Contributed Photo: Albert Harris Elementary School students in their pollinator garden
Contributed Photo: Albert Harris Elementary School students in their pollinator garden

Elementary school students created a pollinator garden and a vegetable garden, while learning SOL concepts.

Butterfly in the sky? No, it’s not an episode of Reading Rainbow—it’s a school dedicated to making a positive difference in the community and on the climate.

STEM teacher Laurie Witt and Krista Hodges, educational manager of the Dan River Basin Association, recently led out in a hands-on activity for students at Albert Harris Elementary School (AHES), part of the Martinsville City Public Schools (MCPS) division. The ladies guided students toward creating an effective pollinator garden, as well as a vegetable garden at the school.

On top of being fun, the project also taught multiple key concepts students needed to know for the Virginia Science Standards of Learning (SOL) and the Virginia Math SOL. Witt explained that by learning in a real-life manner, the lessons came alive for students—and the concepts often came back to them at test time thanks to the real-like application.

“The problem-based learning experiences have naturally sprouted in that rich learning environment,” Witt said. “It is wonderful to have the support of Principal Renee Brown, who recognizes the many benefits a Green Schoolyard provides for our students. Homeroom teachers utilize the Green Schoolyard throughout the academic year.”

Hands-On Learning 

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Contributed Photo: Martinsville City Public Schools

What’s more fun than digging in the dirt as a kid? Not much! And getting to do that during the school day as part of a lesson? Epic. 

To create their pollinator garden—which, bonus points, serves as a Monarch Butterfly Waystation—fifth-grader Luis

Hernandez, Janette Carrillo-Llamas, and Taimir Manns said that they chose plants that specifically attracted butterflies, bees, birds, and earthworms. 

“We planted colorful flowers because bees are attracted to bright colors,” Manns said.

Some of the plants had specific purposes, Carrillo-Llamas explained.

“We also planted milkweed so the caterpillars could eat the leaves,” Carrillo-Llamas said. 

Fifth-grader Maia Eccles expressed that not every plant in the pollinator garden would need to be replaced annually. 

“We plant perennials because they come back each year,” Eccles said. We don’t have to plant them each year.”

Witt noted that to water the plants, students used a creative, eco-friendly system.

“The rain barrel system was developed as part of our problem-based learning. Students noticed that our school had a very wet area near a down spout. They researched solutions and came up with a rain barrel. The rain barrel catches not only rain, but water from the cooling system on the roof of the school,” Witt said. “Students use the water collected in the barrel to water plants, thus not having to use water from the faucet. Students also understand that the rain barrels allow them to direct the water to plants that need it, instead of letting it run into the storm drain.”

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Contributed Photo: Martinsville City Public Schools

Students also planted a vegetable tasting garden where they grew things like tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, and radishes. Witt explained how students interacted with the fruits—or should we say vegetables—of their labor when the harvest came in.

“Students have loved our vegetable tasting garden. They have been involved in all aspects of the garden

including planting seeds, pulling weeds, watering plants, and harvesting crops. Everyone agrees that tasting what you have grown is the best part,” Witt said. “Preparing the vegetables is a wonderful way to integrate reading, math, and science in one lesson. Students made a homemade salad dressing by reading a recipe, measuring ingredients, and applying their knowledge of mixtures and solutions.”

The students also raved about the vegetable tasting garden and the experience of tending to it.

“It’s fun and more educational to plant the garden than read about it,” Carrillo-Llamas said.

Virginia Naturally School 

Because of the teachers’ efforts to increase students’ environmental awareness and stewardship, Albert Harris Elementary School earned a designation as a Virginia Naturally School by the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR). 

“I was very excited to receive the Virginia Naturally School designation. Our students have worked very hard to address problems they saw around the school courtyard through problem-based learning experiences. For example, our students noticed how the courtyard had an area which was experiencing erosion with heavy rains. Students researched and learned that plants could help reduce erosion. The school’s tasting garden started as a greens patch planted to reduce erosion during the fall and winter months. That garden then became a summer vegetable garden,” Witt said. “I love that our students have so many opportunities for outdoor learning. Our students are learning to be stewards of the environment which promises a better future for everyone.”

Principal Brown also weighed in on the school’s designation.

“I am so very proud that Albert Harris Elementary School received this recognition,” Brown said in a statement. “Our school is committed to outdoor education in correlation with Virginia’s Standards of Learning. We are thankful to Ms. Witt for spearheading this project. Our students appreciate lessons learned while utilizing our outdoor classroom.”