group of people standing around large sunflower plants

Problem-Solving in the Garden: Teacher Education students create lesson plan for Hardin Valley Elementary

group of people standing around large sunflower plants

Problem-Solving in the Garden: Teacher Education students create lesson plan for Hardin Valley Elementary

cmills4 November 13, 2019

When Teacher Education Program Coordinator Laura Lawson and librarian Will Buck talked to the University of Tennessee Master Gardeners last fall about Pellissippi State’s seed library, they had no idea what other seeds they were planting.

Less than a year after that meeting, Lawson found herself at Hardin Valley Elementary with seven of her Teacher Education students, leading Hardin Valley Elementary teachers through a lesson plan they can use in the school’s learning garden.

The partnership was the brainchild of Master Gardeners Kat Fenstermaker and Alicia Silfies, whose children go to Hardin Valley Elementary. They serve as garden coordinators for the school’s garden, but they realized they needed some help.

“Kat and I are educated in gardening, but we don’t know about teaching,” explained Silfies, who has first, second and fourth graders at Hardin Valley Elementary. “We know kids learn better when they get their fingers in the dirt, but we didn’t know how to draw teachers out here.”

female with paper in her hand surrounded by others outside
Teacher Education Program Coordinator Laura Lawson, in yellow, leads Hardin Valley Elementary teachers through a lesson plan in the school’s garden on Aug. 29.

Looking for lesson plans Hardin Valley Elementary teachers could use, the friends realized there are no existing garden-based lesson plans in Tennessee, Fenstermaker added. That’s why she and Silfies turned to Lawson and her Pellissippi State students.

“This is the second year of the state’s new science standards, which now include engineering categories in every grade,” Lawson noted. “What if we could bring some of those STEM standards into the garden?”

Lawson didn’t just write the lesson plan herself, however. She turned Fenstermaker’s and Silfies’ request into a teaching opportunity for her students who are majoring in Elementary Education K-5, one of more than 60 Tennessee Transfer Pathways Pellissippi State offers to students who want to go on and finish a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution.

“It took us two or three times to complete the lesson plan because not only did it have to match the state standards, it had to include all of the different components of a strong and effective lesson plan,” Lawson said.

The process was eye-opening for Pellissippi State students.

“Doing a lesson plan is way more in-depth than I actually imagined,” said freshman Grace Powers.

Sophomore Lydia Young agreed.

“Ms. Lawson is awesome because she loves to incorporate us,” she said. “She makes us feel like we are equals.”

Female pouring water on a plant with watering can with onlookers in the background
Hardin Valley Elementary teachers try different solutions to keep water from running off a mound of fresh dirt while Pellissippi State students, in background, observe.

Teacher Education students presented the completed lesson plan to Fenstermaker and Silfies in the Teacher Education classroom on Pellissippi State’s Hardin Valley Campus in April. The master gardeners loved it so much that, with the principal’s permission, they invited Lawson and her students to present the plan to teachers at Hardin Valley Elementary on Aug. 29.

Powers, Young and their Teacher Education classmates Angelina Cicero, Casey Dean, Mackenzie Finger, Paul Harris and Madison Johnson were on hand to lead teachers through “Problem-Solving in the Garden.”

“This is a second-grade lesson plan that can be modified for all grades,” Lawson noted.

The lesson plan meets two state standards: (1) define a simple problem that can be solved through the development of a new or improved object or tool by asking questions, making observations and gathering information about a situation people want to change and (2) develop a simple sketch, drawing or physical model that communicates solutions to others.

“The kid-friendly objective of the plan would be ‘I can find a solution to a problem in my garden,’” Lawson explained.

On this blazing hot August day, the problem was wilted, water-deprived plants – a corn plant pulled from the Hardin Valley Learning Garden and a cucumber plant from Lawson’s garden at home. The lesson plan directs students to use laminated climate maps to gather information about the average temperatures in Tennessee and allows teachers to introduce a new vocabulary word: “drought.”

Offering students an opportunity to water a tomato plant, freshly planted in a mound of dirt, enables the entire class to observe the water flowing right off the mound and into other parts of the garden.

“We’ve got a problem!” Lawson said. “Not only are our plants not receiving as much rain this summer, but when we do take time to water, it’s running right off and not soaking down to the plant’s roots.”

Students then break into groups to figure out a solution to this problem. Gathering around tomato plants freshly planted in a mound of dirt, students would be instructed to start with “private think time,” to allow each member of the group a chance to think of a possible solution; listen to each member’s idea and explanation of the thinking that led to that solution; and be respectful if a member’s idea does not work.

“The teacher should be walking around the garden during this time to monitor,” Lawson noted. “Prompt groups if they look stumped. Ask questions to promote alternate solutions if they tried something that did not work. Give feedback about the solutions they came up with. ‘Why did you all choose this design?’”

For the professional development session Aug. 29, Hardin Valley Elementary teachers divided into three groups to try different formations with their buckets of dirt. As the teachers and the Pellissippi State students worked together on possible solutions to the run-off problem, Fenstermaker and Silfies could not believe their eyes.

“This is everything we hoped for in a lesson plan,” said Fenstermaker, who has children in fourth and fifth grades at Hardin Valley Elementary. “This is awesome.”

Silfies agreed.

several pots with plants in them“We want to use our garden as an example so that we can take this lesson plan to other Knox County Schools,” she explained. “We want the garden to be integrated into the curriculum because, in the past, there might be one teacher who takes an interest in the garden, and when he or she leaves, the garden goes down.”

By the end of the lesson, the teams of Hardin Valley Elementary teachers and Pellissippi State students had come up with three solutions to deter run-off. Each group explained their solution to the others, and Lawson detailed the way the lesson plan could be differentiated for individual student needs.

The lesson plan as a whole also could be modified for younger or older students, she added. For example, children in grades K-1 could be assigned specific formations of dirt to try while those teaching children in grades 4-5 might not mention any specific formations ideas at all, to see what designs the students would come up with on their own.

“For even higher-level thinking, you could ask students how they would solve the opposite problem of too much rain,” Lawson noted.

To end the lesson, students are given a piece of construction paper, pencil and clipboard to draw a simple sketch of the solution they think is best. Students should label their designs with arrows and key words as well as explain their solutions in complete sentences at the bottom of their illustration.

In all, Pellissippi State students created a five-page lesson plan for Hardin Valley Elementary, complete with lists of questions teachers could ask students and materials needed. The lesson plans along with the laminated climate maps provided by Pellissippi State will stay in Hardin Valley Elementary’s garden shed.

“We love our garden, and we think our garden moms do a great job,” said Brooke Swaggerty, who teaches first grade. “I think this lesson plan will work with all our grade levels. They nailed it.”

Fellow first-grade teacher Christina Cisero couldn’t wait for the students to give it a try.

“We have Garden Club during recess, and it’s crazy to see how they’d pick gardening over playtime,” she said. “They like to water and weed.”

As Pellissippi State students started packing up their materials to head home from Hardin Valley Elementary, they exuded relief that all their hard work on “Problem-Solving in the Garden” had been well received by the teachers.

And they also had a better appreciation for all the time it takes to create just one lesson plan, added Johnson, a third-year Pellissippi State student.

“You think teaching is an 8-3 job, but it’s not.”