It’s not every day teachers get to play in the dirt. However, on March 10, teachers from each school in the district, along with volunteers and district employees, met at the Dawn Institute to figure out ways to integrate gardening outdoors with core subject matter inside the classroom.
Next Generation Science Standards have come to Plumas Unified School District. The aim is for students to explore connections in nature three-dimensionally.
Kevin Kale, who works for Life Lab, led the daylong workshop in a program called Next Generation Science in the Garden.
The program seeks to engage students and teachers in a practical application of knowledge of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (the four STEM fields) outside and in the garden for the benefit of both themselves and their communities.
PUSD Curriculum Director Kristy Warren wants the program to eventually be implemented K-12. For the 2017-2018 school year, she’s initially hoping to focus on implementation in kindergarten, second and fourth grades.
Some PUSD sites already have gardens funded through sources other than the district, most notably Dan Brown’s Natural Resources garden behind Greenville High School and Quincy Elementary School’s garden. Warren is hoping for a Forest Service planning grant to implement garden sites at least at all the elementary school sites in the district. She indicated that she should hear back by May.
Kale, who lives in Calaveras County, works through the program based at University of California, Santa Cruz, and remarked that the “commitment your district is making is amazing,” and said he was pleased to see so many enthusiastic teachers. “Without the support of the [school] district and health department implementation would be difficult,” noted Kale. Plumas County has commitment from both.
The first half of the program consisted of presentations and discussion on creating a generation who can think on their own and see the connection between science, math and English language arts. Kale stressed that while meeting standards was one thing, the 21st century focus should shift from, “What am I going to do with the kids today?” to “What am I teaching them?”
Much of the material Kale shared comes from Project Green Schools.
After the first half of the program, teachers, parent volunteers, administrators and others were treated to a “real foods” lunch of a hearty Moroccan vegetarian soup and other fresh vegetable and fruit dishes all provided by the Quincy High School culinary program.
The teachers were very enthusiastic about the program.
Suzanne Stirling of Quincy High School said she’s always looking for “ways to infuse English language arts into outdoor experience and more ways that being outside supports the curriculum.”
Other teachers echoed her comments stating that the day gave them more ideas and license to boost their confidence to teach outside the confines of the classroom.
Kari O’Reilly, Dawn Institute president and 4-H director, was present and said she was looking for ways that 4-H could come in to train school garden workers to keep a vibrant sustainable garden.
This is key. As with many projects, keeping something going is much harder than starting it. Kale echoed that students and teachers would need to feel they can take on the garden projects, but not feel like they had to do everything at once and everything themselves.
In the end it’s about “empowering students to investigate and [be responsible] for their own learning. Empowerment has bumps, bruises and chaos,” Kale said, “but it’s all part of the process.
To illustrate the point after lunch, Kale had the teachers assemble outside in pairs and investigate the Dawn Institute grounds, fresh from days of rain and melted snow. They walked around in the mud making observations about their surroundings and visualizing how it would fit into lessons.
They did team building and trust exercises. It can get messy out there, Kale stressed, but that’s perhaps what 21st century American public education needs.