Published on Friday, September 4, 2009 in THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER.
Classrooms go green to teach nature's ways
By Heather J. Chin
Inquirer Staff Writer
It is midday at Khepera Charter School in Mount Airy, and about two dozen middle schoolers are standing on the grass, staring at trees. Their science teacher, Kim Johnson, offers clues as they try to identify Japanese maple, sugar maple, pine oak, and spruce.
Such excursions are common at the school, where the lawns and a small vegetable garden have been an "outdoor classroom" for five years. English teachers read poems and have kids write essays in the sunshine. In math class, students measure the lawn's perimeter or solve problems while watching squirrels play.
The point, said Johnson, whose students call her Mama Omatayo or Mama O. (to foster a sense of family, faculty are referred to as Mama or Baba), is to provide learning experiences outside the four walls and to connect children with nature.
Rita Stevens, a special-education teacher at Philadelphia's Huey Elementary School at 52d and Pine Streets, takes a similar tack. She has been using the school's vegetable and flower garden to motivate her third to fifth graders to learn to read and write. Between weeding and watering, the kids label both the plants ("tomatoes" and "peppers") and their parts ("stem," "leaves" and "fruit").
"The kids are hands-on and they will learn how to read words associated with something," explained Stevens. "They'll make the effort to learn about what they're working with."
Learning experiences like these are why Johnson and Stevens joined 48 fellow educators at the third annual Green City Teachers workshop in July, sponsored by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. The two-day event trains educators in safe and best planting practices through hands-on work in one school's garden.
This year, Luis Muñoz-Marin Elementary School at Third and Ontario Streets in North Philadelphia was the host. On patches of soil behind the school and in the parking lot, teachers weeded, swept, built wooden frames for seed beds, tested soil for lead, applied mulch, and planted trees and vegetables. They also bonded over shared goals, challenges, and a desire to spread the word: Whether indoors or outdoors, large or small, gardens are a valuable educational tool.
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