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Digging In: A New Hands-on Elective Steeped in Nature
Mitzi Mock, digital videographer & storyteller
Middle school students working in the garden.

 

A new middle school class is providing students with a hands-on, interdisciplinary learning experience rooted in nature. The Four Seasons elective, which is available to seventh- and eighth-grade cohorts in alternating quarters this year, integrates science, writing, history, ethnobotany, and indigenous studies in lessons that take place in natural settings around the Hillsborough campus.

The class is the brainchild of middle school writing teacher Judith Worrall, who counts environmental activism and gardening among her great loves. She began imagining this course when she first learned about Nueva’s new science and environmental center (SEC). With the recent proliferation of California fires, she knew that starting this class was more important than ever.

“Students in California are experiencing the impact of climate change happening around them and there’s a feeling of hopelessness,” Judith said. “I wanted to give them the gift of time in nature and to show them that there are things they can do to help the environment now.”

During the first few weeks of the class, students participated in a series of activities designed to enhance their comfort in nature and instill a sense of agency: They made canapes with edible flowers. They pulled weeds from the garden. They hand-mixed a bucket of compost. They rolled guerilla gardening seed bombs (balls made of clay, compost, and seeds that students can toss in areas where plants don’t often grow, like the side of a freeway or a vacant lot).

“Many students don’t have prolonged and regular access to nature, so they tend to feel very uncomfortable in it,” said PreK–12 Director of Environmental Citizenship Sarah Koning, who collaborated with Judith and Kasey Wooten, lower school science specialist and garden coordinator, to brainstorm elements of the curriculum. “How can we fully protect nature if we don’t feel comfortable in it or understand it?”

For seventh grader Havi S., digging her hands into a bucket of worm-filled compost was a revelation.

Student holding a handful of compost

“I was so surprised to learn that worms can eat paper,” said Havi, who picked this elective because she longed for her lower school days working in the garden and playing in the forts. “So long as we don’t use toxic markers like Sharpies, we can actually feed our old papers and reading materials to worms.”

To continue building this sense of agency and comfort in nature, Judith and Kasey provided each student with a small plot of their own to nurture. But before planting their gardens, students had to learn the science of soil.

“We tested the soil next to the SEC, and it is depleted of nitrogen, which is essential for growing plants,” said seventh grader Bryce C. “We think this depletion is the reason why plants such as milkweed aren’t growing as well near the center as they are in the garden.”

“One of our goals with the environmental citizenship program is to help tie curricula across divisions,” Sarah said. “The skills the students are learning in Judith’s class, such as testing soil, will carry over into the environmental science course that many of them will take in the upper school.”

Soil testing bottles

As students are learning strategies for replenishing the soil, they are also learning about the history of indigenous practices, such as companion planting (planting different types of crops that grow better when they are near each other). For eighth graders who take the elective next quarter, this lesson will build on their required summer reading of Braiding Sweetgrass, a book that examines the relationship between indigenous wisdom and western science.

Exposing students to an indigenous perspective on nature is just one of many ways Judith hopes to encourage students to examine their own relationship to the earth. Journaling about nature is another regular component of the class. Judith hopes students will fill their notebooks with “sketches, poetry, prose, and data” from their outdoor explorations and reflections.

For Havi S., spending afternoons trimming bushes, spreading mulch, planting mushrooms, eating eggs baked in the outdoor solar oven, and journaling about these experiences has been as much a community experience as it has been a learning experience.

“For me, this class is about spending time in nature with your peers and bonding over shared experiences,” she said.
 

For a deeper look at the Four Seasons elective and to see more class photos, be sure to check out the winter issue of Nueva Magazine, coming out in the spring 2022 semester.



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