An avid gardener with children in the Langley School, Joyce Harris was motivated to involve herself in her children's education. "Kids don't have enough contact with the natural world," says Joyce. "Many of them don't know the difference between a daffodil and a tulip."
Inspired, she enrolled in a greenhouse crop production class at Northern Virginia Community College. There she learned how to manage a greenhouse and develop a month-by-month plan. After submitting a proposal for renovating the 18-foot by 31-foot gabled glass greenhouse standing unused on Langley grounds, she got the go-ahead--along with startup funds--from the Langley administration.
A Greenhouse Advocate
At the start of the school year, Joyce presents her greenhouse curriculum and gives teachers the opportunity to sign up their classes for projects. Through the Parents' Association, she recruits volunteers to help her in the greenhouse.
"The greenhouse is a resource much like a library," says Joyce. "It's also a very magical place." She invites teachers to make "field trips" to the greenhouse throughout the year and welcomes curious kids during recess. "There's nothing like being in a greenhouse in the winter," says Joyce, "especially when it's snowing outside."
As the school year progresses, Joyce circulates updates to teachers and staff, submits notices to the weekly Langley newsletter, and reports periodically to the board. Word gets around. The only elementary school in Fairfax County with a greenhouse program, Langley enjoyed a feature in The Washington Post prior to the school's 1999 spring plant sale.
Joyce's month-by-month greenhouse plan is timed like clockwork to the turn of the seasons. For each month, she outlines: 1) general greenhouse and garden tasks to attend to; 2) weather concerns to address; 3) crops to plant; 4) experiments to conduct; 5) projects to implement; 6) skills to be acquired; and 7) concepts addressed. This level of detail demonstrates to teachers her expertise and willingness to weave greenhouse projects into the broader curriculum.
In September, for example, kids prepare to learn about greenhouse design and equipment. By the end of the month, they are monitoring poinsettias for the holiday plant sale. Come October, they are composting and forcing bulbs. As they continue to plant seeds and propagate from cuttings, they learn about growing media, watering, and light.
Joyce suggests inspiring experimental questions such as, "Do roots hold soil in place?," "Does cold, cool, or warm air make a difference for seeds?," and "Do pea plants need light to start growing?" Kids dig in and find out for themselves.
Working with Teachers
In the teacher-developed Growth Race project, teams of students compete to grow the tallest, healthiest zinnia. After researching soil and air temperatures, nutrients, soil moisture content, and light, teams design investigations in the greenhouse. "Students may learn something as simple as how to water a plant," says Joyce. "Not all plants have the same watering requirements." Suited perfectly to the greenhouse laboratory, the growth race highlights how plants require specific and controlled conditions for optimal growth.
The Ideal Outdoor Classroom
Last year, more than 350 students from nursery school through eighth grade participated in greenhouse projects. They grew more than 4,000 plants for sale, which has contributed to this year's operating budget. No longer dilapidated, the aluminum frame greenhouse now sports acrylic and glass panels and a bluestone gravel floor. Two gas-fired heaters, a motorized shutter window with an exhaust fan, and two additional circulation fans help regulate the temperature. Wooden benches, work tables, and access to cold running water make it an ideal greenhouse classroom. "Although we spend less and less money every year, we do need to have some padding," Joyce cautions. "You never know when a soccer ball will get kicked through a panel."
Undertaking the job of parent volunteer greenhouse manager is not for the faint of heart. "I am in the greenhouse every single day throughout the school year," says Joyce. "But I love it."