Dandelions and Rosemary
by Casey Murrow
Whether children or adults, we all perceive the use of space differently. We walk through it differently; we relate to it in different ways. Kids often have an idea of what their use of space is like. As teachers we have the power to plow through that unconsciously. When were altering space, such as when we construct an outside garden, we may be altering an area that is important to a group of students. We might not see that theres a special plant there, an open area, or some wild flowers that already have value to students. We dont know because we havent asked.
Connect: And by being attentive to that, you would honor the kids interests and concerns and also have a way to plan effectively.
LDF: Yes, as long as we remember to ask students about their perceptions in ways that allow them to know what we are asking.
Connect: Tell us about how you and your colleagues have come to do this work in schools.
LDF: The Center for Math and Science has been in existence for ten years and our role is to improve math and science in the State of North Carolina. We design, write grants for, facilitate and teach workshops for teachers in grades K-12 in math and science. Im an ethnobotanist with a background in botany and anthropology. My work at the Center focuses on science from an environmental perspective. For the last eight years the Center has been conducting science and gardening workshops. We help teachers recognize how to use plants to teach science concepts, often through outdoor or indoor gardening. We use a variety of plants, from North Carolina native species, to endangered species that teachers may want to propagate, to herbs and plants to attract butterflies. The focus on herbs came out of a workshop that we did specifically for the Growing Science Inquiry (GSI) project. GSI is a program developed by the National Gardening Association and funded by the National Science Foundation. We were one of the twelve sites throughout the United States chosen to participate. This is our first year with them.
Connect: Your GSI project includes work with herbs. Could you tell us about that?
LDF: When people talk about herbs colloquially, theyre usually referring to plants that have been grown or which have originated in the Mediterranean area, those aromatic herbs, such as parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, as the song goes. Mostly they mean those herbs that have been used in culinary dishes or for medicinals. We wanted to show that there are plants around us that were once used as kitchen-garden herbs and that are still used in different ways. The word herb is colloquial. When we say herb, we really mean herbaceous plants. For example, dandelion and chickweed are herbaceous plants. They have had uses in the garden. Dandelion was a kitchen herb grown in European gardens and brought to the United States as a kitchen herb. It escaped from cultivation to take over vast areas.
A holistic perspective
Connect: That is an idea that is presented in your teacher resource booklet.
LDF: Yes, teachers find the history fascinating; kids find it fascinating because you see these plants all around you. Its part of your everyday world. What were trying to do with the GSI program is to bring an emphasis on inquiry learning, of which ethnobotany is a part. Ethnobotany brings with it a holistic perspective that provides more of an understanding, more of an historic look at plants, and includes the wide range of plant uses that we tend to forget, but which still have importance in other cultures and, perhaps, potential here.
Connect: How do kids respond when you involve them in the historical background?
LDF: Well, one example comes from Carolyn Pughs class of fourth and fifth graders. They did a project where they were looking at the history of a particular plant; its origins: where it came from, what the meaning of its name was. I saw more than excitement in those children. They had a link to this plant. Too often, when we go through the woods, we identify things: "This is an oak, this is a pine, this is a dandelion." And it goes in one ear and out the other without significance. If we as teachers can hang stories on the plants, flesh out the bones, with something relevant that the kids can understand or become interested in, or fascinated with, then were doing what were supposed to do.
Connect: So kids have the potential for further investigations or research on one of these topics, except for the limitations of finding the resource material they need.
LDF: Finding resources is the hardest part. We, as educators in the field of professional development, need to help teachers find those materials.
Connect: I would imagine teachers you are working with are enthusiastic.
LDF: Yes, and if we work with the same teachers on a continual basis, either every other month or once a month, then we will be making effective change. This is what were seeing with the GSI group. These teachers are broadening their perspective, they are doing things with the students that they never imagined they would be doing. The level of enthusiasm is high because the support network is very high. For instance, the grant has helped pay for some, but not all, of their Grow Labs. During the last month they gave personal time and effort to construct growing units for all the classrooms in the project.
Connect: How many teachers are in that group?
LDF: Were working with thirty teachers right now. This includes six lead teachers. Weve spent the last year getting this core group of teachers strong and trained. Now they will turn around and be the lead teachers in their schools for this program. At the next workshop, well be looking at four native North Carolina species of plants.
Relating to students lives
Connect: You have provided teachers with interesting background reading and ideas, including the Survey of Childhood Memories of Plants and Places. I wonder how that works?
LDF: This survey was developed by a horticultural therapist in an effort to understand what the relationship was between people and plants, children and plants. She wanted students to go home, interview their elders (parents and grandparents), include their own memories and stories, and bring the surveys back to her. She, as an educator, could incorporate the information into her programsshed know what the students knew, including what plants had meaning for them and their families. She could use this knowledge to engage the students in learning.
Connect: Have you got any anecdotal feedback from teachers from other kids and what theyve been up to?
LDF: One teacher was really astounded by what she found. She used an activity called "Make Room for Raddy" from the Grow Lab materials with her first and second graders. The objective of this activity is for students to observe how plants need a particular amount of space, and how plants and people respond when they are crowded and are forced to share limited resources. She gave one group of students more than enough materials: a large sheet of paper and lots of crayons. To the other group of students she gave one crayon and a very small piece of paper. Then she asked them to draw a garden. Bunches of kids were trying to draw a garden on a tiny sheet of paper with one little crayon, one color. They were enraged, because across the floor, other students had so much more material, and why couldnt they have some too? Some kids wanted to share, but they werent allowed to. That felt uncomfortable as well.
Connect: Thats a far broader perspective than you might expect on starting.
LDF: Yes, just by saying, "lets plant some radishes, and they need to be so many inches apart" you can learn a lot about where kids are and what your lessons need to be for a little while. If students cant do this, problem solve with crayons and paper, what do they need to learn before going out into the garden and learning the needs of other species. We all need to learn how to take care of our own needs. This was a very powerful lesson for this teacher and her class.
Connect: So this project, which has a very specific focus on plants such as dandelions, chickweed and other herbs, has also come to have societal and environmental implications.
LDF:We forget how dependent we are on other forms of life for our survival. Theres lots of potential for studies such as these. Im really excited to be a part of it.
The New Holistic Herbal: A Herbal Celebrating the Wholeness of Life by David Hoffman, Rockport, MA, 1990.
Wildflower Folklore, by Laura Martin, Eastwood Press, Charlotte, NC, 1984.
Hedgemaids and Fairy Candles, by Jack Sanders, Ragged Mountain Press, Rockport, ME, 1993.
- Casey Murrow is Co-Director of Synergy Learning and editor of CONNECT.