Learning WITH Your Students

We were very fortunate with our new school building to have a garden bed built for every grade. Integrating gardening into the curriculum would be one strand through which children would learn about sustainability. There was one small problem though: I didn’t know very much about gardening. So, when the year began, I promised my students that I would write a reflection on my blog for every journal entry they wrote. Seattle’s winter has been pretty miserable, so it’s been a while since we observed or wrote anything.

We learned about growing plants and food in many ways. We read non-fiction and fiction (I have a new appreciation for The Secret Garden), did some actual gardening, planted trees in a local park for our all-school service day, and most importantly learned from others. (One of our teachers is a master gardener, and we are lucky enough that she is also a school neighbor allowing us, not only the opportunity to learn from someone passionate about gardening, but also having  classes visit her own personal garden many times a year.) Just last week, we were in her garden measuring the perimeter of various beds with non-standard units of the children’s own feet. This led to a great discussion about standard and non-standard units for measurement.

We learned about the worm bins and compost bins (our fifth graders collect the compost from the classes once a week and add them to the bins). We also learned how to fertilize the soil using cover crops such as vetch and clover. Then, just before spring break, the two second grade classes planted some flowers, radishes, and a host of lettuce greens. This week, we took some time to observe our garden bed, think about all the garden related activities we did, and then write a journal entry. Next week, we should be ready to taste a few things.

I keep telling my students that learning never ends. I always learn from them as they have so much to teach, but to also have the opportunity to learn with them, is pretty special.


Looking at Biomimicry and Nature to Become More Sustainable

Anyone looking at today’s headlines may think the world is going to hell in a hand basket. Yet, one of the main reasons I teach is the optimism kids have about their future, the potential kids see in creating a more just world, and the endless possibilities of things they believe they can accomplish.

Over the past few years, our school has run an annual coin drive to benefit a particular global organization. This year, our fifth graders chose World Concern as the organization, but more specifically, that the money collected would go to purchase solar cookers for families in Chad. With the recent population boom in eastern Chad mostly coming from war-torn Sudan, many children are sent miles, through often dangerous terrain, to fetch wood so their families can cook their meals. Aside from protecting children, it also protects the deforestation that has happened in that region. For an area that is often hot and receives a lot of sun, these inexpensive and innovative cookers make a lot of sense.

How innovative can we be with our own sustainable practices? I watched the TED talk below last week and was awed by what people are thinking about and coming up with. Not only that, I also realize how much I have to learn in order to actually teach it. I don’t want the idea sustainable practices to feel like lip service in order to gain whatever points one needs to have a building LEED certified or some other sustainable stamp of approval. I simply want the process to be genuine. One of my frustrations this year has been trying to learn about sustainability because the topic is so complex, full of paradoxes, and for me, something new. I don’t know what starting small means. I’m also not sure how to bring it down to a level that makes sense for second graders (besides reusing, recycling, and composting materials). Our school’s symbol is the sun. Having children understand that it gives us energy that we can harness and store, and that it’s a renewable source is something I can work with and so can my students. Unfortunately, in Seattle, with hydro power being inexpensive, and sunlight being scarce in the winter, I’m curious how long it takes for a solar panel to pay for itself, if at all.

Anyway, take a listen to this amazing talk and you’ll see what I mean by how complex sustainability can be. My favorite line from the video, “You could look at nature as being like a catalogue of products, and all of those have benefitted from a 3.8 billion-year research and development period.” Let’s inspire our kids to develop the tools needed to think this way and “set their souls ablaze” with optimism and hope.


One of my goals this year is learn more about gardening. My kids have a garden journal and I’ve decided to blog every time they make an entry. Descpite 14 degree weather, the green fertilizer we planted continues to grow. I learned that because it snowed first, the snow acted as an insulator and therefore there was no frost.

In the classroom, we decided to force bulbs. After following a sequence of instructions, I asked the kids, “Where’s the math?” and here are some of the responses I got:

“You had to measure out 1/2 a cup of water and 1/2 a cup of sand, so there was measurement and fractions.”

“You can measure the height as it grows and graph it. I’d use cm because that’s what scientists use, but I suppose you could use inches too.”

“We can estimate how many days until the first bloom.”

“We can find the difference in height between two different groups.”

The list continued.

This might not be math the way text books teach it (which tend to be linearly), but it certainly makes math meaningful to children because it’s tangible and kids can relate to it.

I haven’t told the kids yet, but there’s a literature tie-in too. Later in the year, we do a unit on Greek myths and they will be able to relate to the story of Echo and Narcissus.

One Way to Differentiate and Spiral Several Math Concepts

It’s rare Seattle reaches 65 degrees in November, and on this beautiful fall day, the children went and harvested beans from a nearby garden. They worked in teams of 4 and 5, had different jobs and had to agree upon them before we left.

When they returned they did some estimating (how many beans in the pod), and began to measure the length of each bean. And some groups began to graph the length of their beans. Reviewing how to use a ruler, asking what is the difference between cm and inches and how do you know, creating a graph, as well as what a key tells us on a graph were some of the objectives laid out for them.

Tomorrow, they will continue by finishing their graphs and begin to weigh the beans they harvested. Again, they will get an opportunity to graph these beans by their weight. They will also use their graphs to generate word problems. Some will need templates, other children will be able to come up with very sophisticated problems that I probably would have never thought of myself. That’s the fun thing about open ended math activities.

Furthermore, we will tie it in with the story of the bean farmer and how the Pike Place Market started in 1907. We will also take the pods and compost them in our school garden’s compost that we started this year. If time permits, a story about Jack and Beanstalk should be included too, as the 2nd graders work on fractured fairy tales later in the year. Fairy tales are hard to fracture if you’ve never heard the original.

Next week the beans will be cooked and the children will follow a recipe (a little more measurement here too) to make bean dip, learn a little bit about nutrition, trying something delicious, and have a fun time doing it.

These are the kinds of lessons that are so important in elementary school so that math, language arts, social studies, science, etc. is not taught in a vacuum. Yes, they will need foundational skills to measure length and weight, and some may need more direct instruction for some at remembering how to create a bar graph. Whatever the skill, it’s important to assess how the kids are doing by getting right in there and using that assessment to guide your teaching so that, like the beans, the children can grow.

Some people think of spiraling as 10 questions at the bottom of a work page that asks questions that may include items one needs to review. The activity above has that all built in, but there are more places to differentiate in an activity like the one above.

Here are some examples how one can differentiate just through questioning:

How long was your longest bean? Use your graph.

If you put all the beans your team harvested end to end, what would the total length be?

If your team managed to harvest 3 times the amount you did, how many bean pods would you have?

Make up your own question using the words total, weight, and graph.


A Sustainable Field Trip?

Where do you think this is?

I’ve always lamented the fact that teachers get plenty of time off, but never get to choose when it occurs. I won’t be able to see New England in the fall until I retire. It’s just one of those things. But then again, when we Seattlites are given a day like today, sunny on Halloween, we take advantage of it.

The next couple of pictures were taken from the Japanese Gardens in the Arboretum. The fall colors were magnificent.


Then we discovered a new area called the Pacific Connections Gardens that have gardens from Australia, New Zealand, The Pacific Northwest, China, and Chile.

You can read more about the project here.

It fits in with our garden and sustainability theme this year and is near enough to our school to also fit in with our sub theme of sense of place…

It’s only a 20 minute walk from our school which would add to our other sub theme of sustainable transportation, and I started thinking of the social studies connections, or integrating it with the service learning project at Seward Park, as well as our own school garden that we started this year. The opportunities seemed limitless, but then I thought about safety and walking with 20 children through busy roads to get there. I’ll have to think it through, but I’m glad the sun in shining on this beautiful fall day, and it’s amazing what one can stumble upon in your own neighborhood.



Last night I had to fortune to listen to Jane Goodall speak. It’s interesting how one can make someone’s life seem very linear and predictable (just read any famous person’s wikipedia article) as you put together their experiences and achievements together, but in fact, sometimes opportunities lie everywhere. It’s whether we are able to notice them and somehow be supported through the process.

There were several things that struck me about her life story. One major one was the seemingly unending support of her mother. Jane had a mother that recognized her potential and always fostered and nurtured it. Jane recalled a story about when her mother found her in bed when she was less than two years old hanging on to some earthworms under her bedcovers. Instead of dismissing it, Jane’s mother told her that the worms needed the earth to live and that they should go put the worms back where they belong.

Even though she didn’t have enough money to go to college, she worked and saved and ended up taking a boat to what was known then as “The Dark Continent” after a friend said that she could stay on that friends farm. No one believed anything good would come of it. They gave her lots of reasons not to go. She was a woman, she didn’t have a college degree, Africa was dangerous, and the list goes on.  All except her mother who went with Jane to Africa. While in Africa, she was advised to call a Kenyan archeologist named Louis Leaky who gave her a job and 6 months to observe chimps. She went, camped, observed and after surviving the chimps aggressive initial behaviors, she discovered that they used tools. That discovery led to National Geographic getting involved and of course, funding.

Through Leaky, Goodall also received a letter from Cambridge University offering her a place in a Ph.D. program. I love the way Jane mentions that they thought they (or Leaky) didn’t have time to waste on a B.A. Well, all her professors told her she had done everything wrong, but that didn’t stop her.

Later, at a conference, she heard about too many chimps being held captive in tiny cages for the duration of their entire lives for the purpose of experimentation and at that moment became an activist. From that, she thought of the power of hope that lies with our children and founded a program called Roots and Shoots (you can click here for the educator’s page).

If there were a few key ideas I got from this lecture, it’s that we need to find the passion in our lives and just one person needs to support and nourish it. The other thing was hope in our future. If we didn’t believe we could make this planet a better one, one that is sustainable, one of peace, one that recognizes differences as opportunities, collaborates to solve problems, etc. and pass that hope and optimism to the children we teach, why bother.


You Can’t Hurry a Garden

…or children for that matter.

Keeping with Yong Zhao’s children are like popcorn, it was clear to me last week that some children weren’t ready to pop. We took a ruler out to our garden plot and decided to measure the rye grass and got a range from about 8 to 14 cm. Why cm instead of inches, it’s scientific, global, and in the common standards. What I tried to do was have them make the height of one box equal 2 cm. While half my class was ready to make that leap, the other half were still a little confused.

It was a good lesson in trying to remember where the kids are and not jumping to where you want them to be. I know growing a garden alone isn’t going to raise test scores, but it has the potential to definitely teach the children all sorts of great values about nutrition, agriculture, sense of community, the science of soil, nutrients, and plants, as well as data collection, measurement, and a whole host of other kinds of learning. Some of these activities may actually be useful in a test.

This week we visited our garden plot again, after reading Demi’s The Empty Pot about how honesty can be a courageous act. As a follow up to that reading we asked the children to remember what our master gardner said about each cover crop and what ‘trait’ each one had. The vetch was shy and would be the last out. The rye grass was tall and bold. The clover was friendly and loved to spread around. The students added to these traits, made one or more of these a main character and wrote a story.

What Vetch might look like when it's all grown up.

This time with careful guidance, the garden activity was meaningful to all and they came up with the cutest stories. It was a great way to teach about setting, character and plot through our garden.