Getting a Down To Earth Education
May 1, 2014
By Sandra Coopersmith
Culver City's Turning Point School is known for creating friendship, altruism and awareness through its service learning projects, its latest such venture affording its students a literal as well as figurative opportunity to learn from the ground up.
Last summer Deborah Richman, Head of School, appointed three Service Learning Coordinators (Matt Kline, Traci Demuth and Tram Habib) to plan an activity that would engage students, faculty and community and also be integrated into the curriculum. The entire school was to participate in this team effort.
The Coordinators met at the beginning of the school year to delegate responsibilities for researching and contacting LA based organizations to partner with in creating this school-wide learning pilot program.
The school already had a "Dirt to Dish" program, instilling valuable concepts that can be derived from maintaining a garden, among them leading a sustainable lifestyle and engaging in healthy eating and physical activity.
"As Summer Camp Director Jacob Snyder so beautifully articulates," said Richman, "'there is no better way to share our affection for one another than to harvest, cook and eat together.' Food, friendships and community sustain us."
That program inspired the Coordinators to devise a way to enable students and faculty to bring their garden knowledge to another school wishing to institute a garden program. With that goal in mind, Demuth found Enrich LA, an environmental non-profit organization that builds edible gardens in local schools, focusing on low income and underserved neighborhoods of Los Angeles.
According to Richman, this was the first time Enrich L.A. included an independent school such as Turning Point in its collaboration.
Enrich LA needed to ensure that the school site chosen for the garden met a list of protocols in order to comply with various city and district regulations. Additionally, Turning Point required it to be within walking distance of the Metro.
Lenicia B. Weemes Elementary School met the criteria of both Enrich LA and Turning Point, was excited and eager to work with them, and the project was soon underway with a cash contribution from Turning Point. Turning Point students commuted to Weemes via the Metro Expo Line in Culver City, with the younger children traveling by school bus. For the majority of the students it was their first time using the Metro, introducing them to an environmentally conscious mode of transportation.
The first visit was in early December. Level 8 students photographed the site, took measurements, gathered data and brainstormed ideas regarding elements that could be incorporated into the space, a concrete area in a corner of the schoolyard.
During the week after the visit they used technology workshops to develop garden designs with Google SketchUp software. Enrich LA worked with landscape architect Ryan Drnek of Sodder Studio to finalize the designs.
Subsequent on-site visits that continued through April 11 saw different grade levels participating to remove debris; dig, trench and put in a sprinkler system; lay concrete and posts for the fence; put together tables, benches, beds, soil, mulch and bark; sweep and tidy up surrounding areas; pull weeds and pick up trash; plant; and release helpful insects such as ladybugs. Even Turning Point's primary and kindergarten students participated by planting the seeds that grew into seedlings transported to Weemes for inclusion in the garden.
Interspersed during this period were assemblies at Turning Point attended by its entire student body, enabling students to share their periodic Weemes on-site activities via PowerPoint slideshows and other means.
There was no shortage of challenges.
"The first challenge we faced was with electronic and telephone communication," Demuth said. She learned that not all Weemes teachers have working computers in their classrooms or regular opportunities to check work email and Administrators don't have voicemail, but "with on-site visits we found it much easier to make that initial contact."
Because of an issue involving water supply to the garden, "some complicated plumbing work had to be fixed. Thankfully, Tomas O'Grady from Enrich LA took over on this and was able to install working sprinklers."
Another challenge was to increase student interaction.
"The first few visits the Weemes students and Turning Point students sort of stayed separated," she said. "As the visits continued, we connected students through the use of pen-palling ahead of time. For example, when Level 2 students visited, they were asked to find their pen-pals and work together to plant, water and weed the garden. This seemed to help resolve this problem and facilitate more interaction."
Demuth was gratified by "the hard work ethic of Turning Point's middle school students" and the reactions by Weemes, adding "humility and gratitude, I think, are two of the biggest feelings associated with this project. We noticed how grateful the Weemes students were for our efforts and collaboration, as well as the involved teachers and administrators. We also felt fortunate and grateful for their openness and willingness to participate in this pilot program and collaborate and communicate with pen-palling and planting."
She was impressed by "how much enthusiasm and interest the students at Weemes had for the garden. We often had unexpected visitors coming over from recess asking to help. We always welcomed them and found ways for them to participate. The Weemes teachers and students want to continue pen-palling and communicating and we are looking forward to continuing these relationships. Investigating nature and providing flexible learning opportunities for students is not just exciting for them, but the adults involved! I learned so much from my colleagues and the children about gardening, plants and bugs. Nature is like an endless novel of learning."
Richman, whose decision to create an expanded event was validated by positive results, expressed her pride in this project because "it provides our students with a multigenerational experience, and a public-private focus that forges new relationships and experiences for our school-age children. This project enhances valuable career and life skills of collaboration, communication and critical thinking. In the process, we are planting seeds of kindness and growing stewards of our environment."