Cultivating Decision Makers

By Eve Pranis

An outdoor garden that began with an offer of help from a landscape architect parent turned into much more for a group of second graders in Athens, GA.

"Since my school had adopted an approach to teaching and learning that encourages student choice and problem solving, we decided to apply that thinking to the garden project," says teacher Teddy Johnson. Teddy admits to having some doubts about her young charges' capacity to take on that level of responsibility, but took the risk to see what might unfold. "An important and very powerful aspect of our approach was to close every discussion and meeting by asking, 'What do we need to know? What is our next step?'" says Teddy. "This seemed to provide a structure for the conversation that helped students move forward," she adds.

After a committee of students looked at the site and learned from parent/architect Ann English about garden design concepts, students were inspired to try a butterfly-shaped butterfly garden. The question, What do we need to know next? prompted a discussion about the need to learn about butterfly life cycles, their tastebuds, garden design, and so on. "Ann and I tried to support students' efforts with resources and ideas when appropriate, but whenever possible let them take the lead," says Teddy. For instance, Ann helped students think about possible color schemes, but students had to brainstorm, discuss, and reach an agreement about the actual design. (The group agreed that the plants would be chosen to entice butterflies, but the concrete walkway down the center, which formed the butterfly's body, would be designed and painted to delight the students!) "Because everyone was encouraged to share his or her opinion and work together to reach a compromise, both high- and low-end students were engaged in sharing and defending their ideas," notes Ann.

"It was very different working this way during the five-month planning process," says Teddy. "I had to be much more flexible to allow students time to puzzle out problems, listen to each other, and reach agreement before decisions were made," she explains. "Although the process was sometimes slow and tedious, the kids really did work through issues themselves. They learned that the responsibility for democracy can be challenging, but so can the gains," she adds.

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