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A garden in the classroom

Teresa Gillis, grade 3 homeroom teacher, Suzhou’s International School, China

In this article you will read about how grade 3 students planned and designed their classroom space under the transdisciplinary theme of “sharing the planet”.

One of my key goals as a teacher this year was to slow down and give time to my grade 3 students to think more deeply and to complete their inquiry projects. I could see their frustration at the pace I was pushing them through their learning. Our class began this school year with the “sharing the planet” unit of inquiry. We started off by considering our class environment and to have the students plan and design our classroom space. Having done this the previous year, I was aware of my own need to further let go and not to lead the students into my narrow way of thinking, and instead let them be completely free. By being honest with myself, I supported my students to be creative and this set the tone for the year. The students designed the space differently as to how l would have done it alone. The exciting part was that l really liked it. One student immediately talked about having more plants in the class and l willingly brought them in. This, l feel, was the start of an idea.

The unit progressed with us looking at our class environment and then considering different class environments. We inquired into our responsibilities in different areas and how we can impact both the environments and others around us. Building onto this work was the development of a common understanding of emotional language with students speaking English as their second, third or even fourth language. By placing this unit at the beginning of the year there were also many opportunities to develop the class community by considering how we impact others in both play and work situations.

The students considered what we could do to have an impact on the environment: through the wider world environment, with a group of friends or with the class. During planning time, the students had time to think, watch and talk to each other. They observed during play times and lunch times, and also by watching inspirational videos. Going back to my initial goal for the year l was surprised by the number of times the students asked me if we were “really going to do this”. It really brought home for me the need for students to be given authentic learning projects before they lose their motivation.

The garden in the classroom started off as a small idea. The students talked about the benefits of nature and the fact that many of them live in apartments. We decided that they could work on any action they wanted to in a 30-minute period on a Friday morning. This was my attempt to be balanced and work through the curriculum demands, but also timetable in and value projects which had been suggested. One student worked quietly on her own on those Friday mornings, researching indoor gardens and the best pots to use, and how to start. I started to pay more attention the following week during parent-teacher conference as she translated excitedly to her mum about the project and how she was planning to take it forward. I started to see how she was so excited by this. I took complete notice the following Friday when the student turned up with a greenhouse to build! Every student from our class helped build this structure.

And now? A small number of students work in the greenhouse every day, watering and watching over the plants. Fellow teachers have given us cuttings and we have planted seeds. We are learning together what works well and what does not. The benefits of a garden in the classroom can be felt immediately—the feel of nature around us in a very concrete world—but it is even much more than that. It is the knowledge that one nine-year-old changed something in her environment and it impacted us all—this is the message I want my students to gain. All from an idea about an indoor garden.

Teresa Gillis is a grade 3 homeroom teacher at Suzhou Singapore International School in China. She previously worked for 15 years as a speech and language therapist with children with neurodiversity in the United Kingdom. A chance move to China changed her world view and inspired her for a career change. Teresa adores spending a lot of quality time with creative students and having the chance to learn all the time and develop her ideas alongside them. You can follow Teresa on twitter @teresagillis4.



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