To prepare her students for carving out a garden site in the schoolyard, middle school teacher Joan Dungey in Yellow Springs, OH, invited them to reflect on and write about their favorite childhood places. Students next shared their memories with a partner; then each pair presented highlights to the rest of the class. "I found it interesting that nearly all of the students recalled some sort of peaceful natural spot where they had played or explored the world as youngsters," notes Joan. As students shared their images, classmates took notes and discussed similarities and patterns they noticed, then began to hone in on features they would like to see in their own outdoor learning center.
"Because one of our goals was building community partnerships, we also considered who else might use the area and how we could meet their needs," says Joan. The garden design the students dreamed up featured, among other things, herb and flower gardens with benches for peaceful reflection and a switchgrass maze to challenge and delight students and the community. "Although the entire garden is a living laboratory for different studies, it's nice that it also reflects students' sense of special places," says Joan.
"If we want to prepare students to live in a democratic culture, they need to learn how to work with others to make decisions and solve problems that arise," says fourth grade teacher Sarah Elwood. "What better place to practice than in a garden project?" she adds.
We have heard from many teachers who have discovered that indoor and outdoor gardening projects provide an ideal context for enabling students to influence the course of their learning. By valuing students' opinions and encouraging them to make decisions, these educators have begun to cultivate motivated, confident, and collaborative learners. Most acknowledge that relinquishing some control and inviting students into the decision-making process isn't necessarily easy or more efficient, but it has the potential for great rewards. We like to hear about your experiences. How have you prepared students to work collaboratively to initiate and sustain growing projects? What advice can you give to colleagues wanting to do the same?