Herbs Spice Up Learning

By Eve Pranis

"As I reviewed my mix of incoming fifth graders representing a wide range of motivation levels and abilities, I struggled to figure out how best to meet their diverse needs," says Junia Norris from Whitefield, ME. A collaborative garden project, she mused, might just draw on students' talents and interests and address state teaching and learning goals.

When Junia posed the idea of a garden, and shared that she had some herbs to contribute, her students were intrigued. "Instead of me telling them how to proceed, I gave them lots of resources, including herb catalogs, and asked small groups to decide where we might go next," she explains. To help structure students' thinking after the initial research, Junia asked them to categorize herbs as they saw fit. Students classified them as medicinal, cooking, aromatic, and/or decorative, then suggested that each group be responsible for one thematic section of the proposed garden.

Garden Planners

Now, not just any plant could make its way into this herbal oasis. Junia challenged student teams to generate a list of plants appropriate to their theme, and then to propose to the class why each one should be included in the garden. As word of the emerging sensory garden spread, parents and teachers offered herb plants and cuttings of chives, thyme, artemesia, garlic, mints, and more. A local herb garden business owner even invited students over to pick plants and take cuttings, and shared a few tips and tricks.

Some students with a penchant for design created garden layouts on graph paper before others marked the area with sticks and ropes. "When the kids first transferred their design to the actual garden, they felt it would be too small," says Junia. "Then when someone advised that we should have walkways wide enough for wheelchair access, the students re-measured and revised their plans." Every time her young planners faced such problems, Junia encouraged them to brainstorm solutions, then try to reach consensus on how to tackle them. Questions the students have grappled with include How do we design a circular bed on square graph paper? How many ladybugs should we get for a plot this size? Where do we find more pest control information?

Aromatic Curriculum

Beyond the garden, herbs continued to inspire fruitful activities. With guidance from a classmate who had made potpourri at home, students collected and dried flowers and herbs in the fall -- statice, artemesia, lavender, and so on -- then added dried orange peels and put the mix in mesh bags. They kept some for themselves and decided to send cookie tins filled with the fragrant blend to students in an urban South Bronx school. The garden's prolific dill plants sparked students' entrepreneurial spirit. After experimenting to find the most efficient way to harvest the seeds (by shaking the heads over a colander with small mesh), students created and decorated recycled paper envelopes, filled them with dill seed, then sold them for 25 cents each at a book fair and local herb shop.

These olfactory delights also became an intriguing lens through which history unfolded. "We keep an old trunk in our room and pack it as if we were people living in whatever culture or era we're studying at the time," says Junia. Her researchers now routinely include relevant herbs in each re-packing of the trunk and ask such questions as What herbs would Pilgrims have taken with them and why? What roles did herbs serve during the Middle Ages? (Students get a kick from the idea that herbs were often used to mask bad odors from unrefrigerated foods, tooth decay, and limited hygiene!)

"Among my main goals, which are also core principles in our state standards, are for students to become effective communicators, collaborators, and problem solvers," says Junia. "Because I gave the kids primary responsibility for the project, they've had to learn to frame their ideas appropriately, grapple with compromise, and continually ask, 'How might we do this differently?'" Because her kids have "owned" the project from the start, her job, she reports, is in many ways easier. Why? The students keep track of and remind classmates what needs doing, which materials to bring to the garden, and so on. "I simply whet their appetites and then say, 'So what do you think? How are you going to make it happen?'" says Junia. "The more I've done this, the more I can let go, and the more students flourish."

Herbs Across the Curriculum

With their rich life histories and uses, herbs can inspire cross-disciplinary activities. Some examples follow:

  • Explore the use of herbs in different cultures and cook an international meal. (Create a class cookbook of your favorite herb recipes.)

  • Find out about the culinary, cosmetic, and craft uses of herbs by people in a time period or culture you're studying (Pilgrims, Native Americans, the Middle Ages, or the Victorian era, for instance).

  • Devise ways to capture and retain the smell of one of your fresh herbs.

  • Investigate whether cats really go wild over catnip. Grow some of this mint, then design a fair test to see if cats prefer it to other members of the mint family (peppermint, spearmint, and basil, for instance).

  • Research and practice some herbal dyeing using catnip, marigold, marjoram, parsley, rosemary, or sage.

  • Design a "smell test" using aromatic herbs to compare the abilities of different people to discriminate among them.

  • Make aromatic herbal "sachets" or catnip toys by putting dried herbs in fabric pouches.

What Makes an Herb an Herb?

Commonly, "herb" refers to any plant or plant part valued for its medicinal, savory, or aromatic qualities. In many cases, herbs' oils and other compounds that cause healing, good flavors, or aromas, are merely adaptations that help the plant survive in its environment. For instance, the aromas caused by oils in plant leaves may attract helpful insects and/or repel "pests." We humans take advantage of these plant adaptations for our own uses, much as we take advantage of flowers (adaptations for pollination) for their beauty.

Consider inviting students to identify some of the characteristics that make an herb an herb. For instance, have them use their senses to compare six potted or garden plants including, for instance, a spider plant, basil, jade, rosemary, lettuce, and thyme. Then ask them to organize the plants into groups with similar attributes, and let other classmates guess how the groups were organized.

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