The Billion Oyster Project: History and scientific research (1 of 2)

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Over the course of two lessons, students will be able to: 1) describe the causes of the oyster population decline in New York City; 2) explain the importance of oysters to healthy urban ecosystems; and 3) provide critical feedback to peers to improve argumentative writing.

Big Idea

New York was once home to a pristine harbor full of oyster. How might our understanding of the historical decline of oyster help us to understand effective strategies for oyster rehabilitation?

FRAME: Why oysters?

Oysters were a once prominent keystone species in the Hudson-Raritan Estuary.  Understanding the rise and fall (and current rise again) of oysters provides students with a compelling scientific narrative about why environmental science skills can literally refashion the current world.  Particularly interested educators may want to read The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell for a more comprehensive account.  (Two shorter versions are attached to this lesson section.) Teachers on the East Coast of the United States, especially those with access or proximity to the Chesapeake Bay, can easily adapt these lessons for their local environments.  

Additionally, these next two lessons bridge the earlier lessons in this unit with the experiences that will follow.  Students will visit Bay Ridge to participate in the Billion Oyster Project, a citizen science project that connects scientific inquiry with engineering-design thinking. (Bay Ridge is a neighborhood adjacent to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge which connects Brooklyn to Staten Island.  The research site is on the American Veterans Memorial Pier just south of Owl's Head Park.) Understanding oysters will be essential to students' future success.  Middle school teachers in New York may want to participate in this project in the future through a National Science Foundation sponsored formal program.

Finally, as a two lesson sequence, students are working to meet these objectives: 

  1. describe the causes of the oyster population decline in New York City
  2. identify problems that rehabilitated oyster populations might solve
  3. iterate on current design solutions that aim to rehabilitate oyster populations
  4. explain the importance of oysters to healthy urban ecosystems
  5. evaluate environmental stewardship prototypes using an engineering-design thinking mindset.

History in brief

10 minutes


Students watch a preview of the film Shellshocked to engage with a few of the key themes for the next two lessons.  These include the historical decline of oysters, the importance of oyster to New York ecosystems, and potential design solutions to the problem of oyster decline.  To do this, students respond to this focus question: What happened to the oysters in New York?  Responses should include at least five factors that contributed to the disappearance of oysters in the Hudson-Raritan Estuary.

Teacher move

I ask students to predict causes of the decline of oysters in anticipation of the full documentary that we will watch together.  The rise and fall (and recent rise) of oyster populations in New York City is an engrossing story that most students do not know.  As such, the purpose of this opener is both to preview skills and content and  to engage students through an apparent counterfactual--that New York City was once an oyster hotbed of the world.  Wait!  Was it really like that?  

In constructing this lesson, my working hypothesis about how to hook students was that understanding the mystery of what happened to the oyster population would serve as authentic motivation to design solutions to reestablish this keystone species.  

Timeline: The Billion Oyster Project

10 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students become familiar with the history of oysters in the Hudson-Raritan Estuary (HRE) as well as an environmental stewardship solution designed by the Billion Oyster Project.  Students also learn about the expectations for an oyster "deep dive" essay assignment.  (This is the attached "Why do oysters matter?")

What will the teacher do?

My goal for this part of the lesson is to hook students with an historical importance of oysters as well as an example of a current, local initiative to fix the problems caused by oysters' absence.  I do this through direct instruction.  First I briefly introduce the history of the oyster in the HRE using the "Our Story" timeline from the Billion Oyster Project website.  Then I will explain how oysters are a keystone species. I will explicitly define the term keystone species by first relating the term to its architectural origin and then providing examples.  For more background, the attached resources will provide essential information about keystone species.

Additionally, I will review the "Why do oysters matter?" assignment.  This is a hybrid writing assignment, part Common Core aligned argumentative essay and part engineering-design thinking prototype.  Students will work in small design teams to work through Shellshocked, a documentary about oysters in New York City.  For the first part of this assignment, students will examine the historical causes of the decline of oysters.  For the second part, design teams will develop original solutions to the oyster problem or iterate on the Billion Oyster Project prototype. 

Shellshocked part 1

20 minutes

What is the purpose of this activity?

This section provides students with a content frame.  What are oysters?  Why are oysters important?  How have oysters played a key role in New York's history?  NOTE:  Shellshocked runs from :58-39-55.  It is an approximately 40 minute film, but the linked version contains interviews with the filmmaker as well as an additional short documentary.

Here is a link to the film.

What will students do?

Students will critically and collaboratively engage with the first part of Shellshocked.  The focus is the history of oysters in New York.  Design teams are arranged at viewing stations (sample attached).  Students make meaning of content through note-taking and ad-hoc discussion.  Student teams may be arranged in advance or created on the spot.  Team composition should enable all members of each team to be successful, and a teacher needs to have a strategy for team creation that fits the unique needs of individual classes.  How well do students work together?  How important is skills diversity for this activity?  Should each team have pre-defined roles or can teams negotiate working conditions? 

Students are told that they should be able to make it through at least ten minutes of this film.  This is an arbitrary number; really, as long as students have enough information to develop a claim in the next session, then they will have interacted with enough of the film.

What are some high-leverage teacher moves?

The key for a successful experience here is to respond to both verbal and non-verbal distress signals.  Because students are making meaning in a self-guided manner, the teacher must actively circulate and be on the lookout for signs of disengagement and confusion.  These might be furrowed brows, slumped postures, or off-topic conversations.  As an intervention, I generally ask a series of questions to determine what students understand and then provide quick explanations to make students feel safer with the content.  

I will also hold a brief whole class discussion before transitioning into the next activity in order to a have a normed, pubic summary of Shellshocked content.  This allows me to gather formative assessment data that identifies students' strengths and struggles.  If a number of students are having trouble with similar aspects of the historical narrative of the film, then I will develop a mini-lesson, hold a discussion, or provide additional readings, films, or audio programs to meet student needs.


Writing workshop: Flash publication + feedback

10 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students have an opportunity to develop a draft argument and receive peer feedback.

What will students do?

In design teams, students develop "flash" written responses to the first part of the guiding question: how has the historical decline of oysters impacted New York Harbor? Each student will then share writing with an "editor"; an editor is simply a member of the student's design team.  The editor uses the writing rubric to provide feedback on ONE CATEGORY.  Most students use "position," "language," or "content."  Categories are single rows in the rubric.

Ten minutes is not a lot of time for this activity, but students will have begun this work during the previous activity.  Flash responses consist of three to five sentences and should have a claim and evidence.  Most students are able to simply build out an argument that they started to write during the viewing activity.  

Additionally, students are trusted to select an editor for their work from the design team.  Because the team will create the second part of each students final essay, it is important that members of the team become familiar with the thoughts of all members.  If students have difficulty identifying an editor, the teacher can step in and match students.

What will the teacher do?

I will primarily circulate to gather two types of data: 1) students ability to develop an argumentative claim while citing appropriate evidence and 2) students' ability to provide appropriate feedback to a peer.  If students consistently provide feedback at the incorrect level--for instance, telling a student that the development is at a "level 4" when it is really closer to a "level 1," I know that I will need to carve out time to conduct a lesson just for peer feedback.  As such, my purpose here is essentially to conduct a need assessment.  Which writing skills do my students successfully transfer from ELA?  Which rubric categories are difficult for students to understand?  What are the major misconceptions that students have from the resource used to create an argument?  Answers to each of these questions will dictate the level of support to be given to student subgroups during the next lesson.

Debrief and next steps

5 minutes

As an "exit ticket," a member from each team will share out an argument developed by a student on the team as well as feedback provided.  Once each team has shared, the whole class will engage in a brief discussion about next steps.  Now that we have heard sample arguments with peer feedback, what are our specific next steps for improving our proficiency?  Students will write down one "next step intention" and revise their in-class writing accordingly before the next class meeting.