For the past 2 years I’ve been working primarily with Puerto Rican students. Within a few months, I learned how different students from one island can be: some were raised on farms while others lived in cities; some lived on the mainland United States for years while others arrived recently; and they had many different levels of background knowledge thanks to wide variations in educational systems. Science, in particular, is difficult because there’s no telling what fields my students’ previous classes focused on before the students go into my school’s biology program.
My job is to adapt and reinforce what the students have to learn to succeed, so I spent a lot of time reading about Puerto Rican history and culture while giving my students speaking and reading assignments to learn more about their interests. But all of my research missed something ubiquitous on the island—namely, the loud yet soothing sound of a tiny frog.
A teacher’s aide told me about Coquís. They’re almost never seen because they are usually smaller than a quarter, but at night it’s impossible not to hear them say “co- qui” over and over. To anyone who grew up on the island, that is the sound of warm nights.
Thanks to coquís, I was quickly able to explain some concepts fundamental to biology, such as:
Ecosystems. Coquís eat small bugs, and larger creatures like snakes and birds consider coquís a snack. These frogs were a perfect addition to my customized graphics on food chains and food webs (when really pressed for time, I just said a predrawn frog was a coquí). That led to assignments about what would happen to the other animals if the coquis disappeared—a depressing thought that segued directly into our next subject.
Conservation. The coquí has been a symbol of Puerto Rico since before Christopher Columbus’s visit, but ongoing development on the island is endangering some species. Bad news is still a connection to real-world news about what kinds of things can destroy a habitat and the need to consider how to preserve wildlife.
Invasive species. Puerto Ricans worry about how to keep their coquís, but Hawaiians want them eradicated. The little frogs stowed away on plant-carrying boats bound for Oahu and are now a loud pest. I explained how new creatures can damage an ecosystem repeatedly, but my students still had a hard time understanding why anyone would want to hurt coquís. When I asked how to control these invaders, their responses were more humane than practical—mostly, they wanted to collect the coquís and send them back to Puerto Rico.
So thanks to these little frogs, I found a common connection for my diverse Puerto Rican students. The end result was that their science teachers later told me they were impressed at how the students seemed to understand that part of the science curriculum. Now, if I can only find a way to make cellular reproduction easier to understand…