Billion Oyster Project

The Oyster Industry of Raritan Bay


What are the Living Breakwaters for?



Class Periods




Subject Areas

ELA, Science, Social Studies


Students use maps, photographs, and primary and secondary texts as inspiration for a two-page illustrated fictional memoir about life for oystering families in Raritan Bay, before and shortly after the waters were closed for shellfishing - as they remain to this day. Then students consider what practical lessons we might learn from this story about the three layers of resilience: culture, ecosystems, and risk reduction.


  • Synthesize information from maps, photographs, memoir, and secondary history texts

  • Compose and illustrate a fictionalized historical memoir

  • Analyze competing explanations of why the oyster industry collapsed in Raritan Bay

  • Apply insights about history to resilience challenges we face today

Before you get started

Tips for Teachers

You can teach this lesson as-is.  Or students can write the first page of the fictionalized memoir, then do the lesson Oyster Decline in New York Harbor, and then write the second page of the fictionalized memoir.

Instruction Plan


Students explore the material culture of oystering, and use that information to imagine the daily experience of oystering:

  1. Images are separately posted or taped to tables around the room, from the image set Tools of the Oyster Trade

  2. Students play the Tools of the Oystering Trade Matching Game

    • You can refer to the answer key if you like.

    • Students will encounter these words and phrases later, when they use the Source Library: Raritan Bay Oyster Industry.  

    • The main point is to help students imagine what a day of oystering might feel like, not that they master the specialized vocabulary.  

    • Ideally students will remember that there are specialized vessels and implements for oystering, even if they don’t remember the words for them. (You'll find plenty of other, more useful vocabulary in the readings.)

  3. Project each image from Tools of the Oyster Trade one at a time, so everyone can see the same image at the same time.  

    • The class debriefs each image, sharing their matches and thought process.

    • As they explain their reasoning, ask students repeatedly for evidence:  “What did you notice in that picture that made you think that?”

  4. Students free-write briefly in response to a prompt to imagine a day in the life of a working oysterman.


Students select a specific plot of oyster habitat in Raritan Bay from the year 1917, which will become the location for their fictionalized historical memoirs.

  1. Each student or team has 1917 map of leased oyster beds in Raritan Bay

  2. Debrief to assess student understanding that leased oyster beds are plots of underwater territory, rented by individual oystermen or oystering companies, so they could own and eventually sell the oysters living there.

  3. Students view the digital image  1917 map of leased oyster beds in Raritan Bay alongside their printout, so they can zoom in on the digital image while referring to the context of the printed image.

  4. Ask students: “Compare and contrast the oyster beds in terms of:

    • Size: which beds have the greatest area, and which beds have the least area?

      • If you were working a larger / smaller oyster bed, what difference might that make in your work and your life?

    • Distance from shore and depth of water: which oyster beds are right on the shore, which are in very shallow water, and which are out in deeper water?

      • How might your work be different depending o"n the depth of the water and the distance to the shore?

    • Distance from the neighboring oyster beds:

      • Do you think you would prefer to work right next to your neighbors, or in an oyster bed that is further away from others?  Why?”

  5. Ask students to consider: “Based on this discussion, which oyster bed do you think you would like to have as your oyster bed, if you were oystering in Raritan Bay in 1917?”

    • Each student / team chooses one rectangle (one leased bed), colors it in on their 1917 map, and labels it with the name of their imaginary oystering business.  

    • For the remainder of the activity, this will be their bed.


Students use primary and secondary sources to provide details for their fictionalized historical memoirs.

  1. Students access Source Library: Raritan Bay Oyster Industry and everyone reads Joline 1950 “An Oysterman’s Work”.

  1. Assess student understanding.  

    • Ask: “Tell us about your oyster bed and some of your inferences”  and

    • “Tell us: do you think you need a large powerful boat, a smaller boat, or no boat at all?  Why?” and/or

    • “Tell us: do you think you need oyster rakes, oyster tongs, and/or oyster dredges?  Why?

    • Review passages from Joline that are relevant to students’ responses.

  2. Students do research in the source library -- not reading it from beginning to end, but finding the parts that help them get the information they want -- to take a second pass at Research and inferences about your oyster bed in Raritan Bay and to look for more answers to their questions in Questions about Leased Oyster Beds in Raritan Bay.

    • If your students seemed confused in the previous assessment, it is recommended to start with Questions about Leased Oyster Beds in Raritan Bay.

  3. Assess student understanding.  

    • Ask: “What’s your favorite source so far?  What do you like about it? What information have you used from it?  What do others think of that source?”

    • To promote rigorous discussion, insist that all students turn to the passage in question, that one student read the passage out loud, and ask: “What do you make of that?  Does someone understand the passage differently?”

    • If no one admits to having a different understanding, you can play devil’s advocate by asking: “what if it means XYZ?” or “why couldn’t it mean ABC?”


Using their research and images for reference, each student / team composes a one-page illustrated fictionalized memoir of life as the oysterman who worked their leased oyster bed.

  • Students can use Joline 1950 as a model, or

  • Describe one day of work, or

  • Describe one year of their life, or

  • Use their own format.

After the students have written this first page, it is a good time to teach the lesson Oyster Decline in New York Harbor, if desired.  

  • That lesson provides a city-wide context, includes more components of the oyster industry such as restaurant sales, and illustrates three of the causes of oyster decline in NYC: overharvesting, industrial pollution, and residential and commercial pollution.


  1. Each student or team has 1937 map of leased oyster beds in Raritan Bay

    • Students annotate the map and the caption.

  2. Students compare and contrast the 1917 and 1937 maps of leased oyster beds and capture their observations in the handout What changed between 1917 and 1937?

  3. Students compose the second page of their illustrated fictionalized memoir of life as the former oysterman who used to work their old oyster bed -- now set in 1937 -- including how their life has changed, and why they think their industry has collapsed.


  1. Students analyze the collapse of the Raritan Bay oyster industry from the point of view of resilience of social-ecological systems.
  2. Project the SCAPE graphic describing the three layers of resilience envisioned for the Living Breakwaters (which students are familiar with from the first lesson in this unit).

  3. Facilitate a class discussion using these questions as starting points:

    • In the case of the oyster industry of Raritan Bay, what social, biological, and/or physical conditions became difficult?

    • Why do you think this industry, economy, and way of life were not resilient enough to last beyond the 1920s?
    • What might have been done differently to make the Raritan Bay oyster industry more resilient?

    • Why do you think those things were not done?

    • What about our culture, ecosystems, and physical coast do you think is facing difficult conditions right now?

    • Do you think there are any practical lessons we can apply today, from studying the collapse of Raritan Bay’s oyster industry?


    CCLS - ELA Science & Technical Subjects

      • Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others''' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
      • Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
      • Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings.
      • Integrate information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words to develop a coherent understanding of a topic or issue.
      • Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
      • Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts.
      • Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; provide an accurate summary of the text distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.
      • Determine the meaning of symbols, key terms, and other domain-specific words and phrases as they are used in a specific scientific or technical context relevant to grades 6-8 texts and topics.
      • Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 6-8 topics, texts, and issues, building on others''' ideas and expressing their own clearly.
      • Compare and contrast the information gained from experiments, simulations, video, or multimedia sources with that gained from reading a text on the same topic.
      • Pose and respond to specific questions with elaboration and detail by making comments that contribute to the topic, text, or issue under discussion.
      • Include multimedia components (e.g., graphics, images, music, sound) and visual displays in presentations to clarify information.
      • Include multimedia components and visual displays in presentations to clarify claims and findings and emphasize salient points.
      • Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
      • Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.

    NGSS - Cross-Cutting Concepts

    • Cause and Effect

      • Cause and effect relationships may be used to predict phenomena in natural or designed systems.
      • Phenomena may have more than one cause, and some cause and effect relationships in systems can only be described using probability.
    • Influence of Engineering, Technology, and Science on Society and the Natural World

      • All human activity draws on natural resources and has both short and long-term consequences, positive as well as negative, for the health of people and the natural environment.
    • Stability and Change

      • Stability might be disturbed either by sudden events or gradual changes that accumulate over time.
    • Structure and Function

      • Structures can be designed to serve particular functions.

    NGSS - Disciplinary Core Ideas

    • ESS3.C: Human Impacts on Earth Systems

      • Human activities have significantly altered the biosphere, sometimes damaging or destroying natural habitats and causing the extinction of other species. But changes to Earth’s environments can have different impacts (negative and positive) for different living things.
      • Typically as human populations and per-capita consumption of natural resources increase, so do the negative impacts on Earth unless the activities and technologies involved are engineered otherwise.

    NGSS - Science and Engineering Practices

    • Analyzing and Interpreting Data

      • Analyze and interpret data to determine similarities and differences in findings.
    • Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

      • Integrate qualitative scientific and technical information in written text with that contained in media and visual displays to clarify claims and findings.

    NYC Science Scope & Sequence - Units

    • Grade 8, Unit 4

      • Humans and the Environment: Needs and Tradeoffs

    NYS Science Standards - Key Ideas

    • LE Key Idea 7

      • Human decisions and activities have had a profound impact on the physical and living environment

    NYS Science Standards - Major Understandings

      • Overpopulation by any species impacts the environment due to the increased use of resources. Human activities can bring about environmental degradation through resource acquisition, urban growth, land-use decisions, waste disposal, etc.
      • Since the Industrial Revolution, human activities have resulted in major pollution of air, water, and soil. Pollution has cumulative ecological effects such as acid rain, global warming, or ozone depletion. The survival of living things on our planet depends on the conservation and protection of Earth’s resources.

    NYS Science Standards - MST

      • Students will access, generate, process, and transfer information using appropriate technologies.
      • Students will apply the knowledge and thinking skills of mathematics, science, and technology to address real-life problems and make informed decisions.