Another warm gust of wind blew as first graders struggled to keep delicate bird
nests and egg collections from flying off their booth table.
Still, between fluttering feathers and bird-guide pages, they tended to the task
at hand: to “teach people instead of just showing things” at Alice Carlson Applied
Learning Center’s 10th-annual school garden celebration.
For Fort Worth teacher and avid birder Kristene Gillmer, a bird study seemed to
be the perfect project to share with attendees. The study, which fulfilled her requirement
to teach non-fiction writing, evolved after a few bird walks and binocular lessons.
Kids were taking notes, eyes darting up to trees and sky, when Gillmer suggested
they create their own bird guide.
Twenty-two imaginations immediately took wing.
Each student selected a favorite bird and decided what information should be included:
a general description, eating habits, number of eggs and migration patterns.
Science curriculum integrated with writing. Environmental interdependency discussions
were strengthened with reading and research.
When the kids used a software program to turn their crayon sketches into computerized
illustrations complete with detailed labeling, their bird guide came to life.
A house sparrow landed on the cover. Inside, a morning dove, a wood duck, a starling,
a scissor-tailed flycatcher.
The Alice Carlson Bird Guide by Room 5 First Graders debuted as an example of applied
learning at its best.
“It was an authentic way for kids to be really engaged in their learning and to
take responsibility for their learning,” says Gillmer. “This wasn’t an ‘all-about’
book. They were learning so much more – lessons they will keep on into adulthood.”
Her students’ families agree. One parent said her child begged her to pull their
car to the side of the road to identify a bird before it flew away. A grandmother
watched as her granddaughter correctly identified all the birds visiting her backyard
feeder. Still another student plans to send his bird data to Cornell University’s
online bird-tracking program.
The first graders manning Alice Carlson’s booth may not remember they were teachers
that windy evening. But Gillmer does.
“That was when my students shared with people their knowledge about birds.”
The first day she paraded through their Texas school garden, teachers and students
didn’t think too much about it. After all, neighbors were welcome to come and go
as they pleased.
But when she decided to stay for a week to dine on greens and bugs, kids started
talking -- about ecology, bird habitats and insects.
The soft-brown peahen was the latest community resident to take a fond interest
in the garden’s deliciously random rows anchored by a lush, grapevine-covered pergola.
“I don’t think there’s a straight line in our garden anywhere,” chuckled Vic Eugenio,
Springdale Elementary School principal. “But it’s a place where our kids can see
a bigger world, and our community plays a real important part in that – even a peahen.”
While neighbors help weed and water the garden, it’s the “extended family feel”
that visitors are likely to notice, Eugenio said.
Parents waiting for their children walk gravel pathways winding around melons and
Grandparents and elderly neighbors pinch mint and rosemary sprigs to take home.
Local lumberyards and nurseries donate wood and discounted plants that are “still
Nearby neighbors keep watchful eyes to report any inappropriate activities.
“We wanted a garden that would take ‘urban’ out of the atmosphere,” said Eugenio.
“It’s our responsibility as a community – not just the school’s – to guide young
kids and give them a place to go.”
That’s why Springdale periodically hosts open houses and invites community members
to its garden events. When people come, they might be treated to a parade or to
a “Literary Pumpkin Patch” where kids have decorated pumpkins based on books they’ve
read in class. Planter boxes set aside for each grade level delight visitors with
well-tended vegetables and flowers.
“After we dedicated our school garden, we had community people and school board
members who just wanted to come by and see it,” Eugenio said. “They’d ask, ‘How
is your garden doing? It looks so different.’ It used to be all asphalt.”
“Now it’s everyone’s garden. It’s given our kids a whole new place to learn in,
and you can see how much the community cares about it.”
Can a school garden spark a teenager’s interest in a job or skill that could ensure
him a bright future?
REAL School Gardens was looking for summer help when it came across the Juvenile
Justice Alternative Education Program in Tarrant County, TX.
Mike Warren, community service officer for Tarrant County Juvenile Services, recalls
talking with Eric Vanderbeck, REAL School Gardens resource coordinator.
“We were looking to do more than just straight community service with the kids,
and Eric’s horticulture background added an educational component,” said Warren.
“With his help we were able to offer service learning and help the schools out at
the same time.”
Besides weeding and mulching and moving wheelbarrows, kids age 14 and older are
met with strict expectations. “I tell them I don’t want kids just showing up to
do the work without wanting to do any thinking,” said Warren. “They need to be paying
attention and asking questions instead of just riding in the van, getting out, shoveling
some mulch and riding back.
“They need to know that what they’re doing is helping out, and who it is helping
Which is where the Western Soapberry tree comes in.
“We were at one location, and Eric got to talking to the kids about the soapberry
tree and how the berries were used to make soap. Well, as we moved on, one of the
kids went over and got the berries out of tree because he wanted to see for himself.”
The boy mashed up the berries in his drinking cup, and since Vanderbeck had described
the antibacterial properties of a nearby rosemary plant, the boy threw in a few
sprigs of that as well. Next, some water. A couple of shakes. Then white foam. The
boy walked over to the others.
“Look! I’ve made soap!”
“That’s the type of learning you want to have happen,” said Warren. “The kid actually
tried it and experienced it.
“The whole point is not to just get a certain amount of work out of the kids to
pay back for what they’ve done. The point is to pique their interest in something
else that might help them in the future.”
Vanderbeck agrees. “We had kids actually taking information and putting it to use,”
he said. “They created something for themselves.
“Just think of the value.”
“Put one finger in the ground. Put the onion in. Now carefully push the dirt around
Never mind the Texas chilly air. It was onion-planting day at Bonnie Brae Elementary
School and pre-kindergartners were excited. As most of them listened to their teacher’s
instructions, one boy was busy pounding on planting-bed mortar with a stone he’d
found. He missed the demonstration.
After everyone in line had planted onions, it was finally the boy’s turn. The teacher
carefully showed him how. To everyone’s amazement, he quietly and methodically planted
each and every one – carefully putting his finger in the dirt, putting in the onion
and pushing the dirt up beside it.
Finished with their planting, the other kids raced over to the playground. But the
boy stayed. He kept planting onions until none were left. Then he sat and gazed
at his handiwork.
That day the school garden became his.
Every day at recess he would go check on his onions and ask to water them. By being
outdoors, by touching and feeling and using all his senses, he became calm. He had
a purpose. He was benefiting from ownership that he never had the opportunity to
“I strongly believe that outdoor learning environments are a positive influence
on behavior,” says Ron Schultze, principal of J.T. Stevens Elementary School and
former principal at Bonnie Brae. “Just letting kids get some fresh air calms them
down and helps get their minds off whatever’s frustrating them.”
At J.T. Stevens, Schultze will invite children with behavior issues for a walk in
the garden instead of down the hall to the principal’s office. “If you say let’s
go to the office, then it’s a struggle. But each class at J.T. Stevens has a garden
that they take care of and study. So, just having them go out there inspires them
to share about it. We’ll look at the flowers. We’ll touch the rosemary and smell
their fragrance, and it calms them down to the point where we can then sit. Then
we go through our process of how we could have made better decisions to avoid those
types of episodes.”
Anytime children can socialize and discuss is a learning opportunity, he says. “They
learn better from each other than they do from us most of the time.”
And building self-esteem “just goes along with it.”
“My behavior intervention class is so proud of their garden. They’re doing a vertical
pumpkin patch right now. You can take that class out there and they can tell you
everything about their garden.
“All the kids, when you see them out there, when they’re digging in the dirt, you
don’t see any of them without a smile on their face.”