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19 Aug, Friday
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Montreal Families

Seeds of knowledge are planted at school garden

On a sunny fall morning, a Grade 6 teacher at Kells Elementary school is outside, showing a group of students some large flowering plants. “These are hydrangeas and they grow like crazy,” says Guillaume Jabbour, who teaches math and science. After pointing out that the huge white flowers are blocking the sun from other plants, two students, armed with clippers, begin pruning back the hydrangeas  Meanwhile, another student pushes an old-fashioned, non-motorized lawn mower across a patch of grass and his partner plunges a long, stick-like tool into the soil for aeration.

As they work, Jabbour walks back and forth across the garden space, which sits alongside the private school’s building on Cavendish Blvd. in N.D.G. He offers encouragement and discusses the plants, such as the cherry tomatoes and zucchini growing in pots. He gently reminds students to “keep the blades down” as they walk with pruning tools. “And remember to wipe your feet,” he calls out as the young gardeners file back into the school at the end of the period.

The garden is Jabbour’s brainchild — and his pride and joy. “I grew up in the country, playing in the forest and climbing trees,” he says. Not long after he began working at Kells, he realized that the students didn’t have access to many green spaces. Then one day, he noticed that the school had unused space at the side of the building.

So Jabbour proposed creating a garden, where kids could discover, even in small ways, the pleasure of working in the dirt, watching things grow and observing nature. His idea was well received and the project was soon underway. The school received grants from the Toronto-based nonprofit Learning for a Sustainable Future, which promotes environmental awareness and the Metro Green Apple School program, which funds school projects with an environmental theme. A local landscaper offered suggestions and ideas for the layout and, two years ago, the digging and seeding began.

Since then, the garden has become a true outdoor classroom, used by everyone from art to science teachers. Students have sketched the flowers or the birds that congregate on feeders hanging from poles around the garden and other students have measured sunflowers as part of their math work. To teach kids about the cycle of life, Jabbour has had students observe beetles as they progressed from eggs to larvae and onward into full-grown insects.

There is even a Green Committee, which includes students in Grades 4 through 6, who care for the garden. They meet twice a week, share lunch and then do some mowing, weeding and pruning.

Given Montreal’s long winters, the use of an outdoor classroom might seem limited, but Jabbour says the garden offers learning opportunities all year round. In the cold months, students tend to an indoor hydroponic gardening box, where they grow herbs and plants in water without soil. The plants are eventually moved outside in the spring. They can also observe the birds that still flock to the feeders.
For Jabbour, the learning that happens in and around the garden goes far beyond what is required by the Quebec curriculum. The children develop a sense of wonder and a curiosity about the natural world that surrounds them. “I’m still always surprised at how excited even sixth graders get when we find a worm in the earth. Everyone comes running over to look at it and they’re all saying ‘’it’s a worm, it’s a worm.” He says those moments lay the foundation for a life-time of trying to understand, protect and live wisely in the natural world.

Resources for a“green” education

In 2005, the United Nations began a “Decade of Education for Sustainable Development,” to encourage countries to integrate teaching about the environment into their school programs. To read more about this initiative, visit www.desd.org.

Author Richard Louv has written a ground-breaking book, Last Child in the Woods, that discusses why today’s children may actually suffer from a “nature-deficit” — and what parents and schools can do about it. For more information, visit http://richardlouv.com/books/last-child.

The nonprofit Learning for A Sustainable Future has a website filled with information about education for sustainable development and ideas for educators and students. The Toronto-based group also offers grants. For more information, visit www.lsf-lst.ca/en.

Through its Green Apple School program, the Metro grocery store chain gives $1,000 grants to elementary and high schools to support environmental projects. For information, visit www.greenapplegrants.ca.

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