Truants Tend Tomatoes

By Eve Pranis

Lou Meyer teaches a self-contained classroom of fifth through eighth grade students in an Opportunity School Program at Sutter Middle School in Sacramento, California. Students are in his special program not because they are incapable of doing well in school, but because they have severe behavior problems. Most are on probation, have high truancy rates, and don't get along with others in regular classrooms. The goal of the school is to change students' behaviors and poor attitudes about themselves; teach them to take responsibility for their own actions; and to get them to catch up academically.

Lou recounts that his discovery of the power of plants was an accident. "I had some plants in the classroom. After a few kids asked to water them, I decided to allow each kid to grow his or her own tomato plant from seed. I told them they were completely responsible for caring for the plant and that I wouldn't feed, water, or otherwise care for their plants. I began to notice that kids who had been truant would sometimes come in after school to water their plants."

At the end of the year, when the class lined up all of the tomato plants, they ranged from tall, robust plants to sad, dead specimens. This launched a lively discussion about taking responsibility for other things and for our own actions, and recognition that both students and plants need food and care to grow.

Since then, Lou's students have become enthusiastic plant caretakers. Teachers have started bringing in sick plants which the students help remedy. To do so, they must read resource books to learn about the needs of different types of plants. Their new knowledge and enthusiasm has sparked an interest in raising house plants and flowers to plant around school, for teachers' desks, and to sell in the school store. Their lunches are enriched by salads of lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and radishes that they've grown themselves. They've even written a book on how to care for plants.

Lou adds, "I don't push the kids, but leave the door open and let them slip in. Once they feel successful in helping something grow, they'll be hooked. I also try to follow their lead and interests. When students wondered about growing plants in fertilized liquid without dirt, Lou responded, "Let's try it!" These tough, ordinarily recalcitrant kids became interested enough in plants to care, and Lou used that interest to bring them into the learning cycle.

His students have "incorporated" their school plant business; allowing participants to purchase "Our Green Creations" stock for 25 cents a share. The school store gets a commission on sales, and if profits are made beyond that, stockholders can increase their investment. To ensure a steady supply of plants and success of the sales programs, students have realized that they must come to school to participate. "After one month of sales," said Lou, "our stock is being traded for 50 cents a share on the open market!"

"Our indoor gardening effort is congruent with our school's focus on responsibility, self-confidence and skill training," says Lou. "The kids are responsible for planning and following through with projects. They must learn to cooperate and follow directions and rules for things to grow well-they can readily see the consequences of their actions-they've learned, in fact, that some things can be killed with kindness!" Lou attributes his high success rate for placing these kids back in a regular school program to their growing endeavors.

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