check out the latest


“It’s Your Vision:” Interview with BOP Teachers Mr. Espin and Dr. Fox

February 21, 2018

This month, two Billion Oyster Project teachers, Mr. Espin and Dr. Fox, co-hosted a week-long intensive that invited students to see their neighborhood in a new light. The week focused on the challenge of designing an oyster reef for Sherman Creek down the street, to help protect from storms like Hurricane Sandy.

During a normal week, Dr. Fox teaches biology and environmental sciences courses while Mr. Espin teaches history. Inspired by their collaboration, we sat down with them to learn more about the structure of their intensive and how students responded.


What happened during your week of restoration learning?

Dr. Fox: We framed the week around building and designing an oyster reef right here in the neighborhood local to our school, WHEELS.

Day 1 was an intro to Billion Oyster Project, where we took the students on a fieldwork trip to Governors Island, organized by Robina Taliaferrow, Billion Oyster Project’s Education Outreach Manager. Students received a tour and helped to build oyster filing cabinets with Juan Pareja, Hatchery and Field Technician. Students also learned about environmental justice through role-playing led by Tanasia Swift, Community Reefs Regional Manager at Billion Oyster Project.

Day 2 we were back in the classroom. We read the epilogue from The Big Oyster and had a Socratic circle at the end of the day. We also visited Jason Smith at New York Restoration Project [NYRP], who explained why he felt a Sherman Creek reef was important.

Day 3: Out at the Peter Jay Sharp Boathouse at Swindler Cove, we met up with Ann Fraioli from the Education Department at Billion Oyster Project, and monitored our Oyster Research Station near the boathouse. Then the students, and some of the creatures that they found near the reef, temporarily boarded the BioBus. Students examined the creatures using microscopes and uploaded their data to the Billion Oyster Project platform.

Day 4: Hannah Davis, a Landscape Designer at SCAPE who is working on the Living Breakwaters reef project on Staten Island, visited and helped frame how students think about oyster reefs. The students then started constructing their own models. We asked them to consider:

  1. What’s your vision for the waterfront?
  2. How does your model address the specific challenges facing Sherman Creek—in particular, shoreline erosion and a dredged channel?
  3. They studied different models of reef building and then designed and built their own prototypes.

Day 5: Science-fair style presentations, with Annie Lederberg at Billion Oyster Project, Jason, and Hannah in attendance. Then we had an oyster toast at end of the day!

How did you and your students decide to advocate for an oyster reef at Sherman Creek?

Mr. Espin: This was born of our first intensive in November, working on restoration of Highbridge Park, Sherman Creek Park, and Swindler Cove (off of Harlem River Drive), and in the course of that and in partnership with NYRP, we learned of the need for a reef at Sherman Creek to help protect the shoreline.

What do you think was the most valuable lesson your students learned during this week?

Mr. Espin: Students learned they could initiate change in their own neighborhood. Given their age and circumstances in life, they often feel like things just happen to them. Working on a project like this let them experience that they can make their neighborhood what they want it to be. They saw real concrete steps they can take, saw real organizations that do this work—and then they start seeing, “I can be part of it.” They can be an agent of actual change.

Dr. Fox: Erick [“Mr. Espin”] did a great job of pushing students to pursue their own vision. As they designed their reef models, he kept reminding them, “it’s your vision.” At presentations then, students were very confident and felt ownership.

What do you think was the most surprising lesson your students learned during the week?

Mr. Espin: The power of oysters! Many students have never eaten oyster. Understanding oysters’ role in NYC and what they can do for changing a waterfront. This organism doesn’t even look like an organism—and then students see that they eat, they’re alive, they’re doing all this amazing stuff.

Dr. Fox: Students were also surprised to know that things are living in NY water! Kids had a hard time understanding that animals are actually living in the harbor.

How did your students respond to being outside and doing fieldwork?

Mr. Espin: We chose the location because it’s in their community. We wanted them to experience their neighborhood differently. I grew up right down the street from Sherman creek, near the landfill. And I had never heard of the creek—I remember being surprised to learn Sherman Creek was a real waterway. I’d thought it was gentrification renaming things.

Students enjoy working outside, and then when they start seeing the animals near the Oyster Research Station, there’s a real energy, engagement, enthusiasm you don’t usually see in schools. You don’t usually see living things in school, it’s usually books and handouts.

Dr. Fox: And back in November, the kids were so happy to plant something. After they complain about being outside and getting dirty, they find such joy in interacting with nature in a way that they don’t get to every day.

Do you think any of your students will go on to careers in restoration or in the maritime industry?

Mr. Espin: They are very young; it’s hard to say.

Many students aren’t seeing people of color in the maritime industry or in restoration. So I’m not sure it’s real or tangible to them. This five-day intensive, meeting with women of color from the Billion Oyster Project—it might go unsaid, but for students them being women of color is a big deal. Students also met a black male scientist working on BioBus. The message kids get from this is that exposure to career paths is open to you, too. Next year, we’ll emphasize this even more to our students.

Why do you think it’s important to teach students through the lens of restoration?

Dr. Fox: Just to get them to be a part of it. Students do have a voice and can get involved. They see that they’re going to make a difference right now.

Mr. Espin: Ownership. Sending the message: You live in this neighborhood, your family is here, you have power in this neighborhood. When you visit a park, start cleaning up tree gardens near your school, restore shoreline near your school, you realize, “I don’t have to wait for anyone to do this, I can do this.” In history class we don’t get to do a lot of this work.

Environmental justice also plays a role. When you begin to change your expectations of your role and what you’re entitled to, you see that you do deserve a better park, waterfront, environment. Restoration is tactile way to come to this realization.

Dr. Fox: Restoration isn’t necessarily as difficult as students think it’s going to be. By starting a clean-up they’re already participating and making a difference. It’s mostly a shift in thinking. A willingness.

Mr. Espin: After a few hours of work, you can see the fruit of your labor… oh, I planted this native species, oh I’m helping design a reef. For kids of this age, it’s important to see that tangibility.


To access Billion Oyster Project curriculum (10 units, 72 lesson plans), sign up for our digital platform for educators and citizen scientists. Our lessons are used at the middle- and high-school levels throughout New York City.

Mr. Espin and Dr. Fox’s curriculum for a one-week intensive will soon be available. Sign up for the Billion Oyster Project e-newsletter list to receive notification when the curriculum goes live, as well as other updates on the journey toward 1 billion oysters restored.