COMMENTARY: Tapping into students' passion for the environment

Karen Popken

One million species – that’s how many fish, birds and animals are in danger of extinction, according to a recent report issued by the United Nations.

The scale of the problem and the potential impact on human life makes it easy to feel powerless to stop the destruction. But as a teacher, I want to share the same message that I give my students: It’s not too late to make a difference.

In my role as a first- through- third-grade teacher at River Valley Charter School, a charter public school committed to providing a rigorous academic program rooted in the culture, history and ecology of the Merrimack River Valley, I have found ways for students as young as 6 years old to help preserve local endangered and threatened species.

The enthusiasm and engagement of these young people are an inspiration for all of us to find a way to get involved.

I have been teaching my students how to steward the environment since 2004 through efforts to protect at-risk species such as Atlantic salmon and brook trout.

Last year, we began raising Blanding’s turtles, a local native species already threatened in Massachusetts.

Blanding’s turtles have a “double whammy” when it comes to their survival. First, it takes between 14 to 20 years before the female Blanding’s turtles can lay eggs, which makes longevity critical.

Second, the Blanding’s turtles travel far in search of new nesting and mating spots and, due to habitat loss, their journey often takes them onto roadways where they can easily be hit by cars.

That’s why it’s so exciting for the children to nurture baby Blanding’s turtles in the classroom, a controlled environment that allows the turtles to make about five years of growth in a single year.

Every week, the children measure the length of the turtles’ carapace and plastron the “shell” on the top and bottom to track their growth and chart how well they are developing.

Last year, the children were thrilled to watch the turtles grow from a mere 12 grams at the start of the school year to over 100 grams by the time they were released in May.

The results this year so far are just as strong. One child remarked, “I love taking them out of the tank to feed and measure them because they crawl and creep in your hands. It feels tickly.”

As a charter public school, River Valley has given me the freedom and flexibility to pursue these environmental projects with my students while integrating Massachusetts state standards in every subject area required.

Recently, the children participated in an interdisciplinary project with the Blanding’s turtles that included science, art, writing and literature. They began by visiting the habitat of the turtles to observe the creatures in the wild and document their scientific properties.

The students then created their own books about the turtles using watercolor paintings to illustrate what they saw in nature, along with original prose and poetry.

As a result of their hands-on exploration of local waterways, including the Ipswich and Merrimack rivers, the children are now taking active steps to be better stewards of a healthy watershed by disposing of their trash responsibly and encouraging their parents to minimize lawn pesticide use.

As summer draws nearer, the children are getting ready to release their Blanding’s turtles into a vernal pool and mark them for tracking with support from the Parker River Clean Water Association.

Recently, volunteers from this organization found that last year’s turtles had survived and were thriving in the wild. The children were elated to hear about this success and to see concrete evidence that their actions could have a significant impact on the local environment.

This spring on Endangered Species Day, River Valley Charter School students presented their Blanding’s turtle project at the Parker River Wildlife Refuge in Newburyport for the second year in a row. As powerful advocates for the environment, the children are preventing these threatened turtles from becoming being truly endangered.

River Valley Charter School’s student-centered approach to teaching has allowed me to tap into my passion for the environment as a hook to get the children excited about studying science, math and more.

And through these efforts, I’ve helped my students see that there is a way for all of us, no matter how small, to take action to protect the natural world. As the U.N. report showed, if we don’t act now, tomorrow may be too late.

Karen Popken is an elementary school lead teacher at River Valley Charter School in Newburyport. She can be reached at