Cross-Grade Garden Tutors

By Eve Pranis

Beth Garver's fifth graders in Effingham, South Carolina have learned about more than just plants using GrowLab. They've discovered the challenges and rewards of sparking young minds. In addition to conducting their own indoor gardening investigations, these fifth graders cooperatively plan, conduct, videotape, and critique science lessons with a first grade class of indoor gardeners.

Before Beth's class meets with their first grade charges, they review an investigation from GrowLab: Activities for Growing Minds. These fifth graders work in groups of six to decide how to set up the lesson for younger children. Their goal is not simply to present the lesson, but to draw out younger students' ideas, predictions, and observations without giving them the answers.

One group of fifth graders at a time develops and conducts a hands-on lesson with the younger children. Throughout the year, fifth graders rotate through different roles in their teaching groups. Each group contains one video camera person, one "instructor," and four assistants. As the student instructor elicits questions, predictions and observations from the first graders, assistants prompt individual groups of first graders and write all responses on large paper. The designated camera person films the entire process.

Once these tutors help the first graders set up their hands-on investigation, the fifth graders are responsible for overseeing the recordkeeping phase. They must visit their young charges at eight each morning before class begins to see that first graders make their daily observations. At the end of the exploration, the "instructors" have a follow-up session to help the younger students make sense of the exploration. "In order to teach others and facilitate lessons, my kids have had to develop a firm grasp of the subject matter," Beth says.

Back in the classroom, these older students watch videos of their lesson presentations and follow-up. They provide feedback to one another on teaching style and on the young students' response to the lesson. Beth feels that this is a real highlight of the effort. "Seeing themselves in action provides very useful feedback, and can be a great deal of fun. Kids learn a bit about how to become more dynamic presenters. The first graders think they're absolutely marvelous -- the boost in self esteem in my class is quite obvious."

Boston teacher Sandy Arjun also pairs younger and older students in the garden. Her fifth graders invited a first grade class to participate in a salad growing project. During the nine-week project they grew lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, chinese cabbage, and cukes. They experimented with nutrients by regularly fertilizing one of each type of plant, and leaving one unfertilized for comparison.

When first graders visited once a week, students broke into small mixed-grade groups. Each was assigned a particular vegetable to plant and care for until it matured. "We found it very useful to tightly structure the initial planting session," said Sandy. "We literally had one kid holding the container, one pouring in the potting mix, one getting the seed, one measuring the depth in centimeters, and so on."

The fifth graders had to keep detailed journals of all observable changes in their plants. When the first graders came each week, their fifth grade group-mates helped them articulate their observations and write in journals. The older kids also helped them fill in individual growth graphs, thin lettuce plants, and hand pollinate cucumbers.

Sandy agrees with other teachers about student gains from cross-grade learning. "My students improve in their abilities to structure sentences, write, and graph in order to coach the younger kids. Perhaps most important was their learning more about the value of cooperation as they tried to keep the first graders on task. I think it gave them a better idea of what I ask from them in terms of cooperation, quiet, and attention. They emerged with an increased sense of responsibility and a nice taste of adulthood."

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