One thing I learned quickly as a teacher is that the best ideas and moments in a lesson are not the meticulously planned out ones, but the ones that present themselves in the middle of that well-intentioned lesson plan. These are the opportunities that present themselves in class when you take the time to stop and listen to your students and be present in a lesson, noticing what is taking place right in front of you. During my first year teaching 7th grade Life Science at Lakeview Middle School, I was conducting a controlled experiment in class during the first month of school. We were testing whether soil types would affect the growth of corn seeds over a one month period. I wanted to demonstrate the steps of the scientific method and never anticipated students being so eager to watch the seeds grow. At the end of the experiment, I had a pack of leftover corn seeds that I was going to throw out. I offered them to my students first and was surprised that they all began fighting over the seeds. Because I didn’t have enough to go around, I went to the store that night and bought enough for each student to have two seeds. Over the next few weeks, students came in with photos of their plants and told me stories of their experiences. I soon learned that many of my students had never before seen a plant grow, let alone grown one themselves. Seeing their excitement over the seeds stuck with me for the next months to come and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
In Life Science, students learn about plant cells, photosynthesis, pollination, and much more. I felt strongly that the students needed hands-on experiences growing their own plants and seeing these processes take place first-hand. As a new teacher, I wasn’t sure how to go about creating a garden at the school. I wasn’t sure how to raise the funds, how to get it approved by the principal, or if it was even possible. I held off for the remainder of the school year until we finally finished with state testing. At this point in the year, we had a month left in school and could cover any topics we hadn’t had time to cover before testing or work on projects with our students that we felt were important. I went to our principal with the idea of the garden and he loved the idea. He gave me $100 to start our garden. I was elated and set out to start our project.
I began to search the school grounds to figure out where I could place the garden. After searching high and low, I found an abandoned area similar to a courtyard in between two hallways in the school. There was a considerable area that was not being used and I had never even seen before stumbling upon it this day. There was even an outdoor concreted area the size of a classroom that had not been used in ages. I went to the principal and asked him if I could use this space and he agreed. What started as a small garden, quickly grew in my mind as I saw what a large space we had to work with. I went to businesses in our community to see if they would be willing to help us with our project and was extremely grateful when Lowe’s agreed to donate all of the materials we would need at cost.
Each day, I would take students outside to the garden and we began cleaning up the area. Students were incredibly excited about the project and very eager to help. What I found out very quickly is that 30 students can accomplish a great deal in a small amount of time. So much so, that I would run out of things for each student to do. We began dividing up the work, building a chicken coop, preparing our 13 raised bed gardens, painting our outdoor classroom, and building benches for the classroom. Over the next weeks, the once abandoned and dilapidated area was transformed into a now beautiful area that everyone in the school was suddenly noticing. The garden began to gain interest and organizations at our school donated money to help fund the project. Our principal even donated extra funds.
We were finally through with construction phase of the garden when we hit a road block. We had not been able to find anyone to donate the soil for the raised beds and did not realize how expensive this purchase would be. With all of the raised beds ready to be filled and an empty bank account, I decided to reach out to the community for help. I posted on social media photos of the garden and asked for their help in sharing our story and need. Within 24 hours, we were contacted by a local nursery (The Barn Nursery) who said they would be willing to donate ALL of the soil at no cost. The following day a delivery truck arrived at our school and my students quickly worked to fill the raised beds. The generosity they showed our school was heart-warming and I can never truly thank them enough.
With only a week left in the school year, we decided to have our students complete a garden research project. Although I had planted a garden myself, I wanted them to work through the process on their own. They were tasked with researching what fruits and vegetables we wanted to plant in the garden. They had to find plants that would grow well in our climate, in raised beds with limited space, and would have a high yield. As we built the garden, we had discussed we wanted to give back to our community as a way to thank everyone who had pitched in to make the garden possible. We decided everything we grew in the garden would be given back to the community and eventually landed on the name, “The Giving Garden.” Once students completed their research, we went to Lowe’s to purchase our plants and planted the garden on the very last day of school. Over the summer, the science teachers checked on the garden and our chickens that we had hatched out in our incubator in class. We took turns picking vegetables, watering the plants, and feeding the chickens. When we were out of town, the custodians who work throughout the summer offered to pitch in and help check on it. When the students returned in the fall, we created a club for our 8th grade students to come back and work in the garden once a week after school.
Since then, we have planted a winter and summer garden each year with our current students. Every other Friday (when the weather permits) we take students out to the garden to work in it. Students research what to plant in our garden each year and students also feed our chickens and collect the eggs each day. The students get an opportunity to experience things first-hand and are always eager to go outside to the garden. What started out as an experiment in class, transformed into something much, much bigger. It always reminds me to take time each day to stop and listen to my students and look for those moments where opportunities reveal themselves. We simply must take the time to stop and look for them.
I have always been fascinated by plants and animals. I believe this fascination blossomed in large part due to my grandmother. She was an avid gardener and taught me a lot of what I know about plants and how to care for them. She always had a wide collection of plants throughout her house and beautiful garden. She knew exactly how to care for each one of them. She treated them as though they were her children and she certainly saw the beauty in each one. She passed away last year and I keep a stone of hers on my desk that is inscribed with a quote that reads, “the seeds of today are the flowers of tomorrow.” This could not be more fitting for us as teachers and something that we need to be reminded of each day. It is the very work we do in each of our classrooms every single day that will create the flowers of tomorrow.