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.


What Can One Little Person Do?

A couple of days before our spring break, our whole school went to Seward Park (a large Seattle park) as we had done for the past three years to steward a portion that we had committed to. Many teachers and I agree that it is one of our favorite days (even though this year it was very cold, muddy, and wet), as it brings the school together as a community to take responsibility in our civic duties. In the past, we had been charged of a few duties including the removal of invasive species, but this year there were no more to remove. I would definitely call that measurable progress. Our sole job was to plant and mulch trees for the future of the park. The kids enjoyed nature walks, outdoor games, and of course tree planting. Although, my favorite part of that day comes at the end, when the entire school forms a bucket brigade to deliver mulch from the main park road to the region of the park where trucks simply can’t get to. If you want a scene of a whole school working together with a common goal – the image of kindergarteners to fifth graders continuously handing each other buckets of mulch with teachers, administrators, and parents interspersed throughout that chain, is a very good example of one.

What I love about service learning is the ability for kids to see that one little person can indeed make an impact in the world (we had a coin drive for solar cookers in Chad earlier in the year – an idea from our fifth graders), or even in their own city. We also go to a local organization to help package food for those in need, not to mention the various ways kids help around their classroom and campus.

The planting of trees struck a chord with me as our Kinder and 2nd grade classes attended the Seattle Children’s Theatre’s production of The Man Who Planted Trees today. It’s a great story (albeit fabricated) about how one person can make a positive impact in the world. The Seattle Times was enchanted in their review. So was a parent in her parent review from Seattle’s Child magazine.

When we got back to class today, some children asked if were a true story, I read them the afterword to the book, which admits that its protagonist was in fact a work of fiction. I’m sure Oprah would have fun with this story. I also mentioned, however, that there are still plenty of examples of people who make a difference with the small but powerfully positive things they do. Jane Goodall, is one living example. Harriet Tubman another example from history. Then I then tried to link the play they attended to their own experience of planting trees a few weeks ago in the park as well as the recent planting they did in their school garden plot. I could physically see the bodies of many of the kids change taking pride in what they had done a few weeks ago.

Sometimes these coincidences just happen. This field trip was booked almost a year ago, with no idea what date we would get, whether the show would be any good, or how well it would tie in with our school’s theme of sustainability. While the story is magnificent, the book is a little dry for second graders. The Puppet State Theatre Company from Edinburgh that brought this production to Seattle, had the children hanging on every word. Aside being a wonderful piece of theater, being able to connect this story with the work the kids did a just before break was a really nice serendipitous teaching moment..

There’s a nice  service learning article  that appeared in the connected principals blog a couple of weeks ago that echo some of what I’ve said here.

Kids can have such a positive impact with the little things they do, I feel very lucky to be part of a school that gives them many opportunities to do so.


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.


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.


Urban youths learn about gardening, nutrition and giving back | IndyStar.com | The Indianapolis Star

Urban youths learn about gardening, nutrition and giving back | IndyStar.com | The Indianapolis Star.

We don’t have a five acre garden, but this article points to the importance of including gardening and agriculture in our curriculum. Like many other important things to include in our curriculum, the additive approach is unsustainable. You can’t keep adding more and more standards to the already full curriculum. What you can do though, is look at what you are already doing, and integrate.

I know that many of our units in second grade lend themselves so well to agriculture. Community and the Pike Place Market, The Road to Independence (I’m sure those early colonists had their own gardens), and the Gift of the Nile (doesn’t that just scream agriculture). We may have difficulties with the Arctic regions, penguins and polar bears, but who knows.

Besides social studies, one can do so much math in a garden, keep a written math journal, create art for their space, and the list goes on. It’s only our first year and hopefully these kids will learn to appreciate where their food comes from.