Garden Tales

By Eve Pranis

"Whenever I plan to introduce a new garden-based science unit to my bilingual third graders, I look for stories relating to the topic," explains Salinas, Ca, teacher Artemis Ledesma.

"Before sharing these stories, I have students create a chart detailing what they know, and what they would like to know, about the topic," she adds. "I then choose a book that builds on that prior knowledge, providing background information and prompting further thinking and discussion."

"Once we read a story, we compare the information with what we already know and discuss discrepancies or questions that arise," explains Artemis. For instance, after reading the story "Frog and Toad in the Garden," from Frog and Toad Together, by Arnold Lobel, Artemis's students compared Toad's techniques for starting seeds -- shouting, playing music, and so on -- with what they already knew about what seeds require for germination. Might this inspire a project in which students test out their ideas, and perhaps some of Toad's, about what seeds need to grow?

Consider sowing seeds in your students' fertile imaginations with plant-related literature. What better way to capture students' interest, curiosity, and cross-cultural awareness than with the emotional hooks that stories furnish? Some teachers set the stage for garden-based science by choosing literature that touches on a particular science concept or process, poses important questions or challenges, or puts unfamiliar concepts into familiar settings.

"I use literature to provide an advanced organizer to allow my kindergartners to hear the appropriate language -- about roots or worms, for instance -- and to consider what we're about to experience in a hands-on activity," explains Santa Cruz, CA, teacher James Brudnick.

Plant and and garden experiences can also inspire students to weave their own tales, exercising their imaginations and language skills and revealing what they've learned in doing so. Creating and sharing stories can help kids become better scientists, too. After all, composing stories requires many familiar science skills: being inventive, planning, observing, sequencing, and communicating clearly.

Following are ways in which teachers across the country have creatively connected literature and storytelling with their students' growing experiences.

Bean Tales: A New Twist

The familiar saga of Jack and the Beanstalk helped launch elementary students in San Jose, CA, on a year-long interdisciplinary adventure that made multicultural learning a snap.

With the classic story fresh in their minds, Cheryl Connolly's students discussed what they knew about beans, then learned about the ability of bacteria on roots of beans and other legumes to transform nitrogen from the air into a form that plants can use. This encouraged her young growers to dig deeper with beans. They examined, sorted, and grew a wide range of beans and other legumes indoors and out; using age-appropriate math and language skills to measure and record plant progress; and, finally, creating new twists on an old story.

The school's student body is ethnically diverse, so making connections to cultural and physical geography was a natural. Student groups researched different countries, learning about typical home life, foods, common names, and geography. Cheryl then challenged each group to write an original "Jack" story as it might be told in its chosen country. "I asked students to preserve the basic story line, including meeting the giant, but to replace and enhance information such as family names, types of beans grown, geographic features, and so on, with references that were appropriate to the country," explains Cheryl. "At the school's diversity week fair, the young story weavers proudly presented revised informational bean tales to an appreciative audience of students, parents, and teachers," she adds.

Sowing Beauty

"I've found that books can provide fertile ground for prompting questions and discussions, exploring language, and launching growing projects," reports Ellensburg, WA, teacher Linda Sharp.

"The lupine lady in Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney, certainly captured my first and second graders' imaginations," she explains. After reading the tale of a woman who planted lupines to make the world more beautiful, Linda brought in seedpods from wild and cultivated lupines. Students examined the pods and seeds, sorted them, and finally planted the seeds indoors.

With their own lupine plants as a backdrop, and prompted by references in the book, students learned about the origins and types of lupines and explored how their seeds traveled. Inspired by the evocative tale, students wondered how they might make their own world more beautiful. "We brainstormed a variety of descriptive words for flowers, then incorporated them into our own creative stories about making a difference in the world," describes Linda. "Those visions will surely inspire more growing projects," she adds.

Growing a Gumdrop Tree?

"My first and second graders examined a variety of small objects and speculated which they thought would grow, then discussed why some things grow and others don't," reports Chaska, MN, teacher Sue Smith.

Sue's students soaked some lima beans, then examined them up close, viewing the tiny embryos inside. Next, they planted bean and oat seeds in a plastic bag and watched for signs of life.

When the class later read The Gumdrop Tree, by Elizabeth Spurr, in which a little girl's planted gumdrops yield a bountiful tree, Sue challenged pupils to predict what might actually happen if they planted gumdrops. "Although some students figured the gumdrops wouldn't grow because they lacked embryos, I was surprised at how many drawings of candy-laden trees popped up," she notes. (Students' illustrated predictions were bound into a book titled If I Planted a Gumdrop Tree.)

Five classes each planted six pots of gumdrops, then students eagerly observed them every week, explains Sue. After a month, they examined the mushy, faded gumdrop "seeds," compared class results, and discussed findings. "Some kids helped turn on the light for others by reminding them that because the gumdrops had no embryo like the beans and oats, they couldn't grow," says Sue. The class then considered how the make-believe had inspired their imaginations and influenced predictions, but recognized that the experiment provided evidence that disproved their hopeful guesses.

Sowing Wheat Fields, Harvesting Rainbows

"When my kindergartners read The Little Red Hen, they became intrigued with the idea of 'helping' the dear bird by growing wheat themselves," reports San Jose, CA, teacher Tina Margason.

When the class discovered that wheat could be planted in the fall in their area, the young growers sowed their wheat field using seeds from a health food store. During the school year, the students observed and measured the wheat and waited patiently as it developed seed heads and started to ripen.

Before school let out for the summer, students harvested the slightly immature heads with scissors. To complete the cycle, they ground ripe, store-bought wheat berries into flour and made bread. "This growing project reaffirmed the values, like patience and cooperation, that the story also teaches," says Tina. "Kindergartners don't tend to have a lot of patience, but they were intrigued with what was happening out there -- that the wheat field hosted more ladybugs than other parts of the garden, for instance. The book motivated them to take the project full cycle. They discovered that good things don't always come quickly, but can be worth waiting for," she adds.

"A garden is a place where kids' imaginations thrive and everything is a miracle," observes Tina. "Wouldn't it be fun if we could plant our own rainbow?" her students asked after reading Lois Ehlert's Planting a Rainbow. To launch the project, the class scavenged a wide variety of flower seed packets and sorted them by color, using seed catalogs to identify colors for packets that had no graphics. Using a rainbow book as a model for the color scheme, students planned a rainbow garden, assigning multiple types of flowers to each hue. "The kids had to solve problems along the way," explains Tina. "Sometimes it was tough to decide whether a particular flower belonged in the red or violet band, for instance." Students planted seeds indoors in carefully marked pots, then transplanted them to the garden in the spring.

Although not all of the daffodils, amaryllis, zinnias, marigolds, black-eyed Susans, alyssum, and other flowers bloomed at once, reports Tina, students were thrilled each time a new color appeared. Their journals depicted each new event and emergence, and predicted how the rainbow would change over time. "When the kids returned in the fall, their rainbow gardens had evolved with a new range of hues," reports Tina. "As with their wheat experiences, the kids came to appreciate that 'miracles' indeed take patience," she adds.

Creative Cuttings: Exploring Propagation

"Fourth grade teacher Carolyn Hopp and I launched a unit on asexual propagation by reading The Plant Sitter, by Gene Zion," reports Carmel, IN, parent volunteer Pattie Chester.

The book features a young entrepreneur whose business of caring for neighbors' houseplants gets a bit out of control. As the plants take over his house, he learns how to take cuttings to keep the plants in check, and is rewarded with gifts for friends and neighbors.

Before reading the story, students shared their thoughts on how plants are usually started, reports Pattie, concurring that plants typically grow from seeds. The teachers explained that they'd share a story about a boy who found another way to start plants, and asked students to pay attention to how he did so.

After the story, the class discussed what they knew about starting plants from parts other than seeds, and small groups were invited to set up investigations to test their ideas. "The results at first seemed disastrous," admits Pattie. "Students tried things like 'planting' random plant pieces at the bottom of pots, and nothing grew," she adds. While she had wanted students to use their own ideas as a starting point for investigations, the approach seemed too open-ended. "If we wanted students to eventually understand the concepts and techniques, we decided we'd have to provide more information. But we still wanted to allow student choice," she explains.

The teachers revised the activity by giving each student group a cutting -- jade, ivy, or philodendron -- that had begun to root. Groups had time to make detailed observations and "wonderings" on a sheet, then shared a few of these ideas on a class chart. After reviewing the chart, the class discussed investigations they might set up to answer questions. To prompt thinking, the teachers described some common propagation techniques. Students' final experimental plans included comparing cuttings grown with and without rooting hormone and taking cuttings from different parts of the same plant.

"We've yet to see the outcomes of this round," notes Pattie. "But we struck a comfortable balance between providing some horticultural information to guide student thinking, while not giving them "recipes" for their investigations."

More Literature-Inspired Gardens

There is no shortage of children's books that can inspire thematic growing projects. Consider the compelling projects that some of these favorites might encourage: Allison's Zinnia, by Anita Lobel; The Butterfly Garden, by Judith Levicoff; Growing Vegetable Soup, by Lois Ehlert; Linnea in Monet's Garden and Linnea's Windowsill Garden, by Christina Bjork and Lena Anderson; Pumpkin, Pumpkin, by Jean Titherington; The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett; and The Tale of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter.

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