An Aromatic Curriculum

By Eve Pranis

The "Mini-Greenhouse Herb Factory Gardeners" is the class name chosen by Elba's students. They're immersed in an "herbal curriculum" -- a multisensory, interdisciplinary approach to learning about different cultures through studying the role of herbs. After interviewing their parents and inventorying the types of herbs used at home, students bring herb samples and recipes to class. "The fun and cultural exchanges begin," says Elba, "when students raid their kitchens and come back with herbs and tales of how they're used in their homes."

Students also survey herbs sold at markets in the community, study herb folklore, and investigate how herbs originating in other areas came to be grown here. The class creates indoor mini-greenhouses to grow their own herbs using old coat hangers, plastic wrap and other discarded materials. They read herb catalogs to determine best prices for seeds and supplies, chart seed germination and growth, and survey the faculty about scent preferences. Using potpourri recipes, they measure and mix homegrown and store-bought ingredients, then advertise and sell fragrant potpourris and sachets. "Other teachers have been so impressed," says Elba, "when I show them how creating or analyzing a bag of herbal potpourri can involve over ten different science inquiry skills."

Elba's herbal sleuths have discovered that one of their classroom plants, Rue, is used medicinally in their Hispanic culture. Combined with alcohol or oil, it is a liniment for aches and pains. "I can't tell you how exciting this has been for my kids," said Elba, "It's been a special way of making connections with their culture. Also, others' interest in their project has really boosted their self esteem. They have even been corresponding with and are receiving suggestions from an author of herb books."

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