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SAIS Collaboration Grant Report: Episcopal School of Knoxville

Monday, May 6, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Lori Spear
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Garden Partners: Developing a Green Thumb

By Dr. Jack Talmadge, Head of School, The Episcopal School of Knoxville

When you step onto the Episcopal School of Knoxville’s campus, it’s evident the rural traditions of old Appalachia are alive and well throughout the school’s culture. From the big red barns, to the chicken coops, to the 96-acres of rolling hills, the campus presents an amazing opportunity for students to engage in the outdoors and tap into the art of getting their hands dirty.

The Early Learning Center, a lab school affiliated with the University of Tennessee, shares an equal passion for outdoor education, but undertakes it in the city of Knoxville’s urban setting. Gardening is an important component of ELC’s learning culture and through vertical planting techniques and creative gardening beds, the lab school enjoys an annual yield of both produce and utter joy from its young gardeners-in-training.

With the help of an SAIS collaboration grant, the kindergarten classes from both schools joined to conduct a comparative study of rural versus urban gardening techniques. With the intent of developing a five-year-old’s curiosity and compassion for cultivating new life in the soil, the study also sought to introduce the foundations of garden science, differences in urban and rural techniques, and the value of friendly partnerships with other schools.

The project began with a “teach the teacher” component in which administrators and teachers from both schools met with master gardener Barbara Lamm at the University of Tennessee’s School of Agriculture for educational gardening 101. There, the two schools developed schematics for garden setup, plant lists for winter and spring harvests, means for data collection at the kindergarten level, and a schedule to connect the schools both virtually and physically in classroom interactions.

Knowing it takes a village to cultivate a successful garden project, the schools turned to the community to establish additional partnerships. Flik Independent School Dining joined as a consultant to provide direction on important structural designs and composting procedures that would permit harvested items to be used and consumed in the schools’ dining halls. Mayo, a local garden center, offered a discount on seeds and planting supplies, and ESK’s Boy Scout troop volunteered to help assemble several raised garden beds.

The summer months witnessed a nice formalization of the garden settings, as new beds were constructed, perimeter fences installed, and rain collection barrels activated. A truckload of fresh soil and mulch added to the outdoor ambiance, and shiny new tools to help children turn these materials into a working medium arrived just in time for the new school year. Recognizing the beginning of the academic year doesn’t necessarily sync well with the planting cycle of more popular vegetables, ESK and ELC agreed to target the late fall harvest as the first course of study. Seed lists – including sugar snap peas, gourmet lettuces, Swiss chard, radishes, carrots, turnips, and beets – were ordered and divided between the two schools.

The curricular design of the garden project was set up as a journey allowing the children to learn through story, imagination, and hands-on immersion through the different elements and stages of gardening life. The first and perhaps most popular lesson at ESK, soil preparation, gave the new kindergarteners the green light to play in the dirt. Utilizing the “lasagna” technique, the students built up their garden beds from scratch by layering newspaper, shredded leaves, peat moss, and rich dirt, much like the familiar Italian food dish. The kids at ELC restructured many of their existing beds by going vertical to maximize the limited space in their downtown courtyard of green space.

Sowing day soon followed and seeds from the common plant list were carefully spaced and “put to bed” – so described by one of the kindergarten students. Independently, the classes were asked to dream up what would happen next and the little wheels in their brains began to turn. From opening a grocery store, to throwing a vegetable “par-TAY,” to giving all the produce to the school’s chef, the responses were amazingly centered on community sharing.

While the children “patiently” waited out the 60-day germination period, the two schools began the next phase of the project as virtual study partners. The ESK and ELC classes connected weekly over Skype, allowing the children to give virtual walking tours of both their schools and garden spaces, to discuss plans for data collection, and to share the growth progress in the urban and rural gardens. Using a “floor-book” technique, students collaboratively documented their garden experiences through art, dictation, and eventually words and sentencing on giant chart tablets placed on the floor. The freedom of expression and exploration served as a clever methodology to allow the young scientists to record which seeds sprouted first, the size and appearance of each young plant, how quickly the plants grew to maturity, and ultimately whether or not the urban or rural setting affected the success of the harvest.

At midpoint of the fall growing season, the students were presented with the project’s next teachable moment: many helping hands lessen the load of “hard labor.” It was time for the children to meet their gardening peers in person and to lend a hand with the taxing chores of weeding, plant thinning, and soil cultivation. ESK boarded a bus for a trip to downtown Knoxville where they joined forces with the ELC students for garden time, story, nutrition talks from master gardener Barbara, and of course, a nice veggie lunch.

Evident at both schools, the level of student excitement and care for the gardens paralleled the rate of plant growth as the project entered the fall harvest season. Weekly data collection, expansion of the floor-book, and dreams of tasting kale, radishes, and turnips for the first time all brought new meaning to learning application in kindergarten. The completion of the pilot cycle in the gardening partnership entailed a final field trip to bring ELC students to ESK’s farm-like setting in west Knoxville. Bringing with them their floor-book depicting the urban garden journey, the ELC children proudly compared their results against the floor-book findings in ESK’s rural portrayal. While both gardens enjoyed many fruits and some failures, the most compelling finding was that everyone was green in the garden. The young eyes of students at both ELC and ESK were opened to new level of awareness in both the life cycles of healthy vegetables, as well as the importance of community relationships.

Heads of school, Dr. Jack Talmadge at ESK and Ms. Robyn Brookshire at ELC, are thrilled with the new partnership between the two schools, as well as the success of the bigger picture goals to:

  • Encourage community and social development;
  • Instill an ethic of environmental stewardship within the students;
  • Create a platform for imaginative and unstructured nature play;
  • Build an early awareness and care for living cycles in our school ecosystems;
  • Develop the foundation for wellness, exercise and healthy eating.

Both schools believe in the value of this project’s success and will continue its life cycle with future kindergarten classes. Now that many of the bugs have been worked out, such as timing for a prolific growing season, both schools feel the power of the plants can greatly impact our future generations. ELC returned to ESK this spring to help sow the seeds of a new project, the Great Pumpkin Patch, for a new crop of students to enjoy next fall.

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