Grassroots Learning

By Eve Pranis

The rapid disappearance of native prairies in the Midwest inspired a local farmer to help Ellen Wellborne's sixth graders in Nerstrand, MN, explore a local prairie up close. Students examined and compared different layers of prairie soil with woodland soil, then grew barley in samples of each soil, reports Ellen. "Students expected the woodlands to have deep, rich topsoil, but were shocked to see how much better the plants and their roots grew in the prairie soils," she adds. "This prompted them to want to further explore the history and ecology of the prairie."

With support from the farmer, students then tried growing native prairie plants from seed in the classroom, working in small groups to clean, count, plant, and figure germination percentages. After researching prairie communities and tending their prairie plants indoors through the winter, the older students joined with first graders in the spring to scatter seeds and to transplant their grasses and forbes (nongrass prairies plants) to help restore a local prairie. Kinder-garteners in the same school, meanwhile, had simulated and raised their own mini-prairies in flats in the GrowLab! In the fall, the same cross-age pairs returned to the prairie to observe and draw the plants and blooms.

Says farmer-partner Larry Richie, "My fundamental goal was simply to build students' appreciation of the diversity and beauty of the prairie." Ellen reports that her students are taking their role as stewards of the land very seriously. She notes that one student remarked, "I used to think a prairie was just a bunch of weeds, but I've discovered how much more there is to it!"

"When my students discovered that 85 percent of our state was once covered with tall grass prairies, but just one percent remained, we decided to take some action and raise a small demonstration 'prairie pocket' near the school," says Iowa City, IA, teacher Chris Rohret. With support from the local Soil Conservation Service, the class prepared, planted, and tended the prairie pocket, which now serves as an outdoor living laboratory.

Students conduct in-depth observations, compare prairie plants with others, conduct studies of insect interactions with prairie plants, and study prairie plant and animal adaptations. They also connect with language and history as they read novels detailing historical life on the prairie. "Because we don't have a classical beautifully manicured garden, but a wilder-looking plot with grasses up to ten feet tall, we've had to educate and cultivate support from our neighbors," says Chris. "This has included teaching them about prairie ecology and inviting them to watch us burn it!"

There are a range of organizations concerned about the loss of native prairies that are located throughout much of the midsection of the country. Many of these groups provide support to schools and others interested in prairie restoration projects. To find out if any such resources or projects exist in your area, consider contacting your regional botanic gardens, Soil Conservation Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of Environmental Conservation, or Department of Natural Resources. Whether you live in an area with native prairies or not, consider inviting your students to explore plants and plant communities native to your region.

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