Our topography and coastal climate make the Bay Area a biodiversity hotspot- meaning not only that it supports a rich variety of plant communities and wildlife but also that the ecosystems are under threat. Despite widespread development, our region is home to hundreds of native plant species and a dazzling array of birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles. Many species are endemic— found nowhere else in the world— and some have been classified as rare and endangered. I think a lot about how I can help my 5th grade students gain a sense of place and nurture a deep appreciation for our local biological diversity.
This year, a new way I've addressed that in my curriculum is through Bay Area Wonders, a project that was developed as a collaboration with my colleague— Nueva School writing teacher Cliff Burke. We were both inspired when we saw writer Aimee Nezhukumatathil speak at our school's Humanities Fair last year; even over Zoom, Nezhukumatathil sparkled with enthusiasm, and her insights about her writing process and the natural world were equally impressive.
For our project, we decided to keep a local focus. Students were provided a curated list of Bay Area native plants and animals to choose from, but they were also free to select a species they found on their own. We encouraged students to choose a species with which they felt connected; for some, they had observed an organism first hand, while for others they just related to an aspect of the organism's physical characteristics or behavior. So a student might feel connected to a humpback whale because they saw one breaching on a whale-watching trip or they might feel an affinity towards a mountain lion, having never encountered one, due to its speed and agility.
In science class with me, students investigated ecology concepts while in writing class with Cliff, they read and analyzed essays from World of Wonders. One great resource we found to help introduce the project to students is the Science Friday segment It's Still A Wild, Wonder-Filled World. Then, using Nezhukumatathil's essays as a guide, students researched and wrote their own essay about their selected species— combining personal experiences with observations and natural history information.
Here is a gallery of featuring some of the amazing scientific illustrations and essay quotes.
All the 5th grade essays were anthologized in a Bay Area Wonders collection you can view here. The book was expertly formatted by LiAnn Yim from the Nueva School's Communications team. All students received a beautifully bound copy of the book; hopefully, families will treasure this celebration of local biodiversity!
This blog contains occasional dispatches from my science classroom and professional learning experiences. Thank you for reading!