Q: I have taught high school physics and chemistry for the last 5 years but this year I am teaching 7th grade science. Soon I’ll be teaching a unit on the plant kingdom. Do you have any ideas to stir up twelve year-old kids to be interested in plants?
A: When I was twelve, I hated plants. I had too many rows of butterbeans to hoe, tomatoes to pick, corn to shuck and okra to cut. My dream was to see my parent’s farm slowly recede in the car’s rearview mirror as I left for college.
As an adult, though, I’m fascinated by plants. I’m intrigued by their many forms. I’m intrigued by their flowers. I’m challenged by their pests. I have so much more to learn before I will be competent as a gardener.
I think your challenge is to make learning about plants more like a game than a chore. Play “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” with plant questions. Pit an invasive chameleon plant (^Houttuynia cordata^) versus a mint (^Mentha piperita^) versus a horsetail rush (^Equisetum hyemale^) against each other in a raised bed “Survivor”-style contest. Give extra points to the student who can bring in the weirdest tree leaf that no one else can identify.
If you teach the plant unit in spring, build a classroom bog outdoors (http://www.bbg.org/gardening/design/water_garden/bog_garden.html). If you have limited space, make one in a half-barrel. A few Saturdays ago, six boys were entranced for an hour in my backyard feeding insects to my carnivorous Venus flytrap and pitcher plants.
For a wide range of Kid’s Gardening information, I like the program sponsored by the National Gardening Association (http://www.kidsgardening.com/). If your students like playing “Sim City” on the computer, challenge them to make their own biosphere in a two-liter soft drink bottle (http://fastplants.cals.wisc.edu/BottleBiology/Bottlebiology.html).
Since your previous experience was not biology and botany, you might have difficulty identifying the specimens your students bring in. I am very impressed with the online field guides available at eNature (http://www.enature.com).
Community nature centers have a wealth of material aimed toward young people. Call the Elachee Nature Center (770-535-1976) and the Chattahoochee Nature Center (770-992-2055) to get their help. Dauset Trails Nature Center (770-775-6798), in Jackson, is close enough to plan a day trip for your class.