How Seed Catalogs Turned Into NKE Kids Buying a Farm

Earlier this year, a big pile of old seed catalogs I handed to fourth-grade NKE teacher Emily Anderson during an NKE Arboretum committee meeting took on a life vastly beyond what I had imagined—an opportunity for Project-Based Learning. What is PBL? “Students take charge of their education through hands-on, Project-Based Learning,” explains Ms. Anderson. “PBL  is a dynamic classroom approach in which students boldly explore real-world problems and acquire a deeper knowledge of the content.”

June16Blog-project-based-learning-gardening-LRIdeas for projects may ignite at any time, anywhere, and in this case the old catalogs were perfectly timed for the “Common Core State Standard 4.MS.A.3: Apply the area and perimeter formulas for rectangles in real world and mathematical problems.” Traditionally, this standard is met by teaching students how to measure length, width, and the relationship between the two. However, when Ms. Anderson saw those seed catalogs, an idea struck her, she says: What if, instead of using the pre-created curriculum-based SmartBoard lesson to teach area and perimeter, she created her own project using these catalogs?

And so the Buy a Farm Project was born. Each student received $100,000 to buy a farm. “Initially, students thought $100,000 was a lot of money,” Ms. Anderson says. “That is, until they learned that it also needed to cover the cost of buildings/shelters on their farm, seeds for planting, irrigation systems, equipment (tractors, rototillers, etc.), and farm insurance.”

The project began by students individually choosing which crops they’d like to grow. Next, they researched farm animals and decided if they would like to have animals on their farm, too. After that, they used real-life USDA Agriculture Maps online to determine where the best place would be to purchase land, based on the specific fruits, vegetables and animals they were interested in. They learned about Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening and used the NKE Arboretum to measure and plan their own garden beds.  

A big step was using LandWatch.com to look at real-life properties that are currently for sale in the United States, Ms. Anderson says. Through weeks of research, students could view what may be available with their $100,000. When confident with their decision, students completed a Land Purchase Request. After they “purchased” their individual property, students had to problem solve for housing options. This led to a conversation about risk management, financial literacy, and insurance.  

Insurance—both dwelling and crop protection—was a key player in the Buy a Farm project. Finally, students rounded out the project by creating a map of their farm based on the specific dimensions of their property and how many acres they’d purchased. This map helped them decide and calculate quantities of seeds to purchase from the many different seed catalogs that were on hand. Eventually, if students realized they needed more money than Ms. Anderson had offered, they learned how to write grants to request additional funding.  

During this project, Ms. Anderson played many different roles, she says: teacher, doctor, insurance agent, farmer, employee of the United States Department of Agriculture, meteorologist and seed catalog owner. Students were assessed and evaluated in real time, with real-life scenarios. “It was more than obvious: They were energized by the role-playing opportunities and captivated with the voice and choice woven within this project,” Ms. Anderson says.

The Buy a Farm project was not a task to be completed at the end of a unit to show mastery of standards or skills. Instead, the learning takes place through participating in the project. “I saw a change in my students that astounded me,” she says. “As time went on, it became more apparent that Buy a Farm resulted in more engaged, self-directed 4th graders who took ownership and responsibility for their learning.”

Not bad for a pile of old seed catalogs! How else can our efforts with the Arboretum and outdoor education inspire more experiential learning at NKE? The possibilities are limited only by imagination. If you’d like to get involved in our efforts, please contact NKE Principal Chris Kluck at cjkluck@oregonsd.net. And you can always follow our efforts on Facebook.

Final Reflections on Kids & Gardening from Sara Lubbers

Sara-Lubbers-salsa-making  Next month, NKE will officially say goodbye to school counselor Sara Lubbers as she retires after 25 years at our school. Ms. Lubbers has been an integral part of the efforts at NKE to encourage outdoor/garden education. I sat down with her to get some thoughts on her passion for gardening and how that impacts our students.

How did you develop an interest in gardening?

My dad was raised in a family of eight during the Depression, when this was the way families were fed from June-October in Wisconsin. My grandmother always had a huge garden and that was how they ate—the farm to table movement really isn’t a new concept! I have a distinct memory of being four with my dad at my grandmother’s garden in Sheboygan. As a little kid I loved flowers and loved to find out about things that were growing. She grew lima beans—what is known as a butter bean—and I would pick and eat them. We always had a large garden growing up, and my dad, along with my grandmother inspired my interest in gardening. Growing up, I enjoyed weeding and harvesting, along with cooking and canning the harvest with my mom. Eating fresh food was a strong value for my family.

Sara-Lubbers-gardeningHow does that translate into your work here with kids?

Ever since I’ve been here, the Arboretum has been an area in transition. Various staff members through the years have taken interest in it and have wanted to develop the space to have native plants, but nothing specific for gardening like it is now really took shape. Depending on who was on staff, we had different revitalizations of the Arboretum, and I’ve always tried to be an active participant. As a school counselor, I think movement is important, being out in nature—kids can deal with stress and personal struggles by being outside. Nothing has pleased me more than the current revitalization of the Arboretum with active parents wanting to make this a priority four years ago. I jumped on the team and played an active role in making sure we could have garden beds. That was my focus, although I think the other areas are important, too. Kids being healthy and knowing where their food comes from is vital for this next generation.

Are there certain memories that have stuck with you?

Some of my great memories are of being involved with the planting of our first raised beds, teaching students about the process of planting and then helping students to make salsa in their classrooms. After our first year of having raised beds, we had an amazing tomato harvest. I just offered to help, and some classrooms took me up on the offer. Staff brought in blenders and food processors, and we made salsa and bruschetta. I will never forget going out in the Arboretum with a group of students from Andrea DeNure’s classroom. I took a group and we took some bowls and we gathered cherry tomatoes and small yellow tomatoes. They were like, “But this is yellow!” I said, “Yes, tomatoes come in many different colors.” Some were on the ground, and they asked if we could eat those, and what the straw was for …  just the learning lessons that come from questions in important with the process of understanding  what it takes to grow healthy food. Children are so earnest in wanting to know. It was so exciting to see how thrilled they were to taste the tomato and make something with it. This is project-based learning, and you want high engagement in whatever you are having kids learn. Participation and motivation is higher and it brings many of their skills together. It’s not just food; it’s about measuring, about math and reading … being able to speak about it and articulate what’s happening through the process.

Kids-seedsWhat impact has your outdoor education training had?

After our first year of moving forward with parent involvement and bigger long-range plans for the Arboretum, I and a couple other staff members took a weeklong summer class class for educators on gardening education with Community Groundworks here in Madison. That was a very important class for me because I was with like-minded people and we were at Troy Gardens, which has a very developed gardening program for children where they live. Kids can come at no cost and make something fresh or do art projects in the garden or just sit and be quiet and read. It is a very well-developed program, and I was able  to see that functioning. We were able to meet other people involved in this whole area of school gardens, and Madison has a very strong program in school gardens. One of the really fun things we did at the end of the week was take tours of these gardens and see not only what they grew but how they were doing it, how it was laid out and accessible for different developmental needs.

How has use of the Arboretum outdoor classroom changed in recent years?

Now staff are not so reluctant to use it, the interest in using the raised beds has increased and staff are using the various spaces for creative writing, breaks and more. The space in recent years has become attractive and a desirable place to be. With the recent spring weather, kids have been out there reading and writing. I really think most classrooms use it at some level. The hope is that it will continue being part of our Netherwood culture. Kids really want to know: How does a tomato grow? How do onions grow? You can pick beans and then eat them? Kids learn that way and get excited and tell their friends. It’s been wonderful—one of those extra perks—that I’ve been able to be in a school and combine my passion for gardening education. As a counselor I advocate for kids to deal with their problems and learn healthy ways to manage their struggles, and the Arboretum goes hand in hand with that.

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