Earlier this month on Insider Louisville, Keith Look of Jefferson County Public Schools asked for innovative ideas on how to stimulate public school classrooms as Jefferson County has been selected as a District of Innovation by the Kentucky Department of Education.
One innovative idea is already growing at Byck Elementary: a bio-dynamic classroom.
Byck Elementary is a Waldorf magnet which is based on Rudolf Steiner’s teaching philosophy of using the natural world as much as possible in education.
Adopting Steiner’s philosophy, teachers at Byck are now using 18 garden beds, 12 bourbon barrel planters, and a few rain barrels as teaching tools.
And teachers Abby Terranova and Jennifer Nelson have seen an improvement in grades, interest and smiles from the children due to their involvement in the school’s garden.
“Kids are able to make a real-life connection to the science content,” says Nelson. “Hands-on learning has helped some students who have trouble with classroom expectations and traditional teaching methods.”
Nelson has been using the garden beds for five years. Not only are her current students learning gardening skills, the first-grade teacher has many of her former students check in to talk about gardening and to help out her new-to-farming students.
“That retention and that cooperative education is unique,” she says.
The garden beds have successfully grown lettuce, peas, beans and radishes, and the bourbon barrels are used to grow perennial flowers.
In addition to utilizing the outdoors, Terranova uses bio-dynamics inside the classroom as she has a window-side garden, a turtle named Linda, and crayfish that her students help manage.
“I have students that will spend all day every day in the garden during recess. It has a huge connection to social studies and the sciences and helps students work together,” says Terranova, who teaches third grade.
Not only are students farming at Byck, they are eating what they grow.
“The fact that we eat food right out of the ground is awesome,” Terranova says. “It’s important for the kids to see where their food comes from … to see that life cycle and growth.”
Students at Byck enjoy the fruits of their labor.
“One time I picked a radish and ate it without even washing it,” says John, one of Terranova’s students. He also believes, “most men and women would like farming.”
Kya, a second-grader at Byck, now gardens at home with her mom, who also came to Byck during the Brightside cleanup day at the school.
“Every year, my mom comes to help pull out the weeds,” said Kya.
Brishon, another third-grader in Terranova’s class, expressed his enthusiasm for gardening: “We get to plant the seeds, pick them out, and take them home. This year we only got radishes.”
All three of the students said they would like to be a farmer when they grow up.
Terranova says students often ask for seeds to take home and plant over the summer.
“Kids will come up and tell me about the garden they planted at grandma’s house,” Terranova says,
Both Nelson and Terranova believe the garden beds should be utilized by other teachers and other schools.
“It addresses nature deficit disorder, obesity, food desert situations … it’s a no-lose situation,” claims Nelson
“Letting the kids work isn’t something that happens a whole lot today, and so to be able to use that wheelbarrow and work together is a good experience,” Terranova says. “Learning to do is huge.”
The benefits of the Byck garden beds extend outside the classroom, as parents have responded positively, said the two teachers. The community is becoming more involved.
“We want to reach out and connect with the community in the near future and continue the garden through the summer,” Terranova says. “I know there are several people in the community who are very interested in the garden and who we share food with, so we hope to set up a club or an organization to keep the garden going and make it a beautiful place year round.”
The garden has had some obstacles, primarily vandalism.
Byck’s playground is open to the public and the garden has been vandalized — plants pulled up and thrown about — after school hours.
“Some people pulled up our plants, and it made me mad,” says John. “But that’s why we are getting the fence.”
The fence John mentioned will be built next year, as Byck Elementary received a $1,200 grant to build a fence to help protect the garden.
While the fence will help protect the beds and improve yields, Terranova used the vandalism as a learning experience to show some of the problems and variables farmers face out in the country.
She said the students were disappointed in the vandalism, but not discouraged.
“They get frustrated and they try harder,” Terranova says.
Long term, Terranova hopes to build a curriculum to help teachers use the garden as a teaching tool on a day-to-day basis, as she continues to see wonders from bringing kids to the garden.
“To see a kid bite into a radish like an apple is quite something. They love it, and if they don’t eat it right out of the ground, they dip it in ranch and think it’s the best thing they’ve ever had,” Terranova says.
The retention of gardening skills, the student’s willingness to work cooperatively and eat fresh foods, and the art of composting are a few of the things Nelson says her students have learned, proving that innovation in education already is in play within the JCPS.
Oh, the things you can learn by simply tending to the garden.