What started as a class project has grown into so much more for the students at The E.W. Thompson School, MSSD.
When teacher Michelle Beasley began a project on health and nutrition, she had her students plant seeds in egg cartons and hoped her students would become interested in the process of how plants grow and the food that could be harvested from them.
“There are so many things that I thought my students could learn from planting seeds,” Beasley said. “Of course there is all the health and nutritional facts that we could learn but there are concepts like the height of the plants and which one is taller and lower and why do plants need water.
“For some of my students this may be one of the first times they actually got their hands in the soil or even had the opportunity to work outside in a garden,” Beasley added. “It really has been cool to watch their reactions to what has happened since we started.”
From the first seedlings planted in late March by Beasley’s seven students, both the size of the project and the number of students involved has grown and now involves many of the 28 students the school serves.
“I think there are so many exciting aspects and things that we can teach our students and learn from this,” Building Administrator Janice Gerken said. “Michelle is someone who thinks outside the box and she came to me with the idea of creating a garden, which I thought was such a good idea.
“Michelle took the bull by the horns and ran with the idea of the garden,” Gerken said. “There are so many aspects and benefits to the project that I don’t think we even had thought of when she started this.”
Originally, Beasley wanted to plant the garden directly in the soil, but since ground space is limited at the school, she decided to take a different approach.
“After we had the seedlings in the egg cartons I thought about where we could go from there,” Beasley said. “After we realized that planting the garden directly in the ground wouldn’t work I started to look at other things we could do.”
At first Beasley and the students tried sowing the seeds in two plastic “kiddie” swimming pools but they soon discovered that was not the best option.
“Most of the seedlings and plants just shriveled up and died when we tried that (the pools) so then I started to look online at Pinterest and other sites until I came up with this idea,” Beasley said. “I knew that raised beds would be best because some of our students in wheelchairs would be able to help in the gardens that way.
“My dad really helped me come up with a design and he and others did a lot of the construction of the beds for us,” she added. “Some members of the local Boy Scout troops and students from Smith Cotton’s JROTC also helped us, as did a lot of people at the school and community volunteers.”
Beasley said many of the items for the project were donated and the school’s Parents as Teachers organization and Lowes were generous in helping with the project.
The volunteers constructed two raised beds from cattle stock tanks that have been framed with lumber, creating ledges for the students to rest both their produce and their arm if they become tired from watering and weeding the garden.
“From our first try with the pools we were only able to save about a half dozen plants, but we are really growing a lot right now,” Beasley said. “We have been harvesting some things and we use them as snacks and with our lunches here at the school.
“Everything that we grow here is completely organic and we don’t use any pesticides on any of the plants,” she added. “We already are planning for next year and what we hope to grow.”
The students would like to try their hand at growing some flowers to use as presents for their mothers on Mother’s Day.
Another possibility would be to raise enough produce that they could sell some of their bounty to raise funds for additional swings and equipment for the playground.
“I really want to incorporate as many life skills as we can with this project,” Beasley said. “There are just so many things we can do. In fact we are talking about trying to make some refrigerator pickles with the kids later this summer and possibly canning tomatoes too.
“One of the best parts is seeing the students take part in the process from beginning to end. Everything becomes a learning tool,” she added. “The other day we picked a mini watermelon; it was still white inside but even that is something we can learn from.”
Gerken agrees with Beasley’s assessment of the value of the garden.
“It’s been phenomenal to watch the students work and interact in the garden,” Gerken said. “I think there are so many things they are capable of doing that we don’t realize they are capable of, it just might take longer but we just need to give them that time and be patient with them.”
Beasley, who has spent 15 years working with autistic children in home settings, is in her first year of teaching in a classroom.
“I really have been so happy with how the community has come together with the project,” Beasley said. “With any project some of the students have been more interested than others but they all are really enjoying eating the fruits and vegetables we grow.
“These students are just like any others and they want to reach whatever goals we have for them,” she added thoughtfully. “When they leave here they have a life in front of them and this is something that they can take with them and hopefully use in their lives for years to come.”
Hope Lecchi can be reached at 660-826-1000 ext. 1484.