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Patrick Henry students learn through gardening

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

Local students are immersing themselves in a kinetic learning experience at Patrick Henry Middle School. Pupils at the alternative school's south campus, in McDonough, have been tending a full vegetable garden.

The garden, a newfound past-time for many of them, serves multiple purposes for the students, according to Feronda Stodghill, the school's science teacher. Stodghill said the garden is as an instructional tool in her three science classes, and, also, has real-world application.

Patrick Henry High School Science Teacher John Behr helped Stodghill create the project behind the school, in December of 2008. They call it "The Garden Experience."

"I started 'The Garden Experience' ... in an effort to integrate sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade sciences," said Stodghill. "This is a way for me to integrate all of the standards."

Stodghill noted that the school's science curriculum incorporates earth science for sixth-graders, life science for seventh-graders, and introductory physical science for eighth-graders.

"The garden ties into several other subject areas, too, and it's really been a great motivator as well," said Dan DeWolf, principal at Patrick Henry Middle and High schools.

DeWolf said the project has been a new-found incentive for students to practice teamwork, while they learn skills across the curriculum, from math to social studies.

"They've really taken an initiative to really spearhead this, and make it work," he said. "It's interesting to watch how the students take ownership of something like that. They need that outlet, and Ms. Stodghill has done a superb job with that."

Stodghill believes use of the garden may contribute to improving the reasoning skills of students, too, as they learn about plant processes. "And they remember this," Stodghill said. "In critical thinking, I've seen tremendous improvement."

She said students are initially turned off by the project, which has them caring for parts of the garden, and making journal entries occasionally during the school day. "At first, they complain about it, but they get into it," she said, "and they are very excited about it."

She added that a handful of students have begun taking their work home, involving their parents in creating home gardens of their own.

"The main goal was to create a real-life lab experience that incorporates nature, and fosters a sense of community," she said. "Just being able to work as a team, and as a community, they've learned to work together through this [experience.]"

Students helped transport plants this past March into two, three-by-24-foot, raised beds, using wood and stakes recycled from a previous structure. "Our school and parents donated grow kits and seeds," Stodghill said. "We also received soil donations from a local company. Currently, [the garden] contains collards, cabbage, lettuce and onions."

She said the vegetables are being added to last spring's garden variety that included cucumber, Roma tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, Jalapeno peppers, banana peppers, bell peppers, zucchini and yellow squash, potatoes and herbs.

Stodghill said the garden project has operated mainly from the support of parents and the school system, but recently won a $1,250 School Gardens Grant from Syngenta Integrated Pest Management (IPM).

"Our school was one of four award winners selected from each of the four U.S. regions -- Northeast, Midwest, West, and South," she said. "With this grant, students will further examine the interactions of life, and witness the ecosystem that exists in the community of a garden. Some of these kids need the opportunity to get out and do something, put some love into something and see what they can get out of it."