Being the environmental education specialist at a K-12 school in Colorado is full of wins and what we’ll call opportunities for growth. I love reading student essays on recycling, Zooming into discussions with ninth graders about climate change, or inviting a speaker from our local waste management facility to talk to our third graders.
Our school has 1:1 technology, meaning every student has their own internet-enabled device — and that has been imperative for student success, especially this past year. But after a year of “stay at home” orders and the like, we all need to spend some more time outside. Which got me thinking: What if, in addition to 1:1 technology schools, we had 1:1 plant schools?
When I presented this idea to our school’s executive director, she was immediately supportive, though she explained that we didn’t yet have enough plants for everyone. So we started with trees, with each class adopting a tree on campus. They got an adoption certificate and everything.
The sophomore class painted rocks to put around their tree along with a healthy helping of mulch. A fifth grade class wrote essays about how they take care of their tree and presented them to me as part of their literacy curriculum. With their input, we fertilized their tree with vermicompost tea.
Seeing the success this year of 1:1 trees, I am prepared to implement 1:1 plants next school year, now that the rest of our outdoor campus is built. Here’s how it will work: Outdoor plants will be assigned to every student and staff member, similar to how they received their tree adoption certificate. Kindergarteners will start with plants that are near the building and high schoolers with plants that are farther out. Each year, students will be assigned a different plant, allowing them to feel connected to different parts of the campus. I believe the impact will be extraordinary.
It will encourage members of our school community to get outside more, which is the first step in fostering environmental stewardship. Students and teachers alike can see the community as their classroom. It is my firm belief that if students know their place in the world, they will take action to help it thrive.
Often, students don’t feel like they have much power in the world. At Westgate Community School, where I teach, they partake in service learning, but the scope is still rather small. 1:1 plants will help foster a sense of agency and ownership for a critical part of our community. I envision students saying to themselves, “If I can take care of this plant, I can take care of myself and the community.”
Students will start to see how their plant is connected to other plants and other parts of the environment. As students go from grade to grade, they will also witness the growth of their plants around campus. They can see if their plants have all needed the same things and how their relationship to the plants has changed as they’ve grown.
If you devoured Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants” like I did, you will understand the profound benefit of fostering a reciprocal relationship with nature. I take care of the plant, and, in turn, the plant takes care of me. A reciprocal relationship organically develops. Having a plant to visit, talk to, learn from, and enjoy impacts mental health and general wellness.
There are also many interdisciplinary lessons to be gleaned. In literacy, students might write a news article about their plant. A math lesson might involve measuring the plant or looking at the geometry within it. Social studies lessons might include researching plants indigenous to the area and gardening methods used by people in different communities and parts of the world. In science, students might test soil quality or record the lifecycle of their plant within the school year.
The fervor my colleagues and students had for their adopted tree was immediate. What will happen next school year when each person has adopted their own plant? I have a feeling the result will be magnificent.
Taking care of plants and allowing plants to take care of us may just change the world.
Chandra Valenza is the environmental education specialist at Westgate Community School in Thornton, Colorado. She has a Master of Arts in Education with an endorsement in Environmental Sustainability Education from Antioch University in Seattle.