Urban Orchard Lessons

By Eve Pranis

"When I take our third graders in March to visit our city school orchard, many of them have no idea whether the trees are dead or alive," says Dorchester, MA, teacher Amos Alan Lans. Rather than give students that information up front, Amos urges the youngsters to look for details that they think signify life.

The kids inevitably note anything that has a hint of green, and, with guidance, begin to cue into the tree buds. Weekly visits enable them to take note and check their theories over time.

With students' keen eyes trained on buds, Amos tackles another challenge: helping youngsters grasp the concept of tree pruning. "After brainstorming why we might need to remove some tree branches, I talk students through acting out a three-part scenario," says Amos. First, students huddle as little seeds, then emerge and stretch their limbs as though they were mature trees. But when next told that a hurricane has blown through, they must hang their arms limply. "We talk about what could happen to an open wound, if a limb was not cut," he explains. Next, he invites students to pull up their coat sleeves, then briskly rub their bare arms together. "We try to help kids make the link to the damage that might occur if crossed branches are left to grate on one another." Students then lift their arms straight in the air and discuss, from that awkward position, how tough it would be for vertical branches to bear fruit. Finally, they imagine how little comfort, air, and space they'd have if they doubled the number of kids in class. Amos admits that the activity may be a bit of a stretch conceptually, but it does help kids tune into tree needs.

Armed with a rudimentary understanding of the "why" of pruning, pairs of students then observe one of the small fruit trees, decide which branches they think should be cut back, and tie on pieces of yarn to indicate their selection. "Before we let children use the pruners, they need to explain to a teacher why they made each choice," explains Amos. Back in the classroom, the "thinnings" inspire new investigations, such as leaving cut branches in different conditions -- water, sugar water, no water -- then predicting and charting changes over time. "The students are always amazed when the buds swell and result in flowers," he adds.

"Many of these urban kids are frightened of insects and dirt in general. At least half of the kids who visit the orchard don't know why it's harmful to strip bark," says Amos. "I've seen them gradually shift from feeling stark terror to better understanding plant and animal roles, and even beginning to be passionate protectors of outdoor life."

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