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New Myrnam School’s Horticulture Program – A Lesson in Student Engagement

During this semester something really interesting has been happening at our school. A diverse group of our high school students have come together to help start our school’s new horticulture program. You may have read about this here and here. While this is certainly nothing new, what has been surprising is how motivated and engaged the students have been, including students who don’t necessarily have any interest in gardening. The level of engagement amongst the students has surprised even us. I’ve been reflecting on the start of the project and about why students have been so engaged, and I think there are several reasons for the project’s success thus far. I will explore some of these reasons below in this post.

A large portion of the class is made up of grade twelve students, who are motivated by the idea that they can create something meaningful and lasting for the school that they can leave behind as their legacy. A part of them being motivated comes from the teacher and the school empowering them to make key decisions about the project, including the location of the greenhouse and garden beds, as well as the direction of the course. Increased engagement and interest from the students has resulted in them putting in far more effort, both in the class and outside of it. Students can often be found working in the greenhouse or in our indoor gardens after school hours. Not surprisingly, this has resulted in a lot of rich, deep learning across a variety of disciplines, including horticulture, science, math and construction. Student enthusiasm has spread beyond just the students taking the class. Others in the school are excited about what they are doing. Students who are not able to take the course due to timetable conflicts have become “honorary members” of the class. They are participating outside of class in several ways. This includes helping to build raised garden beds in shop class, building and helping to maintain our indoor tower garden and taking care of plants in our gardens.

Another reason for the project’s success is that it is authentic. Skills and theories that kids are learning about have real life implications, and they are testing and using their knowledge in a real-world context. Students are working collaboratively with the staff and community to make the project as successful as it can be. As a result of it being a meaningful project for students, they are taking ownership of the project, to the point that the teacher and school administration are empowering them to make key decisions. The students are also taking their learning beyond the class in several ways. They are learning real life skills in an authentic context that will help them tremendously in the real world, including:

  • Writing grant proposals to obtain funding to maintain the project beyond this term’s class.

  • Writing project plans for the garden and greenhouse by researching best practices for growing different plants.

  • Designing the gardens, using elements of math, science, design and construction.

  • Developing and updating a budget for the project.

  • Solving real problems, such as figuring out how to maintain a consistent temperature and humidity level in the greenhouse.

This is in addition to all of the gardening and horticulture curriculum that they are learning!

Another valuable take-away that helps contribute to high student engagement is that the horticulture class itself looks very different for each student. The students are not all earning the same credits. They are encouraged to bring their own strengths and interests into the course. For example, some students have advanced skills in woodworking, and so they take the lead in the shop, creating raised garden beds, making modifications to our greenhouse (which was created previously in shop class), and making seating/benches for our outdoor classroom. Other students have an interest in indoor gardening, and so they take the lead with pollinating the plants, taking care of them, etc. Students who really don’t have very much interest in gardening are taking this course and thriving because they have been given room to find their own interests within the broader concept of the project. Their interests and skills are valued and incorporated into the class, and students see themselves as important contributors to the group. All students are playing important roles in a larger, meaningful project.

Much like the kids, we as a staff are very excited about where the students have taken this project, and we can’t wait to see all of the new and innovative things that are soon to come!

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