I teach animal adaptation and habitat loss to fourth graders at Freemansburg Elementary School in Bethlehem. In the past, I have used the polar bear as a dramatic example. My students have written letters to every President of the United States since George W. Bush to advocate for climate action on behalf of the polar bears. And every president (except one) has written back. But the students are usually baffled by the lack of real action or practical solutions offered by the presidents. Most fourth graders are creative and practical when it comes to problem solving. They see a problem, and they immediately come up with ten possible solutions. They see no reason for delay, or lack of action.
This year I decided to go local when teaching animal adaptation and habitat loss. Instead of polar bears, we studied a small enigmatic bird that has adapted to the urban environment here in the Lehigh Valley where my students live. The chimney swift originally roosted in large hollow trees in old growth forests. Deforestation forced the swifts to adapt to chimneys for nesting and roosting. Now chimneys, too, are disappearing. Modern building design and construction has eliminated the need for traditional chimneys, residents of older homes are capping or lining their chimneys, and industrial buildings, along with their large chimneys, are being torn down. As a result, the swifts have suffered a 72% population decline since the mid 1960’s. After learning about the plight of the Chimney Swifts, my students got fired up and decided to write letters to their local government to advocate for the birds.
They felt a sense of empowerment when their first request was granted: The Bethlehem City Council named the Chimney Swift the official bird of Bethlehem. The students are now actively speaking out for protection and restoration of urban habitat. My students are not alone. Citizens of Bethlehem, Allentown, and Easton are making a difference by building chimney swift towers on public and private land throughout the Lehigh Valley. When I first discovered the chimney swifts above the rooftops in South Bethlehem, I happened to also find a poem by Anne Stevenson that echoed my sense of awe and joy. This year, I asked my students to read Stevenson’s poem and then write their own poems expressing their feelings and relationship to these birds.
Jennie teaches fourth grade at Freemansburg Elementary School in the Bethlehem Area School District and studies Educational Leadership with the Lehigh University doctoral program.