In the summer of 2015, Conte West Hills School first grade teacher Diane Huot attended Seedlings for the first time. On the first day of every SEC summer workshop week, participants learn to see New Haven with fresh eyes through a tour of the city. One of the stops is to Grannis Island, the summer home of the Quinnipiac people, who used the salt marsh as a home base for oystering. Diane was inspired. Here was a rich resource just down the street from her school that was previously unknown to her. She could imagine building her whole curriculum around it, as SEC science facilitator Karen Zwick has done with her 4th and 5th grade class at Cold Spring School – and she did. Over the course of the year, Diane attended the follow-up science workshops led by Leslie Long and Karen, which supported her own learning and curriculum design. She consistently took her class into the salt marsh for field work, at times accompanied by a park ranger. Her class gathered and analyzed data and ultimately went on to win the New Haven Science Fair. When Diane returned to Seedlings for a second year the next summer, she shared that Seedlings had reinvigorated her teaching and inspired many participants with photos and stories of the Grannis Island project.


This year Diane again took her class to the Quinnipiac Meadows Salt Marsh, which includes Grannis Island on its east side. The west side has been developed into a park called the Quinnipiac River Park. Diane’s students investigated how humans have changed the land by comparing the organisms in the salt marsh on the east side to those on the west side. Over the course of five expeditions into the salt marsh, students gathered data about the number and variety of organisms found in 50cm square quadrants. To their surprise, they did actually find a greater number of organisms in the park side, but the organisms found on Grannis Island are native to the area and play integral roles in the food chain of the marsh. Again, the students will be presenting their data at the city science fair. In conjunction with the study, Diane’s students observed fresh water snails and guppies in their classroom.

In addition to using the local environment as the starting point for learning in her classroom, Diane also puts place-based learning into action by inviting community members to serve as resources and partners. Ivette Lopez is the Urban Wildlife Refuge Coordinator for the New Haven Urban Refuge Partnership, an initiative of the Fish and Wildlife Service, and she has played an integral role in the course of the project. She accompanied the class in their expeditions into the salt marsh and arranged for both a biologist and a ranger to join them on several occasions in the field and to debrief in the classroom.

When I visited Diane’s classroom in late March, Ivette was visiting to teach the students about the importance of watersheds in preparation for an upcoming field trip focused on habitats at the Peabody.


It was inspiring to see the ways in which these two educators had worked together to carefully sequence and craft their lessons such that the learning had real relevance in the students’ lives. The children had developed intimate knowledge of the food chain in the salt marsh and how animals depend on their environment through their fieldwork. Ivette and Diane asked the students to draw upon this knowledge to help them make the cognitive leap from concrete, first-hand understanding of their local environment, to the broader and more abstract concept of the importance of habitats in general.

Watch the students enthusiastically tapping into their background knowledge here:

…then, making that leap from familiar (salt marsh) to unfamiliar (watersheds/habitats) by engaging in an activity in which they constructed their own model of a watershed, using sponges to represent the role of the salt marsh in the watershed:

The spiraling of the curriculum will continue through the remainder of the school year, as will the partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In the week following the watershed presentation, Ivette again joined the class, this time on a trip to Southern Connecticut State University to visit the school’s Werth Center for Coastal and Marine Studies. The Center houses a touch tank that includes animals native to southern Connecticut’s watershed. During her visit to Diane’s classroom, Ivette showed the students images of the animals they would get to see and feel at the Werth Center, and told them about the Owl for a Day program in which they would get to participate. As part of this program, Diane’s students had the chance to eat in the dining hall and meet with Southern students, athletes, and professors to learn about the college experience.

The week after the Southern trip, Ivette joined the class on a field trip to the Peabody museum to learn more about habitats through the diorama exhibits.

Down the road, the class will have an opportunity to visit the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge in Westbrook, for which Ivette was able to get bus funding. Eventually, the habitat study will spiral into a related unit on Houses and Homes inspired by Diane’s focus group topic (Building) from SEC 2015.

There are endless lessons to take away from a glimpse into Diane Huot’s classroom. The curriculum is thoughtful and meaningful, the learning is rich; yet, what distinguishes Diane’s 1st grade classroom is the intangible: The opportunities Diane is creating for children to develop a sense of connection with their community and their environment, along with their own place in the world. These students have experienced the wonder of the natural world hidden within their urban environment. They have scooped up fiddler crabs from the marsh and felt them dance across their hands. They have seen and documented how humans impact the environment through development. They have waded through marshlands and dug in parks with a biologist, a park ranger, and a representative of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They have shared food in a dining hall with college students and athletes. They have engaged in active citizenship and established that community members can be resources for good living. I can only imagine the possibilities they envision for their future and their impact on the world. Diane has set the stage for them to become active contributors to society, and our communities and environment will be the better for it.

Interested in having your school develop a partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service? Contact to be put in touch with Ivette Lopez, and visit to learn about how schools are partnering with the USFWS Urban Wildlife Refuge Initiative through the Urban Oases program.

* Photo credit to Diane Huot and Domingo Medina for field work and trip photographs.