Reaping Rewards

"When my kindergarten students move on to new classes, their teachers are surprised and delighted that the kids have such great skills and content knowledge," reports Carmel, CA, teacher Sarah Coburn.

"Their observation skills are sharp; they have a deep understanding of plants, insects, soils, and habitats; and their language grasp is clearly improved," she adds. What prompted these leaps? "My native Spanish speakers and their native English-speaking classmates are tremendously inquisitive and engaged in our garden. It motivates students to learn in a way that I had never seen before," she explains.

Pressures to boost literacy, science, and math achievement scores are mounting for schools across the country. With tight school budgets, competing educational programs, and a growing focus on standards, how can teachers convince funders, administrators, parents, other teachers, and policy makers of the value of investing in indoor or outdoor school gardens?

Sarah teaches in a dual-immersion language program in which all students learn both Spanish and English. Through an initiative called LASERS, her students' science inquiry and language development are sharpened in the school's Life Lab garden. "Virtually all of our science studies -- characteristics of living things, plant and animal behaviors, weather, observation, simple investigations, and so on -- take place in our outdoor garden laboratory or indoor growing area," says Sarah.

Magnifying glasses and other science tools help elevate her students' observations, questions, and language to new levels. "Why is this seed all wrinkled? What does a ladybug eat?" Garden creatures, flowers, and the secret life of soil inspire new queries, conversations, and reasons for wanting to learn new words. "I hear so much talk in and about the garden, including many cross-language exchanges," says Sarah. "There's no question that kids are learning, connecting to their own cultural experiences, and forming a classroom community."

While it's obvious to Sarah that her kids are learning through the garden, she needs to be able to communicate these gains to others. She uses a number of assessment strategies to document and build a picture of how students are meeting learning goals. Her routine observation notes provide one type of record of students' progress. She also asks children to share their understanding with her (for instance, how they use their senses to get information from their garden), then records responses on a checklist. "By asking students selected questions before and after a unit, I gain a sense of how their understanding has changed," says Sarah. For instance, at the beginning of a unit, she might have them draw their vision of what a plant is, then listen as they talk about the names and functions of different parts. "After a garden unit, students' drawings are much more detailed and reveal their grasp of what constitutes a plant," she explains. Sarah can then share these checklists, her notes, and children's drawings with parents and administrators to demonstrate how gardens can help kids grow.

For more information on the Life Lab Science Program and LASERS project (Language Acquisition in Science Education for Rural Schools), contact Life Lab. E-mail: (; Phone: (831) 459-2001.

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