others, like us, use food grade tubing from spile into 5 gallon buckets that sit on the ground at the bottom of the tree.  Some people extract sap with a vacuum, but this is potentially harmful to the trees.  You can roughly expect a quart of syrup per tap. 
It takes about 40- 60 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup. It depends on the brix level (or sugar level) of the sap.  Sugar maple trees have a higher sugar content than other maples.   The sap is gathered daily and put into holding tanks which is then fed into large evaporators.  The evaporator boils the sap down quickly.    Ours is heated with wood and is in a little building called a sugar shack.  (As a side note, we actually have someone else cook ours down on shares).
The evaporator has a hood which catches the steam.  Interestingly, the water that is discharged from the evaporator will not freeze----unless the container is moved in the freezer!! (We did this as an experiment because we were told this, and it is strange but true.)

Science (and a little Math, too!):  Health--Water to drink

"We had water here in the valley;  good water, clear water; running between the low hills."
Some towns in this story had to be flooded so that people in other towns could water.  Discuss with your child that the human body MUST have water to survive; humans are approximately (70-)80% water!  You could trace an outline of your child on a large piece of newsprint and let him color in about 80% of his body, so that he can see how much water he is.    You can also discuss healthy drinking habits.  As a rule of thumb, we should divide our weight (in pounds) by 2 and that is how many ounces of water we should drink each day.  (for 70 pounds - 70/2 = 35 ounces/day).  You can make a small star-chart with your student with a box for each glass of water he should be drinking each day (as well as a spot for you!).  Give yourselves stars for drinking your water and know that you are on your way to creating a very healthy habit!    Food is also important.  Fruits and vegetables have lots of water in them (just another reason to make sure you are eating plenty!).


Field Trip Idea: For a lesson extension, visit your city's Water Plant.  Let them show you how they make the water clean!


Math:  Miles (60 miles to Boston)
Show your student an atlas and find your city.  Using the key as a guide (the mile guide), determine where you would be if you went 60 miles north (then find 60 miles east...60 miles west...60 miles south).  Once your student gets the hang of this activity, go to Boston (and go 60 miles in each direction) will find the Quabbin Reservoir about 60 miles west of Boston.   You can extend this lesson if your student is interested; simply change the location, destination, or number of miles.  You may have a small navigator on your hands!    You can use this map if you don't have one handy.

Math: Three Jars of Fireflies 
Sally Jane says her cousin brought three mason jars.  If you have a younger student, you may want to do some skip counting with threes (3, 6, 9, 12, 15) to the tune of a silly song (or you could throw a ball back and forth, etc.). 

Your older student can try these story problems
There were three jars of fireflies.  The first jar had 5 fireflies, the second had 6, and the third girl's jar had the most-- 9.  How many fireflies total?

If there were 12 fireflies and each girl caught the same amount, how many fireflies were there in each jar?
If there were 18 fireflies and each girl caught the same amount, how many fireflies were there in each jar?
(You can go on with this using multiples of three-- 15, 21, 24, 27, 30, etc.)

Bible:  Forgiveness

Discuss forgiveness with your student.  What is it?  Can your student remember a time they forgave someone?  Forgiveness is simply "letting go"-- just like Sally Jane had to let go of her bitterness of the flooding of her town, her memories, her life.   When someone offends us, we must let go (with God's help), and forgive.  Ephesians 4:32 is a great verse for your student to memorize-- "And be ye kind one to another,  tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you." You can also discuss God's forgiveness with your student.  If we have accepted Christ, God has forgiven us!  Because God has forgiven us, we should forgive others. 

Bible Study:  Bitterness (option for older students)
We can hold on to our memories; we can love those who have moved or passed away, but we can't let the holding on consume us.  We can't allow circumstances to make us bitter.  I remember when I was in the 6th grade, my very, very best friend moved away.  I did become bitter about it, and God really used that instance in my life to show me (a few years later) what bitterness can do; He showed me why we must hand things over to him and rest in His promise that He will never leave us or forsake us.   If you want, do a Bible study on bitterness with your older child.   This is a lesson they will be able to apply in the hard circumstances of life in future years.

Resources and Just For FUN!


All Chocolate Boston Cream Pie

Old-Fashioned Games
What is Mumblety-Peg? The point of a penknife is flipped up and into the ground with the front, then the back of the hand. The point is next placed on the wrist, elbow, shoulder, and head, then back down to the hand. If a player can flip the knife successfully each time, so that it always sticks in the ground, he then makes the knife “jump the fence” of the palm and stick in the ground. *I am not recommending that you play this game!  However, I got the information for this game from and your students may enjoy playing some other old-fashioned games described at the same website. 

Go fishing

Go for a picnic

If it's summer time, get outside and enjoy those summer bugs! 
  A good
Go-Along Book is Fireflies by Julie Brinckloe.  You may also like Pets Bugs by Sally Kneidel.   Lightning Bug (firefly) print-out

Additional Resources
Ch. 7 (Letting Swift River Go) Exploring the Environment Through Children's Literature by Butzow