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, 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 was through Bay Area Wonders, a project 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 organisms'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.
All the 5th grade essays were anthologized in a Bay Area Wonders collection. Below, please enjoy a gallery of scientific illustrations and essay quotes. It's just a small sampling of the amazing student work showcasing our local biodiversity!
This project was a meaningful culminating experience for our ecology unit and a successful integration of science and writing. Fellow educators interested in incorporating this project into your curriculum, you can find the Bay Area Wonders project overview (including essay planning documents and rubric) on the Shares tab above. The project was designed for the Bay Area but can be customized for any location to support place-based learning. Please reach out if you have any questions about the project or how you might implement it. In the meantime, though, if you have not checked out Nezhukumatathil's World of Wonders, I highly recommend you read it to marvel at the species with which we share our world and the kind of transformative connections we can make with them.
This blog contains occasional dispatches from my science classroom and professional learning experiences. Thank you for reading!