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Why Do Oysters Live in Snot?  Honoring Students’ Questions in an Inquiry-Based Classroom

By Heather Flanagan
October 3, 2016
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A student from BOP-CCERS fellows Judith Alexander-Edwards and Rachelle Travis’ classes at Dr. Susan S. McKinney Secondary School of the Arts in Brooklyn rinses off oyster shells and their tags.

The CCERS Fellowship at Pace is a two‐year professional development program that trains teachers to engage their students in hands‐on environmental STEM and restoration ecology in New York Harbor.  The Fellowship is open to NYC Department of Education middle school teachers working in Title I funded schools.  Classes and trainings are taught by guest experts, scientists from Columbia’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, curriculum specialists from New York Harbor Foundation, and partner organizations such as The River Project and BioBus/BioBase.

What does a sea squirt look like?  Can we get diseases from this?  Why are they covered in gunk?  Why do oysters live in snot?

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An Oyster Restoration Station tended by McKinney students in Brooklyn Bridge Park last May, covered in sea squirts, tunicates, and lots of other marine life!

Students are naturally curious, and when presented with an Oyster Restoration Station full of slimy, unfamiliar things, they can’t help but ask questions!  Sometimes to their teachers, sometimes to their classmates, and sometimes just loudly to no one in particular.  But how do you get from those questions to something more formal, like the original research projects the students must present at the culmination of the BOP-CCERS program, the BOP Symposium?  This is the focus of a series of BOP-CCERS professional developments designed to give teachers strategies for creating an inquiry-based classroom that connects moments of fascination in the field to genuine research practices.  At “Intro to the Symposium,” BOP’s Curriculum Team looked at how teachers can involve their students in “getting from a zillion questions to a smaller set of questions, with some ideas about how to pursue answers to them.”

In an earlier post recapping Fellows Field Training #3, we covered how BOP teachers can structure a safe and productive environment for student-driven questioning and exploring in the field, and we looked at what behaviors the teacher might exhibit.  In an inquiry-based approach, the teacher is no less active than in a traditional classroom, but they’ll probably be making observations, rephrasing or reframing students’ questions, maybe gently refocusing them, and most importantly, writing down their questions, instead of issuing directions.  At the training, fellows modeled this behavior while other fellows role-played as students, which generated a fantastic list of “student questions,” including the ones from the top of this post.  Earlier this year, BOP’s Curriculum Team also collected fellows’ questions from an activity called “Where would you put your oyster reef?”  For Intro to the Symposium, Curriculum Specialists Ann Fraioli and Annie Lederberg used these lists of questions to demonstrate a possible next step- sorting activities designed to get learners reflecting on and extending their questions.

These sorts have several advantages- in them, students:

  • See their own questions typed up and handed out as course material
  • Read each other’s questions
  • Have to try to understand the questions, and may ask questions about the questions
  • Start getting more interested in some of the questions
  • Give you hints about which ones are their favorites, even before you come out and ask

One sorting activity asks learners to take the list of oyster reef questions and put them into categories, both individually and with a partner.  By focusing on the questions that they disagree over or that seem to resist categorization, the students zero in on points of contention that are great fodder for thought (which will hopefully generate many more questions!)  Another guides students to brainstorm different methods for answering a field question, varying from, as fellow Emily Chandler put it, “to the Google!” to studying data from the BOP Digital Platform to dissection and everything in between, and asks them to group questions based on how to answer them.  A third pushes students to engage with the BOP Digital Platform as a resource, asking them to list what types of data they can find and which of their questions the platform could help answer.  All of these activities put students at the center of their learning, empowering them to not only ask questions but to decide how they might answer them.  

A McKinney student observes sessile organisms on the ORS settlement tiles.

A McKinney student observes sessile organisms on the ORS settlement tiles.

The fellows got to try out an additional activity, in which they reflected as educators, determining which ten field questions they would answer “fully, authoritatively, and immediately, every time, so students can move on from them with as little time and thought as possible,” and which they’d “delay answering…so students can spend as much time thinking as deeply about the issues as possible.”  It triggered the continuation of a discussion from Field Training #3- in real classrooms, when do you leave things open for inquiry?  Many teachers felt that students’ questions about their safety should be answered right away- for example, “I’m allergic to shellfish.  Can I touch an oyster?”  And there was some constructive disagreement about how far to take it- when using more expensive scientific tools that could break, Emily Chandler said she might show her students how to use them, while Tim Hitchcock said he’d take the risk and let them figure it out anyway.  Rachelle Travis sometimes strikes a middle ground, giving them at least five minutes to figure it out but making sure to go over it, noting “They lose the fun with it if you start with directions.”

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A McKinney student uses calipers to measure oyster growth.

No matter what areas an educator opens up for inquiry, it’s important to find ways to encourage student curiosity all year long, and to build a culture of discussion.  Ann and Annie provided two great handouts with practical suggestions for bringing these elements into the classroom- on the whole, these teacher practices “cultivate the ability in students to recognize when they are thinking and seeking information” and “acknowledge that as the most important goal of schooling.”  (To view all of the handouts from “Intro to the Syposium,” click here.)  Ann emphasized, “Don’t be afraid to get quagmired with students in details, even if it seems off base or going down some weird road.  That’s okay.  It’s part of the inquiry process.”

To close out the night, Ann introduced “Where do you go from here?”, a rich document that traces Annie’s thinking about how she’d follow up on the four student questions from the beginning of the post.  For each question, she looks at ways to:

  • Take advantage of the data on platform.bop.nyc
  • Build a library of texts for students’ reading research
  • Develop experimental systems (ways of collecting data) that might become the heart of students’ symposium presentations
  • Identify good people for students to interview and talk to
  • Keep building the atmosphere of inquiry — always generating more questions, curiosity, and interest from students   

Whether you’re a teacher or not, if you’re a curious reader you’ll enjoy the journey that includes a 1916 article on oyster mucus, bacterial portraits of subway commuters, a NYC sewer atlas, and more!    And keep checking out the Events page of the platform for more great BOP learning opportunities like this one- upcoming workshops include “Build Your Classroom Library” and “Using Stats with Your Students.”