It’s not surprising that many of life’s most valuable lessons only get half learned. It is simply too easy to divert to a different path rather than follow anything to it’s conclusion. Never have there been so many forks in life’s road. Food lessons are no different. The term “seed to plate” may be on the verge of being overused to the point of meaninglessness but it’s philosophy, which challenges our short attention span, is just beginning to get traction. Looking at the food on our plates and tracing that food’s path back to a point of origin (soil) can be mind boggling. For some, even considering that journey is an epiphany. School gardens not only encourage kids to think about that journey, they invite them to embark on it. By planting a seed and committing to its growth, students learn first hand what it means to bring food to the table. For some foods, a “seed to plate” experience isn’t that much of a challenge. Cherry tomatoes are pretty easy except that many don’t even make it to the kitchen, much less a plate. Some foods require a bit more tenacity. Our last post covered the wheat grown by Mrs. Madrid’s first graders. This morning some of that wheat was finally ground into flour and made it to the plate in the form of pasta.
(Full disclosure: Much of our wheat is still green and not quite ready to harvest and Friday is the last day of school. Bummer. So even though we harvested some of our grain and included it in our recipe, our ingredients were supplemented by a bag of spelt berries.)
These first graders KNOW now what it takes for a seed of wheat that they planted in the fall to wind up as pasta on a plate in the spring. They have imagined it, seen it, smelled it, touched it, and this morning, tasted it. And it was good. All of it.
Encouraging students to strengthen and stretch their anticipation muscles is one of the primary functions of a school garden. Nature’s gratification is rarely instant but positive experiences in a garden, over time can provide a gratifying sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that is rarely equalled. This can also build patience. Everyone loves a patient child (or adult for that matter) but building patient children is difficult work. It is a delicate balance of challenging students just a bit beyond their comfort, but not so far beyond it that they lose heart and give up.
In the case of Mrs. Madrid’s winter wheat, we almost pushed it too far. From a first grader’s perspective, the time between Halloween and Mother’s Day nears eternity, but this is about how long it took for our winter wheat to reach maturity. Keeping first graders interested in watching grass grow for seven months was no small feat. Mrs. Madrid persevered. On a consistent basis this patience building teacher led her class out to the garden to observe and celebrate the slightest development. Even more frequently she sent two students out to water and report back to their classmates. Occasionally she accompanied her friends out to the garden just for a fresh air reset. Regardless, she was always encouraging these children that yes, in time, the harvest would come. And now…. finally… it has. Now, the possibility of pasta from scratch, from serious scratch is at our fingertips.
Maybe it’s a little cruel to make kids wait so long, (We definitely will add more faster growing plants to the first grade syllabus next year.) but they did it. They waited. They cared. They didn’t lose interest. They were patient. And soon, (very soon) spaghetti will never have tasted so good.
It would certainly be understandable to associate the term “random sampling” with a Sunday afternoon stroll through the grocery section of Costco. Making a meal out of the treats served in those little paper cups is now part of our cultural norm. What happened with our fourth graders last week, however, was more statistical in nature. After a disheartening attempt to grow cucumbers, these students decided to try planting carrots. Much to their delight, nearly every tiny seed they sprinkled into soil sprouted. So many, that it became obvious some thinning would be necessary. In fact, it appeared that at least half of the seedlings would have to go. While discussing this task at hand, we became curious as to how many seedlings each student would have to pull. (assuming each student would pull the same number) If you have ever thinned seedlings with young fingers you will understand that restraint is a significant factor, so clarity is always a good idea. We quickly concluded that if we were going to calculate how many sprouts would be pulled by each student, we would first need to know how many sprouts we had all together. This would be our “population”. We decided that rather than counting each individual carrot plant we would look at one small patch of the bed, see how many carrots were in that patch, and then determine how many of those patches would fit in our bed. We would then multiply that number by the number of carrots counted in that one patch. It was determined that a six inch square would be a good size and this would be our “sample”. After calculating our total population of carrots, we would divide that number in half since half of the carrots needed to be pulled. We would then divide that number by the number of students to determine how many each student would take out.
If at this point you are starting to lose interest, you would have lots of company from fourth graders in classrooms everywhere who are limited to reading mathematic word problems from a page in a textbook. Try reading aloud some of the above paragraph to a fourth grader and watch as their eyes glaze over. I cannot tell you how different it was to actually do this math problem in the garden. (I could try, but in a few pages your eyes would be the ones glazing over) I can, however, tell you with absolute honesty that this class was having a good time. The best kind of good time. A challenging good time.
Dropping a seed into a pot is pretty easy. Transplanting the seedling that results is a bit more of a challenge. These third grade students were up to the task.
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.
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.
We have to admit, growing table grapes in Orlando seemed a little far fetched, until we saw one (yes, just one) gardener doing it. Click HERE to see who it was. Suddenly it became not just possible, but probable. That’s the crazy thing about looking around at what others are doing. It raises the bar. Of course trying to “keep up with the Joneses” has brought misery to many, but seeing what others can do and are doing eliminates the common cynical excuse of “We can’t do that.”. Of course we haven’t tasted these yet, but we have high hopes. Look around. See what’s possible. Be inspired. Give it a shot.
For some reason (please feel free to explain in the comments section) a forecast predicting temperatures in the mid to upper thirties does not preclude a chance of frost. In the wee hours of Monday, morning Jack Frost decided to pay a visit to our garden. Fortunately, most of our winter crops were unfazed, however, many of our tomatoes and eggplants were traumatized and in some cases obliterated. What is really strange, though, is how the damage wasn’t across the board. Like a tornado that wipes out one house and leaves another across the street unfazed, frost found the plants that just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes just a few feet was the difference between “no damage at all” and “I think that slimy blob used to be a tomato plant.” Microclimates are real.
The embarrassing part is that the reason our tomato plants were in these pots to begin with was to prevent this very scenario. The upper grades have been discussing (at length) the “window of opportunity” that gardeners have to grow tomatoes successfully in Central Florida. They have learned that most tomatoes will not “set” fruit once temperatures consistently are above 85 degrees Fahrenheit. This wouldn’t be a problem, except that happens pretty early around these parts and as is painfully obvious; we can still get frost in February. This leaves precious little time to grow a plant that is big enough to produce flowers before it gets too hot. That’s why we start our tomato seeds in pots, so that we can get them going before Christmas. We leave them outside when its warm and bring them inside…. when … we ….uhm…have.. a…um, you know……. a frost.
Oh well, the reason we are doing this is to learn, right? At least grace was extended and we still have many survivors. We’ll be watching the local weather a bit more closely and will eventually put these lucky ones in the ground, that is after Jack Frost has left town for good.
“To be surprised, to wonder, is to begin to understand.” – Jose Ortega y Gassett.
If you surprise a child and inspire them to wonder, your job as an educator is nearly complete. (Teachers please don’t confuse your job as an educator with your other jobs: classroom manager, statistician, counselor, mediator and general miracle worker.) In the learning process nearly everything that comes after the inspiration of a really good question is the work of the student. This strawberry in a bottle sat on a table at the front of Mrs. Braga’s fourth grade class asking a question. The question was so obvious it didn’t even need to be verbalized. The answer, however, wasn’t quite so obvious. This question sat on the table all morning long, encouraging something we all long for children to experience, the struggle of challenging thought. It did this without the use of punishment or reward, without discipline or pleading.
After lunch the students had a long discussion about how this berry got in the bottle. All theories were entertained with respect, even the ones that fell quickly. Maybe the glass was cut. Maybe the berry was dehydrated than re-hydrated. Maybe it was shoved in really fast. The spectrum of ideas was broad. This conversation was lively and the debate was vigorous. The answer was discovered more than it was revealed and the students felt the pride of solving a problem.
The puzzle that this berry presented, though perhaps more obvious, is no less challenging and compelling than the puzzles that our students find in the garden and in nature. This problem solving approach immediately became a template for their discussion of strawberry pollination (a theory that after much consideration and debate was skeptically accepted) Too often we give children answers to questions they are not asking. If we can present the world to them without filling in all of the blanks, showing them just enough to inspire curiosity, education can become an engaging conversation and not just a lecture.