Learning About Oysters in the Library

New York City Public Schools Robin Hood Libraries and the Billion Oyster Project have partnered to get students excited over learning about oysters and their important impact on the environment.

Oysters may not seem like the most exciting class pet. After all, they just sit in the water. But New York City Public Schools librarian Jenna Mei says her elementary school students, some of whom had never heard of an oyster, share a sense of wonder about the mollusks who share their library.

Lauren Ginsberg-DeVilbiss and students
prepare the oyster tanks.
Photo courtesy of Lauren Ginsberg-DeVilbiss

Mei’s library is one of several New York City Public Schools libraries that are collaborating with the Billion Oyster Project —a nonprofit organization trying to restore oyster reefs to New York Harbor though public education initiatives— to help students learn about oysters and their impact on the environment.

Specifically, the Billion Oyster Project is working with a few of the city’s Robin Hood Libraries, the product of a partnership between the Robin Hood Foundation and NYC Public Schools Office of Library Services that funds library renovations at lower-income schools, and provides staff, books, and after-school and weekend hours for the community.

Lauren Ginsberg-DeVilbiss, the library media specialist at the P.S. 28 The Wright Brothers School in Manhattan; and Mei, an elementary school librarian at the Fairmont Neighborhood School in the Bronx, are two of four Robin Hood librarians who visited Governors Island on January 29 to be trained in setting up and maintaining oyster tanks, according to Mei.

The educational excursion involved some heavy lifting, New York City–style. “You pick up all your algae and your tanks and then you have to carry them back on the Governors Island Ferry and then on the subway,” says Ginsberg-DeVilbiss. “It was just a full adventure.”

Before the oysters arrived, the students set up the tanks and learned about the mollusks and research being done on them. Ginsberg-DeVilbiss' students also watched videos of kids from their neighborhoods in the Bronx doing oyster research in the East River and Hudson River.

“You really start thinking, ‘What's the impact of these initiatives?'" Ginsberg-DeVilbiss says. "You want kids to see a world of possibility, and you want kids to envision themselves being able to do all these things that they're seeing.”

Mei showed her students videos about the Billion Oyster Project. Students watched the nonprofit’s staff and students from Urban Assembly New York Harbor School put oysters in various oceanic locations around the five New York City boroughs, including Jamaica Bay, near the Brooklyn coastline, and near Governors Island.

A student in Mei's school measures
an oyster.
Photo courtesy of Jenna Mei.

At the end of February, Ginsberg-DeVilbiss and Mei picked up the oysters for their prepared tanks. Students have been observing and taking care of them since.

More than 100 of Mei’s PreK-to-fifth grade students are doing basic research on oysters and observing them in the tank. Third, fourth, and fifth grade students interested in doing extra research are participating in additional projects that will be displayed at the Billion Oyster Project's Student Symposium on May 31, according to Mei.

The annual event allows students from across New York City to “showcase their research, learning, and project related to their local waterways,” according to the organization’s website.

Elisa Caref, teaching and curriculum specialist for Billion Oyster Project, says there are guest reviewers—adults who are typically professionals in the field—at the event to discuss students’ work with them.

“We train the guest reviewers to talk to students about their inquiry and about the process rather than thinking about the actual project,” Caref says. “So asking questions like, ‘How did you come up with this idea? If you had more time, what would you do with this project later?’”

The cool thing about the symposium is the students are given creative freedom with their projects, says Ginsberg-DeVilbiss, who has about 100 students attending.

“Some people might be writing a play about oysters, some kids might be doing a bilingual book about oysters, and some kids might be making a PSA,” she says. “It’s really like knowledge-based learning. This is such an organic tie-in to all of those things that we're learning about and giving kids something really exciting to learn about.”

The students have also gained a sense of responsibility, says Mei.

“They want to take care of the oysters, and they want the oysters to take care of the water,” she says. “They're very attached to the idea that they could be making a difference.”

Mei believes that sense of responsibility for sustainability will carry on as they grow up, thanks to their experience with the oysters, as well as other school sustainable practices such as compost bins and tower gardens.

Ginsberg-DeVilbiss says she got her own green team up and running this year to make sustainable and wellness literacy part of the library curriculum.

“I just don't want kids to think, 'Oh, the library is all about reading books,’” Ginsberg-DeVilbiss says. “No, the library is about being literate in everything.”

Elaina Fuzi is a sophomore journalism student at Boston University.

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