Sometime in the doldrums of last winter, a box of seeds arrived at Edison Middle School.
The box addressed to Devan Green, a student in Andy LaChance’s science class, contained seeds for Russian mammoth sunflowers, red amaranth, exotic tomato variety burgundy okra, red lettuce, red string beans, Indian corn, carrots, radishes, zinnias, peas and a variety of other vegetables and flowers.
It also contained the promise of sunshine, excitement and what teachers call “student engagement.”
On Wednesday, when the sun was actually shining, LaChance and fellow life sciences teacher Marti Reese led mobs of squirrelly eighth-graders outside to plant their seedlings.
“I bet that less than 10 percent of these kids have a garden at home,” LaChance said.
As such, the questions ranged from “What do you mean, make a mound?” to “The dirt came off my plants. What should I do?”
One boy insisted the kale seedlings were weeds. Another child promptly started to use one of the plant markers as a sword, and several newly planted seedlings narrowly missed being trod on by high-top sneakers.
LaChance has had gardens before, but this one really started with a request from a student. One day earlier this year, Green, 14, had finished up his work and asked his teacher what he should do next.
“I told him, ‘Get me some seeds,’ and he said, ‘How do I do that?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know, just get me some seeds,’” LaChance said.
Green’s family has a small garden at his home in Janesville, and his family also has land near Brodhead where they raise beef and vegetables such as sweet corn for canning. Green hunted around on the internet and found Peaceful Valley, an organic seed company in Grass Valley California.
After the seeds arrived, students figured out when they needed to start their seeds indoors. La Chance optimistically predicted May 5 as the last frost date.
Students learned about soil pH level—Edison’s is between 6 and 8—composting; plant nutrients and nutrient transfer; the impact of water, wind, sun and pests; cell structure; temperature swings, germination and all the other stuff you usually learn in life sciences by sitting in a chair and taking notes.
LaChance will keep an eye on the garden this summer, and hopes to teach next fall’s students the principles of canning. The food will be donated to local food pantries or families in need.
Teaching with hands-on activities always produces better “student engagement” results, specialists say.
“It works better,” Reese said. “Students see the purpose of it; they have better memory retention when they’re doing hands-on activities.”
LaChance said the students were excited when their seeds finally sprouted.
Austin Tobias, who is in Reese’s class, was one of those kids thrilled when his tiny pot of soil showed signs of life.
He has a garden at home, sort of.
“It’s my mom’s,” Tobias said. “She plants tomatoes and potatoes.”
Does he help out?
“She does it,” Tobias said. “I don’t really pay any attention.”
Maybe he will this summer.