"The description in The White Stallion of a young girl heading West during the 1800s intrigued my third graders," reports Barbara Vlasvich from Aurora, IL.
"After we wandered through the tall grass maze in a local prairie preserve and talked about the demise of such ecosystems, several kids suggested that we create our own at school. Barbara saw an opportunity to use the class penchant for prairies to engage students as planners, investigators, and problem solvers.
Two classes combined to brainstorm what they would need to learn or think about in preparation for creating a prairie -- what types of plants to grow, where to get them, how to get permission for the project, how to choose a site, and so on -- then worked in small groups to seek answers to their questions. One group, for instance, met with the principal to describe the project and ask for his support. "I helped them think through their presentation, then I played the role of the principal and asked the kids questions while they practiced their delivery," says Barbara. Another group met with local park district staff to discuss the type of site they should choose and to learn about the types of plants that might be appropriate. Others focused on designing the garden and pathways. "Through the Internet, we found some good information on establishing and restoring prairies and connected with students in other schools to share questions and exchange ideas," explains Barbara.
As students' plans unfolded, they became concerned about the possibility of vandalism. "When we conferred about how to prevent vandalism, students at first considered a barbed wire fence," notes Barbara. "But as they thought it through, they realized that they wanted to invite, not preclude, visitors at their living learning laboratory," she adds. Their solution? One group created a welcoming sign, newsletter, and flyers that described the prairie project to the community and asked for help watching it thrive and grow. Another group traveled to other classes to introduce the prairie, explain the need to care for it, and discuss how classes might use it.
"When challenges arose, we always asked what we needed to do next or change," says Barbara. For instance, the planting group initially recommended that the class use prairie seeds rather than plants, but then discovered that they didn't grow well. Further research revealed that plugs (small plants) might improve their chances. An ATT prairie grant enabled the class to buy plugs and mulch to keep the weeds down. "Whenever a small group had trouble resolving a problem, they would present all sides of the issue to the entire class and try to come to a resolution," she adds.
"Students' investment in their own piece of prairie triggered questions and discussions about the roles the prairies had served, why they had diminished, and the implications of human development and growth on important ecosystems," says Barbara. "They felt very empowered by the accomplishments their teamwork yielded and by realizing that they could make a difference in their own community," she adds.
Many organizations throughout the midsection of the country are concerned about the loss of native prairies. Some of these groups assist schools with prairie restoration or simulation projects. To find out if any such resources or projects exist in your area, contact your regional botanic gardens, Natural Resources Conservation Service, or similar agencies. Also consider visiting the Schoolyard Nature Areas Project Web site (www.stolaf.edu/other/snap). It features highlights of school wildlife habitat and prairie restoration projects, articles, and related links.