Learning to Grow and Growing to Learn

Originally posted on October 29, 2018, by Kelly Stevenson, Upper School science teacher (Grades 4-12)

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As teachers, we sometimes have to remind ourselves that much learning happens outside the classroom. Because of this, I count myself very lucky to have the opportunity to garden with students at LCA. Through my years here, I have worked with students at both campuses to grow food in raised bed gardens. The benefits of this experience to children are many.

At the most superficial level, it is an excuse to get kids outside and interacting with the natural world. The act of digging in the dirt is not a given for children in our world today, and I think there is immense value in that closeness to the earth. Studies have shown that a close connection with nature in childhood does more to promote conservation ethics as an adult than classroom instruction about conservation. Having first-hand experience with the wonder of nature is the most important factor in wanting to protect that nature.

Many important science lessons can be learned at an intuitive level through trying to make things grow. Students learn about the cycles of nature and the timing of plants’ growth in relation to the seasons. Students experience first hand the life cycles of plants and what “ingredients” are necessary for a good harvest. They have to apply ideas like competition for resources as they avoid overcrowding. Students have also been confronted with the fact that not all insects are helpful as we pull pests off our food AND that not all insects are bad as we encourage spiders and pollinators.  

Students also learn a variety of important lessons specifically when growing food to eat. Many people in our country are completely divorced from the source of their food. Ask many U. S. students what they know about where food comes from, and you are likely to get an argument about Kroger vs. Whole Foods vs. Trader Joe’s. (I actually witnessed this argument in one of my classes this year!) The chance to see where food originates, as well as the work that goes into producing it, is invaluable in making people value good food.

Studies have also shown that having students grow their own food encourages them to make healthier food choices. Through the years of working with students in LCA’s garden, I have seen many students willing to try something just because they grew it. I have heard students say things like, “I don’t like tomatoes, but maybe I will try one of these,” and “I have never eaten a radish before, but I will give it a try.” I have seen rooms full of students joyfully enjoying fresh salads. I have had parents tell me that their student had never willingly eaten a salad before, and be amazed that that same student came back for seconds of our homegrown salad!

To me, gardening with students is nothing short of magical. I get such joy out of watching students enjoy the opportunity to get dirty and use a hose, and seeing the pleasure and amazement they get from watching food “appear” after all their work. It does my heart good to watch them eat local, organic produce and get pleasure out of the pure taste of good food. I hope I never have to give up this aspect of my work at LCA.

To Lead, To Drive, To Do

Originally posted on September 20, 2018, by Mith Barnes, Grade 4: math; Grade 7: history; Grade 8: foundations: Grades 8-12: art

Students tend to like solid, concrete, specific answers. Or, more accurately, they like to know, solidly, concretely, and specifically what answers I want from them. They rarely get them, however, and that’s a good thing. Take the Latin verb agere. Our students learn this verb early in their Intro Latin, and it throws them. It throws them because it can mean so many things: to lead, to drive, to do, to plow, to pass time, and a hundred other shaded variations. There is simply not a solid, concrete, specific answer to what the verb means that can be plugged in every time. “But how do we know when it means which thing?” they inevitably complain. That’s the beauty of Latin, though. While it demands meticulous attention to every letter and every syllable, at the same time, it defies specificity precisely because so many words in Latin mean so many things. I tell them they need to look at the rest of the sentence, or even the rest of the passage, to determine what the verb agere is doing in this particular sentence. In other words, students need to look at context to find meaning. They need to infer, interpret, choose the best meaning in this instance, and in every instance. If there’s a better reason to teach Latin (or any foreign language), I can’t think of one.

That idea, though, isn’t just vital for teaching languages. It is very much at the heart of how I approach teaching at LCA. History students, for example, want to know precise definitions for the ‘terms and concepts’ we study each week, or exactly what will be on the next quiz, verbatim if possible. I don’t give them that, because while memorization is useful in some contexts, it doesn’t lead to real understanding of a topic. I don’t want my students to be able to recite, by rote, ‘three factors that led to the Civil War,’ or ‘Florence was important to the Renaissance because A, B, and C.’ That isn’t understanding. Like any set of facts crammed into one’s skull for the current test, those will be lost the moment the test is over.

Don’t get me wrong; facts matter. Facts, as we have perhaps never been more aware, matter a great deal. Study of the Civil War will have no meaning whatsoever if you don’t also know when, where, and by whom it was fought. But that’s not enough. There’s a meme floating around the internet that says “Knowledge is knowing Frankenstein wasn’t the monster. Wisdom is understanding that Frankenstein was the monster.” It’s one thing to know the details of the plot (or the historical moment), but something else altogether to understand what they mean. Facts alone don’t make understanding.

Students must, as with the elusive agere, look at the context to find meaning. Having knowledge on which to draw is crucial to being able to establish that context, but the facts themselves are not understanding. Rather than telling me just the names and dates of battles, I want them to tell me why this battle was fought, why it mattered to the people who fought it, what was important enough to fight for. It’s nowhere near as easy as memorizing key facts they can drill on Quizlet and then plunk them down like prefab houses onto a quiz (and they don’t fail to remind me of that). It takes thought, it takes interpretation, it even demands they take a stand sometimes. It’s not as easy, but they are much more likely to remember that process and that understanding long after many of those memorized facts have been lost to the next set of data. That is also how they can come out of History class knowing not only something about history, but something about what it means to be human, something about what is important enough to fight for, and maybe even something about themselves.