Opportunity to make teaching meaningful

Maybe you noticed the Times Union article last week under the headline “Battle against invasive bug in Lake George intensifies.”

Maybe you learned by reading the article, or maybe you already knew, that the eastern hemlock, an integral part of New York forests, is under siege. The hemlock woolly adelgid, a tiny aphid-like insect from East Asia, is unfortunately doing great harm to hemlock trees by feeding on its sap.

Maybe you knew about this because you noticed the sickly looking hemlock trees scattered around the perimeter of Albany High School, such as in the Continue reading

Outdoor classroom for its educational value

Imagine a middle school where teachers can offer classes a change of scenery, and especially a change that will bolster seriously valuable contact with nature. And imagine a school where a greenhouse, with space for visiting classes to work, is warm enough in January to nurture slow growth of leafy green vegetables. Where a fruit tree orchard beckons. And where bird, mammal and insect Continue reading

Sowing seeds of student engagement in garden

We try as best we can to create hands-on learning opportunities for students and to put doing and touching and tasting and experiencing at the center of teaching and learning. It makes a difference in how fully students engage.

So a favorite moment, which builds on plants like ones in the accompanying pictures from the Vegetable Project’s garden at Albany High School, is especially accessible around now, at the end of August. Annual plants here, some so misshapen that it’s close to impossible to guess what they are, have gone to seed! That is to say the plants have reached a developmental stage of their life cycle characterized by production seeds necessary to carry the species forward into the next generation.

And when we put the seed head puff ball from a lettuce plant in a student’s hand and suggest pushing that fuzz around until seeds fall into the palm, there’s a pretty good chance that we capture some interest. There’s a pretty good chance that such interest will heighten attentiveness long after the hands-on piece winds down. Sometimes we do even better by quickly sowing some of the very seeds we just collected. And if we really work at it, we can expose students to a plant’s entire life cycle – from production of seeds by one generation’s plant to production of seeds by its offspring – and pique interest in the process that would make teaching and learning a more fulfilling experience for all involved than what usually happens.

Want to experience this yourself? Please stop and say hello if you pass our gardens and see someone there. Or please get in touch and we’ll make arrangements.

And what plants are pictured here? Two lettuce varieties, kale, basil and cilantro.

— Bill Stoneman

Making outdoor learning a part of education

Many thanks to the Times Union for publishing our thoughts this morning about outdoor instruction, which regular readers might know has long been a theme of ours:

As New York schools prepare to welcome students back, educators are wrestling with what the school day will look like and where it will occur. School districts seem to suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic leaves Continue reading

Buying flower bulbs supports Vegetable Project

Planting flower bulbs in the fall is a great way to add spring color to your garden. And it does even more than that when you buy the bulbs in our Flower Power Fundraiser now through Oct. 15. 

The Vegetable Project receives half of all proceeds raised by our sale of bulbs. And that means that you contribute to our program to create hands-on learning opportunities for Albany kids when you buy bulbs. It means you support our work at teaching kids where their food comes from. It means that you support outdoor instruction. It means that you help us make a difference with kids who benefit from doing and touching and tasting and experiencing. And so much more.

Please click here to see the selection and place your order: http://vegetableproject.fpfundraising.com.

Life in the garden gives immediacy to learning

We put kale seeds in the soil at our Albany High garden about two weeks ago. They germinated quickly. And a number of plants, as seen in the accompanying picture, reached reached about an inch tall in no time at all. No big deal. That’s what kale seeds do. And we expect these to grow well into the cold weather. Again, no big deal. That’s what kale plants do.

At the same time, these seedlings offer a glimpse at something that we at the Vegetable Project would say ought to be a far more central element of teaching and learning in our schools – real tangible, immediate opportunity to learn from first-hand doing and touch and tasting and experiencing. You see, there’s a small story behind these seedlings, that still isn’t really a big deal, but is distinctly different than the prelude to the usual school lesson. The seeds were taken from the seed pods in the second picture down. And the seed pods formed on the mature plant in the third picture, which is a few feet away from the young plants. Go a step farther, and note that the mature plant survived last winter out in our garden. And then note that with just a bit more discipline, we ought to be able to expose kids to the entire life cycle of plants again and again.

Maybe pollination, sexual reproduction, formation of seeds, soil health, one species very different environmental needs than another’s and so many more facets of making plants grow show up somewhere in New York state’s holy learning standards and curriculum. But that’s not even the point here. The point is that doing and touching and first-hand experiences are tremendously more effective motivators than “because it’s going to be on the test on Friday.”

And if guiding our most disadvantaged students to positive outcomes is our goal, then we should be paying more attention to motivation. We’re not talking about making school fun. But we can make it a more positive experience than it is for so many kids.

–Bill Stoneman

Encouraging outdoor instruction in Albany schools

We submitted the following to an Albany school district survey about re-opening schools in September.

The Vegetable Project, a volunteer tax-exempt nonprofit organization that has led garden programming at Myers Middle School since 2009 and at Albany High School Continue reading

The dirty secret about weeding: it never ends

The dirty secret about weeding, as Hudson Valley garden writer Margaret Roach put it in a New York Times piece back in the spring, is that it never ends.

“The most expert organic gardeners — those of us who eschew the use of chemicals — have no tricks to make weeds disappear. Vigilance is key, starting with the ability to recognize the earliest signs of infestation, including what the weed looks like as a seedling, and then acting quickly and repeatedly. Yes, we use mulch, perhaps with a layer of newsprint or cardboard beneath that might slow some opponents. But most of all, we weed.”

So it seems fitting to note the arrival of one that we struggle with at both Myers Middle School and Albany High School year after year. The plant in the accompanying picture, with the small tuft of yellow at the center of its flower, surrounded by white petals, is Galinsoga ciliate. And unless we do better than we usually do, we’ll soon be overrun by it.

As pests go, it’s not the worst. It’s easy to pull. But it spreads and spreads and spreads, mainly by making and dropping a million seeds. So please think of us when you’re considering where you might lend a hand. And remember, there are many ways to participate in and contribute to the Vegetable Project. Our lives will be better if we can keep up with removing the plant as flowers form, the biological step before making seeds.

–Bill Stoneman

Disrupted mowing for the good of teaching

The space around our garden at Myers Middle School is quite a bit shaggier than it was when we started nearly 11 years ago, as accompanying then and now pictures show. Partly, that’s because the building was pretty new then and everything was mowed down for its construction. But also, mowing everything down seems like the default maintenance practice at Albany schools. And maybe we disrupted it, without really intending to. And that has really allowed plants to grow.

Now that we have noticed, it seems like a pretty good change – not as a matter of esthetics, but for the sake of teaching and learning, for the sake of creating reason and opportunity to explore the nearby outdoor world and for the sake of harnessing the power of nature to support healthy lives and healthy adolescent development. Most students in New York take a class called “living environment.” And it’s typically taught without setting foot in a real living environment. Increasingly, however, the Myers schoolyard offers opportunities to actually explore ecosystems and food webs, observe and measure environmental succession, put hands on invasive species and measure their impact.

Seems to us like a pretty good complement to Smart Board lessons.

So take a look toward the fence to the west of the garden area. A few lonesome and spindly ash trees, which offer yet more to explore due to the invasive emerald ash borer that’s threatening their existence, stood there when we broke ground. They have grown large since then, as phragmites have moved in to the north of them. And our footbridge looked like it was in the middle of a vast open expanse early on. It’s nearly hidden now by willow trees.

Our big challenge is drawing attention to these opportunities and encouraging teachers to avail themselves of them. We do not get the sense that these loom large in teacher training programs on in state Education Department curriculum wizards’ offices. Compelling research, however, suggests that contact with nature supports health, which would seem like a pretty important foundation for learning.

–Bill Stoneman

Outdoor classroom, now more than ever

We at the Vegetable Project have been saying for some time that an outdoor classroom would be a wonderful addition at Stephen and Harriet Myers Middle School in Albany. We have also mentioned now and then that an outdoor classroom would be a wonderful addition at just about every other school. We have cited serious academic research that finds health benefits, physical and mental, in exposure to nature. We have held up research that compares how students did in traditional indoor lessons after an outdoor lesson with after Continue reading