Kelsey Johnson: Gardening 101 With High School Seniors


Imagine it’s 2011 and you’re a senior in the final semester of your 12th year of school.  Twenty-three down, one to go.  Academic focus wanes as the warm weather and hours of sunlight wax.  Next, imagine you’re me: a teacher trying to coax these youngsters to apply themselves, rigorously, to learn something compulsory.

Kelsey Johnson

My enthusiasm throbs for the hands-on gardening project I designed whereby students will synthesize, implement and observe the bookwork we’ve done around nutrient cycling, energy flow, agriculture and nutrition in my Environmental Science class.  Seeds grow themselves, I assure myself.  I vaguely recall Mom growing seedlings a few times, and I once grew a green pepper and kitchen herbs.  The cardboard egg crates I have been saving all year are piled high. The time to act is now.

Dozens of soil-filled, damp egg cartons line tables along your south-facing classroom wall.  Colorful popsicle stick labels bleed dye into the seedling cells and become illegible.  Seedlings begin sprouting.  “What is that smell?”  “Miss, do the plants look right?” “When will we plant them outside?”  Spring break arrives. I trudge to school mid-week and water the plants.  Too late.  “Our babies died!” lament students following the holiday that celebrates rebirth and renewal.  A student serving detention clears off the tables, destroying the evidence of our disappointment.  Epic failure.

Reflect and revise for 2012, I tell myself.  Get back on the horse that threw me.  Research which plants yield early, buy a plethora of herb, vegetable and annual seeds to offer students options.  Download YouTube videos, consult experts (Mom, Grandma, the local urban gardening group), start early, and collaborate at your KSTF spring meeting on a method to differentiate by student interest.  Write a materials grant proposal so my class will have tools necessary to till, transplant and compost.

Seedling trays bursting with green foliage line my windows.  Their destination, the courtyard, becomes increasingly overgrown with weeds, and a massive tree sprouts leaves that will shade most of the plot. Duh.  My materials grant pends approval.  I stumble upon the knowledge, by chance and at the last minute, that seedlings need toughening up before being transplanted outdoors. All right. We devise plans to use spring break strategically for hardening off the little plants.  Students are emotionally invested in their plants, and their enthusiasm fuels my determination to problem solve: Are the 2” x 2” cells stunting the seedlings?  What if we don’t transplant in time?  What if we don’t harden off the plants well enough?  What if the salad isn’t ready before graduation? What if the compost bin attracts flies and rodents?  What if students don’t remember what they planted or whose seedlings belong to whom?

Students are learning.  They are caring.  Some students, previously apathetic, disclose latent skills and enthusiasm.  If worse comes to worst, I have the option of providing small plants from a garden store and having students transplant those instead.  I am experiencing and scaffolding real world problem solving.  We’re harvesting teamwork and the skill of persistence through uncertainty.  This year is already more successful than last, and 2013 year might actually yield a decent vegetable harvest.

Kelsey Johnson, a 4th year Knowles Science Teaching Foundation Teaching Fellow, is a physical science teacher in Philadelphia, PA.

Matthew Tabor

Matthew Tabor

Matthew is a prolific, independent voice in the national education debate. He is a tireless advocate for high academic standards from pre-K through graduate school, fiscal sense and personal responsibility. He values parents’ and families’ rights and believes in accountability for teachers, administrators, politicians and all taxpayer-funded education entities. With a unique background that includes work in higher education, executive recruiting, professional sport and government, Matthew has consulted on new media and communication strategies for a broad range of clients. He writes the blog “Education for the Aughts” at www.matthewktabor.com , has contributed to National Journal’s ‘Expert’ blog for Education , and interacts with the education community on Twitter and Google+.