As a county science assistant and Tuckahoe Elementary's Outdoor Learning Coordinator, Beth Reese well understood teachers' need to have outdoor activities link directly to the state's learning standards.
"We wondered how we might address the standards in different disciplines, engage fifth graders in a special project before graduating, and make use of the school's extensive gardens," says Beth. (Their outdoor learning center has rooms "rooms," including a courtyard garden, observation gallery, ancient Greek plaza, and a friendship garden.) When the idea of initiating a plant-based business emerged, it made good sense. Although the fifth grade science standards were light on plants, the social studies ones were heavy on economics. And math standards were a natural business fit.
"We decided to launch the school garden business concept in two phases," says Beth. In the fall, each class ran a small-scale craft business. In the spring, once students had dabbled in sales, they created and took charge of their own enterprise.
Laying the Groundwork
"We wanted the fall phase of the project to be low key and low stress so we could motivate the kids and introduce them to general business concepts," says Beth. Rather than have students take the lead at that point, the teachers served as guides. First, they introduced a craft project: creating small wooden racks with grapevines on top from which to hang dried lavender, rosemary, yarrow, and other herbs.
The entire class took part in production, marketing, and sales. "We discussed the resources that went into a business "natural, capital, and human" and got kids thinking about customers, their motivations, and advertising," explains Beth. After making 40 herb racks (see photo), students submitted advertisements to the school newsletter. They also made flyers and posted them on the bulletin board so they could select three to send to parents. "In the process of creating flyers, the kids learned that you have to carefully choose your words, and not overwhelm the reader," says Beth. "When we finally sold our crafts, you wouldn't believe how many of the boys were into choosing and carefully wrapping the herbs. It seemed like a great artistic release for those guys." This first taste of the business world set the stage for putting students in the driver's seat.
Business 101: Untangling a Minty Model
Beth and her colleagues launched the fall project by challenging students to develop their own flow charts to answer the question, How do you bring an idea to market? (This would also help teachers assess what students already knew about businesses.) Their starting point? Altoid mints! With a package of mints on display, teachers tossed out questions to help students work backward from the end product. For instance, after passing around an Altoid for students to taste, Beth might ask, Would you buy it? How about a younger kid? Based on the packaging and flavor, what age do you think this product is targeted at? How might you change the packaging to appeal to a 4 year old? How would you motivate someone to part with hard-earned money and buy it? How do you think the business owners decided on the price? "We discussed the fact that a company needs to think of the audience and the potential demand for a product and that we shouldn't just choose for our business what we might want or find cute," says Beth. "The session also got us talking about whether there should be more to our business than just earning money, such as job satisfaction."
Once the students had pondered the secrets of the Altoids empire, the teachers challenged them to create a business that might be equally successful. (They hoped to raise $200 to buy a fiberglass column for their outdoor Greek Pavilion.) Again the starting point was, How does a product develop from an idea? "We presented the idea of doing a plant sale business, since students had the horticultural skills to set that up," says Beth. Beyond that, the students took charge of what they dubbed The Tuckahoe Plant Company.
The young entrepreneurs first considered what needed to happen to bring their idea to fruition and who would tackle what tasks. Backing out from their target plant sale day (April 27th), the class created a "to-do" list. Then they organized the list into four departments "production, design, publicity, and sales" and came up with ultimate goals for each: the production department must ensure a high quality product, sales is responsible for expenses and calculations, and so on. The class next detailed skills and qualities that would be required for each area. "We tried to make sure that each department's list emphasized positive and fun qualities, and the students had some great ideas," says Beth. What does the publicity department need? "Someone who's well connected!" offered one youngster.
Once department descriptions and needs were established, each student considered his or her skills and interests before choosing a position. Beth prompted them with questions such as, Do you like to nurture plants? Can you stick to a schedule? Have you ever convinced your parents to raise your allowance? How? A subsequent homework assignment "filling out a job application" pushed their thinking even further. The applicants had to pick a first and second choice of departments, provide a reference, and write about the skills and experiences that make them good candidates. "The kids took this process very seriously," says Beth. "It was amazing how evenly they were spread out and how honest they were about what they were good at." Snippets from their writing reveal some thoughtful arguments: I had a successful lemonade stand. My art is hanging in the hall. I gardened with my grandma in the summer. I did persuade my parents to raise my allowance.
Student-run Departments Dig In
"Before the department committees got rolling, we figured out some things as a class: What is our competition (an annual school flower sale) What types of plants would you need even if you already have one? What if people don't have a garden?," explains Beth. The youngsters settled on tomato and herb seedlings and houseplants as their primary products. Everyone had a chance to plant seeds, take cuttings, and place pots on light racks in the hall before turning over plant care to the production department.
The teachers appointed themselves as upper management, but each student-run department was in charge of setting goals, holding committee meetings, creating timelines, reporting to the larger group, and fulfilling its role in the budding business. The production department's task list included watering plants, applying organic fish emulsion fertilizer, and generally ensuring a quality crop. The design group decided to add value to their product by finding recipes and designing recipe cards to include with herb and tomato pots. They also researched the types of plant packages people liked or already had at home. The publicity crew created flyers for parents, then gave each member responsibility for creating and posting ads in one of the school hallways. "Last year, the sales department had less to do in the beginning of the project, so this year they'll have to take charge of taking out a loan and calculating interest payments," says Beth.
"As things got rolling the first year, I was constantly in demand to attend committee meetings. This year, I've gotten parent volunteers to be committee consultants, which has eased my load and lead to more productive discussions than the students might have alone." She explains that the committee reports helped the class assess the overall progress of the company and helped teachers monitor needs, potential problems, and student growth. The presentations also helped groups think about coordinating with one another. For instance, when the design group got inspired to purchase colorful posterboard for an ad, they realized they'd need to talk to the sales department to see if they could make the purchase. In those cases, Beth bought supplies and reported expenses to the sales people who would keep track of them in a ledger.
Inspired by their emerging business understanding, a group of ambitious girls actually spun off a subsidiary. On their own time, they painted pots; created plant decorations, such as butterflies on sticks; calculated their expenses; and later reveled in their $300 profit.
Making the Sale
"When's the sale?" was a common refrain as school staff passed the students' hallway production facilities. Since they'd planted things just a bit too early, in an effort to raise robust products, students were geared up to move their stock. "When the class decided to have an earlybird sale, charging $2 to $3 per plant, you would have thought it was Macy's," notes Beth.
"We planned our actual sale day to coincide with another all-school event "the Home and Garden Fair" so we'd have an even larger pool of potential customers. Student-designed sandwich boards and a bright display helped reel them in. By day's end, The Tuckahoe Plant Company had added $1,000 to its coffers: five times the original goal! Beth kept the money in the school safe so students could have a chance to see and count their earnings. But counting the dollars was not the end of the deal. Together they assessed their business by revisiting the company's goals, considering whether they'd reached them, and brainstorming what they might change next year. One of the things her crew learned from customer feedback was that although they chose early ripening tomatoes, which they assumed would encourage sales, people were more interested in the larger classic tomato varieties.
How They Grew
"The long-term learning that comes with doing something real, solving problems through trial and error, and reflecting on outcomes is so important," says Beth. "In the beginning, students also learn certain vocabulary terms, but I'm most interested in how their understanding grows through experience. So at the end of the year, I have them take a red pen to their original definitions, such as market research, and tell me how something within our business represents the word or concept."
Here are some additional tips for other teachers considering school garden businesses:
You'll find great photos and maps of the school's outdoor classrooms, downloadable curriculum ideas, and student work on the Tuckahoe Discovery Schoolyard Web site, http://tuckahoetour.org/discovery-schoolyard/. (The plant business, however, is not yet featured.