by Letty Rising
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I remember the first month of my first year of teaching. I was at a school that was not only new to me but a new school altogether. We had two modest classrooms that were located in a church, with the hopes of one day being able to occupy a building of our own. There were lots of decisions to be made, materials to prepare, and new families to greet. It was a busy time, indeed!
The school utilized a team-teaching model, and there were two lower elementary classrooms during that first year, so there were 4 of us working together in collaboration, pioneering one of the first public Montessori charter schools in California. We all came together before the school year started to make plans, and for a reason I cannot remember, I was absent during one of the afternoon planning sessions. When I returned the following day, the other three said that, in my absence, they had decided to divy up the cultural subjects. The idea was for each of us to choose a topic that we would focus on during that intense first year, in hopes to preserve everyone’s energy and stamina for the myriad of unexpected activities that happen during the inaugural year of a new school.
One of the teachers chose history, another chose geography, and another chose zoology. And that left me with the final, unchosen topic…botany.
I remember being not only sorely disappointed but also borderline petrified at the thought of teaching botany. With all of the other topics, I felt like I had a decent working knowledge to build from. However, botany was the one area that I didn’t feel like I had a firm grasp on. Not only did I not feel well versed in botany studies, but my thumb was so black that I feared that if I even approached a gardening area it would surely break off and crumble away into the soil in the ground.
I decided to resign myself to the hand that I was dealt and went about conducting some research to find out what plants would be easiest to grow from seeds. I was not only new to the school but was new to the area as well and didn’t know much about planting seeds, or what seeds were suitable for the climate at hand. This was way back when the internet was still in its early stages of infancy, so I didn’t have the option of quickly finding answers to my questions at my fingertips.
I set off to the gardening store, and one of the helpful clerks suggested radishes would be an easy item to grow from seeds. I pushed through my inner resistance, bought several packets, and left with feelings of uncertainty mixed with hopefulness.
During the first couple of weeks, I took the children out to the gardening containers that were lovingly built and filled with soil by our eager parent group. I figured that they should probably have hands-on experience before I start covering the parts of the plant, the leaf, the root, and so on. I probably could have stretched it into a longer activity if I had sat them down, asked them what they knew about planting and plants, or if they had stories about planting seeds, but I was not only a brand new teacher, but also going through a huge transition in my personal life, and I didn’t have my act together enough to set the scene, activate prior knowledge, and facilitate a discussion before the activity. In fact, truth be told, I wasn’t sure if this whole teaching thing was for me, and I felt like I was barely hanging on for dear life.
So the children planted their seeds, which took all of 5 minutes, and we walked back single file inside the classroom to begin the work cycle, and I gathered a small group for a different and unrelated lesson.
And then, guess what? I completely forgot about those radish seeds.
That’s not entirely true, as images of the planters would flash inside of my mind on occasion, usually when I was 1. in the shower, or 2. about to fall asleep, which, especially then, were generally the times when my mind would wander to the random things on my invisible “to do” list that never quite got done.
I initially felt a bit of anxiousness when I realized that we hadn’t checked on the seeds (they were on the edge of the school property, and not easily accessible without an intentional walk to see them), nor had we watered them. But class life was busy, hectic, and chaotic. We had children with undiagnosed needs and limited staff in a small, emerging school, and so much to juggle and cover as a first-year teacher, that I decided to leave following up on that project to the wayside. Or maybe those were my excuses. In any event, I put it out of my mind.
As I reflect on that time, I think that I was secretly afraid of becoming attached to the seeds in the planters and not knowing how much or how little to water them, and having my first planting experience fail. After all, you can’t fail when you haven’t tried, right?
Instead, I focused on other aspects of biology, particularly nomenclature material. I gave the children lessons on identifying the plant, leaf, root, stem, flower, fruit, and seed. We soaked kidney beans in water, then put them on a wet paper towel and then into Ziploc bags, and hung them on the windowsill. I felt more confident doing that, having the mature and experienced eyes of my wise co-teacher to mentor me and let me know if I was going off track. I created laminated materials showing different parts of the plant and foods that correspond (e.g. roots showed carrots, stems showed celery, etc.), and brought different kinds of edible plants representing different parts of the plant to observe and taste.
Then one day, the school principal came up to me and said “You might want to check the planters…it looks like the heavy rains happened to work in your favor.” My cheeks turned red…I wonder if she viewed me as careless and indifferent, or if she had come to the conclusion that I was having inexperienced teacher reluctance over trying something new and unfamiliar? I quickly darted out to the neglected garden area that I was probably supposed to be tending to (I was the one who was in charge of all things botany, after all).
As I approached the planters, I saw a few bright green stems sticking up from a distance. I immediately swirled back around and sprinted back to class, and patiently waited for recess to be over. It happened to be my afternoon for botany, and when they returned from outdoor play I walked the children out to the planters to show them the miracle that happened during the past couple of months since we had dropped the seeds into the soil.
“Oh, the radishes!” I hear a child exclaim. I heard one after another, gasps and squeals of delight. The childrens’ faces were glowing, smiling ear to ear as they harvested the radishes until the planter was bare. As they were digging and pulling out the radishes, we talked about the texture, the color, the various sizes, and shapes. I never imagined a radish would be so exciting! Then we took them back to the school and washed them, cut them, and those who were fond of radishes quickly devoured them. Even those who were skeptical dove in after the early adopters gave their stamp of approval. It ended up being an extraordinarily delightful afternoon.
Why the long-winded storytime about my almost failed experiment with radishes, you say? I learned a lot from that initial hands-on experience with botany, that I carried with me not only throughout my teaching career but in life.
As a new teacher, I learned that the seeds we plant, if planted in favorable conditions, have a good chance of sprouting and growing into thriving plants, whether or not we are paying attention. All of my earlier angst about what I perceived as a failed experiment due to my benign neglect, actually turned out well in the end.
Are there some seeds that didn’t sprout? This is very likely the case, and the radish garden would have flourished even more had I taken the time and care to nurture their growth. Still, many of them grew under the basic, but “just right” conditions….soil, water, sunlight, and heat. I did get lucky. If it had been a colder fall season, or a less rainy one, the outcome surely would have been different.
I can share with the children the story of plants, and let them know about the needs of the plant, but hearing a story about plants only offers a part of the experience. The rest is the “doing.” This is why it’s so important as a teacher to not get too caught up in the nomenclature cards so that it becomes a primary focus. It can be tempting to present the nomenclature, then have the children copy illustrations of the leaves, copy the words, make their own booklets, and leave it at that.
However, when adding the extra layers of rich experience through the use of storytelling, visual aids such as charts and encyclopedias, and most important, actual plant specimens and opportunities to bring forth life from the beginning seed all the way to the mature plant (sometimes along with fruit and flowering parts as well!), the child then learns early what it means to bring forth life. And what more of an incredible experience could we possibly give children than the opportunity to see life sprout from a tiny seed and grow into something that can be admired or used for nourishment?
Life Lessons We Learn from Plants
We learn a lot of things from plants that we can apply to our own lives, and the following are just a few examples:
Struggles can make us stronger.
The plant wouldn’t come into existence if it failed to push through the seed coat, and still yet failed to push through the layers of soil in the ground. But it’s the very struggle that leads to its ability to flourish. We too, need to experience some struggle in order to flourish. I’ve heard time and again that while too much stress can cause us overwhelm, too little stress can lead to a lack of motivation and inertia.
If you encounter an obstacle, move around it and keep going.
If a plant is growing towards the light, or if a root is growing towards a water source, and an obstacle is in the way (e.g. the large leaves of other plants are blocking the sun, or large rock is blocking the root from the water source), the plant will maneuver around the obstacle and keep going. They don’t run into obstacles, get frustrated, and give up. We can all learn this valuable lesson from plants!
The right environment is needed in order to thrive.
Plants do everything they can to find what they need in order to thrive. If they don’t have what they need in their vicinity, they will do as much as they can to make life work for them where they are planted. And plants that are in the right spot, will flourish. If you put a desert plant outside where it snows for 6 months out of the year, it will wither and die. If you put a cold-weather plant in the desert, it will wilt and shrivel up within a few days. Bloom where you are planted. If you’re not blooming, then it’s not the right habitat. We can move plants to the right habitat, and as people, we sometimes find ourselves not immersed in the right conditions for our own flourishing. Luckily, we can move with our feet, and take ourselves to more optimal conditions.
Find the light in any given situation.
The plant will persist in the endeavor of finding the light, no matter how dark it may seem, they grow towards where the light goes. Humans don’t always have this inclination, or at least it isn’t instinctive. For us, the light is metaphorical, as we move towards things that feel good for us, and that is good for us. Find the light in your world, and plant yourself where you will most thrive. If you haven’t found these yet, keep trying.
Letty Rising has been involved in Montessori education for over 15 years. She holds a B.A. in Sociology, a California State Teaching Credential, and an AMI elementary diploma for ages 6-12 and an M.Ed from Loyola University in Maryland. She has held positions as a Homeschool Education Specialist, Montessori Elementary Teacher, School Director, Principal, Montessori Coordinator, and Consultant in several public and private Montessori school communities throughout the years. Letty currently supports schools around the world through professional development offerings, consulting, and mentoring.