The following post was written by 2017 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Rachael Rost, an education specialist at the Topeka Zoo in Topeka, Kansas, after her expedition to the Galápagos Islands. The Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program is a professional development opportunity for pre-K–12 educators made possible by a partnership between Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic Education.
In environmental education, we often use stories to connect our audiences to the animals and messages we are presenting. My recent expedition to the Galápagos Islands taught me that stories can transcend generations and ignite change. Sometimes all it takes is a single word—a word that is so powerful it cuts straight to your heart. In Galápagos, that word is “lonesome.”
I had heard of the story of Lonesome George, the last of the giant Pinta Island tortoises, before this expedition. Yet, when I visited the Charles Darwin Research Center and stood in front of his body, the magnitude of that adjective flooded me. It was fascinating to me that simply adding “lonesome” to his name sparked a connection to people worldwide. The plight of Pinta Island tortoises became known because of one word. It made me wonder if my students could use this strategy in their own work.
When I returned to the zoo I showed my environmental club (made up of 25 middle and high school students) a picture of George and asked if anyone knew his name or story. When no one responded, I told them his name was Lonesome George and a few of the kids recognized the name and were able to figure out his plight. I then posed some questions:
- How did you feel about Lonesome George before you knew his name?
- How do you feel about Lonesome George after knowing his name?
- Is there power in his name?
- Do you connect to his name?
- Is there power in his story?
- Do you think we could use stories to connect people to conservation issues?
After our discussion, I put up another picture. This time it was of a sign from the Darwin Center that had a picture of George and read, “We promise to tell your story and share your conservation message.”
I told the class that our fall project was to use storytelling to share messages just like George’s. The students were to write fictional stories about real-life conservation issues, with a goal of creating stories that are the most impactful in terms of raising awareness of the plight of a species.
I then passed out a worksheet to help students develop their ideas before writing.
The worksheet first asks them to list some endangered species that they care about. Since my students are already in an environmental club, they have a strong grasp of endangered animals. However, if students do not have such knowledge, there are many ways to teach them. If they are old enough, they can research animals on their own. I have included some helpful resources for online research in the extension list below. With younger students, providing a list of endangered animals can be beneficial so they can pick one that is interesting to them. For any age group, a zoo presentation on endangered species may be a fun way to start the assignment.
After my students picked their species, they had to figure out at least one way humans are contributing to their decline. Topics ranged from habitat loss, poaching, pollution, and climate change to invasive species, the illegal pet trade, and even disease. For younger students, I would recommend narrowing this list down to issues like ocean pollution, deforestation, or stealing wild animals to keep as pets.
When talking to any student about these issues, always make sure to provide age-appropriate solutions. It is vital that the students understand the issues but also realize that there is hope for saving many of these species. If students have not learned to write well yet, they could supplement their stories with drawings. For older students, it is important to be honest with them about some of the harsher issues like poaching, large-scale habitat loss, and climate change.
Once my students had their species and issue picked out, we then switched to talking about proper writing methods. We discussed how a good story can be written. First, a normal day is established and the characters are introduced. Next, the conflict, in the form of a conservation issue, must be added to give your story meaning. Finally, that conflict must end with a resolution. I reiterated that while many of the conservation issues are sad, the stories did not have to be. The students could resolve their conflict in any way that they wanted.
After our discussion, I asked students to figure out key elements of their individual stories. On their worksheets, they had to answer the following questions:
- What is the theme of your story?
- What is the setting of your story? Is in the past, present, or future?
- How does the story start?
- What conservation issue is your conflict?
- How do you resolve your conflict?
- Describe your main character (protagonist). Describe your antagonist.
- Describe the structure and style of your story.
- Who is your intended audience?
When the students finished their worksheets, they had to get their idea approved by me before they started writing. I checked their conservation issue as well as their outlines to make sure they had a grasp on the content. I then provided the students with four one-hour meetings to complete their stories.
After their stories were written, the students were engrossed in the idea of storytelling as a way to increase conservation awareness. Two 17-year-old boys pulled me aside to tell me this was the most impactful project we have ever done in our club. My heart was so full in that moment.
Words are powerful and can get people invested in conservation. By writing stories, students can use their voice to speak up for endangered animals around the world. As these voices grow louder, the hope is that there will be no more lonely animals like George, the Pinta Island tortoise.
Research Endangered Animals: The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is the global authority for listing a species. Their site indicates the threatened status of each species (if it has been evaluated). If a species is listed as “Vulnerable,” “Endangered,” or “Critically Endangered,” then that species is in need of conservation help. Another excellent resource for researching endangered animals is the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Their site explains more about why a species is becoming endangered. It is also a great place to start if you have younger students and want to provide a list of endangered animals.
Community Involvement: Make this a writing contest for your classroom, grade level, school, district, or community! You could get local conservation organizations like zoos, aquariums, and nature centers involved. Perhaps they would showcase your stories at a conservation event like Earth Day. Prizes could be awarded to contest winners. You could also have the winners read their stories at a local bookstore or a parent night at your school.
Curriculum Tie-In: This activity could be used in a variety of ways. You could tie it to state standards in English, writing, and science for elementary-aged children. You could have students write stories of human interference and sustainability for middle and high school science standards. You could even encourage conservation-related college classes to use this as an assignment for researching an endangered species.
Publish Results: Encourage students to take their stories to the next level by adding media. They could draw or take their own photos with a camera. Use online publication websites such as Student Treasures to publish these stories. You could make a whole class book out of them. You could even sell these books and donate the money to a conservation organization of your choice!
International Connection: This activity could transcend continents as well! You could use websites like iEARN to connect to teachers from around the globe. You could share your stories with students from other countries. Perhaps some of the animals your students write about actually live in those countries. It could be a great way to take your conservation storytelling to a new level.
The Strategy Share series features innovative teaching ideas developed by Grosvenor Teacher Fellows following their field-based experiences on voyages with Lindblad Expeditions.