Sydney Minnerly, 8, is sitting at a
picnic table near the river that runs behind the Lincoln Community School,
carefully spelling out the words St.-John’s-wort on wooden Popsicle sticks. The
sticks will label the seedlings that her second grade class is growing.
“What does one do with St.-John’s-wort?”
I ask her.
“It’s for tea and tinctures and sword
wounds. It’s also good for sunburn,” she explains patiently.
A dozen feet away, Rowan Cotti, 8, and
Madison Little, 7, are transplanting trays of mad-dog skullcap into larger
plastic pots. “A long time ago, if you were bitten by a mad dog, you would take
medicine made from mad-dog skullcap,” Madison tells me. “Now you go to the
It is a blustery Wednesday afternoon in
the middle of May, dark clouds bottled up against the western slopes of Mount
Abraham, but the 19 students in teacher Justin May’s second grade class are
hard at work on a learning project that is at once spectacularly ambitious and very
kid-friendly. They are preparing for their class’s annual farmer’s market this
coming Wednesday and Thursday, while learning a great deal about the ways we as
humans are connected to our food.
It is also a part of their teacher’s
larger academic goal: A hands-on, multidisciplinary way for them to grow as students.
When the kids aren’t getting their hands dirty in the school garden, they are
in the school library researching everything from ashwagandha to eggplant. They
are using math to figure out quickly that they need 36 two-inch pots for the
rosemary (four rows of nine seedlings), and they are learning spelling as they
carefully sound out words like cucumber and basil. The garden even helps them
learn narrative technique and poetry. Each of the students is an expert on two
plants, and they have all written poems and essays about them. They have also
constructed invitations to the upcoming market. And as they move among the
school’s greenhouse, the hoop house, the shed and the garden beds, they are
learning teamwork and problem solving.
“Of course, there’s a fine line between
educational purpose and child labor,” May laughs, before turning back to his
students and reminding them how the cells of a plant need water and you can
tell by the leaves. Are the leaves standing up straight or are they drooping?
If they’re drooping, there’s a chance those tiny cells are drying up and need
When May arrived at the school as a
second-grade teacher four years ago, the greenhouse was empty. But he had just
written a thesis on hands-on and experiential-based learning and saw enormous
potential in the shell. In addition to what the students could learn about
plant biology and how to research a topic, they could learn about local and
foreign cultures, history, and human interdependence with the food system. And,
in his vision, the curriculum would culminate in June with a farmer’s market.
“We’ll be selling the traditional
cucumbers and eggplants and peppers,” May reassures me as I walk among the
seedlings. “But this year we added all those medicinal herbs because the kids
get so excited about the stories behind them.”
The first year, the market earned $400;
the second it made $800; last year, sales doubled again to $1,600. The income
goes to fund the greenhouse project and, when there is money left over, to a charity
the students choose annually. In April of 2009 that meant a $400 gift to the
Northeast Organic Farmers Association of Vermont.
But it isn’t about the money. It really
isn’t even about the plants. It’s about the learning. And this year, these kids
have learned a lot.
* * *
IF YOU GO: The Lincoln Community
School’s Second Grade Farmer’s Market will be open this week on Wednesday
morning from 10:30 to 11:30 am and on Thursday evening from 6:00 to 7:30 pm.
The school is at 795 East River Road. Call 453-2119 for details.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on May 30, 2010.)