Cultivating student-driven learning through plant science

Questions about plants and gardening, generated by Mrs. Fitzgerald's 6th grade science classes.
Questions about plants and gardening, generated by Mrs. Fitzgerald’s 6th grade science classes.

After spending a week at FoodCorps’ Mid-Year Gathering and attending a session on “building student voice,” with Jen Cirillo, Director of Professional Development at Shelburne Farms in Vermont, I came back to my service site wanting to become a better educator.  I decided to use the techniques I learned at Mid-Year on Mrs. Fitzgerald’s 6th grade science classes, a group that I have been working with since Fall.

My plan for the day looked like this:

  1. Play a name game to strengthen the personal connection between the students and myself.
  2. Students conduct a “Garden Interview,” amongst themselves to learn about each others’ gardening experience, and to get everyone thinking about their favorite parts of outdoor learning.  Those who want to share their answers with the class are given a chance at the end of the activity.
  3. Give students a chance to write down their plant/garden-related questions and have them posted on the board. (Credit to NC Service Member Helenka Lepkowski for bringing this idea to my attention!)

As adults, we underestimate young people too often.  Walking into class with this alternative approach, I was concerned that the students wouldn’t take these activities seriously, but they surprised both Mrs. Fitzgerald and myself by their sensitivity and genuine curiosity.  Below are a few of my favorite questions that students came up with, and note that they had NO prompt other than that the question must be related to plants or gardening:

“Where do nuts come from?”
“Do you always need to use soil to grow crops?”
“Do scientists find new plant species?”

I let the students and Mrs. Fitzgerald know that I plan to use these questions to structure my curriculum for the rest of the year.  I hope that students will become excited about learning, knowing that I have based the lessons on their interests.

At the end of the day, a student who rarely speaks in class came up to me and exclaimed, “Ms. Allison, I had fun today!  Are you coming back tomorrow?”  I consider that a small, yet very meaningful success, and I hope to continue providing these children with positive experiences in the classroom and the garden.