OK, so its not the Great Pumpkin. It’s not huge. It’s not bright orange, and I’m a little skeptical about its flavor. There’s no mythology surrounding the Mediocre Pumpkin, but still, it’s a pumpkin. We’ll take it. On this Thanksgiving Day it’s especially important to look for blessings. Though the kindergarten class that planted seeds when school started had dreams of dozens of fat pumpkins the size of small cars, they still can enjoy at least one small pumpkin pie. The best thing about this pumpkin though is what is most valuable for every gardener: hope for next year. Inside this pumpkin will be seeds, little promises that remind us that this game isn’t over. There’s always next year when the soil might be more fertile, the weather might be better, and there might be fewer caterpillars… and for that, we are thankful.
It is a challenge to capture in a few words and pictures what our students experienced this last week at our annual Art in the Garden event. This is the day when several creative members of the community come to our campus to celebrate our pollinator garden and use their skills to engage students in conversations about the creative process. This year the diversity of talent was remarkable. When thirteen artists and performers enter a garden it is difficult to predict the variety of expression. From the silly to the sublime our students witnessed quite the spectrum of artistic interpretation. All were inspired by the same garden but each told a different story.
Consider the playful picture above. Few students (and even fewer adults) could resist adding found elements to this rather stoic portrait. This table provided a steady chorus of laughter all morning. Contrast that with the exquisite detail captured in a miniature watercolor and you’ll begin to get the idea.
Students witnessed big splashes of bright acrylic color as well as more subtle brushstrokes of oil paint. They had interesting discussions about everything from costume design to architectural structure and ornamentation . Several students had the opportunity to create innovative works inspired by environmental artists like Andy Goldsworthy. A visiting hive of honey bees displayed their own take on this type of environmental installation. All of this was accompanied by a beautiful flute and rhythmic percussion that gave a heartbeat to this lively morning. What a thing of beauty it is when so many talented artists come together to inspire and educate the next generation of creative thinkers and doers.
Surely you were wondering. While reading about watermelons in the classroom you must have been pondering the more traditional use of watermelons…. as food. Sure, they are interesting objects to be studied, measured and understood, but how did they taste? Let’s face it, no one would bother to grow watermelons if it weren’t for the crush of sweet pleasure inside that rind. Let it be known, the watermelons at OJA did not disappoint. You can’t help but smile when, as soon as knife pierces the outer skin, the “POP” happens. This spontaneous split is really something between a thud, a crack and a splash. These melons were too impatient to be sliced open smoothly. Juicy and sweet. The last taste of summer.
Before melon season is let go for fall, please consider one more academic application for the watermelon. Literature. When life turns the exceptional into the mundane, when the beautiful becomes bland from over-consumption and “WOW” becomes “meh” we can trust writers to remind us of greatness. Through the twist and roll of a poetic phrase a writer can return us to the realization that life is a delicious gift. Watermelons? Consider the words of Pudd’nhead Wilson, one of Mark Twain’s unforgettable characters:
“The true Southern watermelon is a boon apart, and not to be mentioned with commoner things. It is chief of this world’s luxuries, king by grace of God over all the fruits of the earth. When one has tasted it, he knows what the angels eat. It was not a Southern watermelon that Eve took: we know it because she repented.”
You must be thinking this is a stretch. It isn’t really. Aside from the obvious questions about where watermelons originated and the climatic and seasonal requirements necessary to grow these vines successfully, there is an interesting opportunity to use a melon to discuss our planet’s shape and how it’s surface is portrayed in maps. Many times students overlook the subtle but significant differences between globes that sit on a table and flat maps that hang on a wall. Anytime a three-dimensional object is portrayed in a two-dimensional medium, distortion is inevitable. To highlight this distortion students were asked to first draw the continents on small cantaloupes (a surprising challenge very different from drawing them on a sheet of flat paper). These will later be sliced into sections and eaten. The skins will then be spread out on a flat surface to see how this changes our perception of the drawings. A few students were asked to wrap a flat sheet of paper around a watermelon and find the necessary alterations that must be made to the paper to avoid any over lapping surfaces. This was an interesting task as these students had just come from math class where they had been using this same watermelon to discuss the measurement of surface areas. Now they were thinking of this surface area as a map of Planet Watermelon.
We don’t often think of math as a form of communication. Words, not numbers, are usually the first to come to mind when we think of sharing information or ideas. For instance, when we want to tell someone about a newly harvested watermelon many adjectives spring to mind: sweet, juicy, fat, red, striped, delicious etc.. However as soon as we say “bigger than a bread box” we are, even subconsciously, using math as a way to describe or communicate information about our watermelon. Obviously, a bread box is hardly a consistent unit of measurement but it instantly tells you something about our success by way of mathematical comparison .
As part of our Watermelon Math lesson we challenged our upper grade students to think about numerical ways of describing these fruits and using standard units of measurement to communicate their findings. Estimation was a great way to start this exercise. Having students guess, often builds momentum for discovery. It is challenging to describe the chaotic energy of these students as they worked and it’s difficult to measure the “light bulb” moments in kilowatts. They may not remember the formulas they used or the numbers they calculated but hopefully, more importantly, they will think differently about the concepts of circumference, surface area, weight and volume. They will probably think differently about watermelons as well.
Many might say, “Do you really need a watermelon for this exercise?”. Of course not, but if you’ve never brought watermelons into a middle school classroom (which has been watching those melons swell for the last month) you are really missing something. It kind of makes you feel sorry for those poor students who are stuck with measuring styrofoam spheres.
Suppose you had a watermelon patch of a certain size and in that patch your vines had managed to to produce three watermelons. What could you learn from that patch. If this were an average watermelon patch with an average rate of production, you could reasonably conclude that the ratio of the size of that patch to the number of fruit produced in it, would be consistent regardless of scale. If this sounds pretty dry, so far, perhaps it is because you are not standing in a watermelon patch. Putting yourself right in the middle of a word problem (excuse the hyperbole) changes everything. The first thing that changes is the “will this be on the test?” mentality. Math becomes a conversation springing from curiosity and not a lecture. The students become the ones asking the questions and the teacher starts guiding rather than dragging. This is what edible education is all about and this is what math in the garden looks like.
This was just the beginning. These students learned something more important than the answers to specific math problems. They started to see how math can be applied. After all, what good is information without application? Hopefully there will be more to learn from these watermelons. Maybe if we put one watermelon on a train headed west from Chicago and another on a train headed east from San Francisco ……..
Of course the clock is ticking. It’s always ticking. It just seems that this time of year the ticking gets louder when you realize that winter is coming. Obviously, most of the country will scoff at Floridians who use the word winter to describe the months of December through March and in this heat those Floridians will have a hard time even remembering what winter is. Their memory will be compromised in fevered brains as they try to navigate the delirious summer haze of the Target parking lot without having a stroke. It’s easy to forget about frosty mornings when the daily rainstorm has left the asphalt literally steaming. Nevertheless, frosty mornings are coming and even cold hardy crops need to be established before it gets cold. Therefore, we’re planting seeds and we’re planting lots of them.