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By Devin Rose
As about a dozen third- and fourth-graders sat in the garden outside of Willard Elementary School on Thursday, their teacher, Aimee Conrad, passed out pieces of oregano grown in that very place.
"Can you eat this?" one student asked.
Others looked confused by the green leaf but worked up the courage to taste it once Conrad assured them the "pizza herb" was safe.
"Some of these guys have never gardened before and don't know by sight what any of it is," she said.
But an effort by the District 90 Green4Good parent environmental committee and the Willard School PTO has made those experiences possible for summer school students. Conrad's class has been planting flowers, picking weeds and learning the science behind the garden that parent volunteers planted in May, using compost from Willard's very own lunchroom.
Conrad said the fact that they can observe, touch and even taste some of what has grown there make lessons more interesting than if the students were learning about them from their desks inside. They'll be able to see some of the plantings bear fruit before the end of their class early next month — the green peppers are already forming.
"It's like the most compelling learning environment you can think of," said Conrad, who has taught at the school for 10 years. "They're really into the fact that they're doing something and that they're sharing information with each other."
That excitement to share was apparent Thursday as students switched from tasting herbs to digging for bugs. Conrad explained the differences between pollinators, decomposers and predators and the effect each has on the garden. Some do more than one job, Conrad said, comparing the situation to the duties of parents.
"How many jobs does your mother do?" she asked the group.
After the lesson, Conrad sent the kids back to the garden in pairs. They used gloves and shovels to dig for some of the bugs she had talked about, and none of them failed to alert the group when something new was discovered.
Conrad said her lesson plans include as much science as she can fit in. Even her first class of the day — kindergarteners through second-graders — was able to grasp the concept of capillary action during an experiment with celery and food coloring.
Julie Moller, the president of Green4Good, said the garden is beneficial for the whole school because teachers can incorporate science, math and reading, or just use it as a destination spot when students need to get outside. She said the idea behind it was not only to grow food, but to learn about it as well.
Last year, Moller said foods were planted that would come up in the fall — like okra, an item many kids had never seen.
Conrad said this year's garden has broccoli, lettuce, spinach, beets, garlic, strawberries and a variety of herbs. Every student chose one of the plants to watch over when the class began, measuring them every week and even giving them names.
To make sure no one forgets how to sort lunchroom items for the compost bin, teachers review them every year as part of the science curriculum, said Keary Cragan, a member of Green4Good and the PTOs at Willard and Roosevelt schools.
The past several years since the PTO-funded garden has been planted, a harvest dinner has been held in the fall. Chefs from local restaurants prepare dishes using the foods grown in the garden, Cragan said.
Back in the classroom, the kids wrote in their gardening journals about the bugs they caught and the herbs they ate. Their enthusiasm for the day's activities was still evident as they got ready to leave at the end of class. Conrad reminded them to come prepared the next day.
"Wear good shoes for watering tomorrow!"