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Culbreth Greenhouse Becomes a Classroom
Mohammad tended to the plants with the quiet, serene focus of a natural gardener, while Arnaud claimed, “All you need to say is it puts a smile on my face to be in the greenhouse.” They are two of the six 8th grade students in Billy Giblin’s reading class at Culbreth Middle School who have participated in an informal pilot experience that could be titled, “Learning in the Greenhouse.” Once or twice a week, they leave their traditional classroom and enter a zone of plants and light.
The building was installed at Culbreth in 2014 as part of the Alice Gordon Science Wing, a 14,700 square foot addition which included Solatube skylights and bamboo flooring in classrooms. The new greenhouse was advertised as being available to all Culbreth staff, but there have been relatively few teachers who have used the space since it opened.
Giblin noted that many of his students learn more efficiently and enthusiastically if they are not asked to “sit, sit, sit all the time.” The greenhouse became a focus of his re-direction toward more hands-on learning, even though, he said, “I didn’t know how to grow anything.” But the vision took shape for Giblin, and he, like his students, has learned as a novice, week by week.
CHCCS Sustainability Director, Dan Schnitzer, agreed to pitch in to develop ideas for greenhouse instruction, though he claimed to know little more than Giblin, who said, “Having Dan collaborate...there’s always strength in numbers.”
He admitted that he kept asking himself, "What if nothing grows?" Fortunately, he was inspired by Superintendent Baldwin’s Convocation challenge to staff to take risks and have fun in their work with students.
Giblin explored various options for funding; his proposal for greenhouse learning won a competitive Whole Kids grant for $2,000. As the class jumped into gardening last fall, planting a range of greens and other vegetables, Giblin and Schnitzer chose creative additions, like an aeroponic Tower Garden, which holds up to 20 different plants in less than three square feet of space.
The instructional goals covered both reading and math. Students researched and chose what plants to grow; they studied manuals to understand how equipment worked, and they calculated and measured nutrients for hydroponic and soil plantings skills. “They read seed packets,” Schnitzer said. “They read about how to price their packs of seedlings. A big goal - and I think success - was having them learn and read while doing something new, fun and productive.”
The spring yield provided enough tomato, herb and marigold seedlings that the class was able to sell the "fruits of their labor" to staff at Lincoln Center, earning over $300.
Perhaps more exciting to the Culbreth gardeners was the end-of-year opportunity to divide up seedlings and larger plants among themselves. Briana said that her mother kept asking for more cilantro, and Mohammad said that his father already gardens near their home, so he’s looking forward to integrating his own raised-from-seed vegetable plants into the family plot.
These 8th grade students will move on to Carrboro and Chapel Hill High next year, but Giblin already has new ideas for expanding his use of greenhouse learning, and hopefully, more students will catch the “gardening bug.”