Cultivating Connections

By Eve Pranis

"I was delighted how well my emotionally disturbed kindergarten through third graders responded to working in the earth and nurturing living things," reports Waterford, CT, teacher Joann Flynn. "So, after receiving a grant that supported connections between suburban and inner city schools, I worked with a teacher in a nearby urban school to develop what we've come to call our Friendship Garden Project," she adds.

The concept behind the friendship garden was to have classes from different parts of the community share gardening experiences at one another's schools. This was intended to inspire an appreciation for diversity (of people and plants!), build friendships, and break down perceived barriers between the communities and their respective cultures.

To initiate the Friendship Garden Project, special education students and second and third graders visited one another's schools to explore the garden sites and identify the growing conditions each site offered. The garden at one school, for instance, could support only shade-loving plants, while the other was ripe for those that thrive in sun.

"Back at school, students were excited to research plants that might thrive in the other school's garden site," says Joann. "We then used GrowLab: A Complete Guide to Gardening in the Classroom to determine how to grow plants in our indoor GrowLab and secretly began to grow sunflowers, zinnias, and other sun-loving plants to give to our new friends." (Meanwhile, students in the other school raised impatiens and other shade-lovers that would thrive in their peers' suburban garden.) Next, Joann's class reviewed catalogs, cut out images of plants that intrigued them, and classified them using shade, part shade, and full sun symbols.

As a follow-up, the two classes met at a local nursery to learn more about perennials that would thrive in each type of garden. Using what they'd learned about plants, each group then created possible layouts for the other school's garden on graph paper, and shared their ideas via mail. As of this writing, classroom GrowLabs at both schools are sporting vegetable, herb, and flower seedlings that will flourish in the partner school's garden. Extras will be sold at a joint spring plant sale. Joann's class has also conducted plant investigations from GrowLab: Activities for Growing Minds and invited students in their partner school to do the same. They plan to share their experiences and results.

"These first collaborative planting experiences were a success on many levels," explains Joann. "The students learned about diversity in lifestyles, people, and abilities by working with the other class, and also came to appreciate diversity in plant life and to recognize that plants (like people) have different preferences and needs," she adds. With the hundreds of free flower bulbs they won from National Gardening Association's Kids Growing with Dutch Bulbs award, these new friends hope to keep their partnership blooming another year.

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