A female students is using a small whiteboard to take notes on marine water chemistry. She is holding her notes above her head to share with others.

Sydney shows her notes on marine chemistry

Fresh out of graduate school, I began my career as a public school teacher full of enthusiasm. I wanted to share my passion for learning science with the next generation of students. My dream fell short, though, when I experienced the reality of working in an urban public school.

I found myself teaching 2nd grade in a large elementary school where the majority of students lived in poverty. The stress of living poor had imparted many students with social and emotional challenges that they brought with them to school each day. It seemed that they often felt lost within the inconsistency of their lives, not knowing when their clothes would be washed or which relative’s house they would sleep at each night.

Naïvely, I starting teaching my students with earnest good cheer and artful but scripted lessons that immediately flopped. Kids didn’t care, didn’t learn, failed tests, and acted out. With time, I realized that my students weren’t looking for trouble, but power over themselves. The routine of school had become one of the stabilizing forces in their lives, a safe place with reliable adults. And paradoxically, the place where they felt comfortable enough to vent their negative feelings and advocate with good or bad behavior for control over the world around them.

I tried for over a year to find ways to empower my students and stumbled onto something big when I brought a 5 gallon tank into my classroom for two of my troubled boys to take care of. Two students that affected disdain for friendship, learning, and simple kindness fell in love with a 1-inch tetra because it was theirs.

Two male students organize equipment and tools on a table in preparation for tank construction

Soren and Sherell organize equipment before working on a tank build

They learned the first lesson of aquarium keeping: that aquarists are in total control over the life inside their tanks. Finally, something depended on them, and the responsibility needed to keep the fish alive and happy started to transfer to the care they took with others and, later, themselves.

Two male students are using pipettes and graduated cylinders to measure liquids

Miles and Leon learn the basic measurement skills needed for testing water chemistry

That was the beginning, and now I have built over 1,000 gallons of marine and fresh water aquariums around my school. I have created a multi-year school project that builds aquariums for classrooms and teaches students marine biology and aquarium keeping. Each day, student leaders care for the aquariums in their classrooms and teach the next generation of peers how to do so as well.

A group of students is standing around a coral reef aquarium. Two male students are using an electric wand to kill unwanted anemones

Two students use an apparatus to kill majano anemones while classmates look on

In the blog posts to follow, I hope to share my views on elementary education, the perspectives and experiences of my students, and ways in which parents and other teachers can use aquariums as learning tools for children.

A smiling female student is holding a gorgonian onto a rock as it is being glued in place

Lucy uses epoxy to mount a piece of gorgonian onto a rock

Two female students stand in front of a coral reef tank holding test tubes. One is wearing goggles. The results show that the aquariums have a stable population of nitrifying bacteria and can be stocked with fish.

Savanna and Aislin hold up water test results showin that new tanks have cycled and are ready for fish

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