I love Halloween. I will be out in the yard with my smoke machine, and spooky music, and lots of candy. And looking out our living room window will be our rescued cat, Radar. Radar is a completely black cat that we rescued last spring (along with his brother in the picture, Chairman Meow Meow) and this year we will be quite vigilant as we make sure that he stays in the house. I have shared with the children that there is nothing scary or bad about a black cat. Radar is actually one of the most loving animals I have ever come across. Every year at Halloween black cats become the center of attention - and often cruelty. Please enjoy Halloween. Watch out for little children, tolerate teenagers who are not quite ready to grow up, and keep your cats safe from harms way. Happy Halloween, Radar!
Halloween is a great time to correct many misconceptions. A quick trip to the garden allows us to visit spiders, look for webs and learn more about the importance of these valuable creatures. And a look inside a pumpkin may result in the drying and harvesting of seeds which will be used to begin our next pumpkin patch. After Halloween I recommend keeping that Jack o Lantern and watching the long term changes which take place as it eventually closed up. I know of one school that put one outside and ended up with a pumpkin patch growing out of the rotting pumpkin come early spring. Take advantage of the teachable moment and every opportunity to observe and record changes in a long term study.
Here is a quick and easy addition to any classroom that is guaranteed to excite a class. Paper towel tubes are cut length wise in half to create ramps. Depending upon the surface you can staple them to bulletin boards, tape them to dry erase boards, use velcro on a really large flannel board area. Regardless of how you do it, you have created a marble track that explores acceleration and gravity, friction, the collision of objects, recognizing and controlling variables, construction techniques and a wide assortment of other concepts. Marbles race to the bottom and my students predict how long it will take. They may then change the track to make it take longer or less time. We add bells, drops and anything we can think of - the track is constantly changing all year long. The neatest thing about this is that kids can make one of these at home. One of my students created one on a large garage door a few years ago and the entire neighborhood came out to watch the fun!
The Florida Association of Science Teachers is holding it's annual conference here in Orlando at the Doubletree Hotel across from Universal Studios. A great opportunity to bring great ideas back to the classroom. I will be presenting two workshops on Elementary Science Labs and hope to see you there.
Many have asked for more information about our school garden. This is a reprint of an article I wrote for KidsGardening.
As many look to the fall season as a time of winding down classroom gardening, there are places where you will find a second gardening season filled with flowers, butterflies and vegetables. Gardening in Florida provides just such an opportunity. As you travel south until fall leaves cease to exist you will find a region of year round gardening that many would envy. As a science lab teacher and native Floridian my students and I do not experience the beauty of fall leaves or excitement of the first snow, but our garden is filled with the color of flowers in December, our garden still hosts caterpillars and butterflies in January and we harvest cucumbers and tomatoes almost year round. Raised beds provide the year round home for dill, mint, pentas, salvia, milkweed, fennel and much more.
For years my elementary school garden has enjoyed the advantages and challenges unique to year round gardening. In the sub tropic zone of Central and South Florida the cool mornings of fall aren’t usually felt until mid November; a winter freeze threat usually exists for only a few weeks in January and February; our spring planting begins in early March; and summer comes to us in May. With the opportunity of an extended growing season come challenges. Garden pests are a year round concern; the depletion of soil nutrients is an ongoing battle; and garden management and maintenance become critical gardening skills.
Because the challenge of year round gardening can be overwhelming, in our school garden we have approached everything in manageable stages. Our research and past experiences helped us to realize that the soil in Florida is mostly composed of sand and organic matter and our rain pattern is seasonally inconsistent. As a result we undertook creating a diverse raised bed garden supported by in-ground sites where appropriate. The decision to rely on raised beds was made due to a number of factors. 1. We could more easily enrich the soil and control moisture, 2. We provide better control of nematodes and other garden pests, 3. All students would have equal access to the garden – from kindergartners to fifth graders to our physically challenged students, 4. We could better control weeds. Most of our beds are large, measuring eight feet square, others much smaller. Container gardens also are found throughout our garden and allow us to provide a greater diversity of plants.
Large beds were developed to provide the following experiences: one bed is filled with assorted mints, lavender, and other scented plants for a sensory experience; one bed contains only annuals so that students may better understand plant life cycles; two beds provide host plants for both caterpillars and butterflies (we have focused on Monarchs, Queens, Viceroys, assorted Swallowtails, Gulf Fritillary and Sulfurs); a bed of perennials is provided to measure plant growth; a bed of ginger and cannas allows us to explore bulbs; a bed dedicated to Southern wildflowers allows students to better understand that one region’s weed in another region’s wildflower ; a bed of vegetables that are constantly harvested; and assorted container groupings of kalanchoe, sunflowers, roses, ornamental trees and other plants.
Soil is revitalized courtesy of our rabbitry which provides the foundation for our large composter. Additional soil is obtained from composted matter available at our county landfill. Irrigation as needed is supplied through web-like hose of connected sprinklers we have created linking each bed to our main water supply. Our goal was to use as little water as possible. Seeds from the garden are collected, dried and added back to the beds as part of our understanding of the life cycle. The garden is maintained by our afterschool gardening club, as well as volunteer classes. Pruning and weeding are ongoing and vital to our gardens. With a mild year round climate many plants will grow at accelerated rates. Without a period of dormancy many plants have been planted in small areas only to eventually take over the entire garden space. Our own experience started one year with a Mexican Petunia staging a revolt and attempting to take over our entire garden through a network of vine-like roots. Unable to learn our lesson, we repeated the cycle with a determined ornamental potato vine.
Water gardening is popular in our state, but has its own challenges. Evaporation leads the list. If fish are part of the water gardening experience then tap water must be ruled out as the water source. Many gardeners have rain barrels or filtration systems designed to provide a constant source of appropriate water. Too much or too little water depletes necessary nutrients creating more work, and our wonderful sun also contributes to high growth of algae! And don’t forget that you may also find the occasional egret or crane looking for his next meal in your water garden!
Regardless of how you approach gardening in Florida the joys far exceed any challenges one might encounter. Our school garden has become such an integral part of our community that last spring it was the site of evening Garden Party attended by over 400 students and their families. Though we might out on miss the colors of fall leaves and the clean fields associated with the first snow, we in the Sunshine State celebrate with an explosion of colors everyday and invite you to come down and share in the warmth and excitement of year round gardening!
Many of us in Florida are combining lessons dealing with water cycles, water conservation and the fragility of ecosystems. This is a lesson I wrote for our district almost 20 years ago and was later published by learning Magazine. You have seen the pictures I have shared on the side and here is the explanation.
While learning about the fragility of our water resources in Florida my fourth graders complete a challenge related to water pollution and reclamation. My students are given the challenge of taking dirty water and cleaning it. The “dirty water” is water to which I have added raisins, coffee grounds, crushed tea leaves, a few drops of vinegar and cooking oil. The result is a pretty good representation of water that might be found at a water treatment plant, only without dangerous parasites and bacteria. Small groups of three or four students are then given the tools for “cleaning” the water. Tools include a strainer, three coffee filters, funnels, extra cups, straws and a spoon. Each group additionally receives a cloth dish towel for clean up and a plastic tub (shoe box size) in which the experiment will take place.
Groups have an hour in (two class periods in the lab) which to clean the water. At the end of the hour all of the cups of water are compared to determine clarity. We discuss if the water is actually clean and talk about things that can’t be seen which may harm us. As a follow up to this activity I take all of the cups of “clean water” and place them in a pot, which we bring to a boil. Using the pot cover as a condensation catcher we distill water. We compare the distilled water to a small sample of what the students cleaned, but we also talk about the amount of energy which was needed to distill water and the materials needed to initially begin our process of reclaiming water.
This activity is the hands on introduction to our real world science understandings. We follow up by going to our local water treatment plant, as well as the Orlando Wetlands Park, which is a wetlands reclamation project of the St. Johns Water District and reintroduces reclaimed water into the St. Johns River. The reaction to this activity has always been one of really appreciating how difficult it is to reclaim water after we have polluted it.
This afternoon I will be interviewed on National Public Radio's All Things Considered, Weekend Edition. Along with a parent from Florida we will be sharing our experiences with No Child Left Behind. At the end of our segment we have poised questions to the educational advisers to Obama and McCain campaigns. If you are unable to listen in I invite you to go to the NPR website and listen to the podcast which will be available after 7pm this evening.