Talkin’ Oil Spill

By now, all of my sixth graders have read the book Flush by Carl Hiasson and we have talked and worked around environmental themes in the book. Yesterday, we talked about the Gulf of Mexico, oil spills, and the habitats and ecosystems that were being affected. I had deep, insightful questions and concerns from my students, most of whom were aware of the spill but not the extent.

I began the lesson with a listening of an NPR story from back in April, about a week after the spill happened, and I had a sheet of basic questions ready for them to fill out as they listened. What is the name of the company? How much oil is coming out? What was the name of the oil rig? etc. Then, we talked about what has changed since April.Back then, the estimate was around 1,000 gallons a day coming out. Now, of course, the estimate is around 500,000 gallons per day. I shared with them the running Oil Spill Ticker to get a sense of how much oil is now in the gulf (estimated: 22 million gallons).

A quick glance at the popular live stream of the oil piqued their interest, too.
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We then looked at an interactive map from NY Times that shows the area of the oil spill as it progresses over time. Most noticed the outlines of the Gulf Stream, which sparked the discussion of oil moving towards Florida (where Flush is set and where endangered turtles are at the heart of the story) and whether the oil will move up the eastern seaboard towards our neck of the woods (possible).

At another site about wildlife in the Gulf, we gathered information about the pelicans and seabirds, the turtles (again), plankton and other animals in the Gulf ecosystem, and how both the oil and the chemical dispersants might impact the area for decades to come. A slideshow of images, including birds drenched in oil, sparked outrage among my students, who asked all sorts of questions about attempts to contain the oil (I did my best).

Finally, to give them a sense of the scale of the spill, I took them to a website called If It Was My Home that overlays the spill’s geographic contours on a map of where you live. For us, the spill would cover most of Massachusetts, parts of Connecticut, New Hampshire and Maine, and into New York. I could hear some gasps as students began to comprehend the scale of things.

All of this brought us to discuss the need for alternative energy and ways that people can help the disaster relief effort (a handful of kids came up to me afterwards and asked for ideas for summer projects to raise money to send to Gulf Relief. I wish we had more time in the school year to launch something ourselves, but I don’t think we have time).

The message I sent to them: pay attention to current events and be engaged in the world, as the decisions being made today by politicians and companies will impact the world they are moving into as young adults. I hope — I think — they have been getting the message. Sometime, you plant a seed and hope for the best.

Peace (in awareness),


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