Science and Sustainability Class Gardens for a Cause

Communications Associate Emily Wilson accompanied the Science and Sustainability Class on a field trip to We Over Me Farm on Monday, April 29. She shares her experience below:

On a sunny April morning, a Greenhill bus turns off the highway, well south of downtown Dallas. Science teacher Michelle Smith addresses the seniors of her third trimester Science and Sustainability elective. “We’re now entering an urban food desert,” she says.

A food desert is a district with little or no access to large grocery stores that offer fresh produce and affordable healthy food. The people who live in the Highland Hills neighborhood of south Dallas have lots of churches, fast food options, an occasional convenience store at a gas station—but no grocery store.

Paul Quinn College, the Greenhill bus’ destination, is also located in this neighborhood, and has turned this problem into an opportunity. In 2007, the college closed its winless, money-draining football program and started thinking about ways to better serve the community. A PepsiCo grant in 2010 made this happen. The football field was converted into We Over Me Farm, a 300,000 sq-ft plot of plantable space, which now, under the oversight of farm manager Andrea Bithell, successfully grows organic fruit and vegetables, houses chickens and bees, and features an aquaponic growing lab.

This field trip to We Over Me Farm fits perfectly into the Science and Sustainability curriculum that Mrs. Smith has designed, working with Director of Service Learning Sally Rosenberg, who also chaperoned the trip. Mrs. Smith, who has been teaching the class now for three years, explains the objective. “The class intends to examine how we use our natural resources and how we define sustainable living, while providing students with an active service learning opportunity.” Every year, the students vote on the theme of the class. Weighing options that range from recycling to LEED Building certification, this year they have chosen to focus on food. Throughout this trimester, the class has worked in the Greenhill community garden, making significant strides like building a rain collection device, fundraising for the effort, harvesting two beds of produce and donating the food to North Dallas Shared Ministries.

Now at the farm, students are met by volunteer coordinator Vina Lervisit who takes them on a tour of the facility. They learn about the four C’s of the farm’s mission: to give back to the college’s cafeteria, provide discounted produce to the neighborhood community, sell to chefs, restauranteurs, and farmers markets, and give 10% to charities. They meet the chickens, who have been recently joined by two Greenhill peacocks. They walk through the rows of plants, still oriented and identified by the football yard lines, home and visitors side. They visit the compost pile, reciting optimal breakdown methods they’ve learned from class: half dry, half wet; half brown, half green. And finally they witness the farm’s aquaponics lab, where raising fish aids the fertilization and watering process of plants.

The volunteer’s assignment of the day was to weed two rows and plant jalapeno peppers and tomatoes, which the group did efficiently, taking care to plant them at appropriate depth and distance from each other. When the job was done, everyone boarded the bus and turned out of the college. This time Mrs. Rosenberg went a different way. She took the students on a tour of the neighborhood to view the urban desert firsthand. The bus, which had been full of chatter and laughing, grew silent. Students noted observations such as bars on windows, dilapidated buildings, and people waiting at uncovered bus stops. Not a grocery store in sight after more than five miles.

It is Mrs. Smith’s hope that her students will take world views of sustainability that they have discussed in class and apply them to the everyday habits that they form throughout their lives. In fact, our future depends on it.

Photo Apr 29, 9 17 14 AM Photo Apr 29, 10 17 35 AM Photo Apr 29, 10 57 40 AM

Middle School Relationships

Head of Middle School Susan Palmer writes about the importance of the student-teacher relationship in Middle School.

“Mrs. Woody, how do fish mate?

This query from two seventh graders, fielded by Head Librarian Donna Woody, sums up many of the qualities we value in the Middle School. Humor and curiosity immediately come to mind, because, after all, it makes you laugh to hear such a funny question. Also, they really wanted to know the answer!

Underlying this question and many others is a comfort level and connection that plays out every day here in the Middle School. Students like and respect their teachers. Conversely, teachers like and respect their students. They connect both personally and academically across all grade levels, and these connections forge greater learning and growth opportunities for all students.

Monday mornings are filled with news of what happened over the weekend. Did you see a movie? Did you have a game? What did you think about that news story? Teachers and students develop relationships based on the details of their lives. One fifth grader loves white chocolate. An eighth grader is designing a green initiative to promote responsible use of our earth’s resources. Another group of teachers and students loves a certain television show. And what about those Rangers? Everybody has something to share, and the teachers consistently engage with each student, solidifying relationships that emphasize inclusion.

At an age when students seek to know themselves, teachers model respectful and friendly interactions. They are non-judgmental and demonstrate a wide tolerance for a variety of personal preferences. Often, one result of these informal interactions is that students want to work hard for the teachers with whom they feel connected. Although we wish for all students to develop inner motivation and drive, the first step may be to seek approval through hard work.

In the Middle School, all learning begins with relationships, and we consciously seek to initiate and maintain positive ones. But what about the mating fish above? After Mrs. Woody answered the question, first saying that the answer wasn’t very exciting, she said, “Okay, now you two can go back to work!” And they did, productively and happily. That’s life in the Middle School.

Recognizing Honor, Respect and Compassion in Peers

Head of Lower School Michael Simpson writes about student recognition at the weekly Lower School assemblies.

Like any office desk, mine has its share of clutter. You are welcome to see for yourself next time you walk past the fishbowl that is my office—peek inside and you will see papers, some neatly arranged, others not so much. The tallest pile of papers is green and yellow. It was born the first week of school and has grown ever since without slowing down. I have not counted, but surely that stack is in the hundreds by now.

Each sheet in the heap is a completed core principles recognition form. Students or teachers can turn in one of these forms anytime to the shoebox on the floor outside my office. On the form, a student can tell a story recognizing another for his or her respect, honor, or compassion. Each Friday, the fourth graders in charge of leading the following Monday’s assembly select four or five of the stories to share in front of the whole Lower School Monday morning. When this happens, the fourth grader begins, “Will_________ please stand up.” The story is read, everyone claps their hands, and the recognized person sits down again.

As you can imagine, this is a very warm-feeling routine. It is new this year, something we decided to try, and we have had some questions about it from the beginning; some have been answered, others haven’t.

-Will the number of recognitions turned in each week slow as the year progresses?

No. Judging from the pile on my desk and the decisions the fourth graders have to make each week, this routine is showing no sign of slowing.

-Will students be upset if their recognition of another is not chosen to be read at assembly?
I don’t know. My guess is that while it is great to have your own words read aloud in public, each student who submits a form feels pretty good just for having written and submitted it. I have talked about this at our assemblies a couple times, displaying a fistful of green and yellow papers and explaining why we cannot read them all, thanking the students for taking the time to write them regardless.

-At the end of the year, what do I do with all these green and yellow forms piling up on my desk, some of which have been read, but most of which haven’t?
I’m still not sure. Should I wallpaper a hallway with them as a concrete example of the multitude of acts of kindness? Should I distribute them to the students named? I cannot imagine just recycling them all.

-What effect is this recognition of large and small good deeds having on our students?
I have no objective metric to figure this out, but something tells me there must be some kind of effect. Judging from the enthusiasm the fourth graders have for choosing the stories and spotlighting someone else, and listening to the enthusiasm with which our students applaud for their schoolmates, I think it must surely be good. My hope is that it is contributing to every student’s sense of a school identity, which includes: at Greenhill we care about each other, we help each other, and we do the right thing even without being asked to.

Common sense and the positive psychology movement say that the most important part of this process is when one student notices another doing good, and says to him or herself: I appreciate what that other person did, I’m going to tell people about that.

Giving Children an Optimal Environment for Learning

Head of Lower School Kim Barnes writes about how Greenhill’s Lower School provides students an optimal environment for their individual learning needs.

During the early years of formal education, it is important for children to begin to understand how they learn best. Children need to understand if they need areas of quiet, or if they can work through background noise; if they need fewer distractions, or if others can be moving around them as they work; if they need to stand while working, or if lying on the floor is a better support method, etc. Over the past several weeks as I have moved in and out of classrooms, the examples of support for each child and his or her individual learning style has been staggering.

A teacher is concerned with a child’s reading progress. Something is not quite right as this child has everything in place to be reading fluently. The teacher has heard about varying background colors and the way this may help a child see words on a page more clearly. She borrows a set of reading overlays and works with the child to figure out if one color is more helpful than another. There is one color that appeals to the child, and when combined with previously established skills, the student’s reading becomes stronger. An additional benefit to the child is exposure to adult problem-solving skills – identifying the problem and continuing to look for alternative solutions.

Another teacher might be concerned about a child’s core muscle development. Lower School faculty understands this need of development. Walk into one classroom and you will see large balls replacing some chairs; these balls allow children to have the movement required for concentration and focus. No one ever falls over or rolls around as a distraction since this is what that child’s physical body required. Other students have knobby seat cushions that provide stimuli and deep muscle tension required by some individuals and can frankly be the envy of a few others. Sometimes deep muscle pressure is needed through the upper body. Swaddling through tight vests or jackets provides some children with the ability to feel more grounded. Minor weights placed in jackets or vests or shirts provide the pull on the deep muscles of the upper torso. Teachers also allow (encourage) children to work on the floor knowing core muscles are developed through these movements. Our faculty ensures these options are available and in turn, children know about them.

What about focus and distractibility? Children independently set up barriers with portable individual carrels; interestingly it varied from class to class as to which students chose to use these. Earphones are available in many classes; no music is needed, just a better way for some children to block out their distracters.

Educators facilitate options for children and incorporate alternatives into the learning day. Sometimes the need is provided through physical paraphernalia and outlets. We know the brain and the physical body are intertwined in ways educators have long been aware and in ways we are just now recognizing through continuing research. Examples abound pre-k through 4th grade and it is difficult to limit these to just a few to share. Thinking about how an individual thinks and learns begins early in the Lower School.