Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Life Cycle of a Child

Perhaps in the grand scheme of things, seven minutes is not very many minutes. To the existence of dinosaurs, seven minutes would be a tyrannosaurus fart. Gone without acknowledge of its existence. Not even worth batting a limp, useless forearm at. To a third grader, on the other hand, seven minutes of direct eye contact and explicit questioning is an eternity. Like weeks of jury duty, hours sitting in traffic for you or me. There is little outside the realm of battery-operated devices these days that can hold a seven year old’s attention for that many minutes (which is another issue entirely).

This past week was our second of lessons with Garden Science, and we were studying the life cycles of plants. Namely, beans. Remember in elementary school when you put a bean in a cup with a wet paper towel, waited several days, and then wet yourself when the roots emerged? That’s what we’re doing this week.

To start our lesson we define the words ‘seed,’ ‘germinate,’ and ‘maturity,’ which are the three main stages of the life cycle. The drilling is not shortchanged. We have a clearly marked diagram of a sprouted bean. We dissect soaked beans to identify the parts of said sprouted bean. We read a story that clearly outlines the lifecycle of a bean. We then ask the students to tell us about the lifecycle. Often, they do. Finally, we have a drawing exercise, where the students draw the three major components of the cycle: a seed, a germinated plant, and a mature plant, (which are, surprise, the vocab words of the day) using any plant of their choosing.

One student, let’s call her Shirley, chose to illustrate the life of a collard green plant. When I walked over to her, she had done very well – each stage perfectly depicted. The vibrant stylings of crayola artfully filled the space between her pencil strokes. Then it happened. I asked her, ‘what part of the plant is the collard green?’ Queue the clock.

“Ummm….it’s the collard green.” While this answer was technically true, and I must admit that at this response I faltered, this was clearly not the answer I was looking for. I pushed on, inquiring what structural part of the plant comprised the collard green. For the first several minutes, I gave her no help. Asking her shamelessly leading questions, I hoped that she would think back on our prior discussion and come up with the answer herself. “What grows out of the stem in the germination stage?” Shirley stares. Briefly flicks her eyes in the direction of the clock. And stares.

Yielding no progress, I switched approaches.

“OK, what color is a collard green?”


Excitement wells inside me.

“YES!, and think about a tree…you know what a tree looks like, right? What part of a tree is green?”

Shirley’s eyes narrow and after a short pause she says, “leaves.”

“YeS!” trying to pretend like my wild eyes and brimming excitement are not freaking her out, I continue, “and so, what part of the collard green is the collard green??”

“…………the root….?” And her eyes go back to the clock. And my head droops. Just a little bit.

In the end, I gave up.

“It’s the leaf,” I sighed, and got up to move on. Shirley stares at me, and after a moment, continues coloring without any hint of acknowledgement.

While my interaction with Shirley, and others of the sort can be comical, even turned into enjoyable anecdotes, the reality is that these comments are indicative of a fairly serious knowledge gap. A lack of understanding of the food they eat and the natural world around them. One student announced to the class that his favorite vegetable is dough. I was asked by a nine year old if a shrimp is a vegetable. Shrimp are not vegetables. Shrimp are animals.

Unfortunately, this reality of under-education is more a rule than an exception in the lives of average American children. There are myriad forces working against our nation’s children, like corporate advertising, rising inactivity, lack of access to real food, and skyrocketing rates of childhood obesity and diabetes, which result in the gap that our hero has exemplified when discussing collards.

Please know that my intention is not to patronize or look down upon our students, by any means. It is not right to lay blame on the children who are a part of this national ‘mindset,’ if you will. Quite the contrary, I call attention to Shirley and the rest of our students because, in a sense, they are in the minority of the majority by having the opportunity to be a part of the Garden Science programming. They have a chance to acquire the knowledge to fill the gap, and this is one of the many reasons Garden Science excites me.

I’d like to think that our discussion had an impact on Shirley, even if she didn’t directly acknowledge it. In fact, I know that it did. Or at least that it will. Because when the program comes to an end, Shirley will come to the garden, having participated in six more classes. She will have picked up tidbits here and there (accumulating, needless to say, that many more tidbits than her peers who did not get to participate in Garden Science). She will frolic around with her classmates, dodging in and out of the beds, nibbling veggies, generally going nuts. Finally, she’ll run up to me, panting, sweat dribbling down her adorable little brow, holding up a young lettuce plant that, as a result of her unbearable excitement, she has just uprooted instead of harvested. She will say “hey! Mr. Andrew! Leaves!”

Shirley will know that leaves are edible because, even though I gave in to her disinterest last Tuesday, I won’t give up. I’m still new at the education game. Still getting my bearings. Finding my sea legs. No, I won’t give up. Nor will Kacie. Nor will Garden Science. Nor will the movement. I understand now that the most potent current that drives our sustainable food movement is belief. Believing in your message. Believing in your motive. Believing in your lunch. Believing in your students. Believing that even though Shirley isn’t interested now, she will be. Believing that seven uncomfortable minutes with Shirley are worth it, because in the grand scheme of shifting paradigms, seven minutes is not very many minutes.

If you have any questions, comments, general concerns, or are unclear about the structural significance of your favorite vegetable, you can contact me at

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