Monday, November 12, 2007

This is Our Classroom

This is a lesson on belonging as taught by a mysteriously decapitated Nasturtium.

After spending several months getting to know my 9th grade students I had arrived at several conclusions - key amongst them was the realization that they hadn't had many of elementary school experiences I remembered with great fondness from my own childhood. So, I tried to find ways to weave these experiences into their adolescent lives in ways that made them seem (at least tangentially) relevant to the curriculum I had to teach (9th Grade English).

The Nasturtium project was one such effort. Most of my students claimed they had never planted anything in their lives - not even the lima-bean-in-a-cup that is the standard science project of so many Kindergarten classrooms. We were beginning a poetry unit and it seemed like as good a time as any to explore the magic of watching a seed grow. I wanted something more exciting than a lima bean and something that would grow quickly so we could write about this growth process weekly and explore the metaphorical connection between the seed>plant>flower and their own lives. Upon a quick study of flowers, the Nasturtium emerged as the seed of choice with only a week's gestation period and the promise of flowers by the end of the month.

The students were so excited to plant the seeds. They took the watering of those seeds more seriously than they had taken most of what we done all year. The poetry flowed each week as they watched the seeds sprout, grow leaves, and then get moved from cups to pots. Simile, metaphor, and personification came naturally as they saw beautiful parallels between the unfurling of each new leaf and their own emergence into young adulthood.

I had three classes doing the project and each was incredibly possessive of its tray of plants. Students often ran to class early to chatter over how their plants were greener, taller, stronger, than those of another class. (In truth they were all basically the same.) They brought in students from other classes to show off the wondrous lives they were cultivating.

Real excitement began to brew as the month drew to an end and the first bud of a flower appeared. Strangely, only one appeared at first. It belonged to Diana in 3rd period. Each morning hoards of students would pour into my classroom to see if Diana's plant had bloomed. What color would it be? When would it appear? How long would it last? These were the questions that bubbled amongst them. A little jealousy was present, but I never thought it would cause any harm.

Then, one day, probably the very day that bud should have burst open, we arrived at 3rd period and found it severed at the stem. A pair of guilty looking scissors lay on the counter beside the plant tray with traces of green juice fresh along the edge of the blades. Someone had snuck into the room when I wasn't there to commit the crime.

Chaos ensued. Anger rose. Some students began to cry. Threats of payback flew. My students, people who had witnessed human cruelty of the worst kind many times in their young lives, were horrified by this tiny act of plant violence. I did not know what to do, so I set aside my plans for the class, moved the desks into a circle, and we talked about how they were feeling.

This was a class that, at the start of the year, regularly erupted into verbal altercations and had come to blows more than once. But surprisingly, none of the students ever suggested the flower-murderer came from their own class. On this day they were adamant that no one in our class would ever hurt one of their own. Even though only one student's plant was affected, they felt a collective sense of loss because that single flower had been a source of collective pride. As I listened to them speak I realized that my silly plant project had become something much bigger for these students. Perhaps it was because they had been asked to make a personal connection to these plants from the time they were seeds.

After some careful discussion moderation, I successfully convinced the class not to partake in retaliatory pruning of the other classes' plants - and we even got some powerful poetry out of the experience. But the best thing that came out of the Nasturtium project, at least for that class, was not particularly academic. It was a sense of belonging and a sense of collective responsibility for one another. That experience has often made me wonder what would happen in our world if teaching kindness, respect, and compassion were as important in our schools as teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Within a week everyone's plant had bloomed, and Diana's quickly grew another flower of its own. The culprit behind the plant crime never came forward but, lucky for us all, the scissors never struck again.

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