An Enrichment Post: Summer School

An Enrichment Post: Summer School

For over ten years – almost the entire duration of time I led the Evergreen Garden Club at one of our district’s four elementary schools, I wanted to be involved in providing an enriching summer school experience on Monarchs or other seasonal horticultural topics. After all, our growing season in Wisconsin is short and what better time to involve children in nature and gardening, as well as the lessons it can provide, than during the summer?

So I asked, several times over many years, about how I could be either hired to be a summer school teacher or be utilized by the teachers who were teaching summer school.  I asked teachers. I let the principals I worked with during the school year know of my interest. I asked the summer school principal – who, at the time was part of district administration. And, I asked two different superintendents. I was available. I was passionate about the subject matter. I had a substitute teaching permit – which allows teaching up to three weeks at a time in Wisconsin.  My requests never went anywhere. Mind you, I am generalizing a bit here.  I cannot say with one hundred percent accuracy that I asked each person I worked with each year.  As with any system, our district has had a fair amount of staff and administration changes.  So, although my desire to be involved in summer school was usually met with enthusiasm and optimism to bring the idea to reality, the year passed and, more often than not, the person I spoke to changed positions and the request, along with my interest, was forgotten.

I am sure that some of this occurred because summer school is often seen as a time for remediation. Summer school provides a chance to catch those students up who had fallen behind or did not fare so well during the school year.  But, it can also be a time for low stakes enrichment. Studies show that when there is a more relaxed learning environment, and less focus on “teaching to the test,” students’ might actually absorb more content. Plus, it demonstrates, in a very real way, that learning can be fun. In addition, a garden based summer school would provide a chance for students to participate in experiential, place based learning that some might find fit their learning styles better than a traditional classroom.  And, let’s face it – our kids all need more exposure to nature.

In 2014, I went a step further and wrote a piece curriculum specifically tailored to a camp and/or summer school setting, called Monarch Education for the Environment. The following spring a local university, Winona State, asked me to teach it for their College for Kids Camp. After a period of initial excitement, the class was cancelled due to the lack of registrants! I guess nature could not compete with the attractiveness of technology based courses like Lego Mindstorms or Robotics. I was disappointed and felt sad at what potential students had missed out on.  The course has never been taught. However, nature remains an exciting teacher.

But, I persisted. When hired for a new Garden Club Advisor position in a different school district this fall, I let the hiring principal know of my interest in offering a summer school enrichment opportunity.  She took it under advisement. Spring came and garden activities at this new school became all-consuming. I thought about the summer school option but did not bring it up again. After all, repeatedly bringing it up in the past had never made an impact.

All that changed a few days ago. I was contacted by the lead summer school teacher at the school in which I am now based. She wanted to schedule some lessons to be provided by me during their summer school session in July!  So, after a few back and forth emails, we hatched a plan. The younger students will get a lesson on plant parts we eat, complete with samples to try. And, the older kids (3rd – 5th grade) will receive a lesson on monarchs, mimicry, and the butterfly habitat found right in our own school yard! I am excited. What took over ten years of asking to participate in summer school took less than one year in a different district! This amazes me. I realized that perhaps, I was asking the wrong people at the wrong time. In any case, I will finally be able to teach some summer school lessons for enrichment! For that, I am very grateful!

Categories? Who needs them?

Categories? Who needs them?

What did the new high school graduate do the first school day after graduation? The graduate was out of bed by 7:40 a.m.. He went to the YMCA to work out. He looked up his math placement test instructions for his college orientation later next month. And, he is busy now working on repairing our 3-D printer. He’s using a soldering iron to fix the wiring. While none of these skills were taught at school, they are all signs of a successful young adult about to embark on a new journey. In less than 10 weeks, he will be at college, living in a dorm, and making his own decisions. He knows it is up to him to forge a new path.

Let’s speed backwards two years. A student lethargically enters a math classroom. His head is hung low, his confidence shattered. Motivation has escaped him for months, ever since being told “he asked a stupid question” by the teacher for this course.  His pencil shakes in the grasp of his hand when the teacher walks by and chooses to stand over him, watching his work.  Anxiety is heightened by the lack of sleep he has experienced for a few months now.  Worries plague him. They have altered his sense of self.  The anxiety is especially related to this class but has started to spill over into other areas of his life.  He’s chosen to stay in this class and bear the brunt of the “category” this teacher had placed him in.  It’s been a mistake – the category in which he now finds himself.  It resulted from the teacher not really knowing who he was or how he learned, and, more importantly,  not bothering to find out.  Only “certain” prescribed fixes were deemed acceptable to learn the material for this class, which included seeing the teacher for “extra” help.  That’s right – the teacher who called him stupid, he was supposed to see for extra help.  When he didn’t, it was assumed he was lazy, and didn’t care about his work, on top of being “stupid”. Unknown was how much time he was investing in learning the material outside of class, watching tutorials online and being re-taught using a method he can learn from by another teacher.  Assumptions were made. A category was assigned.  It was wrong. Very wrong.

The two students described above are one and the same.  It’s been a journey to progress from Point A to Point B. I know; I have watched the process, deeply hurting inside while I observed, worried, and hoped all at the same time. I watched as he was broken and stood back up to reclaim himself.

At graduation, this past Saturday, the staff speaker talked about categories of students. She made some good points and I enjoyed her speech.  We all categorize things and, unfortunately, people as well.  I get it, students are no exception.  But, what about that student that slumps down the hall, head down, mumbles answers, looks tired, and is disengaged?  Is it fair to assume we know why he is acting in such a way? Given my observations, it is not. Sure, some students do not want to learn. We all know them. Some students purposely disengage from their school and studies. We see it on a regular basis. But, what about those students who look like they “fit” with the disengaged on the surface but really are behaving in such a way for different reasons? What about them?

Some things are put aside to survive – even in academia. Worry cannot be allowed to consume our students. Worry about learning course material should not be compounded by the edgy comments of a sarcastic educator.

I am so happy my graduate did what he did today. His actions show that he persevered. It took some time but the realization finally set in and he now knows that one is not defined by others. Only you can define yourself. So, my advice to my graduate over the weekend was this: a new chapter is open before him. He has been successful in high school. Truly, just missing the arbitrary “mark” that is set to honor high achievement by no less than .06 points on a GPA scale; he is by no means “stupid”.  He took AP courses. He did well.  He actually stayed in difficult courses that others dropped. He fought adversity and although it took a while to realize, came through better for the experience.

Categories? I’m not a fan. I was a weird kid. Shy, introverted, bookish. I matured. I now speak to rooms full of students or adults on a variety of subjects. I am different due to my life experience. So is he. He now knows more about who he is and what his future holds. This, in fact, might be THE most important lesson of all from his high school experience. He is in a category of his own and that is how it should be. No one defines him but himself.


Silent Sunday: Suck-U-Lints (as spelled by a former third grade student) A.K.A. – Succulents

Silent Sunday: Suck-U-Lints (as spelled by a former third grade student) A.K.A. – Succulents

Succulents nestled in rocks at North Woods International School, Spring 2018.                         © Carol Labuzzetta
Tongue in Cheek: Lavatory and other student misunderstandings in words and phrases.

Tongue in Cheek: Lavatory and other student misunderstandings in words and phrases.

When I first taught garden club, I would say to the students, “If you need to use the lavatory, now is the time.”

This direction was often met with, “What’s that?”

And, so I would explain that it meant the bathroom. Year after year, student after student, asked this of me when I referred to the lavatory. It even happened a time or two when I served as a substitute teacher for a day.  I always ended up explaining that the lavatory meant the bathroom!

Kids today just do not know the term lavatory.  It is a term derived from the latin word lavare, which means to wash. It usually means a room in which to wash up, having a sink or other vessel in which water is held to wash one’s self. The water is then drained away. Later, or more recent, versions of the word include a place of convenience in which one can wash up AND use the toilet. Often, in lavatories, there are many toilets. You can check out the definition at And, no, I did not have to look  up the word lavatory to know what it meant. I try had not to use words I do not know.

I suppose this is where some of the confusion comes in. We refer to going to the bathroom as a place usually with only one toilet. When at home, you might say to your young child when they appear jumping up and down or tightly crossing their legs, “do you need to go to the bathroom?”

But, as I started my enrichment groups and had to carefully provide for many more children, I found myself referring to the bathroom as the lavatory. To someone who took two Regents Latin courses (although, it was 40 years ago), it must have innately made sense to me to use the word.

That was until, no one repeatedly knew what I was talking about! It did take me several years to realize that the students just did not use the word lavatory. I tried of explaining it just was another word for bathroom, so I eventually stopped using it.

There’s been a few other times over the years in which I found a disconnect between my word choice and the student understanding of what I said. This has been observed at home as well as in school settings.  Just before my youngest was in third grade, I commented it was muggy out, as it often is in August in the mid-west. His reply went something like, “Muggy? What do you mean mom? I don’t see any mugs.” It was a somewhat snarky and innocent retort all at the same time.

Anyway, after explaining that muggy meant humid, he got it but still thought it was very weird.  Then, I really confused him by letting him that one could also describe the sticky, warm, moisture-filled air as “close.”  I don’t think I ever explained my way out of that one. But, it is truly a word used to mean humid. Check it out here, if you don’t believe me.  All in all, I have found that my use of archaic or less used words lead to some very funny and teachable moments.  I have also learned that I have to watch what I say, especially if I have a day when I really don’t feel like explaining myself or the weirdness of the english language!

Use Your Voting Rights Tomorrow

Use Your Voting Rights Tomorrow

Tomorrow is the school board election in our town. There are two incumbents and one challenger for two seats.  Are you going to vote? How well do you feel you know the candidates? Do you feel like you know what issues for which they each stand? Do you value the importance of a new voice being heard or do you value the status quo and what would be referred to as experience?  Do you think we need change in our school district or are you happy with the way things are now?  Do you believe that board members should be irreproachable in their conduct or do you think everyone should have a second chance to be an adult after a mistake is made?

There are many things to consider when choosing a school board member. In hopes of learning more about what each candidate stood for this year, I opted to watch the candidate board forum that was posted on YouTube and took place on March 19th. I was going to attend but did not for fear I would wear my emotions on my sleeve and want certain questions answered that would indicate I was the person asking them, even in an anonymous format.  So, I watched in the privacy of my own home. Yet, the forum left me flat. I really do not know more than I did before I watched it. Interestingly enough, you cannot reach the link to the broadcast through the school system’s website today. However, you can reach it directly here: School District of Holmen You Tube Channel.

Before I watched the taped forum, I was wondering about the following topics:

  • thoughts on term limits for board members (one has served for 20 years)
    • change will most likely take place through the infusion of fresh ideas from fresh perspectives
  • where does each member stand on (re)formulating a strategic plan
    • who has experience with that process?
    • all stages should be visible and inclusive of stakeholders
  • why do course offerings, course names, & grading practices, get changed or deleted without stake holders knowledge
  • how can we make district policy more accessible and relevant to families
    • several times in the last three years, I have looked for district policy on various topics on the website and been unable to find it
  • how can we improve school culture (one candidate tried to address this)
    • it does need improving
  • how can we make better use of instructional time
  • specific examples of being student centered (many buzz words like “student centered” are thrown around, yet little attention is actually given to actual examples.) I’d like some examples, please.
    • Are we moving to be a project based district? Inquiry based? If so, how?
  • Why do we work to hide academic success, yet promote athletic prowess?
  • How can we make ALL students feel valued?  (Yes, this includes the smart ones.)
  • Specifically, how does each teacher currently work to get to know their students?
    • What could be done differently or better?
    • This is extremely important & there has been much written about it in the educational literature recently. How is this being addressed?
  • Instead of hearing about how against our board members are about voucher programs  – how about some talk about how we can best retain our students so they or their families do not choose to open enroll out of the district (to either a voucher supported school or other public school district). Our district numbers for loosing students to other places were high, according to an article in the newspaper this year. We need to work to retain students. At this point, retention must require some change in something – culture, policy, or both.  I did not hear about how that would happen, just the rhetoric about how voucher programs are unfair to public education. Maybe so. I am not for them, either. But, as a voter, I need to hear about how we can make our good district even better and give families/students more reason for staying rather than leaving.  Many will know that I speak from experience on this topic.

I wonder about all this, and more. Does any one else wonder about these things?

I think we need change in our school district and I really believe it has to start with the Board of Education. Yet, our board has not changed much in the time I have been a resident here (19 years). At this time, I feel that decisions are made arbitrarily.  I know some, maybe most, would argue that they are not.  But, if they aren’t arbitrarily or flippantly made, why is there not more transparency and inclusion in decision making?  I see and hear words being tossed around. It all sounds good. And, yes, I would agree – we have a good school district.  But, maintaining the status quo is not a way to make it better.

I hope I gave you some things to think about and I hope you vote tomorrow. Thanks!




Starting to Sprout: The Growth of a New Garden Club

Starting to Sprout: The Growth of a New Garden Club

In October, I accepted a position as a Garden Club Advisor for an internationally themed elementary school in our area. It is a well-known, well-respected school of choice, locally. I do not want to say I was a shoe-in for the position, but I interviewed offering 13 years of experience of leading a garden club for an elementary school in my resident school district. Not only did I lead the club, I founded it in the fall of 2004 after completing my Master Gardener Volunteer Level One Training. What was supposed to be a way for me to obtain my volunteer hours, actually turned out to be my calling!  I am meant to teach children, this I know.  I have come to learn that I want most to teach them about our environment. Environmental education allows interdisciplinary lessons to be woven through all subject areas. It is a great fit for me, and hopefully, a new set of students, too!

After serving over 500 youth in my resident district, including my own three boys, and countless others that I developed relationships with during the last decade, I ended the group. Why, is not important for this post. Essentially, I needed to, so I did. It took a long time – actually years – to arrive at that decision. But, finally I was ready to leave. But, I knew I cold not go back to this school to visit, to hold my other group – a writer’s circle, or even to maintain the butterfly garden that I so lovingly created and maintained with students since 2006. I had to make a clean break.

Unexpectedly, this fall,  I saw an advertised position, a paid position for a Garden Club Advisor at a neighboring school district. A larger school system with a larger garden. A new school with new students! I did not need long to think it over.  I applied and was hired the day I interviewed.

Tonight, I held our fourth garden club meeting.  I had four students. We planted bulbs – not the bulbs I used with my previous group – but different kinds. Not one bulb per student – but six. Forcing bulbs and teaching young children about bulbs as plant structures is one of my favorite lessons.  I can firmly say that by the time we were done today, I think it was one of their favorite lessons, too!

Our group is jelling, I am happy to say! Yes, it is a small group. It is about 1/6th the size of my first garden club group at my previous school. Still, the students are engaged, good listeners, and curious about what we are learning. In addition, I am being paid! PAID! And, I am still love what I am doing!

I won’t lie. It is different. A new building. A New staff. The fourth administrator with whom I have worked. But, relationships take time. I have the time to build another club. It seemed this month was a turning point. I met with the principal on Monday to discuss my vision of the club for her school.  Mostly, I want to share with the staff, parents, and students what my vision is – not only beautiful gardens but the gardens used to educate, instill pride, and a collaborative effort. We put some plans into place to help me communicate the vision.  I want to get rid of any preconceived notions that might exist about my role. While the gardens are beautiful and will need maintaining, I am there for the students, first and foremost.

Our club meeting had a new comfort level. The students arrive knowing who I am, my expectations, and how the club meeting goes. I have gotten to know them, with the need for name tags long gone.  They are a great bunch. We talked about flower bulbs.  I was seated at a table with the students. We learned. We laughed. We planted some bulbs. We cleaned up as a group! Together. And then we played Garden Club Hangman which just means that our vocabulary words from the day’s lesson were used. New rules of play were accepted without question.  Everyone was picked up on time at dismissal. It was a very satisfying meeting.

On the way home, I found myself smiling. Our club is starting to sprout! Roots have been established. The building is warm. We are growing. Together, our garden will grow.

Volunteering: Part I Finding a Good Fit

Volunteering: Part I Finding a Good Fit

For a large portion of my adult life I have been an active community volunteer. Thousands of my life’s hours have been spent volunteering!  Most likely my earliest volunteer experiences occurred when we moved cross-country and I felt the need to immerse myself in a new community where we knew no one.  Due to some helpful neighbors, I found myself involved in our school’s PTO before my eldest son even attended kindergarten. For first year, I attended meetings and helped with what I could. This included making large games, some of which are still in use today, for the school’s fundraising festival. Of course, my very handy husband helped with the construction of mini-golf and another carnival type game. And, I remember working at the chicken-Q.

After that initial year, I moved into a Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) Board role as Secretary and served for two years. I had my third child during that time and remember bringing him to meetings in his nip-nap. This role introduced me to some of the frustrations of volunteering. PTO’s are fraught with politics and individual agendas. Invariably, there are one or two very strong personalities that either run the show or want to believe they are running the show.  My most irritating revelation about this occurred when I was co-chair of a gift basket raffle that was being held (and is still held today) for the first time. Our illustrious PTO leader wanted to micro-manage how we organized the raffle, what contributions were made by the classrooms, and even our communication with staff. She was not even on our committee! Out of this experience grew some personal guidelines, which I later shared in a bout of frustrated conversation with the PTO President. 1) If someone volunteers, give them space to complete the job – do not micro manage! I am a person that completes what I commit to doing and do it well! 2) Do not commit if you do not have the time, and 3) Do not commit if you are doing it to reap some kind of glory for there will surely be someone else who will grab the credit. Some other guidelines that are useful are to: 4) find something you are passionate about to donate your time. The hours go faster and you are helping a cause you believe in supporting.  This could be animal rights, environmental causes, athletic boosters, band boosters, or any number of any other interests. 5) Most importantly, I learned that if the volunteer role you possess for a group does not go well, makes you uncomfortable, and just leads to frustration, you need to find some other way to volunteer. 6) And finally, but also of utmost importance, volunteers MUST feel appreciated or they will cease being YOUR volunteer.

After learning PTO was not for me, I became a classroom volunteer and did that each year right up through 2014 when I was assisting at our middle school for an ELA teacher we came to know.  It is rare to be a volunteer at a middle school!  From the start of pre-k for my oldest through 8th grade for my youngest, I spent 14 years in various classrooms and was at school 2-4 times a week to help teachers with small group work.  My school volunteering continued through this past June when an after school garden club I led ended its thirteen year run!

During this earlier period, I also realized I had suppressed a creative side of my personality and started a craft group at our local Children’s Museum. This also helped me to get out of the house without my infant and toddler for several hours each week. For a period of three years, I prepared a craft for visitors to make in the museum’s “Reuseum” – a space that utilized donated items to create “treasures” for the children to take home. It was thematic and seasonal – something, I fondly remember. But, my point here is that I asked to volunteer at the museum by starting that group. It was a better fit for me than being a docent or at the “desk”.  And, they let me do it!  Although, at the time I did not realize that this position set me up for being assertive enough to start several other groups at our school, one district-wide group, and also gave me the confidence to attend Master Gardener Volunteer training sessions that would enable me to volunteer on a wider-community level in the future.

These early experiences were almost twenty years ago. I have continued to be a volunteer for many groups and donated many hours of my time. By doing so, I have been a volunteer role model for my children. Was I uncomfortable at first? Absolutely. Were all the experiences positive? As you read previously, no, they were not. Did I continue to volunteer? Yes.

Hopefully, my boys have seen that it is fairly easy to volunteer. They have witnessed the joy I experienced from the groups I organized such as Evergreen Garden Club, Writer’s Circle, Book Clubs, and time I spent on educating the community in my role as a Master Gardener Volunteer. They also saw frustration and irritation during my time as a co-leader of our Parent Advocacy group for local Talented and Gifted students.  My boys knew when I have not felt appreciated as a volunteer. They also saw me persist years beyond the onset of irritation just because I believed in or loved what I was doing and the irritation was extraneous. Through groups I have led,  I have demonstrated my belief that clear communication is paramount when working with volunteers.  They have witnessed me work through misunderstandings, miscommunication, and feelings of disregard to continue to be a volunteer.  My boys have seen me sad when a long time volunteer activity ends.  Through it all remains the feeling of joy you experience when you give of one’s self! It is not tangible, it is not monetary, but it is there and invaluable!

Today’s youth are expected to volunteer. But, this is tricky.  Very often they are volunteering to fulfill service hours for church or to meet requirements for membership in a group such as National Honor Society.  I am not all that sure that these requirements are imparting the true meaning of being a volunteer. For many, it is just checking a box or an item off their “list”, it is not giving of one’s time just because they want to do it or believe in the group/cause for which they are volunteering.

Yesterday, I volunteered with my youngest son for the school’s athletic booster club. He moaned and groaned but we went. I can understand that some of his reluctance was fear of the unknown. Has he volunteered before? Yes. Has he volunteered in this capacity before? No. This was a new experience. But, I saw as we were there – especially after his friends arrived and he saw other friends volunteering in different roles at the same event – the veil of reluctance lifted.  If only a little bit, it lifted. Yesterday, my son supported a group that supports him and his activities as a student athlete. It is important to give back. This is the lesson I hope to impart.

Giving back is easier when you do it for a group you believe in, do it with friends, experience a well-organized activity with clear communication, and feel valued for giving of yourself and your time. With the exception of clear communication regarding the event venue, all of these other pieces were in place yesterday.  Hopefully, the experience was “harmless” enough to bear repeating for my son.  I know I repeated it many times before I was totally comfortable in my volunteer skin. Comfort level will increase with maturity, too. As adults, we need to role model and encourage volunteering in a positive light, as well as something you do because you care – not because you have to do it.  Only time will tell if I have been successful!