Why I love egg cartons and toilet paper

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Fourth graders during “Six of One, Half a Dozen of Another”

There’s this moment in the classroom; that moment when I, as an educator, realize that every student is engaged and that I am not doing anything. It’s a moment that I have been lucky to experience during my service term, but certainly not one that occurs every time I teach. These moments are the product of hours of preparation and planning. They occur during the magical, mystical time of experiential learning.

As is well recognized in the world of education, experience-based education tends to be much more effective than lecture-based as it allows children to learn and explore on their own, or in groups. We all know that we learn better by doing, and the same goes for children. In the standard public school classroom, however, it can be very difficult to offer this type of learning experience. For hands-on, experiential learning, an educator must provide enough supplies and activities so that each student is engaged and “learning by doing” at the same time, which is difficult, and sometimes costly, for a class of thirty.

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One group during “Six of One, Half a Dozen of Another”

Though I do not have a degree in education, over the past nine months I have been lucky to observe the amazing teachers at each of the schools where I serve and to learn with my students. I have slowly, and sometimes in small ways, been able to incorporate these experiential learning opportunities whenever possible. I always wish I did a better job of incorporating experiential learning, but I’m lucky to teach gardening and cooking lessons that are inherently hands-on.

After reflecting on the magic of watching my students in the midst of experiential learning, I decided I would share two of my favorite springtime garden experiential lessons.

Upon entering the garden with students, after reminding them of our garden guidelines, I always urge the students to take a few minutes to wander around the garden, to see what’s growing, to observe any changes since they were last here and to remember what they might recognize. By the end of a few minutes the whole class is often crowded around an insect or bug, staring at the green sprouts that somehow grew from the minuscule, dried seeds they planted during the last lesson, or asking if they can munch on some chives. It is always during these few minutes of exploration when I discover that they do remember what we talked about during the last lesson and that they are incredibly interested in the garden and its inhabitants.
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A few weeks ago, I took all of the third and fourth grade classes at Lakeside Elementary School out to the overgrown school garden to do a lesson borrowed from Life Lab’s The Growing Classroom called “Six of One, Half a Dozen of Another.” For this lesson, students are divided into teams and sent out into the garden with an egg carton that has antonyms written on the underside. The goal is to find something small in the garden to represent each word. Later, other groups will look through this egg carton and try to guess what the antonyms written underneath might be.

When I first came across this lesson during a school garden workshop put on by two FoodCorps service members, Jessica Manly and Zoe Tucker, I thought it was a fun lesson and a good way to explore the garden, but probably not too educational. Like many assumptions I’ve made, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

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Completed egg carton

After a few minutes of me asking the students to define ‘antonym’ and giving directions, I set the students free in the garden with their task. In hushed voices they excitedly crowd around their egg carton to read the antonyms written there. Then, as I stroll amongst them in the garden I hear things like “No, that’s not dead that’s nonliving” and “Where can we find something wet…I know! Under the soil!” Had I tried to force these realizations on my students, or explain these concepts in lecture, it’s likely that many would have zoned out and few would have retained the information. This way, however, allows me to completely step back and let them explore, work as a team, understand antonyms and learn concepts like organic and nonliving.

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Student measuring out glue during seed tape lesson

Though I loved this lesson and used it with as many classes as I could, it doesn’t work too well with students younger than second graders because they cannot read. My favorite experiential gardening lesson for younger elementary is making seed tape. I love making seed tape with students because it is hands-on, educational and a great gardening tool.

For the seed tape lesson, I begin by explaining plant spacing and how, just like humans, plants need space to grow and develop fully. We use five volunteers to act as carrots to demonstrate how difficult it is to grow when they are all bunched together. From there we talk about thinning and about wasting seeds and seedlings. We also talk about companion planting and how some plants grow well together—in this instance we talk about the benefits of growing carrots and radishes together.

Each student receives a length of toilet paper, either a real ruler for older students or a special seed tape ruler that I created along with a paintbrush or toothpick, some glue and seeds. The seed tape rulers have a small orange or red dot every two inches (orange represents carrot seeds and red represents radish seeds). For first graders, this is amongst their first experiences measuring and it can be challenging to place a dot of glue next to each mark, instead of in whatever order/spacing they desire. Though there are often calls of “Miss Whitney, I don’t get it” at the beginning of this lesson, the students are able to take charge and run with this activity. For most, they just cannot believe that we will actually be planting this toilet paper and that seeds will sprout out of it. I cannot wait for them to watch the magic happen, just like I get to during lessons with them.

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Plate divided into sections for radish seeds, carrot seeds and glue. Then, we talk about seed tape. First, seed tape is always a hilarious topic for the first grade crowd because we make it out of toilet paper. Why toilet paper? Because it is cheap and it breaks down really quickly in the soil.
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Radishes sprouting through seed tape at the Bigfork School Garden of Eatin’