Breakfast by the Bay: Save The Bay Educators Tackle Virtual Learning
Mackensie duPont Crowley, communications specialist
As the governors of Rhode Island and Massachusetts issued stay-at-home orders in response to coronavirus, Save The Bay adjusted quickly. Staff began working from home full-time in mid-March, with teams shifting focus to new or different projects based on accessibility to various sites or the capabilities of partner agencies. While our education team has weathered many storms since we launched the “Explore The Bay” program in 1987—from losing federal funding in 2010, to surviving an actual hurricane that surged through our Exploration Center in 2012— the challenge of prolonged school closures raised new questions.
With students learning from home full-time, how would we continue to deliver meaningful Bay experiences? After days of strategizing and planning, the Breakfast By The Bay series was born. Save The Bay educators moved their lessons online, going live on Facebook weekday mornings, and sharing the recorded videos on YouTube for viewers to watch when most convenient.
Our educators hit the ground running, preparing materials and video content that highlighted Narragansett Bay habitats and critters, and identifying recording sites at the Bay Center, Exploration Center & Aquarium, and local field sites around Narragansett Bay. “[I felt] invigorated, energized and hopeful that we would be able to find a way to continue benefiting the environment through education,” said Adam Kovarsky, Save The Bay’s aquarium manager.
Most of all, team members described a sincere confidence in one another’s ability to pull this off. “We are really creative and flexible. I knew our team would be willing to work hard to ensure whatever project we attempted would be great and cutting edge,” said Jeannine Louro, lead educator & afterschool manager.
But “going virtual” was not without its challenges! This was Save The Bay’s first time going live on social media, a platform usually managed by the Marketing & Communications team, rather than the education team, who are far more used to teaching in-person in the field or classroom.
“I was very nervous about being filmed!” shared Letty Hanson, one of our educators and curriculum specialists.
“The first BBTB was the most daunting,” said Jess Bornstein, Save The Bay’s outreach coordinator. “I have never felt that I was great in front of a camera so I was unsure how this experience would feel.”
Some educators, like Jeff Swanlund, were nervous that the excitement that comes from teaching a lesson to an in-person audience would not translate to a virtual teaching experience. “At first I was afraid of trying to teach through a camera. I was very nervous that it would feel unnatural and that I would have trouble without being able to gauge my audience’s reaction and feed off their energy. But I was excited for a new challenge.”
For others, like Chris, what Jeff describes is the biggest challenge of teaching remotely. “What has been difficult for me is not having the energy of the students to feed off of to know how I’m doing, or when I could stand to pause and take a moment to delve deeper into a specific topic. Also, as an educator, it’s difficult to miss out on those moments when you see the look on a student’s face when they touch a squid for the first time, or are able to notice the exact moment that a concept clicks for them.”
The question of an undefined audience also posed new challenges for Save The Bay educators. While educators can often gear a lesson to the specific school grade they are working with, the Facebook Live feature opened that audience wide. We encouraged viewers to share where they were tuning in from in the comments and found that while some students—like those from Dighton Elementary in Dighton, Mass. and Shea High School in Pawtucket, R.I.—were tuning in on a regular basis, various adult learners were tuning in as well.
To create an engaging experience that could somewhat replicate the question-and-answer dialogue of a physical classroom, educators paired up for filming of Breakfast by the Bay. One educator led the lesson, while the other both filmed and fed the teaching educator questions directly from the comment section. Users who were tuning in live on Facebook could share what sparked their curiosity, allowing educators to cater the lesson where the audience was most interested.
Lessons, both taught and learned
Narragansett Bay truly is our oyster, offering endless subject matter for environmental education. Some Breakfast By The Bay lessons took place at the Exploration Center and Aquarium, where educators had easy access to many of the species found in our Bay, from horseshoe crabs and touch tanks resembling a local rocky shore, to Bowser, the beloved resident snapping turtle. Viewers responded enthusiastically to the unveiling of our new Shark and Skate tank, which had been installed in early 2020 and not yet presented to the public. Other lessons were hosted at the Bay Center, where educators replicated classroom activities like squid dissection, a synopsis of trash and recycling, and activities on ocean acidification or buoyancy that viewers could try at home. Some days, Captains Jen and Eric even filmed from the water, presenting a live seal tour at Citing Rock in Newport, the histories of local lighthouses, and a lesson on how to test water quality in Narragansett Bay.
All of our educators come from unique backgrounds, offering knowledge on certain topics that may not always be incorporated in Save The Bay’s traditional curriculum. Letty, for example, was very interested in reptiles and amphibians in college. “I have never been able to apply that knowledge at Save The Bay because we only have one reptile in the entire Bay – shout out to the diamondback terrapin. Breakfast by the Bay gave me the opportunity to jump back into my herpetology days and teach about freshwater turtles.”
Breakfast By The Bay has allowed our educators to delve deeper into some concepts, as well, and expand their curriculum moving forward. “Having the time and platform to discover more about the Exploration Center animals and ways in which they are unconventionally connected has been fun. My favorite topic to research was ‘Space Explorers’. It was a great opportunity for me to dive into the adaptations that make those animals so unique—and I can now incorporate all of that new information into educating future students,” said Jess.
Breakfast by the Bay has also allowed the education team to observe each other teaching in a way that was not possible before remote learning—and this has been a learning experience for them, too. “I LOVE watching my fellow educators teach,” shared Letty. “I always think, Wow, I’ve never taught a lesson that way!”
“It’s been great to learn from my other educators how to better flex my creative muscles as I watch them come up with these great new ideas for our programming,” shared Captain Chris.
In just a few weeks, Breakfast by the Bay received thousands of engagements online. It has been incredible to have so much support in viewership from our local community, and to see the reach of the series across the country. We’ve had viewers check in with us from Georgia, Michigan, Delaware, New York, Florida, North Carolina and as far west as California! Our team is humbled by the level of engagement and curiosity in response to our lessons, and excited to continue our tradition of delivering meaningful learning experiences and sharing what makes our Narragansett Bay so special with the public.
“It is so rewarding to see our team adapting to the change and rising to the challenge to keep Narragansett Bay in students’ lives,” shared Captain Jen. “I’m so proud to be part of this team and organization during this uncertain time. We’ve all risen to the challenge to keep students, children, our followers and members engaged with Explore The Bay and Save The Bay. Breakfast by the Bay has really brought everyone together around Narragansett Bay. I hope this has created an even stronger bond within our Save The Bay community.”