October 28, 2014

Connecting Our Students to Our Land: Gardening and Outdoor Education at the Lower School

by Celia Larsen
RSSAA Gardening teacher

Have you ever tasted a paw paw fruit? Paw paw are our largest edible native North American fruit, tasting somewhat like a cross between mango, banana, strawberry and avocado. They helped sustain the Lewis and Clark expedition on their way back east in 1810 when they had exhausted their provisions. One of the surest ways to get students interested in plants is to have them taste them!! In 5th grade, the students taste paw paw (grown in Mrs. Larsen's yard) and save the seeds in cold, moist sand to grow the following spring. Then in the fall of 6th grade, the baby paw paw trees are ready to plant in our school woods. The students carefully prepare the planting area and build protective teepees out of ubiquitous, invasive buckthorn or honeysuckle posts. We hope to have our own paw paw to harvest in another few years!!

What else do the students experience in Gardening class?

Ms. Shemroske's 7th grade class has also been working in our woods. They have been planting native redbud and pagoda dogwood trees in the south west corner of our property. Redbud, a member of the pea or legume family, has lovely pink blossoms in the spring that are yummy sprinkled on a salad or nibbled out of hand. Pagoda dogwood fruits, however, are for the birds!!! They are a favorite of robins and cedar wax wings. In addition to stewarding the woods, the 7th grade also vastly improved the kindergarten sandbox by installing all new stumps around the perimeter.  
You may have noticed the 5th graders working along Newport Road on Monday afternoons. They have diligently been freeing up trees such as juniper, sycamore, redbud and staghorn sumac from invasive buckthorn, honeysuckle and autumn olive. The students really enjoy the physicality of this meaningful work.  5th grade is the first year they are allowed to work with loppers and folding hand saws, a big responsibility and very empowering. Also along Newport Road, the 5th and 4th grade with the help of high school seniors planted hundreds of daffodil bulbs at the edge of the woods for all of us to enjoy next spring.

The 4th grade began their outdoor education classes by learning about the various oak trees we have on our campus. They looked carefully at oak leaves and saw that some are pointy and others are rounded. On a map of the school’s campus, they marked the location of the oak trees living on and adjacent to our school’s property. They also made leaf rubbings of the oak leaves. The pointy leaves belong to trees of the red oak group while the rounded leaves belong to the white oak group. White oak acorns take one season to mature and they are considered “sweet.” Native Americans used white oak acorns to make flour. Red oak acorns are bitter and take two seasons to mature. The two huge oak trees on either side of our back playground are in the white oak group. The one with the tree house is a burr oak; a young burr oak has been planted out in our front playground. 
An image of the burr oak is on the Seal of the City of Ann Arbor as a reminder of the importance of these landmark trees. Ask a 4th grade student what a burr oak acorn looks like (hopefully they will remember it has a bristly “hat” that is pulled way down low!).

Ms. Curtis's 3rd graders are starting to prepare for the Thanksgiving feast. With the help of their families, they tended the Three Sisters (corn, beans and squash) in our vegetable garden over the summer. This fall they have harvested scarlet runner beans, popping corn and pie pumpkins. They also grew potatoes which were lush and lovely this summer aboveground and we hope are just as productive underground! They will harvest the potatoes soon and will serve mashed potatoes along side pumpkin pie and popping corn as part of our Thanksgiving feast.

All of these hands-on experiences help our students learn to appreciate and respect our land. They are helping co-create a healthy, diverse landscape that provides places to play, work, contemplate and nibble.

THANK YOU, to the volunteer parents, the teachers and the staff that make our gardening program such a success!!  

Visit the Ellie Klopp Library to find books on topics and stories related to Gardening experiences with Mrs. Larsen!

...part of our collection of Waldorf Selections 

...a great read especially for 4th graders learning about oak trees
...one of many books available for the 5th Grade Curriculum on Botany

Ask a school librarian or check our Online Catalog for these books and more!

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