Duluth students learn science, Ojibwe culture in the sugarbush

Students in the Misaabekong Ojibwe Immersion Program at Lowell Elementary School in Duluth learn science, math and Ojibwe culture through process of making maple syrup and maple sugar.

Second grader Miracle Staine sifts out dirt and twigs from boiling sap while her classmates in the Misaabkong Ojibwe Immersion Program at Lowell Elementary School in Duluth hear an Ojibwe story about the sugarbush from teacher Gordon Jourdain, one of the founders of the program, on Friday, March 19, 2021. (Samantha Erkkila/
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To the tune of “I’ve been working on the railroad,” first and second grade students in Winonah Ojanen’s class gathered around a boiling trough of sap singing a song about the sugarbush. All in the Ojibwe language.

“It’s just something fun we made up,” Ojanen said.

Every spring, students in the Misaabekong Ojibwe Immersion Program at Lowell Elementary School in Duluth tap the maple trees in the woods behind the school and wait for the sap to start flowing. When it’s time to start boiling the sugar, they gather around a fire and hear creation stories about Manabozho, the great uncle who encountered all the natural phenomena on Mother Earth.

“I think because we are an oral-delivery culture, stories like that are extremely important to disseminate our Indigenous knowledge and that is usually informed by the environment that we live in,” said Gordon Jourdain, a former teacher in the program who now volunteers his time. “We give that story to the children and they play with it, they grow with it and they are actually engaged with everything we do.”


Jourdain, one of the founders of the program, said they follow the Duluth Public Schools curriculum, but meet those objectives by “utilizing the knowledge of our grandmother the moon.” The students learn the cultural importance of gathering sap, boiling the sap and making maple sugar while learning science and math at the same time.

“We also use this process to teach the students about solids, liquids and gases,” said Ojanen. “It changes from ice, a solid, to the liquid, the sap and the syrup, back into a solid of the maple sugar. Also there is water vapor, a gas, in the process.”

Winonah Ojanen, right, teaches her second grade student Aubree Klein what to look for when sifting boiling maple sap on Friday, March 19, 2021 at Lowell Elementary School in Duluth. (Samantha Erkkila/

For the older students in the program, there are other important lessons to be learned. For fifth grade student Sawyer Morrow, Friday’s boil contained a special lesson as Jourdain passed on the fire-starting duties.

“This year was the first time that I let him light the fire on his own and he was able to do it successfully,” said Jourdain, who teaches the boys in the class how to start a fire without any matches.

“I was pretty proud of myself because I’ve been working at this for five years now,” said Morrow. “Last year for Christmas I got a new fire starter so I was practicing over the winter a bit.”


Second grader Lucy Jungman takes a pine bow and dips it into the maple sap to help slow the boiling while fifth grader Sawyer Morrow sifts the sap for twigs and dirt on Friday, March 19, 2021, at Lowell Elementary School in Duluth. (Samantha Erkkila/

As less and less sap drips out from the maples, students will learn a final cultural teaching about the process: how to give away gifts. All the sugar made will be gifted to teachers and classmates at the school.

“There are so many teachings in this process and that’s why it's important to keep doing this,” Ojanen said. “It’s not just a cultural thing. There are so many more teachings from other areas of life that go into it. And so instead of separating them we integrate them.”

First and second grade students in the Misaabekong Ojibwe Immersion Program at Lowell Elementary School in Duluth hug teacher Gordon Jourdain after a class spent outside in the woods learning about the maple syrup and maple sugar-making process on Friday, March 19, 2021. Jourdain is one of the founding members of the program but now volunteers his time to help teach Ojibwe culture to the children. (Samantha Erkkila /

To avoid smoke in her eyes, second-grade student Lucy Jungman covers her face with her hood as she sifts boiling sap while classmate Aubree Klein watches over her shoulder on Friday, March 19, 2021, at Lowell Elementary School in Duluth. (Samantha Erkkila/

Samantha Erkkila is the digital content producer for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach her at
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