Educator Spotlight: Finding Nature in the City

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Patrick Blessinger, this week’s Educator of the Week, finds ways to connect his students with the natural world despite their school’s inner-city location. To help his 6th-graders learn to think like scientists, he took them on a field trip from the Bronx to Randall’s Island Park, where they observed the wetlands’ wildlife and plants, interacted with field educators, and explored the ecosystem’s structure and function.

Patrick Blessinger teaches 6th-grade earth science at Grand Concourse Academy Charter School in the Bronx, NY. Photo by Donner Photographic

You teach in the Bronx, yet you were able to give your students a hands-on nature experience as part of your capstone for the Nat Geo Educator Certification Program. How did they react to visiting Randall’s Island Park? 

I teach at an inner-city school, so my students rarely get an opportunity to interact closely with nature. Visiting Randall’s Park was not only a chance for them to get out of the classroom and enjoy the outdoors, but also, more importantly, a chance for them to engage in authentic hands-on learning. At the park, we traversed several acres of restored wetlands and marshes where I observed them identifying different plants, birds, and fish that are native to the ecosystem such as herons, egrets, ducks, and crabs. They seemed especially intrigued with the fiddler crab!

Marsh in Randall's Island Park
Students visited marshes in Randall’s Island Park. Photo by Patrick Blessinger

Before visiting the park, your students had been exploring geography and ecosystems at macro and micro scales, working their way from a worldwide perspective to a local one. What connections did you hope students would make across these different scales?

I integrated this experience into our earth science curriculum. Prior to the trip, the students constructed a National Geographic world map and watched some National Geographic videos that pertained to the topic. This gave them some base geographic and ecosystem knowledge so they knew what to expect and became curious about wetland ecosystems.

I wanted them to understand how everything is interconnected at both the macro and micro levels. I wanted them to understand that our actions have real impacts on wildlife and ecosystems. I wanted them to see the interconnections across different scales. And finally, I used Randall’s Island Park as an example of how we can be good stewards of the environment by restoring an ecosystem that may have been degraded through pollution, natural disasters, or human activity.

How would you describe your teaching philosophy?

 I believe every student is capable of great things in life. It all starts with education and getting them excited about life and learning. A teacher must take time to know each of their students: their aspirations, interests, backgrounds, and particular learning needs. This is no small task, but finding ways to motivate students is key. Students need to see the value for themselves in education because lifelong learning has now become a necessity.

Students examine microorganisms
Students examined microorganisms in water samples they collected from the marshes. Photo by Patrick Blessinger

What would you suggest to educators in urban areas who want to help their students connect with the natural world?

I would suggest that educators do two things:

1) Bring the natural world into the classroom. Teachers can bring in guest speakers; different forms of wildlife like small fish, amphibians, or insects; or different types of plants, microorganisms, or geological matter for students to examine under the microscope.

2) Make the natural world their extended classroom. Teachers can take students outdoors to let them experience different ecosystems and wildlife in their natural habitats. They can accustom students to making observations and hypotheses, collecting data, and drawing conclusions based on their knowledge of science. Ultimately, you want students to think like scientists and find out what topics most interest them.

Educators: Download full lesson plan here.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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The Educator Spotlight series features inspiring activities and lessons that educators are implementing with their students that connect them to the world in bold and exciting ways.

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