Bringing the Garden to the Classroom – and the Stage – at Gearity

By Krista Hawthorne
Learning is fun and multi-dimensional for the fourth graders in Mr. Joe Mendes’s class at Gearity Professional Development School who recently enjoyed reading “Seedfolks,” by Paul Fleischman. Set in Cleveland, it’s the story of a small urban community that turns a vacant lot into a community garden and that project’s powerful benefits.

After reading “Seedfolks,” the class watched an interview with Fleischman on the classroom’s Smartboard, an interactive whiteboard. Then Mr. Mendes asked all of his students to write a short play about people and a garden. He chose two of the plays for students to perform: “The Garden,” by Grace Mangano, and “The Mystery Mole,” by Mackenzie Hollis.

When I arrived in the classroom, a group of students were on the floor preparing for the first play by making character signs (“King Bean,” “Queen Carrot,” “Pea,” and “Old Man.”) Others gathered orange and green paper for carrot and pea costumes; another student made deer antlers out of rulers and wire. Mr. Mendes greeted me and asked a student to introduce me to the class. The student quietly asked my name and then turned to the class and confidently said “This is Ms. Hawthorne. Welcome to our Fourth Grade Class and thank you for coming.”

After the quick costumes were constructed, Mr. Mendes said, “I need everyone back to their desks in 5, 4, 3, if you are not moving back to your desks you are not following my instructions … 2, and 1,” and everyone was in their seats. He spent five minutes helping students visualize the performance space, imagine an audience’s reactions, and consider their own reactions to performing in front of a group. He said, “It can be kind of scary and you may feel nervous but if you say your lines with your full effort, everyone will love it.” The playwright, Grace, was asked how she felt about this project. “I always wanted to do a school play. Sometimes I can be shy but it will be fun. One of my favorite things to do is act.” After a quick demonstration of how to use a handheld microphone, each student tried it once. They all practiced a group bow following the instructions, “Head back, take a breath, lean forward together and count 1, 2, 3, then stand back up. If they keep clapping, do it again!”

And it was show time! Excitement built. Students moved quickly, following last second reminders from their teacher and classmates. The play tells the story of an old man who cares for a dying garden and brings it back to life. He loves his plants but they don’t love each other. The performance was brief and awkward (given the small stage and unfamiliarity of passing a microphone) but well received by the audience – mostly first graders and their lunch aides.

The theme of this book resonated with everyone since Gearity has a large learning garden. Students eagerly told me that they helped build the nature trail, that the vegetables they grow are offered to students during lunch, and that in science, they are learning to grow radishes with a battery. “The Learning Garden is an integral part of the school’s curriculum from Preschool through Fifth Grade,” explained Principal Michele Evans, Ph.D. “It’s a wonderful tool that fits into our STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) pathway.”

On October 13, the community pitched in at the Gearity Garden Clean-Up to install an eight-foot high deer fence, plant a perennial garden lined with pavers, pull weeds, spread mulch, and add soil to geometrically shaped raised beds. Kylin said that everyone at Gearity learns to plant and grow things but not everyone gets to write and perform plays about it. “This is an original and fun class. A one-of-a-kind class with a great teacher.”

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