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Creating An Outdoor Classroom For Your School
Teaching is hard work. For those of you out there who are considering teaching as a career because it will afford you with many days of vacation and short work days you might want to re-think your career choice. Mind you, I have known teachers who did not work hard, who clocked out exactly thirty minutes after the final bell, who never graded papers at home and certainly did not do planning during the summer months, but for the most part the teachers I have known have put in long, hard hours in an attempt to be the best they could be.
I have been retired now for a little over two years but I remember clearly the great intentions as each school year approached. I would spend the summer researching new units and finding new ways to present the information, all in an attempt to keep my classroom exciting and challenging for the students. I would do my long-range planning, mapping out each month in sequence, beautifully connecting different units as they would flow smoothly from month to month.
And then reality would hit and the school year would begin!
If you are a teacher then you know all too well what reality I speak of. Once the school year begins there is very little time for research and most certainly very little time to formulate new units and plans. The daily duties of simply managing your classroom are enough to bring most people to their knees but then you have assessments to write up, meetings and workshops to attend, parents to confer with and before you know it Christmas vacation is upon you and all of your beautifully crafted long-range plans are in shambles. It is time to re-group, re-organize and have a tall drink!
I have been there! I feel your frustration and I send my empathy to you.
That is why I have decided to write up some lesson plans that I have used successfully in hopes that you can borrow from me and lighten your load. The lesson I present to you today came to me while my kids were working on a test I had given them. I was staring out the window daydreaming and doodling while they strained their brains to answer the test questions. Outside our classroom window was a half-acre of manicured lawn that I envisioned having a much greater purpose than as a cafeteria for birds. It was a lovely spring day and I thought of how wonderful it would be if I could take the class outside and teach them in an outdoor classroom. I began drawing and this lesson and so much more came from it.
If you glance at the pictures I have included you will see the rough drawing of that original lesson plan that seemed to take on a life of its own. After finishing the drawing I then decided to go for broke. God hates a coward you know! I took the drawing to my principal and thank God I was sitting down because she bought it hook, line and sinker. She told me to get started on it and she would find the money.
HELLO???? I was just doodling! How can you possibly take this seriously? That’s what I wanted to say but instead I headed back to my classroom and began to figure out how in the world I was going to pull it off.
What follows is the step-by-step process that we undertook. Due to budget constraints and a change of principals the final product was never completed but that doesn’t mean you couldn’t do it. Allow me to tell you what we did, what we planned and some variations you might consider.
IT ALL STARTED WITH BUTTERFLIES
Yes, butterflies, and in particular the Monarch Butterflies. I had read how they migrated from Mexico each year up to the Northwest where our school was located and how they are attracted to certain plants and flowers. This whole idea started with the idea of planting a butterfly garden. How was I to know that the garden would be the seed that started a much larger project?
Right below our classroom window was a long-neglected garden full of weeds. I did a little research to find out what plants the Monarch liked and then I called local nurseries and pitched the idea to them. I ended up getting a couple nurseries to donate the following:
· Black-Eyed Susans
We were in business. I put aside a day when we had the time and then my science class and I headed outside and weeded and prepared the garden. A local company donated some garden soil and in two days we were ready to plant.
All this of course led to lessons on pollinating and migration and I even scored a cool butterfly hatching kit which we set up in the classroom. Each day the kids would check to see if the butterflies had broken free of their cocoons and let me tell you, the day it happened there was pandemonium in the classroom. You would have thought someone had given birth to a real baby. Quickly we took our newborns outside and set them free in our new butterfly garden and it was all very, very cool.
ON TO STEP TWO
By that time I was thinking this plan wasn’t nearly as difficult as I once envisioned and step two was fairly easy as well. Step Two called for raised garden beds so each class in the school could have their own vegetable garden.
I sent out a newsletter to parents explaining my need for 2x6 lumber and within two days I had the lumber I needed for nine raised garden beds. The school maintenance guy (hi Todd, how are you?) cut the lumber into the lengths I needed and my kids and I headed out to screw the beds together.
More garden soil was needed and the local business was more than willing to help; by now I think he was seeing this as an opportunity to get some free advertising out of this project and I wasn’t about to disrupt his dreams. We took his dirt, filled in the gardens, planted donated seeds from the nurseries and we had it all done within a week.
STEP THREE WAS A LITTLE BIT MORE COMPLICATED
Why stop with nine raised beds when you can have a 15x25 community garden? Luckily we had a parent who was a professional landscaper and he had the machinery we needed to turn over the soil and prepare our garden. Literally in one day we had carved out our community garden and the next day we were able to plant the seeds.
We fenced it off to protect it from roaming animals and wayward first graders. Each day I scheduled kids from my class to do follow-up weeding and watering and each classroom was in charge of their own raised beds. I also put some kids to work building a compost bin.
Within one month of my doodling exercise we had made nine raised garden beds, a compost bin, a butterfly garden and a community garden. Total cost to that point was slightly over $100 since most of the things we needed were donated.
It was time for the showcase item and the main budget item.
A WORKING GREENHOUSE
During the month that we did the work outdoors the principal was working on financing the crown jewel of our outdoor classroom, namely a 10x20 greenhouse. She was able to divert some of the money made in the school auction and we ordered the greenhouse; it was delivered within two weeks and constructed within a week after delivery. Cost: $5,000!
Now we were in business. Local newspapers were told about our project and we had a huge celebration before school let out for the summer. Families were signed up to do the watering and harvesting during the summer and by the time summer vacation began what was once a silly daydream was a fully-functioning outdoor gardening center.
There was so much more to do!
As I stated earlier we never really got past that initial effort. We did get some trees donated so we could start our fruit tree orchard but our plans for additional features were never realized and for that I feel bad. The principal left for another school, the budget was tightened and I retired. I have no idea what happened but I’m fairly certain that the dream died shortly after I left.
What was going to be there? We had planned on digging a stream bed and installing a pump to provide a continual flowing stream through the area. We had planned on a waterwheel and wind turbines (we actually made one of these in science class) and an outdoor astrology lab. We had planned on having covered wagons and an aviary and petting zoo and a small amphitheater. We had planned…….well, the possibilities were endless.
AM I DISAPPOINTED?
The quick answer is yes! There was so much we could have done but the commitment at the top dried up and for a project like this you need everyone on board and totally signed on.
The long answer, however, is no, I am very encouraged and proud of what we accomplished. In two short months we created something that had the students excited and engaged in learning. In two short months we brought a school community together working toward a common goal. In two short months we had taken a silly dream and made it at least partially a reality.
I wanted my students to become inspired and for two months they were. I wanted my students to realize that the only thing preventing some dreams is the lack of vision and for true visionaries anything is possible. That is a lesson you won’t find in any textbook but it may be the greatest lesson we can teach our kids. Never give up on a dream! Never allow a dream to die because of a lack of commitment and never let someone tell you that a job is too big because there is no such thing as a job too big.
I have often told my students to never underestimate the power of a determined group of people. I believe that with all my heart and today they do too.
2012 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)
For more articles on teaching see the following: