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At Excelsior Academy, our Greenthumbs students learn about agriculture using the themes “Food, Health, and Lifestyle,” and “Science, Technology, Engineering & Math.” The Greenthumbs Program began in 2011 when several of my 8th grade science students asked me if we could build a school greenhouse. We had just finished a unit on photosynthesis, and my students absolutely loved testing the germination rate of sunflower seeds under different conditions. In fact, it was the most excited about science I had ever seen them. Their enthusiasm for caring for our little plants—and their genuine desire to further explore them—became my inspiration for starting a new elective class, called Greenthumbs.
That first year, my 30 Greenthumbs students and I set a goal to build a small greenhouse. As a result of their excitement and hard work, word spread quickly through our community about the project. By the spring of that year, we had raised $9,000 in grants, corporate donations, and volunteer construction. The end result was a 10' x 14' aluminum-framed greenhouse with polycarbonate glazing. Since then, our program has grown every year due to the popularity of the class. Eventually, we built a second, much larger glass greenhouse. W added an additional class so twice as many students could enjoy the program, and we focused on integrating Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) into the fabric of the Greenthumbs curriculum.
Our first unit of the year is titled “Basic Training.” In this unit, students learn about the program’s goals, how a typical class runs, the four crews (divisions into which the class is separated), and the basic skills each student will need to possess throughout the year. This unit takes six weeks. During this time, all 30 students in each class are taught through whole-group instruction. Each lesson teaches the students a new skill, and most days involve the students getting their hands dirty while preparing or amending soils, planting seeds, transplanting and cloning varieties, weeding and deadheading the gardens, flipping the compost piles, or harvesting crops from the raised beds. With those basic skills mastered, it is time for students to learn about the four different crews: Greenhouse, Garden, Nursery, and Sales and Marketing.
Each crew has special responsibilities and each student gets to select which crew they would like to join. They learn that in the Greenhouse Crew, they will be responsible for the daily maintenance and upkeep of the two greenhouses, growing vegetables and flowers in the raised beds, and preparing the greenhouses for seasonal changes. Students learn that in the Garden Crew, they will be responsible for planning, planting, maintaining, and winterizing the three flower gardens on the school’s campus. In addition to these responsibilities, the Garden Crew is also responsible for operating the Thermophilic and Bokashi Composting Systems. In the Nursery Crew, students learn that they will be responsible for creating various soil mixes at precise ratios, planting seeds in the humidity domes and maintaining proper conditions for germination, as well as transplanting and cloning many species of vegetables, herbs, flowers and houseplants at various stages of development. Finally, in Sales and Marketing Crew, students learn that they will be responsible for running the program as if it were a small business. They will understand the program budget (which was determined by last year’s sales) and make purchasing decisions based on inventory. They are also responsible for organizing sales events at local businesses, pricing and labeling all potted plants, and advertising to the community through various social media profiles.
On the final day of “Basic Training” there is a crew selection celebration. Students choose their crews, vote for crew leaders, and assign a role and responsibility to each individual in class. Every student is in charge of at least one aspect of the program. Each semester, students have the option to either stay in their current crew or to switch into a new one.
After “Basic Training,” the class runs a bit differently. The first 20 to 30 minutes of the lesson are devoted to whole group instruction on subjects relating to agriculture, followed by 20 to 30 minutes of crew breakouts. During these breakouts, student-leaders and their crews all move to their separate locations around the campus, accomplishing the tasks for which they are responsible. Leaders take walkie-talkies and stay in communication with me regarding their progress toward established daily and weekly goals. For the rest of the year, the whole group instruction portion of each lesson is focused on the following units of study: Thermophilic Composting (October), Square Foot Gardening (November), Greenhouse Design (December), Spring Planting Schedule (January), Garden Design (February), Careers in Agriculture (March/April), and “Summerizing the Program” (May).
I teach the unit “Thermophilic Composting” so that the compost piles we create in the fall will be ready for use in the spring. This year was the first year I could teach this unit, because in the fall I won a competitive grant through the CHS Foundation to purchase materials to build a thermophilic composting bin system. Each class of Greenthumbs now has their own 5-bin system (1 bin for storage, 2 bins for flipping the active pile, 1 bin for storing the cooling pile, and 1 bin for storing the fully-cured compost from the previous year). During the whole-group instruction portion of the class, I teach all the Greenthumbs students about the chemical, physical, and biological changes that occur during thermophilic composting. They learn about what compost is, the various methods of composting, why we use the thermophilic method, calculating and maintaining proper carbon to nitrogen ratios, and how to monitor and troubleshoot the piles using a daily data tracker. Students learn how to be systematic and scientific when making decisions about when to add components and when and how often to water, flip, and aerate this essential component of any successful garden. At the end of the unit, students take a written assessment and create a plan for how to start a compost pile at home.
I want my students to be inspired to grow their own food at home, as well. I want them to see how easy it can be to grow a large amount of healthy food in a small amount of space, and to understand the benefits that come with this lifestyle. With that in mind, the next unit I teach is titled “Square Foot Gardening” which is based on the book of the same name by Mel Bartholomew. During this unit, all students will learn how to establish and maintain a square foot garden. They learn how to prepare the raised bed soils in the correct ratios of peat moss, vermiculite, and blended compost. They use math to calculate the cost of the soil mix based on the cubic feet required to fill various size beds. They learn about plant spacing, seasonal and staggered harvests, indoor seed starting and seed saving, companion planting, vertical gardening, as well as how to care for special varieties and how to extend the growing season and winterize their garden. At the end of the unit, students take a written assessment and create a 4' x 4' garden grid layout and planting schedule for their own square foot gardens at home. The students on the Greenhouse Crew then take over responsibility for planning, planting, and harvesting all 300 square feet of raised bed space in the two school greenhouses.
Students use engineering in our units on Greenhouse and Garden design, use math and technology during our unit on Spring Planting Schedules, and make many connections with “Food, Health, and Lifestyle” while investigating Careers in Agriculture in the spring. I can say that teaching the Greenthumbs class has been the best, most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my career. It is a spectacular privilege to teach young people about agriculture. I feel lucky to do it, every day.