Growing new teaching methods
Less than four years ago, the only things on top of one the second floor wings of the Manhattan School for Children (P.S. 333) were pigeons and gravel. Now, the space is the site of a spacious 1,400-square foot greenhouse that provides unprecedented educational opportunities in the city related to eco-sciences and life systems to the school’s students.
The facility is the result of a partnership with New York Sun Works, a NYC-based non-profit organization, as part of what is known as the “The Greenhouse Project” initiative. The greenhouse is based on The Science Barge, sustainable urban farm and education center in Yonkers that the group created. Since its doors opened in Dec. 2010, the venue has received rave reviews from students and parents alike, but those at NYSW wanted to do more for the community.
The thought was this: Although few schools have the resources for such a spacious venue, why not pass along smaller-scale projects that are infused with the hands-on nature of the activities generated in the greenhouse through a teacher training program? And so the course, “Water, Energy, and Waste: Integrating Themes of Sustainability into Your Classroom,” was born. After being approved the by the NYC's Department of Education's After School Professional Development Program (ASPDP) for three continuing education credits, the first wave of sessions began on Sept. 23 and will continue until Nov. 18. The program runs on various Fridays and Saturdays with a different theme each week. The first class consists of 15 teachers representing 14 different schools and organizations.
One of those teachers taking part was Stephen Ritz, who was one of six nominees for ABC7’s Above and Beyond Awards for his work with implementing vertical growing technologies at Discovery High School in the Bronx. Ritz is on hand to see how the program is taught so that one day he could teach a similar program to other teachers down the road.
“They are super-excited because we combine our philosophies to bring hands-on experience into the classroom, so you’re not only talking about sustainability situations, but you’re bringing in hands-on activities,” said Manuela Zamora, the director of education programs at NYSW. Zamora, who has two children attending P.S. 333, was one of several parents who helped plan the building of the greenhouse from day one.
Shakira Castronovo, the resident science teacher at the school who was also instrumental in getting the greenhouse built, is amazed on a daily basis with how much her students have taken to science since the greenhouse was opened. “It’s just that spark and after that spark, of course, there’s a whole lot more, but you can’t that more without the spark,” she said. “These are teachers who -- yes they’re getting credit -- but they’re obviously here because they’re already interested in introducing environmental issues into the classrooms.”
Last Saturday afternoon (Nov. 5), the hands-on activity of the day was making worm bins for composting. The teachers were given 15-quart plastic containers pierced with multiple holes and piles of newspaper pages. They were then instructed by two representatives from Friends of the High Line, Maeve Turner and Emily Pinkowitz, how to properly prepare the bin for its new residents: about three-fourths of a pound of worms.
While working on her worm bin, Jessica Roach, a first grade teacher at P.S. 112 in East Harlem who works with students with high-functioning autism as part of the NEST program, talked about how the simple worm bin could provide a wonderful platform for new discoveries for her kids. “It teaches them the whole life cycle,” said Roach, who added that her students coincidentally were in the midst of an all-encompassing study of insects. “I always thought of that as kind of too complicated for my students and this has kind of given me a way that I can bring that into a classroom and it’s appropriate and hands-on. It does teach them higher-level thinking skills.”
Roach later pointed to a shelf where a self-contained hydroponics system sat a few feet away that she created in a recent session lead by NYSW bioresource engineer Ashley King. “I can’t have it my school right now because we’re under construction, but it is something I can do in the future with students – teaching them that there’s other ways of growing and gardening. You don’t have to dirt. You don’t have to have a piece of soil. You can do it in a classroom with water.”
Miles Crettien does not work at a New York public school, but still wanted to learn about different ideas and strategies for his work as the healthy food wellness coordinator at the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House on the Upper East Side. His non-profit organization is in the midst of starting its own rooftop garden after recently receiving a grant from the city's Department of Environmental Protection, so the training he is taking away will be invaluable when it comes to working with nearly 250 kids -- ranging in age from 3 to 15.
Crettien said that he had a worm bin in college, but never made one himself. “I failed because of an infestation of flies, but apparently it’s two pounds of worms to one pound of garbage,” he said. “I’m not sure about that, though. That’s why I’m here to learn.”
NYSW director Laurie Schoeman pointed out that the second phase of the Greenhouse Project was completed earlier this month with the opening a second 800-square foot greenhouse at the newly P.S. 89, the first green school in Brooklyn. Schoeman added that by 2014 seven other city schools will feature greenhouses of some variety through the initiative: three in Manhattan (P.S. 208 in central Harlem, P.S. 199 and I.S. 44/O’Shea Complex on the Upper West Side), two in Brooklyn (Brooklyn School for Inquiry in Bensonhurst and P.S. 165 in Brownsville), one in Queens (Renaissance Charter School) and one on Governor’s Island (Harbor School).
“We’re committed to New York City,” Schoeman said.
And to the training program as a whole.
“Not every school can afford or can position a new capital project, but the actual modules that we have built, the small do-it-yourself projects that you can easily bring into the classroom to support your curriculum that is the most effective and strategic and affordable way to make anything scale,” Schoeman said. “We want to train the trainers so that they can go out to their schools and feed their school communities and bring the information out because the bottom line with this movement is the education and if we can impact schools with a do-it-yourself hydroponic kit versus building a large-scale facility, then I think in this fiscal reality… that makes a lot of sense, so professional development is a key lever for us.”
Do your children attend one of the schools that has or is getting a new greenhouse courtesy of the initiative? What are your thoughts on the teacher training program? We’d love to hear your thoughts.