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A Garden Classroom: The Tree of Education

by John Marshall Harris

WANTED: Docents. Must be able to point, herd, communicate in one syllable words, and clean dirt from under fingernails (Ex-mud pie makers are perfect!). This seemingly whimsical wording is the product of hours of careful planning and coordination that also signals the beginning of the final stages for Longue Vue House and Garden’s educational programs.

The Seed
Our tree of education began with “a seed” – a vision to educate students, allowing them to experience a garden environment that many inner city kids never see. hi this living laboratory, the children are put into a three-dimensional setting full of new sights, sounds, and smells.

The Roots
The program began very simply, by reviewing the subject of basic plant propagation in conjunction with 4th grade science classes. By focusing on the school’s curriculum, and how classes were structured, the roots of our “education tree” were properly established. Over the years, our program has evolved into a circle of sciences, starting with their classroom materials and quickly moving to encompass Botany, Biology, Ecology, and Nutrition using the garden as a tactile blackboard.

The Trunk
Beyond the subject matter, the strength of this program is a dedicated staff. The staff does all of the groundwork, nurtures docents, procures donations, and generally puts up with those aggravations that volunteers shouldn’t have to.

The Branches
Aside from the staff, this program involves the cooperation of three branches: the Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service, which provides teachers and class materials; the New Orleans Public School System, which provides the students and chaperones; and the much appreciated docents, who are the binding force throughout the entire process through their preparation and patience.

An “in-service” class or training session is held for docents, cooperative extension personnel, and teachers. During this two-hour class, general introductions are made, the subject material is reviewed through handouts, and most importantly–refreshments are served.

Then, the school teachers and docents are taken on tours of the gardens. There are several stops along the way to discuss various plants and terms that the children will be using during their visit. These bastions of the classroom now become part of a mock class and are encouraged to “see everything through the eyes of a nine year-old” by imitating their students. Not only does this experience provide valuable insights, but coffee break talk for at least a week.

At Longue Vue, we prefer foresight to hindsight. Teaching 30 children, on a hot day, in a garden filled with distractions can have the makings of a disaster that could drive even the most experienced teachers and docents to insanity. It is only through communication and extensive preparation that this becomes a win- win situation for all parties involved.

After the “in-service” class ends, training for the cooperative extension personnel and the students and their teachers is complete. Meanwhile, the docent training continues.

The Leaves
The docents arrive early to prepare for their students, carefully setting out soil, plants, seeds, pots, and goodie bags for their charges. They know that the children come to learn what most of us seem to have forgotten ╤ that tomatoes grow on vines not in cans, the apples for grandma’s pie came from a tree, and that there are untold wonders under the leaves in the woods.

As the children arrive, they are greeted and taken to the class area. The class begins without delay as it is very important to keep things moving with words, actions, and examples.

The lesson, though “of the sciences,” is interdisciplinary. Students begin with basic plant botany by dissecting a flower. This allows them to review material from their class and is a foundation for other topics as well. Next, displays of seeds are passed around and identified. This moves the discussion to propagation with hands-on examples of bulbs, cuttings, and grafts.

Nutrition is then introduced. Calories, vitamins, and fiber are discussed. Special attention is given to the “tire” garden. The tire garden consists of flowers and vegetables grown inside discarded tires. The tire garden shows students an inventive method of inner city gardening and a productive way of recycling.

Then the children talk about soil and the environment as they pot their own bulbs. Following that, they peruse their goodie bags, which are filled with colorful handouts and packets of seeds. Longue Vue docent Maggie Levy assists garden program participants. The children use their name tags to mark the bags containing their new plants, handouts, and materials.

Now, the tour begins. With very few deviations from the practice tour, the children are skillfully guided through a maze of gardens. Our 8 small acres represent a vast wonderland of “Giant Redwood trees (oaks) … prehistoric rocks (gravel) … pine needles … butterflies . . . frogs . . . and strange and exotic plants,” which we are assured by the kids “have probably never been touched by human hands.” It’s amazing watching the students” interest unfold with awe. Could their eyes open any wider!

The children are led to the final stop where they will sit within a cathedral of live oak trees and enjoy oatmeal cookies and lemonade. The choice of refreshments is reinforced with another short discussion of nutrition.

Perhaps the children don’t know that they’re learning because it’s too much fun. Perhaps they don’t realize they’re receiving a lesson because they are outside their four classroom walls. Perhaps they didn’t know that it’s okay to dig in the dirt, to have a baby plant that’s all your own, or that oatmeal cookies are healthy, and why they are. But we know — everything was carefully planned that way.

All the planning and training comes together as the children are successfully taught our circle of sciences under the watchful eyes of our docents.

Our tree has grown and strengthened, and every year we get new leaves.

John Marshall Harris is the Head Gardener with Longue Vue House and Gardens in New Orleans, Louisiana. He came to Longue Vue with 13 years experience in his field and a B.S. degree in horticulture from Louisiana State University. Mr. Harris currently directs the widely acclaimed “Learners at Longue Vue” public school program.

Harris, John Marshall. “A Garden Classroom: The Tree of Education,” The Docent Educator 2.2 (Winter 1992): 12-13.

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