The Garden at Mockingbird Elementary began and continues today as a tool for teaching science. Planted initially to give students a real life look at the life cycle of plants, the garden program today covers virtually all of the Texas science standards (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills or TEKS). This hands-on outdoor lab helps students to understand the synergistic systems of Earth – structures, cycles, processes and energy flow.
The program works for all students at Mockingbird Elementary because it maintains a routine for observation while over time going deeper into key concepts. Kindergarteners talk about the differences between living and non-living things, while fifth graders discuss the role of energy transfer in the food web. And throughout, students learn by doing: the carbon cycle is understood as plant materials thrown into the compost pile in spring have become soil by the next school year. These science lessons reinforce classroom science lessons, and vice versa through a collaborative approach with the classroom teachers.
Teachers also use the garden as a springboard for other lessons. Venn diagrams are taught by comparing the physical features of the Stonewall chickens. Creative writing is launched after witnessing the arrival of butterflies in the wildscape. The garden is a resource as well as a classroom, and teachers often use a walk through the garden to “reboot” their students’ imaginations after a long period sitting in the classroom.
The garden program is part of every The Garden at Mockingbird Elementary student’s experience. In a weekly Garden class, the students follow a routine that engages them in observing the ecosystem and how it changes over the seasons. The class routine includes:
Tending their personal plant (one for each student at the school, over 600!) and measuring its growth, from planting through harvest
Recording temperature for the air, ground and pond water
Recording the week’s precipitation (five rain gauges record the data for each grade’s day in the garden)
Writing the data and their observations in their garden journal
Students are encouraged to make their own observations of the ecosystem, such as the arrival of insects or the plants’ reaction to a sudden change in weather. Teachers also point out interesting activity in the garden, often allowing a pest issue or other such problems to continue in order to discuss the way elements of the ecosystem interrelate, such as aphids and lady beetles. The wildscape is a rich landscape for such observations, as it brings many new organisms to the garden, from butterflies to hummingbirds to lizards.
Each activity, every change, even every gardener’ challenge (too little rain, insects devouring a crop, etc.) is an opportunity to discuss what is happening and draw conclusions.
The Garden at Mockingbird Elementary also includes a wildscape, planted nearly 20 years ago. The plants in this area include native and adapted wildflowers, grasses, vines and trees. Students see it going to seed in the fall, and watch the birds come to feast on these plants. What’s left is gathered for sowing in the spring.
Beginning each March, students observe the semi- dormant plants come alive and sprout new growth, bringing beautiful blooms and many insects and other creatures to the garden. This is a beautiful time that is enjoyed by many families and neighbors, as well as an exciting time of discovery for the students as they observe the fast rate of change in both plant and animal life at this time of year.