"After I attended a nutrition and gardening workshop, I was tempted to enrich our school garden project by challenging each student to conduct in-depth research on a particular food crop for one month in the spring," reports Aiken, SC, teacher Belinda Yonce. "When I revealed to my fifth graders that I wasn't sure they could handle the challenge, my hesitancy was all the motivation they needed!" The class gathered a variety of vegetable seed packets, then each student chose a crop to explore. Belinda gave students an outline to guide their research, listing types of information they might gather on each plant, including its botanical family, where it fits into the nutrition pyramid, its history and origin, where it's grown, how it's used throughout the world, its structures and life cycle, its nutritional value, and ways of preparing it for eating. Students were also required to try growing the plant either in the classroom GrowLab or at home, and to record what they learned about the conditions the plant needs for good growth.
Encouraged to seek information from a wide variety of sources, students dug into seed catalogs and CD ROM encyclopedias, wrote to the local Cooperative Extension Service, borrowed gardening books from parents, and used 1-800 phone numbers they found on food packages to request free educational materials from companies. "The free promotional materials had nutritional information, food histories, and so on that students found useful," recalls Belinda. "But several kids noticed that the information -- particularly regarding a food's health value -- didn't always correlate with what they'd found in other sources." This prompted a discussion of advertisers' points of view and inspired students to be more vigilant about comparing and questioning claims, she adds.
Students took notes to document their research, then used the information gathered to write culminating puppet show scripts and booklets featuring their chosen plants. They used felt and other craft and recycled materials to create radish, pea, corn, strawberry, pepper, tomato, and other plant puppets, then presented their puppet skits, videotaping them to share with other classes. The presentations were so popular that Belinda's students were asked to help other classrooms develop their own garden plots and to present their skits at a teacher inservice session. "Researching, growing, and sharing information about these foods required them to organize and communicate information clearly," notes Belinda. "Their understanding, communication skills, and pride blossomed in the process - as did their awareness of and interest in healthy, garden-based food choices."