High School student reading with elementary student

Exhibiting Student Writing

Heron standing in water

Comments (0) Views: 659 Summer 2019 Literacy Retrospective, Writing

Logs from San Diego Bay


These words are written in memory of Jay Vavra, my former teaching partner, who passed away in the fall of 2014. From the start, Jay expressed an interest in the relevance of my subject, the humanities, for his subject, biology. His eagerness to find connections resulted, not only in a prodigious amount of student work, but also in a journey for me of great personal and professional growth.

It all came about innocently enough. Mindful of High Tech High’s commitment to integrated curriculum, Jay and I focused on a nearby body of water known as the Boat Channel. The Boat Channel was easily accessible, held possibilities for both of us, and seemed a good place to get the kids outdoors. Jay’s transect studies of life forms along the Channel’s banks went smoothly. However, on the humanities side, deciding just what role humans did have in nature and whether that role is “natural” proved provocative. Over the next ten years, many more of biology’s provocative questions would arrive in my classroom.

By the end of our first year together, our students produced a field guide, The Two Sides of the Boat Channel. This first book contained student descriptions of the Boat Channel’s wildlife, results of transect studies, nature reflections, and poems. We used the book to apply for grants, which allowed us to extend our study to the San Diego Bay itself. Our interdisciplinary project would turn out to have a life of its own, resulting in a series of field guides over the years: Perspectives of the San Diego Bay; San Diego Bay: A Story of Exploitation and Restoration; San Diego Bay: A Call for Conservation; Biomimicry: Respecting Nature through Design; and Invasive Species: The Unknown War.

Nature Deficit Syndrome

For the second field guide, Perspectives, we travelled by bus to the Bay’s corners and coves. As the kids got off the bus, we noticed that some were in a state of bewilderment. Many stayed on the sidewalks away from water; they didn’t feel home in all the sunlight and air. They didn’t want to get their feet wet.

In talking with Jay about these students, I found out their reticence has a name: nature deficit syndrome. The syndrome occurs when we live shut off in rooms, breathing conditioned air, in front of screens and sleeping to the on/off switch of artificial light. By doing so, without even knowing it, our view of the outdoors shifts. We no longer feel we are a part of nature. Instead, we come to think we are separate from it and have dominion over it. Jay and his fellow biologists warn us this isn’t true.

Nature deficit syndrome makes us oblivious to the actual state of the environment. And, insidiously, it makes us oblivious to its very existence. Teachers working alone in their separate disciplines are not likely to hear from the biologist in the building. Nature deficit syndrome is rarely heard of or talked about in education. For all the changes taking place in our environment, our indoor life keeps us dangerously blind.

For Jay and me this meant getting our students outside. It meant more field trips, not only to the urban parts of the Bay, but further south to the Chula Vista Nature Center where we could still see the Bay’s surroundings untouched. We did more experiments in the field. At docks assigned to Jay by the Port Authority we dropped thick ropes into the water, later to pull up clusters of life, cataloguing the biodiversity. We compared biodiversity across the Bay. We accompanied Fish and Wildlife experts, watching as thousands of native white sea bass were released back into the Bay. The students completed illuminated journals, sketching, describing and looking at the role humanity played in the landscape. We wrote poems about our observations.

A student writes a poem beside the San Diego Bay

A student writes a poem beside the San Diego Bay


Closer to school, Jay took early morning dives to collect sea urchins for the lab. He kept two locally found octopi in the class’s aquarium; we named them and celebrated their birthdays. We had beginning and end-of-year team celebrations at South Mission Beach, swimming, eating and playing outdoors. We went to a plant nursery and bought native plants. We loaded them on to the bus and filled the bus interior with their mysterious fragrance. Once back, we planted a garden around the school.

Shifting Baselines

Our next field guide, A Story of Exploitation and Restoration, brought other lessons. Jay, who was fond of the annual festival at Cabrillo National Monument, attending with our students and setting up a booth there, invited me to see the reenactment of Juan Cabrillo’s arrival at the tip of Point Loma in 1542. Cabrillo was the first European to visit the San Diego Bay, and his landing is celebrated to this day. Given our topic, I had to go.

As I watched the actors’ reenactment, debarking from their boat and stepping ashore, dressed in costumes, pantaloons for sailors, a black robe for the priest, and Spanish conquistador armor for Cabrillo, I wondered what the Bay would have looked like for them. From field trips, classroom maps, drawings, depictions and descriptions of the Bay over time, we found a different story. Things were not the same now as in Cabrillo’s time. The very geography of the Bay had changed.

Since Cabrillo, the Bay has been dredged, cleared of eelgrass, and deep shipping lanes carved. Using the dredged materials, islands, causeways, and flatlands were built over mudflats and marshlands. The course of the San Diego River, which used to meander around the Presidio and sometimes toward Point Loma’s tip, was blocked. High Tech High’s nearby Boat Channel is all that remains of the former river’s route.

The students and I came to realize that our school is located on top of land that once was along the banks of that river. When we expressed our surprise, Jay told us about shifting baselines, an idea from biology that points out the environment before us hasn’t always been that way. Shifting baselines usually go unnoticed, the shifts happening slowly over great courses of time. Biologists are interested when a baseline shifts quickly; they look for the reason behind such shifts. San Diego Bay’s rapid shift in baseline would come to interest us.

Some of the remaining San Diego marshland

Some of the remaining San Diego marshland


Development or Exploitation

What could account for such a completely different Bay in such a brief time? This question brought humanities fully into the picture, as we looked to history to find an answer. We discovered that as hunter-gatherers, humans foraged across the globe for millions of years. Then, occurring relatively recently, some 12,000 years ago, we began to stay in one place. We were able to do this by digging up the soil and planting food. Known as the Agricultural Revolution, it would be the first in an accelerating series of significant technology-induced social revolutions.

We found the rise of agriculture encouraged the growth of patrilineal societies, specialized our labor, and required organized aggression. To this day, our militaries protect the crops, the village, and the homeland. When Cabrillo landed on Point Loma, a hunter-gatherer people found themselves under a series of invasions by societies with militaries and more technology. The outcome was predetermined; San Diego’s native people, the Kumeyaay, were placed on reservations.

With the Kumeyaay displaced and the rule of Spain and Mexico replaced by the Americans, the San Diego Bay began its rapid shift. We already knew that it took more than shovels and wheel barrows to reshape our Bay. Old photos revealed dredgers, barges, and unloaders at work. History told us that machines made it happen. The world’s next great change in technology, the Industrial Revolution, would not only transform the Bay, but everything from the way we grow our food, make our clothes and build our houses.

From history, students saw both the agricultural and industrial revolutions’ significant impacts upon the environment. We found that our tools allowed us to do what we wanted without restraint. From marketing brochures, textbooks, and historical recounts, we witnessed the emergence of a language to cast our actions in a positive light. We “developed” the land, took advantage of “resources,” engaged in “progress,” and completed “projects.” Our class discussions concluded that more mindful calls for caution, care, and conservation came off as uninformed and unprogressive.

Sustainability and the Blue Marble

In the next field guide, A Call for Conservation, we asked why the terminology of development was all so positive, but its consequences not necessarily so. We asked why some interests can start out “developing resources,” only to have others point out they are actually “exploiting nature.”

This question brought us face-to-face with conflicting perspectives on the environment. It also brought us face-to-face with a great deal of information on the subject. New technologies were changing the speed and ease of communication and information processing. Data could be gathered, crunched, and made available from a laptop in the field. The environment, itself, was under discussion; the hive was humming and we had become a part of it. Welcome to the next technological revolution, the one going on right now, the Information Age.

For Jay, this meant students used GPS to track pollution, collected biodiversity data and distilled it in statistics programs, conducted zip code-dependent mosquito experiments, and recorded interviews with scholars and leaders in environment studies and the conservation movement. We produced and published our student findings within a year, shortening the publication delay in our last field guide, Invasive Species: The Unknown War, through direct electronic publication.

In humanities, we found the Information Age settled the argument about our net effect upon the environment. We are not developing, we are exploiting. There is some positive news: While climate change is real and produced by man, with enough global awareness and subsequent action, we can slow and reverse course over time. Scientists, long participants in the Information Age, have been sounding the alarm for years.

In 1972, Apollo 17 sent a photograph from outer space known as the Blue Marble. It shows a beautiful and fragile globe hanging in vast space. We realize from looking at this Blue Marble, that this is it. Except for sunlight pouring in, our lives are sustained within a closed and fragile system.

In producing Biomimicry, we wrote about how evolution works in this closed system through a process that inspires and sustains life. As a product of evolution, humans are bound by its rules. We cannot expect our actions to go unnoticed. When a species does ignore them, as Jay put it, nature does notice. When an invasive species takes over an entire ecosystem, killing off the other life, the biologists call it “boom and bust.”

In completing the field guide Invasive Species students wrote about “boom and bust” and concluded that human tool use had extinguished a significant amount of life—that tool use enabled our own invasiveness. So, we decided to ask some questions regarding our survival in terms of tools. How could we better use our tools? What are nature’s design principles for operating in a closed system?

Students found something of survival guide by looking at how evolution goes about sustaining life on Earth. We found the tenets of sustainability: all energy is solar, all waste is food, and all life is diverse. The tenets of sustainability tell us exactly how life has always operated on this planet, and how it will continue to, with or without us.


When we fail to respect nature through our designs or actions, we run right into what is known as the tragedy of the commons. We cannot as individuals, corporation, or nations exploit or pollute what is held in common, namely the land, the oceans, or the air and still be sustainable. A cost benefit analysis in terms of each sustainability tenet is essential for every step we take. There is no such thing as excluding what business terms an “externality” in the final equation.

The Problem with Subject Matter Specificity

Subject matter specificity, in schools and in the professions, lets us off the hook when it comes to the environment. This problem can be found even in project-driven schools when students aren’t asked to consider the connections, the cost or consequence, or the impact of their project on the environment. Later in life the myopia will continue, when specialists in the sciences and technology go ahead unreflectively with industrial projects masquerading as progress. Trained to be experts in only one field, responsible for only a limited perspective, specialists feel little to no professional compulsion to look for connections or to consider the consequences of their projects.

In working with Jay, I found out that addressing climate change requires contributions not only from those who study nature, but also from those who study humanity. After all, WE are the species causing it. In humanities, with climate change a settled fact, our Socratic Seminars focused more and more upon the nature of humanity itself. We asked an essential question about climate change: “How can we, as a species, while knowing this is happening, leave it largely unaddressed?” If we had not done so, I could not have looked Jay in the eye. Had humanities students not engaged in relevant social study, neither Jay nor I would have found their work authentic. And, by taking up social analysis, students found that our history, our literature, and the best in our culture can tell us a great deal about life, about living simply, and about sustainability.

So, while my work with Jay began through an interdisciplinary expectation, it led to an interdisciplinary responsibility. Over the years, we came together to negotiate the year’s topic, the field guide table of contents and chapter content. With our students we looked for connections, sought relevance and asked questions no matter where they led. In the field guide’s uncharted territory, our students found a place to raise their own questions and express their own ideas. We learned a lot from them. What started as a simple look at the local Boat Channel turned into a study of the Bay’s ecological history, which then became a consideration of the environment itself. In some sense, there was nothing planned about it.

Jay was fond of referring to our partnership as akin to that of the scientist, Ed Ricketts, and the novelist, John Steinbeck, who worked together on The Log from the Sea of Cortez. The comparison to Steinbeck would give any humanities teacher pause, but Jay felt it held truth, perhaps enjoying the reference all the more for the reservation it raised in me. Jay did have a point about the importance of interdisciplinary work, though. None of these ideas and none of the student work and awareness found in our field guides could have happened without our academic partnership, or without our personal relationship. I have him to thank for this.

Biology teacher Jay Vavra and Humanities teacher Tom Fehrenbacher standing together on a trail

Jay Vavra and Tom Fehrenbacher


Tags: , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *