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Hellbender Defenders

Updated: Jan 13, 2023

How do we, as local stewards, help increase public awareness about the threats to our local hellbender population and promote interactions while in the local streams?

This is the driving question behind the work the 5th grade students have been completing this year for their PBL (Project Based Learning). FernLeaf embraces Project Based Learning as a critical component of the students' learning process. Creating a RICH LEARNING ENVIRONMENT for students at FenLeaf is one of the FernLeaf Fundamentals because this type of learning combines critical thinking, student driven lessons, community partners, and problem solving to address real world issues.

Right as we came back to school in the fall of 2022, 5th grade students donned their snorkels and jumped into a tributary of the French Broad River. While in this new underworld students explored the unique environment and met some of the locals: Hog sucker fish, trout, shiners, darters, and even a hellbender graced us with its presence. This snorkling fieldwork hooked the students interest in our local hellbender population.

From there students began to explore our driving question in their different classes: general hellbender species info in science, history of the Endangered Species Act in Social Studies, Hellbender data in math, and how to effectively create conservation art and literature in ELA.

As a part of their learning in ELA class, multiple community partners joined in on our lessons. Weiler Woods for Wildlife demonstrated their expertise as they came to share their own work in wildlife conservation. Weiler Woods for Wildlife is currently working on building a hellbender sculpture that they brought in to share with students. The artistic conservation inspired students to create their own logos to spread hellbender awareness. These logos were displayed at our FrondFest Craft fair where community members voted on their favorite design which is featured on T-Shirts and stickers the students are selling.

Discussions in class lead students to decide to create stories to spread awareness about our hellbenders. In class they have been constructing childrens' stories that feature hellbenders and their ecosystems. As students began the writing process, community partner and conservation author, Frances Figart came in to share her process for writing conservation stories and guide students in their writing.

As students continued exploring and researching about hellbenders, Defenders of Wildlife helped to facilitate a connection with the NC Wildlife Resource Commission in a visit to the Marion State Fish Hatchery. While at the hatchery students got the chance to get their hands wet and assist the hatchery with their winter inventory of their hellbender population. The fieldwork included touring the trout facility, exploring endangered mussel species raised there, participating in a wildlife identification activity lead by Defenders, and measuring the hellbenders.

As the project continues students will be finalizing their books, and sharing their stories with our community. Selected student works will be published using the proceeds from our hellbender t-shirt sales. You can order your very own FernLeaf Hellbender t-shirt and sticker HERE!

We are SO grateful for the work of our talented staff in facilitating such an incredible project with our students. Because Project Based Learning offers invaluable hands-on learning experiences and extends beyond the classroom and into the greater community, students gain confidence, understanding, and perseverance. As a result, students develop deep content knowledge as well as critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and communication skills. Project Based Learning unleashes a contagious, creative energy among students and teachers!

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