Monarchs Take Flight at NKE

9-17-Ruhde-MonarchAmid all the back to school excitement this fall, many of our NKE kids are thrilled to get the class in the morning and check on their caterpillars. We have 15 classes this fall where the kids are carefully caring for monarch caterpillars, feeding them fresh milkweed every day as they wait for them to transform into a chrysalis and, before long, emerge as a monarch butterfly that is destined to fly all the way to Mexico! What a fun, engaging project for our NKE students.

Besides the obvious benefits to the kids, this project has greater meaning: We are taking part in monarch tagging through Monarch Watch. This organization started in 1992 as “an outreach program dedicated to engaging the public in studies of monarchs and is now concentrating its efforts on monarch conservation.” When our monarchs are ready to be released, a very small sticker with tracking information is attached to a wing. If a tagged butterfly is found, the data can be used to determine the pathways taken by migrating monarchs, the influence of weather on the migration, the survival rate of the monarchs, etc.

You may notice that we now also have a certified Monarch Waystation at NKE close to the tree we refer to as Mother Oak. Planting native plants that butterflies love to get nectar from is one way to help prevent their decline. Some other things you can do to help combat the decline of the monarch are:

  • Plant milkweed. It’s where they lay their eggs and is the only plant monarch caterpillars eat!
  • Limit use of pesticides or, even better, avoid them altogether.
  • Create inviting monarch habitat. In addition to the plants mentioned, Include large, flat rocks where monarchs can warm up in the morning; a spot where they can drink; brushes and trees for night cover; and, a particular butterfly favorite, mud puddles.
  • Encourage the preservation of grasslands and the planting of natives plants in local parks, along roadsides and more.

If you’d like to learn more, visit And if you’d like to get involved in our outdoor education efforts at NKE, please let NKE principal Chris Kluck know.

Excitement for ‘Gardenpalooza’!

During the dark depths of winter, the NKE Arboretum Committee has stayed busy thinking spring and making exciting plans for our school. This year, for the first time, NKE will celebrate our gardens and outdoor education efforts with a “Gardenpalooza” week in which all NKE students will participate. This Gardenpalooza week will be a perfect finale to an entire month of wellness at NKE (the three weeks before will celebrate mindfulness, giving back, and being active).

Our Gardenpalooza week, May 15–19, will kick off with all students meeting with their Character Families on Monday and learning about sustainability. They will watch a video from our administrative intern, Ms. Knutson, challenging each class to work together to complete a bingo card that contains different fun ideas for learning outside; classes that get bingo will be able to eat a picnic lunch outside that Friday. Also, during the week, each class will go outside to plant in our gardens, amend our garden soil, plant a rain garden, and more. We will need volunteers to help us get the kids outside that week—if you are interested, please contact Kim Sorbet by email at

To cap off our Gardenpalooza week, we plan to have a celebration open house on that Friday, May 19, during which our school families will be able to tour our new hoop house (!), visit the Arboretum, eat a picnic dinner and visit stations for nature art, local nature experts and more. We hope to see you there!

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 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 And you can always follow our efforts on Facebook.

An Early Spring at NKE

As I write this, we’re just getting past two weeks of frigid temps and a fresh snowfall. But behind the scenes at school, our minds are focused on creating an early spring inside the classrooms at NKE. This year, for the first time, we have many classes who will be doing seed-starting projects using grow lights.

SeedlingGrowLightEverything from pumpkins and peppers to kohlrabi and cabbage can be easily started inside, some as early as March. The classes will nurture the seedlings until they are ready to be planted in our raised beds in the Arboretum. We also have new raised beds slated for construction first thing this spring in the outdoor education space between NKE and PVE.

This effort was initially inspired by a grant we received from the Wisconsin Medical Society Foundation supporting gardening at school. Part of that grant went to buying seed-starting kits. As it turns out, we have so much interest we are dedicating money from the NKE Arboretum fund-raising to buying enough kits so all interested classes can participate in this fun, engaging project.

If you would like to support the NKE Arboretum projects, we always welcome help! We meet the first Mondays of the month at 5 p.m. at school, and you can make a monetary (tax-deductible) donation by going to and clicking on “How to Donate.” Keep an eye out for our first spring volunteer day announcement, too (follow us on Facebook to find out dates as they are planned).

Teaching Healthy Food Choices

Last week my daughter, Elizabeth, came home from school one day, read a list of ingredients on a snack and told her little brother it was good that it didn’t have any high fructose corn syrup! It certainly caught my attention, and it made sense when I found out that a community educator from Stoughton Hospital had been to school to teach the kids about healthy food choices.

This connection came about through a partnership with Stoughton Hospital, which committed to be a “Visionary” supporter (donating at least $1,000) of the NKE Arboretum. As part of our school’s relationship with Stoughton Hospital, educators promote the hospital’s mission of encouraging healthy living in their community.

According to Stoughton Hospital’s Autumn Kumlien, the goals of the education for our NKE students are:

1) Teach children how to make healthful food choices and detect marketing deceptions.

2) Give children the opportunity to practice what they have learned.

3) Empower children to share their “detective skills” with other family members.

Stoughton Hospital uses a program called Nutrition Detectives™, which is geared specifically at elementary school children. Developed by Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, with his wife, Catherine Katz, PhD., it shows the children five clues to use when making food choices. They are great clues for all of us to keep in mind, no matter how old we are! Those five clues are:

1) Don’t be fooled by the big letters on the front of the package. Look for the itty-bitty letters on the food label instead.

2) The first ingredient on the list is always the biggest.

3) Avoid partially hydrogenated oil and high fructose corn syrup. It’s like finding Waldo!

4) Avoid foods with a long ingredient list.

5) Fiber is your friend! Beware of whole-grain imposters. Choose breads, cereals, cereal bars, crackers and pasta with at least 2 grams of fiber.

 Thanks to Stoughton Hospital for supporting our school, our students and our initiatives for outdoor education!

Winter Sowing at NKE

WinterSowing1Groups of NKE 3rd and 4th grade students got to participate in the “winter sowing” seed starting project at NKE on March 6! Seeds are started in these milk jugs, which can be set right outside now and act like a mini greenhouse. (You can read more about how winter-sowing works, and how easy it is to do at your own house, here.)

It was so great to see the kids’ enthusiasm for this. Two favorite things overheard during the process: “I love getting my hands dirty!” and “I would totally miss recess for this!” We also had a special visitor: Eileen Wilson, executive director of the Wisconsin Medical Society Foundation (and Oregon resident!) stopped by. We’d like to thank the Foundation again for supporting school gardening at NKE! And, huge thanks to NKE parent Anne Michels for organizing this fun undertaking! You can see more pics of our project in our Facebook album here.


Busy Fall 2014 at NKE Arboretum

 I’m happy to report that we’ve had a great end to 2014 in the NKE Arboretum. In a little more than two years we’ve seen this fantastic space inside our school transform from a little-used, overgrown courtyard to a beautiful natural area that is a part of daily school life. Some of the highlights from this fall include:

• Students harvested produce from the gardens they planted last spring.

• Some of the classes put their own produce to work by making and trying salsa.

RobinBoysTreeCookies-forweb• We participated in the Green Apple Day of Service on Sept. 22. This is a worldwide event coordinated by the U.S. Green Building Council dedicated to making our schools greener. At the NKE Arboretum, volunteers built a “tree cookie” patio and did general cleanup. Many thanks to the Wisconsin Green Building Alliance for their mini-grant supporting our efforts!

• We succeeded in raising enough money for and constructing permanent compost bins in the parking lot that will handle cafeteria compost from NKE and PVE. That’s a huge amount of waste that will be put to good use instead of going into a landfill!

BinsAlmostBuiltDanRobin-forwebWe’ll be busy over the winter months doing planning and fund-raising so that when spring arrives, we’ll be ready. Some priorities we’ve already identified include improving the path surfaces, building a rain garden, creating hoop houses for our garden beds and providing more education and support for our staff to integrate outdoor learning into their very busy days.

Many people don’t realize that the NKE Arboretum improvements are supported solely by donations and grants (and lots of volunteer sweat equity, of course!). If you’d like to make a financial donation supporting outdoor learning at NKE, you can always download the donation form here on our website. Every single donation makes an impact and is tax-deductible. (Making a donation in honor of a favorite teacher or staff member would be a great holiday gift!)

Thanks to all the staff, parents and students who have worked hard to improve our outdoor classroom space in 2014! If you’d like to get involved, please email Principal Dan Rikli at

The Kids Make Salsa!




For today’s blog we have some info straight from teacher Andrea DeNure about the recent salsa-making activity with the produce from our NKE Arboretum gardens planted by the kids last spring:

We used tomatoes, peppers, parsley, and onions from our K-1-2 raised garden bed. Ahead of time, Sara Lubbers harvested them for us so they were ready to use. Half of our K-1-2 friends looked at some great vegetable and salsa books and worked on fun word searches, while the other half began prepping! Kiddos worked in small groups with an adult to halve tomatoes, chop up onions, pick apart parsley, and cut up peppers. They helped put everything into bowls and watched the magic happen when everything was dumped into the food processor to make our salsa! Our friends LOVED making salsa, and they did a great job of being clean when handling all of the food products and really stepping up to help!

We’ll eat and enjoy another day soon after the salsa has been chilled.


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