Generally, in the months that fall between April and November, everyone loves gardening class. Our outside Eden offers an open space, a break from the confines of the classroom, fresh air, hard work and the opportunity to get our hands dirty while we learn about how to grow food and garden in a sustainable way. There’s also that wonderful benefit of picking and eating fresh fruits and vegetables that we have raised from seed.
When we first return to the greenhouse, sometime in November as the air begins to chill, there are often murmurs of discontent. Many want to know why we can’t continue to go to the garden, even though the beds have all been put to rest for the impending season and the ground has begun to harden it’s skin in preparation for the long winter to come. This momentary dissatisfaction is usually abated, as we busily begin propagating our individual plants that each child will nurture throughout the winter. This project quickly gives rise to our botanical “gift-giving” craft projects, like tea, soap and potpourri making. Winter break and the holidays soon follow; which brings us to January and February.
These snowy months have proven to be a challenge, and not just one kind of challenge, but many. My roster of 2oo plus students range in age from 7 to 18, and learning abilities (if categorized A to Z) run the alphabetical gamut. This means, for me, a continuous stream of differentiating instruction and activities as I endeavor to teach the fundamentals of botany.
My academic strategy is this: for each topic we cover, I make a list of main ideas and pair them with potential projects, experiments and ideas. The activities that we move forward with need to be differentiated enough that a wide variety of students will be able to find success, as well as be challenged. Since some of my students have been with me for more than a year and I don’t like to repeat lessons or projects, it’s a constant search for new ways to teach subject matter that I will repeat each winter; namely the major plant parts and their functions. This can be difficult, but it’s a challenge I love because it brings out the puzzler in me!
The bigger struggle, the one that keeps me up at night and fills any quiet gaps of thought throughout the day, demanding a solution, is how to motivate a small number of students that seem incapable of botanical inspiration in the greenhouse. The thing that really gets me is, it’s really only a very low percentage of students, and they are confined to 2 or 3 classes. But my inability to propel these students into the category of Horticultural Enthusiasts is getting to me! I won’t give up though; I know my task and that is to find the blueprint that will open that locked back door into my students minds.
Before I can sink into a quagmire of hopelessness, I’m struck by the empirical data surrounding me. When I look around the greenhouse at all of the experiments and propagation projects or go through my class folders, I am rejuvenated by the plethora of quality work that most of my students have completed. And when I download the photos that I quickly snap when given a moment, my resolve is refreshed. Sure, the photos show children hard at work and seemingly enjoying their tasks, but what comes through more to me, is all the support I have around me. The power that I am re-energized with comes from this knowledge: I don’t have to do this alone. I have a strong teaching assistant that I can rely on. We have occupational therapists pushing in to work side-by-side with students that need an extra hand. We have volunteers and interns helping during class time. Classroom teachers and teaching assistants are key too and keep us attuned to which students may need additional emotional support.
So I need to keep this in mind: there will be obstacles here and there along this path of educating students with differing emotional and/or learning abilities, but there are just as many rocks along the way for me to lean on.