North Elementary School students used to be spotted outside only during recess or fire drills, but they now enjoy the outdoors by exploring budding garden beds on their school grounds.
Expanding the classroom to include the outdoors was the vision of Jim Rye, a West Virginia University education professor and Monongalia County WVU Extension Master Gardener, who recently helped to implement the new garden-based learning program at North Elementary in Morgantown.
With the help of the WVU Extension Service, Monongalia County Technical Education Center and North Elementary parents, teachers and volunteers, 13 raised beds were constructed and planted on school grounds in May.
Each grade level adopted two beds, with one for the preschool class. So far, students have grown eggplant, pear tomatoes, rainbow chard, tomatillos and more.
“This fall, we are growing lettuce, spinach and radishes. Next year, we are definitely doing pumpkins and winter squash,” Rye said.
North Elementary is one of many professional development schools affiliated with the WVU Benedum Collaborative. A partnership among WVU, public schools and the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, the collaborative allows students in WVU’s five-year teacher education program to gain real-world experience in a local school while pursuing their degree.
Rye developed the idea to partner with a local school and implement a garden-based educational program in the fall of 2010, when he was working toward his Master Gardener certification through WVU Extension Service’s Monongalia County office.
Extension Master Gardeners undergo at least 30 hours of training from WVU gardening experts and must complete 30 additional hours of volunteer service before receiving certification. The result is a group of highly skilled gardeners who volunteer their time and knowledge to help enhance their local communities.
Master Gardeners provide communities throughout the state with volunteer work that translates into millions of dollars. Public schools, churches, businesses, park commissions, county commissions and other community organizations benefit from the talents donated by local Master Gardeners.
Rye worked with North’s principal, Natalie Webb, to secure a grant from Lowe’s Educational and Charitable Foundation. Once funded, the pair teamed with kindergarten teacher Laura VanHorn to develop a garden-based curriculum for North Elementary.
The curriculum includes science, math, reading and creative arts elements.
“On the first day of school, I took my students outside and let them pick either a tomato or a pepper from the garden and we made salsa in class,” VanHorn said.
Her kindergarten students have also used the garden for measurement and comparison activities, such as comparing the weight, size and number of seeds in different varieties of tomatoes.
Kids in the upper-level classes developed a personal connection to the garden, as they were able to plant seeds before summer and come back to school to see how they have grown, said VanHorn.
Class activities include calculating the average length of a green bean pod and writing and illustrating a daily gardening journal.
“The kids love tasting the vegetables,” Rye said. “They can do math exercises with green beans and then throw them into the Crockpot.”
Rye specializes in science education, preparing education majors to teach science at the elementary age-level. When initially developing the garden-based learning program at North, he knew that incorporating a pre-service opportunity for his education students was a vital component.
“Learning to teach is greatly facilitated by having real-world teaching experience,” Rye said.
So far, Rye’s teacher-education students have worked with the kids to carry out experiments, help develop new curricula and maintain the beds.
The fourth-grade class planted different varieties of lettuce at varying depths. They used tape to create a grid in the beds and are now comparing the different levels of growth.
The program will move into the off-season with the implementation of grow labs in the classrooms.
The teacher-education students also will introduce a vermicomposting project in three classrooms. The project’s red worms make compost when they are fed vegetable clippings—such as the outer leaves of lettuce and banana peels.
“Garden-based learning can take place year-round,” Rye explained. “By creating grow labs in classrooms, children can plant seeds, raise them to seedlings and transplant them in their own classrooms before it’s suitable to plant outside.”
Rye’s goal is to sustain the model at North Elementary and transport the program to more professional development schools in the future.
“So many of our students have never had the opportunity to grow a garden,” Webb explained. “This program is providing an invaluable hands-on learning experience and makes our curriculum relevant to the lives of the students.”
To learn more about the WVU Extension Master Gardener program, contact your local WVU Extension Service county office or check the Master Gardener website.
CONTACT: Ann Bailey Berry, WVU Extension Service
Office: 304-293-5691; Mobile: 304-376-7740
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