Going Bananas and Raising Cane

"As my fourth and fifth grade special-needs students ate a snack of bananas, they tossed out ideas and questions that made me realize they had a lot of misconceptions about this fruit," reports Rita Holder of Brighton, MA. "Since the students seemed genuinely curious, I decided to use their questions and suggestions as a springboard for a semester-long banana unit."

After creating a banana mystery book from the kids' questions, reports Rita, the class identified those questions they could investigate (e.g., Is green or yellow banana skin easier to remove?) and those they could reserach (e.g., How and where do bananas grow?). A local greenhouse owner donated a banana plant, which provided fertile ground for observations and for additional questions throughout the year. "The kids were amazed when, after losing all its leaves and most of its stem over the winter, our plant seemed to come back to life," Rita adds.

Inspired by the information they had gained through research and active investigations, students set up a banana festival for the entire school. They dramatized Harry Belafonte's song about banana pickers, then invited other classes to rotate through hands-on stations. These included observation centers, problem-solving centers (e.g., removing skin from a green banana without breaking it), food tasting (banana bread steamed in banana leaves, banana ice cream), and a center for processing dehydrated banana flour.

"The semester-long project prompted excitement and curiosity about the following year's project," reports Rita. While visiting her native West Indies, she obtained some sugarcane seeds and, in a U.S. supermarket, found a piece of sugarcane stem. She first brought in different forms of products made from sugarcane (sugar, molasses, candy), and invited students to consider what the items might have in common. When Rita revealed the seeds and stem cuttings, students wanted to try growing each.

"While the seeds were straightforward to plant, we weren't sure about the stem," says Rita. "Working in small groups, they put 6- to 8-inch pieces of cane stems both horizontally and vertically in potting mix, burying the nodes." Later, students were thrilled to see young plants sprouting at each node and from the seeds, she adds. When they learned that sugarcane was part of the grass family, it sparked discussion and interest in growing other grass family plants that we also eat.

"Both of these projects helped the kids develop confidence as they successfully tended plants," reports Rita. "It also improved their observation and research skills, and broadened their understanding of where food comes from."

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