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How Does Our Garden Grow?

What is connected learning? What does it look like in practice? As I participated in the National Writing Project's Making Learning Connected #clmooc and the Tar River Writing Project's Connected Learning Institute this summer I realized that the 2013 Legacy Garden project, and much of my teaching practice, is connected learning. My priorities as an educator have always centered upon creating a welcoming and caring environment and breaking down barriers in the school so that information more easily crosses class boundaries. Through connected leaning students witness the value of networking in the school and the community and its cross generational nature. Our students were not only making meaning but also learning how to produce their own food, essentially bypassing the boundaries of traditional consumerism. This was all done alongside each other and their teachers as well as other school employees.

When we began to plan this project, Michelle Sims, Renee Gliddon and I were often asked, "How do you plan a project that will span an entire school year, be cross-curricular by nature and appeal to the interests of your students?" Well, to begin with you have to get your team to buy in to the idea, so at the end of the 2012-2013 school year we asked our hall mates (the 8th grade teachers) what they thought of a cross curricular garden project. Many of our colleagues were excited, while a few were hesitant to get involved. Each group of core teachers agreed it was doable to create a few resources for each core area. Our elective teachers, media specialist and administration were on board as well. My colleagues and I began by writing a grant to the North Carolina English Teachers' Association and selecting an anchor text that I had actually taught in previous years and discovered at a session at the NWP annual meeting in NYC in 2007. The session was about using the novella Seedfolks, by Paul Fleishman as an anchor text to build community in the classroom and school. This past year, my colleagues and I decided that we would follow the model of using Seedfolks as a bridging text to demonstrate community building, social issues awareness and how, through gardening, a community can emerge. While reading the novella our classes discussed concepts of community, otherness, living in poverty, gardening and healthy food.

While we completed a whole-class study of Seedfolks students began to inquire about gardening, so our next step, the creation of student generated inquiry questions, came quite naturally. We asked our students to think about gardening, the outdoors, foods, cooking, health and anything else that they could relate and to develop an inquiry question. Most students were quite curious and after a few days of discussion, collaboration and poking around the majority of our students had crafted their own inquiry question. The student's inquiry questions were incredible and we were surprised by how many topics we had neglected to think about. Students asked, "Why does poop make plants grow?", "What crops are native to NC?" and "What is the difference between a GMO tomato and heirloom variety tomato?" We had about 250 inquiry questions for 310 students-our kids had a lot of questions.

As we discussed and contemplated inquiry questions, more questions surfaced and students began to realize the complexities of their queries. We collaborated with our schools' media specialist to develop a series of guided research sessions in the media center that included mini lessons on thinking about what information was needed, how to find quality information in the media center and on the Internet, and how to create an annotated bibliography of resources to encourage careful consideration of sources. Our students (like most 8th graders) were quite leery of research; but because they were buddied up, looking for connections to a question that was authentic to them and because they had resources that their teachers and media specialist created for them and our face-to-face support, most of them overcame their anxiety and dove into the research. Those students who struggled received one-on-one encouragement from us and their peers. As we thought together, we discussed how the information they found would be shared with their peers. Our plan was for the students to teach their peers the garden knowledge that we would need to be successful at gardening as a whole. We asked the students to think about all the ways they could present to each other. We reminded them that they had an understandable aversion to being lectured, so they should try to create engaging presentations that would be informative and memorable. Students decided to create posters, Power Points, Prezis, Animotos, Youtube videos and many other resources. As students presented, they were the expert on their topic of research. While some students found this to be intimidating, many of them realized that our garden's success was dependent upon every student's research since there were so many aspects to consider when building a garden from the ground up.

Following the presentations, students reflected on the research process and felt that they had a much better foundation of gardening know-how. At this point the project became expansive; science classrooms studied soil composition and plant disease, social students classrooms studied sharecropping in NC following the Civil War and native species of plants, math students calculated lumber and soil requirements for the raised beds, shop students designed and built the beds, health and foods science students studied the importance of eating fresh foods.

As the excitement to get the project underway built, we redefined the meaning of spring fever. Students came back from spring break eager to get the raised beds installed, full of soil and to get our seedlings in the ground. A few students were mighty upset when Mother Nature scoffed at out timetable for the garden by dumping freak ice storms and cold, blustery weather on us. As we waited, even I began to panic. We had planned to plant spring crops; peas, lettuce, radishes, arugula and other plants that students had determined would grow favorably in our NC spring. Our beds were put out and filled 3 weeks later than planned and the plants got into the ground much later than originally scheduled. This prompted an important conversation among the teachers and the students about what to do when plans don't work out and matters are out of your control.  I talked to my students and many of them, with sympathetic attitudes toward my distress, said, "Its okay, Ms. Lewis, we can't control the weather." and, "Everything will work out; let's figure out what to do instead." We decided that our seedlings that were started in the classroom before spring break were failing and that we would need to buy some heartier plants that were more tolerant of the heat that they would soon experience in late April. As we took our classes out for the next few days and planted greenhouse grown tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, herbs, cucumber seedlings and radish and beet seed we realized that we had used the information that was shared during several student presentations to problem solve. 

The next few weeks were spent maintaining the space and beautifying. We weeded and watered, put down landscape fabric and mulch, practiced identifying plants, and popped off flowers to prevent herbs from going to seed. We had a clutch of toads hatch and students spent days catching them and carrying them around while discussing the differences between toads and frogs. We watched the families of birds living in our birdhouse and eves gathering nesting material and hunting worms. As we enjoyed the garden, students composed reflections about their garden experiences, created haikus and brainstormed ways to enhance and improve the garden project for the rising 8th graders. This was, after all, the legacy that the class of 2017 would pass on to the rising class of 2018. 

During our culminating celebration students harvested, washed and prepared a salad bar for the 8th grade students to enjoy. For many students this harvest-to-table experience was brand-new. As we ate, students commented about the fresh flavor and how they had never tasted a radish or banana pepper. Many spoke of trying to grow tomatoes or cucumbers during their summer break. A group of students were concerned with what would happen to the garden over the summer. As we contemplated this problem, a solution presented itself. The school's custodial staff had been involved with the garden throughout the year. One of the custodians came to me and excitedly offered to care for the garden and harvest from it. She said that she and her mother always wanted a garden but never knew where to begin. They enjoyed working in the garden with the kids and watching it grow. They felt that they had learned enough about gardening through collaborating with the students that they were comfortable caring for the garden over the summer.

As we reflected on the school year during the teacher workdays we began to plan next year's cycle while sitting out in the garden. We took the comments, questions and observations of the students throughout the year and our own reflections about the garden in consideration for our plans next year. Students suggested an onsite compost bin, ordering beneficial insects, creating a worm farm and collaborating with the local community to share excess produce from the garden. Over the summer I have considered reworking the annotated bibliography and perhaps encouraging the students to think about their resources less formally. Rather than a rigid bibliography they could give "Shout-outs", a more informal acknowledgment of expertise that students have tapped to build their own knowledge. I envision reworking and collaboration on the Legacy Garden journals with our school's amazing art teacher and borrowing from Rob Puckett's Thematic Daybook resource. Having witnessed the transformative nature of this project for our students through their motivation to share gardening at home with their families, to try new foods and to do hard work and get dirty I am inspired to continue the project and to seek out opportunities to bridge generational gaps through further collaboration with members of the community.