Slice of Life Tuesday: Enrichment Learning through Experiential Lessons

When I started Evergreen Garden Club in the fall of 2004, its main purpose was to provide student enrichment through hands-on activities using an outdoor environment such as the school grounds. The first group, now adults in their mid-twenties, researched local butterfly species and host plants to enable a well thought out conversion of an old, uncared for perennial bed to a butterfly garden on school grounds. The garden became the base for our lessons for years to come. As one can imagine, the students involved in this club benefited immensely from the guided research process as well as the progression of the garden plan in the spring. The research, done in pairs outside of the time spent in club, was presented to their peers for enlightenment. Using a democratic process, such as voting, after the information was presented to our group and reviewed by me, as the instructor, we decided on the plants for the butterfly garden.

Some were eliminated for being out of our local horticultural zone, such as the buddleia davidii or butterfly bush which is a zone 5 plant and would not survive our winters in Wisconsin. In addition, it was much too large for our garden space and definitely not a native plant. The students took this exclusion hard, partly due to allegiance to the plant they researched and the plant name of “butterfly bush” seeming to usher an automatic invitation to the Lepidoptera species.

Others, such as Liatris or Black-eyed Susan plants, were suddenly revered for their importance to pollinators of all kinds as revealed in the students’ research. This bought the plants automatic inclusion in our school based butterfly garden.

These initial lessons were so chock full of information, ripe for the curious mind to pick, set the tone of the entire 14 years the club ran. Students learned through actively doing, applying information they learned in club as well as from the classroom and outside experiences, such as time spent in grandma’s garden or “at the farm.” As the leader, I encouraged the sharing of their personal gardening “stories” including their successes as well as their failures or obstacles met along the way such as a dog eating a seedling, an unexpected frost, or even a parent throwing out a milkweed plant because it was a “weed.” It was 2004, after all, and many did not realize or even have interest in the importance of milkweed at the time.

I’ve often thought of all the students I had in the elementary based garden club over the years. There were well over 500 of them which breaks down to me having roughly 35 students a year for 14 years. Of course, we did not meet daily as classroom teachers did, but instead monthly. However, I considered them all my students despite the infrequency of our meetings. I miss them and this type of teaching.

During those years of garden club, I believe I learned as much about creating engaging lessons and a passionate teaching style, as the students learned about the material. Horticulture has many facets to explore and we did so in an interdisciplinary way including all their in-class core subjects such as math, social studies (cultural significance), and ELA (poetry, lore and legend of plants). I believe, with every fiber of my being, it is the way to teach. We need to focus on eliminating the industrial model of education and siloed subject area approach to offer our students a new (to some), more engaging approach. This, of course, means using the outside as much as possible to provide experiential, project based education.

Image by Esther Merbt from Pixabay

I also learned that successful teaching and learning does not have to be associated with earning a grade. During the years of garden club, I did some verbal formative assessments at the beginning of each lesson. This included asking what my students already knew, how they knew it, and what they remembered from the previous month’s lesson? Assignments were given sparingly, but the desire to learn the material was there in almost all of the students. This was apparent each year and never seemed to wane, even in students who belonged to the club all four of the years they were eligible, in grades two through five.

This morning as I read, with interest, some articles in the most recent Educational Leadership magazine on grading practices, I realized my own views on grading, which include receiving and assigning grades, have changed. They changed because of my own teaching experience with garden club students. Learning took place even in the absence of grades. It did. I saw to it. And, so did the students because they were interested and engaged learners.

During this odd year of on-line learning, I hope that children can find time to explore the outdoors with a passionate, interested adult to guide them. If you are a teacher or a parent of elementary-aged students, please look for opportunities in your community to expose them to what remains, “the great outdoors!”

Today is Slice of Life Tuesday! Thank you to TwoWritingTeachers.org and their blog that allows us to engage with other interested writers and teachers each week!

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