Valley teachers use summer to plan hands-on learning

naustin@modbee.comJune 17, 2013 

    alternate textNan Austin
    Title: Education reporter
    Coverage areas: K-12 education, Yosemite Community College District
    Bio: Nan Austin has been a copy editor and reporter at The Modesto Bee for 24 years. She has an economics degree from CSU Stanislaus and previously worked at the Merced Sun-Star and Turlock Journal.
    Recent stories written by Nan
    On Twitter: @nanaustin

Remember that great lecture in second grade? Probably not. Remember digging that fort? Oh yeah.

Educators know that lectures and memorized lists fade fast, but learning by doing sticks with you. With the common core downgrade of pacing calendars and drills, fun may regain its footing in the curriculum.

It even has a 10-dollar name: experiential learning.

About 80 teachers got summer training on the topic Friday, walking the streets of Knights Ferry on a historic scavenger hunt. Earlier this month, a University of California Cooperative Extension course offered tips on running school gardens.

Both training sessions linked hands-in-the-dirt, pebbles-in-the-shoe tactile memories with academic lessons.

Many teachers taking the Summer Institutes course at Knights Ferry were established fans of using hands-on activities.

At Somerset Middle School in north Modesto, sixth-graders scoured campus buildings and concrete last year for signs of erosion, said teacher Rochelle Ramirez. "I had them go out like little Scouts," she said with a grin. The benefit, she said, was the kids got to think like scientists, practice note-taking and apply textbook topics to real life.

"I think there's a better connection. It's more concrete for them," said Woodrow Elementary teacher Amy Harper.

Kelly Bogetti, now a P.E. teacher at Hanshaw Middle School, said as a fourth-grade teacher, she had her class raise salmon from eggs to inch-long fry, then release them into the wild. "They named them," she said, smiling at the memory. Her kids wrote letters to their teeny fish to be read as they were released at an emotional farewell ceremony.

Lesley Cairns raised caterpillars with her first-grade class at Sherwood Elementary. Each of her 30 students had their own, named the critter, and wrote about it in observation journals. The class studied their life stages and even got to watch a butterfly come out of its cocoon.

While fascinated by butterflies, the young authors absorbed a lot about writing, spelling and grammar.

"It transfers over," Cairns said.

At Knights Ferry, session leader Patty Olds, a teacher at Mitchell Senior Elementary in Atwater, sent teams out with lists of clues to find. Teachers peered into tiny peepholes at an old jail, admired an old church and read historic plaques for "How Knights Ferry got its name." A firehouse served as "A place where a Dalmatian might live."

Traipsing down the well-worn road, teachers chatted about trips, families and other training sessions, such as a stuffy lecture on a similar subject last year. "That was a waste of time," muttered Rosario Vallejo, a third-grade teacher at Apricot Valley Elementary in Patterson.

Even grown-ups, it seems, learn more when the lesson gets moving.

Such thinking permeates the push for school gardens, which Anne Schellman of the University of California Cooperative Extension expands to cover nutritious eating, soil science, garden-themed literature and other school-day academics.

It all starts with exercise, with students digging up the ground to get it ready for planting. Tip: Water it the night before to make it easier. Schellman demonstrated, picking up a bug as she turned over a shovel. "Here's a roly poly. Kids love to find these," she said.

Calculated lesson planning

Math can be laying out the garden grid, noted co-presenter Terri Spezzano as she talked about keeping critters big and small away from budding school plants. "I love gardening. It is empowering," she said.

To thwart gophers, Spezzano digs a 3-foot deep trench around the garden and fills it with rock. Wire mesh lies under the soil, keeping any who get through from pulling the plant down with them, and in cages over the beds frustrate birds and mice. Snails? Leave a little cornmeal overnight under a slightly raised board and pick them off the board in the morning, advised a veteran gardener in the group.

For attendee Eloisa Ramos, it all meant being able to bring a new dimension to vacation Bible schools she helps run for the Diocese of Stockton. Bringing bounty from the earth has spiritual meaning she hopes to help students appreciate.

Barbara Bell works at The Salvation Army Child Development Center, where a grant from Target helped create a garden for preschool math and literacy skills. Kids measure the corn every week, she said. She plants lots of extra radishes because young weeders tend to get overzealous.

"The kids love it," she said.

Jill-Marie Purdy runs the school garden at Walter White Elementary in Ceres. Her advice included practical tips about safety — "Keep the working end of the tool below the waist" — and discipline — "We decide the rules as a group. I find they're more likely to be followed."

For her, the garden nurtures healthy spirits, as well as excited learning and veggie-centered eating. "Every morning, I want them to be outside," she said.

On the Net:National Gardening Association children's gardening:

United States Botanic Garden and Chicago Botanic Garden joint project:

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at or (209) 578-2339, on Twitter, @NanAustin,

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