Embracing a Place-Based Approach in the School Garden

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending Point Blue Conservation Science Watershed Week. This annual event has been held since 1998, but the project it celebrates–STRAW (Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed)–has been in existence for over 20 years. logoThe goal of the event was to empower educators to feel connected to the Bay and provide the resources and support they need to incorporate restoration and conservation into their teaching. The theme this year was “The Power of Place: Inspiring a Land Ethic.”

Nick Tipon, retired high school teacher and elder member of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, spoke about the need for balance and respect in nature. He advocates for the sacred protection of Native American cultural resources, including significant plants, animals, and spiritual places. Wendall Gilgert, a fourth generation family farmer, spoke about soil conservation. He believes anyone can be a Leopoldian Land Steward by taking a holistic and integrated view when working with the land.

I was invited to speak about place-based education as a tool for nurturing students’ engagement with nature and the environment. According to a resource published by Getting Smart, place-based education (PBE) is “an approach to learning that takes advantage of geography to create authentic, meaningful and engaging personalized learning for students.” I chose to share stories about embracing a place-based approach in the school garden to protect pollinators.

One particular story that came to mind was the “pedagogical restoration” that refined the way a group of first graders studied butterflies. The topic of butterfly life cycle seems to be ubiquitous in first grade classrooms, perhaps due to Eric Carle’s beloved book The Very Hungry Caterpillar.  Without a place-based approach, many butterfly lessons are decontextualized and disconnected from the natural world.

Before I started working with the first grade teachers at Pueblo Vista Magnet School, their butterfly unit unit included reading books and watching videos about butterflies, raising larvae and releasing butterflies in the garden, and conducting observation in the science lab. They even Skyped with students in Mexico where eastern monarchs migrate for the winter. Although this was a robust instructional unit, it wasn’t entirely consistent with a place-based approach. For starters, there weren’t any dedicated butterfly plants in the garden! How could we leverage the power of place to enhance our study of monarchs? STRAW_Place-Based Science (1)We found the answer when, in the spring of 2016, a monarch butterfly laid her eggs on the sole milkweed plant on the school campus. Conveniently, it happened to be planted right outside the first grade classrooms. When the caterpillars emerged a few days later, the garden teacher erected a barrier to protect them from small pinching fingers.

Image result for monarch migration

We posted a sign with the stages of the monarch life cycle. Students, teachers, and parents viewed and counted our visitors daily. A few weeks later, the science teacher noticed the caterpillars crawling along the sidewalk away from the cage containing the milkweed plant. They had run out of food!

She acted quickly, making  trip to the local nursery to purchase milkweed. Many of the caterpillars survived and completed metamorphosis, but we learned an important lesson about milkweed. The only variety available in the local nursery was a tropical variety that is controversial among monarch conservationists (See my previous post on this topic for more information.)

I enlisted the Dirt Girls to propagate narrow-leaf milkweed and restore a native habitat for butterflies. We emptied the pods that I collected from my backyard and carefully separated the seed from the wispy coma. We soaked them in warm tap water and planted them in our special soil mixture. straw_place-based-science.jpg

Our germination rate was very low and we have yet to see if our work accomplished the goal of providing this important food source for monarchs. We learned crucial lessons about patience and reflection–two key characteristics of Leopoldian Land Stewards.

Taking advantage of geography, turning our attention to the western monarchs that migrate to the coast, prompted us to transform a portion of our garden into a Monarch Waystation. I look forward to seeing how taking advantage of our place continues to transform our study of butterflies.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. robin thompson says:

    Dear Garden Doctor, Thank you for your commitment to the Pueblo Vista School garden and for making it a place for deep and meaningful learning. Very inspiring.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re the best, Robin! Thanks for your continued support. I can’t wait to see what fun things we can cook up this year in the garden (and the kitchen)!


  2. What a wonderful way for the students to learn about nature. 🌼


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