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Gardening
January 2nd, 2009 by Steve Thorpe

Gardening

On March 20th, the garden created by Arbor Montessori School’s middle school students will be featured in the Farm to School tour that kicks off the Georgia Organics 12th Annual Conference and Trade Show.

Arbor Student in the Garden

In many Montessori adolescent programs, science studies take place in the context of occupations, a special form of project-based work in which the students are put in charge of elements of their environment that require authentic responsibility. These responsibilities can include gardening, beekeeping, meal preparation, and animal care to name a few. As they take on adult-like roles and responsibilities within the various areas of the program, they learn the science, math, and practical skills necessary for them to become as progressively more independent in their ventures.

In Arbor Montessori’s gardening program, not only are students learning about plant biology, genetics, photosynthesis, oxygen and carbon cycles, chemistry, and nutrition, they are also learning about the history of agricultural civilization, food production and distribution, and are familiarizing themselves with their local community. All of these elements are brought into focus as students participate in the very systems that they are studying.

Arbor Garden

Arbor Garden

It is integral to the Montessori Method that students steer this process from start to finish. Occupations are structured to include the use of democratic processes as well as individual choice and seek to meet each child’s educational need while fulfilling a vital function for the community. Students are given the freedom to succeed or fail based on the merits of their own work, thus creating a true balance of freedom and responsibility. There are strong project management components to this work and students develop the skill necessary to plan and implement a variety of projects in coordination with others. Not only is this an excellent technique for engaging student’s interest, it is putting them in a position to learn citizenship, teamwork, project management, and communication while gaining feedback from their effectiveness in reality itself.

The Curriculum

The curricular focus of the first gardening occupation involved looking at natural cycles and systems, beginning with soil, moving to the oxygen and carbon cycles, and concluding with a philosophical and scientific look at photosynthesis as a major link between human, biological, and atmospheric systems. I gave lessons on the origins of the universe, the formation of the atmosphere and the oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen cycles. We had a seminar on a wonderful reading on soil and studied the periodic table of elements. We broke into four groups and did soil tests, each student testing for a different condition.

Soil Testing

The soil test was a great example of contextual study because the nitrogen levels were directly linked to our readings, the periodic table of elements, the natural cycles that we had studied, and was extremely relevant to our ability to grow plants. Our work in the garden is what brings all of these subjects alive for the students and filling them with an awesome enthusiasm. Knowledge comes to be seen as a practical tool, directly relevant to the task at hand.

Not only are student’s more motivated to learn when they know that their knowledge has direct application, but it helps place both their work and the world around them into a greater context of meaning. The students were amazed and inspired by the idea that plants make their tissue directly from the carbon dioxide that they pull from the atmosphere. They were able to make the link to plant growth and carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. They were thrilled to see the connection between oxygen levels and the size of dinosaurs in the Mesozoic period. Thing that had seemed like unrelated fragments of knowledge begin to coalesce into systems of interconnection and meaning.

By placing our students in the intersection of biological, environmental, and human systems, we enable them to bring the connections made in cosmic education to fruition and in direct relation to embodied practices.

Community

Not only are biological, atmospheric, and metabolic worlds disclosed as students work in the garden, but their emerging role within human systems also becomes explicit as they participate in the age-old practice of agriculture and food production in a specific place.

I already wrote about the first level of human organization that the students contend with; that of their own work group. Their first work is to figure out how to work as a team to first define a common purpose, articulate an action plan, and delegate responsibilities.

Once they take their plans outside to the garden, they leave the world of the classroom and enter the realm of our neighborhood. Our garden is on an adjacent property that houses a Masonic lodge. The Masons have been wonderful neighbors and we have given us tours, told stores, and have allowed us to use their kitchen. The head of the lodge gave us a tour of his large urban garden and gave us many planting tips. The world of the students has expanded from the classroom to the neighborhood.

Preparing the Beds

A neighbor and a wonderful gardener himself, saw us out gardening one fall day, and came over to tell us how we had inspired him. He expressed interest in joining our efforts, and subsequently met with the garden group met with him and found that we share a common vision. The students had wanted to expand the garden and had begun the laborious task of double digging a new plot. As it turned out, Gordon’s brother-in-law owned a tractor. Over a weekend, Gordon plowed a large patch of land and brought over a couple of truckloads of horse manure that we spend a week working into the soil.

Part of Gordon’s vision is to create a space where neighbors who don’t have space where they live can garden. In the spring we are planning on inviting neighbors over and making part of our garden available for community gardening. What began as a gathering of ten adolescents has evolved into a huge garden space in which young adolescents and the elders of our neighborhood can work side by side, sharing labor and wisdom.

Part of what makes the Montessori approach to gardening unique is that we go far beyond using plants as a didactic tool or as a gimmick to motivate interest. The students take charge of the garden in a very meaningful way, from choosing the sight and layout, researching and preparing the soil, and choosing what plants to grow. The students make these larger decisions as group and then each student takes responsibility for a specific area of study and work.

Through agricultural work, students connect to one of the foundational practices of human civilization. We explore the links between the atmosphere, humans, and the plant kingdom in the meeting place between our students, the community, and our place.

*** Downloadable Documents ***

Documents

  1. Neil Van Herk’s Sustainability Through Organic Gardening
  2. Garden Project Planner
  3. Gardening Math Applications

Fall Gardening Occupation

  1. Fall Gardening Project Plan 2008
  2. Fall Gardening Student Roles 2008
  3. Fall Garden Student Evaluation 2008
  4. Fall Garden Project Summary 2008

Winter Garden Occupation

  1. Winter Garden Project Plan 2008
  2. Winter Garden Student Roles and Responsibilities 2008
  3. Winter Garden Student Evaluation 2008
  4. Winter Garden Project Summary 2008


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