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ELL Students Become New York Harbor Biodiversity and Water Quality Experts at M.S. 88

By Heather Flanagan
April 8, 2016

Jack Wasylyk teaches 6th and 7th grade English Language Arts at M.S. 88 Peter Rouget in South Slope, Brooklyn. His students are all English Language Learners (ELLs) who’ve either recently arrived to the United States or who’ve grown up in a first generation community.  Jack’s classes are deeply involved in the Billion Oyster Project’s program of student-led restoration research– their oyster restoration station (ORS) located at IKEA Pier in Red Hook is the oldest continually monitored station in the city. When we last checked in with Jack, his students were setting up an experimental oyster reef tank right in their classroom and eagerly anticipating their first restoration station visit of the year.  How are they doing so far?

Maciel Rosario, Caylyn Cortes, and Angie Cano talk tunicates, tanks, and more in their ESL class with Murray Fisher, President of New York Harbor Foundation and co-founder of the Billion Oyster Project.

Angie Cano, Caylyn Cortes, and Maciel Rosario talk tunicates, tanks, and more in their ESL class with Murray Fisher, President of New York Harbor Foundation and co-founder of the Billion Oyster Project.

Maciel Rosario and Caylyn Cortes, students in Jack’s first period class, filled me in, completing each other’s sentences. Caylyn was eager to explain: “Earlier in the year we went to Red Hook–”

“–to the harbor so we could catch [the oysters] and put them in tanks.”  Maciel continued excitedly, “We also caught other species, like fish and crabs and shrimp.  Remember the thing that looked like alligator snakes?!  It was so fun when we got there.  It was like a hard working day but it was so fun.  Everyone had different tasks.  There was this old cage- they use it every year to check oysters- it was my task to bring up the cage and check the tiles to see if there were baby oysters or bacteria growing on it.  I had to check pH and the water quality, so we had to bring up a huge bucket, and then the pH meter broke (one person stuck it in and it hit the bucket).  Reading the pH meter was annoying because people were moving the bucket too much.  It kept changing.  I also had to find new animals, new species to bring back.  I had to put them in the tank and a crab almost bit me!  We brought like 30 [oysters]- you know how there’s oyster drills [a small predatory snail]?  They killed [some of] them.”

Almost every student used the word “fun” multiple times to describe their experiences at the field site.  Angel Diaz in Jack’s second period class said, “It was fun seeing oysters in their cages.  Testing ammonia- oyster poop.  I looked at animals in the water, like the sea squirt, the common one.  It’s fun learning what they can do in the water, like clean [it.]” When Jack announced the next field visit date, the students yelled “YES!!!” in unison.

Angel Diaz taking time out from researching water quality parameters to discuss his visit to the school’s oyster restoration station.

Angel Diaz taking time out from researching water quality parameters to discuss his visit to the school’s oyster restoration station.

What about that oyster tank?

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CHECK!  Here, Marlen Sosa and Farhana Samad are inspecting the current tank residents so they can remove any dead oysters before replenishing their supply with some new ones brought by Robina Taliaferrow (NYHF’s Community Liaison and Operations Manager), fresh from their debut performance on the Billion Oyster Project’s table at the David A. Boody Science Fair.  A sign placed near the classroom’s windows sheds some light on how a few of the oysters met an untimely end over winter break:

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Oysters might not be the cuddliest classroom pet, but any hands-on activity involving them became a magnet for students.  When Marlen started inspecting the tank, Farhana rolled up her sleeves (literally!) and grabbed a shell.  At the end of the next period, when Jack had one student prepare a salty stew of brackish water and algae to replenish the oyster aquarium, another student came over to watch.

[Student’s name] adding salt to a five gallon bucket of water to achieve the necessary salinity level.

Jack guides students on how to add salt to a five gallon bucket of water to achieve the necessary salinity level.

Jack is from our first cohort of BOP-CCERS fellows, and his class was actively engaged in restoration-based curriculum when I visited.  Each of his students is currently researching a New York Harbor species associated with their oyster restoration station.  In both periods, he tasked the class with determining their species’ tolerance ranges for a water quality parameter (such as pH, dissolved oxygen, salinity, or temperature) of their choice.

Jack's direction for the class: "Oyster Researchers: Your goal today is to find the RANGE that your species has a TOLERANCE for in your WATER QUALITY PARAMETER before MORTALITY and record the source of this info."

“Oyster researchers: Your goal today is to find the RANGE that your species has a TOLERANCE for in your WATER QUALITY PARAMETER before MORTALITY and record the source of this info.”

When asked about the lesson, Jack noted that “how to structure it was the biggest challenge- it took a lot of thought to come up with something scientific they can all research, and to narrow what they’re searching for.”  In his second period class, he used a discussion of human temperature tolerances to introduce the idea of ranges for the students’ species.  It wasn’t an easy assignment, but working in small groups, the students learned to hone their search skills, validate sources, and make adjustments when they hit a roadblock.  Maciel noted that she and Angie “were studying the effect of pH on golden star tunicates but couldn’t find any information, so [they] made a change to salinity.”  

Students spoke confidently and enthusiastically about New York Harbor biodiversity and water quality, and it was clear that their hands-on experiences translated to high levels of engagement with the classroom curriculum.  With the new BOP Schools and Citizen Science website set to launch in beta starting in early May, we’re excited for them to start collecting and submitting data from their Red Hook field site- we can’t wait to see what they’ll discover!

Interested in reading more about BOP-CCERS and how we’re bringing hands-on restoration science to classrooms all over the city?  Click here to read all BOP-CCERS posts!