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.


School Garden – A Week After Planting

Knowing that I will have to learn a lot about gardening this year, one of my goals is to reflect on the process with my students. They are keeping a garden journal and for every entry they write, I will post one here. We can learn together.

We went out and took a look at our bed since the last time when we broadcast our ground cover seeds, used our senses, and recorded what we saw.

The rye grass was already growing steadily and the clover was beginning to sprout. The vetch (as our master gardner says) was still shy and we haven’t seen it germinate yet.

The compost is getting started and the kids are very excited about the worms that haven’t been delivered yet, but will be used to keep the soils rich.

One Week After Planting Ground Cover Crops

When we visit our plot again next week, perhaps they can take rulers out and measure the rye grass. Observing change is a wonderful process and I’m so excited that my students get to witness this.

Gardening 101

Having a raised bed for each grade in our school is wonderful, and as I teach kids about gardening, I will be learning along with them as I go.

This week we introduced the grade to their bed which they will steward until they leave the school. When they leave their garden bed they will leave it to the incoming Kindergarten class. I love that idea.

Here’s what I learned this week:

  1. We learned about respect and responsibility of our garden and those of our neighbors.
  2. We would start with fall cover crops to add nutrients to the soil.
  3. These crops included vetch, rye grass, and clover (I had to look up vetch)
  4. We learned where our compost would go.
  5. We also learned about the worm bin and how the worm poop would provide nutrients .
  6. We broadcasted (more new vocabulary for me) the seeds and now we wait.

Students "broadcasting" cover crop seeds.

Learning New Things

When learning most new things, making mistakes is part of the learning process. What we learn from those mistakes, and how we change or adapt what we do, makes learning possible. This is only so if the environment is safe. I’m sure you’d want to make as few mistakes as possible when learning to fly a plane, for example.

The classroom is a great example where everyone should feel safe from ridicule when a mistake is made. I couldn’t tell you how many mistakes I’ve made already: spelling a child’s name incorrectly on all his labels, mixing up left for right, and the list goes on. I make it a point to let my students know about these mistakes so that they can see that those kinds of mistakes are learning opportunities. I know the ‘failed’ adhesive for 3M and its post-it notes is a very popular story to tell about making mistakes.

For me this year, I know I will learn many new things, one of which is gardening and teaching kids how to garden. As I mentioned in previous posts, I will first rely on our great experts at school, both other teachers and parents. Then I will have to learn by doing with the kids. I also have to commend the authors of the book: How to Grow a School Garden: A Complete Guide for Parents and Teachers. I have learned a lot from them. Unfortunately the copy I’m reading is a public library book that needs to be returned, but the last three chapters are very helpful:

Ch. 8) Planting, Harvesting, and Cooking in the Garden

Ch. 9) Year-Round Garden Lessons and Activities

Ch. 10) A Decade in a School Garden: Alice Fong Yu Alternative School, San Francisco California.

It’s a book definitely worth having in any school resource room. By the way, Barnes and Noble offers 20% off to teachers online as well as in-store, while Amazon still doesn’t offer teachers any discounts. Still, if you can support your local bookstore, please do, they often give similar discounts to teachers.

We were shown some other resources for gardening, and I’ll write about those when I get to them.

Just as a side note, I met someone this weekend working for a philanthropic organization which focuses on agriculture in Africa: Ethiopia more specifically. He was very passionate about the importance of agriculture in our curriculum.

With regards to gardening, I plan on learning much – probably from many mistakes.

How Does Your Garden Grow?

As I was leaving our school campus today, I realized that as unpacking and getting a new classroom ready for the students to arrive, I got a little tunnel-visioned and forgot about all the wonderful new things around our new school building, including our school garden. Here is what it looks like now:

Epiphany's School Garden

It reminded me of the book I had been blogging about: How to Grow A School Garden: A Complete Guide for Parents and Teachers. The book is a complete guide and the authors reveal that there are many tricks to the trade. Many that you will learn through discovery. Here are some of their programatic tips:

  1. Develop a garden class schedule.
  2. Invest in a lesson plan book (I’m sure there’s something equivalent on the internet).
  3. Train ALL students in basic garden tasks (true with all procedures).
  4. Record student comments.
  5. Create competitions out of maintenance tasks.
  6. Create a cooking and outdoor kitchen tool kit (our new school has a cool new kitchen where kids can observe – frankly I think it’d be better if kids learned to cook too, but I get that there are some very stringent safety rules).
  7. Place tables and seats throughout the garden (as you can see from the garden above, there is a picnic table, lots of steps, and it’s made with stone where kids can sit).
  8. Model creative reuse of materials – that’s my goal for my welcome back bulletin board – we shall see.

Class Management Tips

  1. Model a positive approach to learning – have a growth mindset
  2. Be prepared (that goes with everything too – but be flexible to change those plans on the fly – anything can and does happen often).
  3. Divide the class into smaller groups.
  4. Appoint student leaders in each class.
  5. Attach lanyards to lenses and magnifying glasses.

Maintenance Tips

  1. Water with rainmakers – I don’t know if you can see it in the picture, but there is a large metal cistern that collects rain water in our school’s garden. By the way, rain makers are like large yogurt tubs with holes poked in them for water to flow out.
  2. Be courteous to custodial staff.
  3. Plan for summer maintenance. Who’s going to do this?
  4. Inventory the parent community for skills and support.
  5. Schedule workdays in advance and feed volunteers well. I swear, I did not make the last one up. It’s in the book.
  6. Look for used tools and equipment.

Garden Support Programs

  1. Present at Kindergarten night.
  2. Present at Back-to-School night.
  3. Ask for specific donations – create a wish list.
  4. Throw a year-end garden party and invite volunteers.

It’s a simple list taken from ch. 7 of the book, but it is one that will definitely serve us well in the long run. My posts have been less frequent lately, but putting a new classroom together can be exhausting and a lot of fun. Below is a picture of my coat hook. The little penguin back pack is my first aid kit, the three sign posts are taken right from our school’s values statement leaving two hooks near the bottom for a coat or hoodie.

Back to Gardening

So once you’ve got your program underway, the school garden (according to the authors) needs to be treated as a “healthy outdoor classroom”.

“Some of the greatest pleasures of an outdoor classroom are the unanticipated creatures that will flock to the new habitat.” That is how chapter 6 begins. I think unanticipated things in general are what make teaching so exciting.

Some ground rules to keep your soil healthy:

  • Never dig the soil when it’s wet (I did not know this)
  • Find a good source of organic matter to add to the soil a couple times a year such as compost or well-rotted manure (our students throw their rinds and other compostable materials in bins and our 5th graders learn and organize how to make compost. Now they will have a great spot to use that compost)
  • Do everything you can to nurture the micro- and macroorganisms in your soil. – don’t let the soil dry out  -don’t let the soil get over solarized by too much direct sunlight -add mulch several times a year

Things to learn about:

  • Cover Crops
  • Composting
  • Vermicomposting
  • Manure
  • Mulch
  • Soil Resuscitation
  • Detecting potential contaminants
  • No-till or Lasagna gardening
  • Organic Plant Health
  • Organic Pest Control
  • Anti-fungal spray
  • Insecticidal Soap
  • Sluggo
  • Copper tape
  • Biological Control / Attracting beneficial insect predators
  • Manual removal (of pests)

Of course the main thing is to keep it organic and have students as the stewards of the garden.

Warnings – in a city, you may get vandalism (stolen plants or tools, or graffiti on tool sheds). When this is done, make it a teachable moment, clean it up and proceed. Getting neighbors involved on the weekends is another good way to stave off this element. Finally, garden safety is very important. Here is a suggested set of rules for garden safety and courtesy:

Garden Rules

  • Hold hand tools below the waist with sharp points facing down.
  • WALK throughout the garden
  • Ask before picking or harvesting
  • Be courteous to your fellow classmates and don’t throw sand or other materials.
  • Do not squish bugs
  • Conserve water
  • Hold large tools below the shoulders
  • Bring all supplies back to the shed after use.

Last week a coworker had some of the teachers out to her place. Yet another wonderful gardner with a green thumb. I think I’m in good hands. Below are a couple of pictures from her garden.

Developing Your School Garden Program

The first thing I like about this chapter of the book, How to Grow a School Garden, is that the first year will involve some trial and error. Better with one grade, say the authors than four or five different grades. It also recommends that those most interested should be part of a garden committee for the pilot year. As one of my colleagues commented on a previous post about gardening, our school is rich with faculty who love gardening and have very green thumbs.

Managing gardens for a dozen or so classes becomes quite a management task, and often require garden coordinators. These can be paid garden professionals, the nearby community, or parent volunteers. They should be people who can share their passion with the children.

Next, linking the garden to the curriculum. The California Department of Education has published a set of content standards as have many others. That publication is available here.

As with other curricula, there should be a scope and sequence that makes sense, both to the school’s mission as well as the age of the students. Also, other subjects should be integrated with the garden curricula. Science is an obvious one, but garden art, language arts, and math are also fairly easy to integrate. From my experience with our lower school math teacher who is also a master gardener and has been generous to share her garden with our students, some of the activities we have done include: taste tests involving data collection and graphing, area and perimeter of garden beds, estimation and measurement (weight, length, number of beans, etc.), and geometry in the garden.

They highly recommend a garden journal, and as rigorous as your planned curriculum might be, be flexible and allow for the wonder and awe of nature to guide and possibly change your lessons.

It shouldn’t be up to the garden committee, or even the classroom teachers to maintain and grow the garden. It should involve everyone in the community and organizing maintenance schedules may be required.

Finally, this chapter ends with two things:

  1. The need for professional development. Non-gardeners like me will need to learn from the expertise that surrounds us and in turn, pass it on.
  2. The need to evaluate your program to help build on what works in the outdoor classroom, and what doesn’t.

Chef and author Alice Waters founded a non-profit that includes, The Edible School Yard. By the way, her new book, In The Green Kitchen: Techniques to Learn by Heart is fabulous.

Photo from the website "The Edible Schoolyard" Click on image to get to website.

August is Here …

… which means my back to school panic mode has begun to set in. For those who don’t work in fields where they get their summer’s mostly off, every summer – just when you think that the slow pace of the long days is really the way we should live, the reminder that Labor Day is right around the corner comes as a bit of a jolt. The summer letters written to welcome the new class was due, meetings among faculty (not for social reasons) are starting to happen, my work email inbox is getting a little fuller, and I received my school’s Spring/Summer update. The latter reminded me that I’ll be moving to a brand new classroom in a building that will focus on sustainability. One of the key features will be that each grade will have its own raised garden bed to tend to each year. What do I know about gardening? First of all, I suppose I will have to build in time to the schedule so that the children can plant, water, fertilize (naturally, of course),  create garden signage or art, learn about where food comes from, insects and animals, native and sustainable plants, just to name a few. Then of course, we would make sure to link and integrate math, reading and writing while we’re at it.

I borrowed this great book from the public library (but to be honest, it’s a little overwhelming for someone who only just learned how to prune roses – thanks, Susan!) called How To Grow A School Garden: A Complete Guide for Parents and Teachers. Blogging about it will force me to read and learn.

At least the first few chapters are straightforward.

Ch. 1 Why School Gardens?

  • They enhance academic achievement
  • They promote healthy lifestyles
  • They instill an environmental stewardship ethic
  • They encourage community and social development
  • They instill a sense of space

You can’t really argue with those, can you?

Ch. 2 Laying the Groundwork

Luckily, our lower school math teacher is also a master gardner and many of my co-teachers have the expertise to get us novices started. Those who were most interested, parents and teachers alike were consulted, and with a new school being built, I’m assuming that the garden will magically just appear at some point. And this chapter mentions the issue of funding (many thanks to our generous community who is supporting this and our development admin team).

Ch. 3 Getting the Most from Your Site

  • Who’s going to use it?
  • Who’s going to manage it?
  • Will there be a tool shed?
  • Will that shed contain clipboards, writing materials, gardening supplies, etc.
  • Can that shed double as a teaching area?
  • Are the pathways inviting for little ones?

Well that was also taken care of by the garden committee and architects, so again, my fingers are crossed.

Ch. 4. Groundbreaking, Budgeting, and Fundraising

I have always found fundraising a great “real world” way to involve kids, but since we are an entire school that tries to raise funds each year, fundraising as a class activity has been frowned upon. If you think of the math involved, the publicity and outreach, and the positive social learning, it can be a great learning opportunity.

The next part of the book is where I will be learning a lot. It focuses on curricular activities and ideas, including garden maintenance once you’ve got the garden going. There are some great web resources available too that I’ve stumbled upon: