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Mystery 1500-square-foot tarpMystery 1500-square-foot tarpThis day all the buzz among Blair and Michael's second and third graders was about the 1500 sq ft tarp that appeared on the south slope of the Free Union campus. Today Jack Intihar, now a high school sophomore and a 2016 fifth grade graduate of Free Union, was to return to a place he called home for nine years—not just for a visit or a chance to teach the students about practical ecology (and maybe solve the mystery of the tarp), but to give back to the school where he learned about the importance of protecting the environment. 

Students ready to unfurl the tarpStudents ready to unfurl the tarpAs a participant in the James River Leadership Academy, Jack joined his mentor Grace Carbeck to enlist the help of Free Union students with the pollinator garden he is creating on campus. Jack explained that the purpose of a pollinator garden is to attract bees and other pollinators that carry pollen from plant to plant. When pollen arrives at a new plant, it germinates, which means it now can grow its own fruit and make more seed. Pollination keeps plants in the area healthy, creates new plants, and promotes an eco-friendly environment. Without pollination, the food supply on earth would be seriously compromised.

Prepping the soilPrepping the soilPrior to Jack’s arrival, a wonderful exchange of letters ensued with the students about pollination and about the apple orchard they planted. Exuberance was in full view:

Explaining drainage and pollutionExplaining drainage and pollution“I’m so excited to know what’s under the tarp.”
“What will you plant—maybe Zinnias?”
“Can we help you?”
“I’m hoping we get to help you uncover the tarp.”
“And can we help you plant and do more?”
“You must be so excited!”
“Dear Jack, I have two questions: What’s it like in high school? Do you know what’s under the tarp?”

More readying the soilMore readying the soil—more learning by doingWhen he met the students, Jack explained that pollinator gardens promote a healthy balance between organisms and their environment; they conserve energy and prevent air, water, and noise pollution. Another specific benefit of plantings is that they filter storm water runoff that carries waste and pollutants such as oil from well-travelled roads, like Free Union Road.

While creation of a pollinator garden with native plants that support native bees and other wild pollinators is Jack’s short-term objective, the longer view is the strengthening of the local ecosystem. A stronger eco-friendly locale supplies food in the form of pollen and nectar to ensure that these important animals stay in the area to keep pollinating our crops for continued fruit and vegetable production.

But what about the tarp?

The tarp helps prepare the soil for the garden to come. Jack explains that the tarp is covering the place where the pollinator garden will go. Using a technique called solarization, the heat of the sun kills grass, unwanted plants and weed seed, and fungi and bacteria that can bring disease to plants in the uppermost layers of soil, where the pollinator garden’s plants will grow and thrive.

When the second and third grade students finally peeled back the tarp, they saw that the grass had turned brown and that plants under the tarp had died. The heat from the sun that was trapped under the tarp had cooked the plants. As the students raked and prepped the area for the return of the tarp that afternoon, they anticipated the days early in 2022 when they would gather again with Jack to remove the tarp for good, prepare the soil, and plant the pollinator garden.

Epilogue (Grace Carbeck, Naturalist, Outdoor Education Teacher, Jack's mentor): "Beyond the health of the land, this garden will also be a great education opportunity to teach our kids about native plants, plant life cycles, insects, and butterflies, as well as to contribute to the overall aesthetic of Free Union which permeates many more subjects, imaginative play, and adventuring (kids love tall grass to play in!)"

Thank you Jack, Grace, and Free Union students!

Ada's letter to JackAda's letter to Jack
Jack's letter to the studentsJack's letter to the students

Tan Drills 2Outdoors, in winter, making benches Free Union is buzzing about Tangents class, a new offering by teacher Jonathan Shay. Veering off on a tangent can be unproductive and annoying. But when it is fueled and encouraged in elementary school, wildly creative things can happen... like benches for warming stations around campus, interpretive signs for restored ecosystems along the nature trail, boardwalks over our wetlands, and a deepened understanding of art, science, math, and social phenomena—plus a few more side benefits, like intellectual stimulation, emotional tranquility, pride of ownership, and a very excited group of kids working together!

Naming the class “Tangents" was Jonathan’s way of embedding the idea that we'll be free to take side trips to explore areas of interest to the kids—self-directed projects that encourage teamwork and problem solving.

Helping student ideas come to lifeHelping student ideas come to lifeBut what if they didn’t view these side trips as a distraction and made them the goal? Call it “creative wandering.” In this paradigm, students look for the tangents, the points of connection between and among areas of study, and use them to show the ways that disciplines are related and the ways they reinforce one another. These tangents can be surprising and delightful.

Artistic mazeArtistic mazeAs he thought about the class, Jonathan wanted to use a light touch. For example, assigning a step by step predetermined process to make a flying propeller takes away a lot of the creativity and agency. Too often children are given explicit directions for everything, which doesn’t help them develop problem solving skills. So there will be a balance between direction and a path they determine for themselves.

Student-made benchesStudent-made benchesJonathan's view is that academic content is fairly easy to include in almost any project. For example, for their first project the older kids built benches. It’s a perfect opportunity to learn about angles. Jonathan’s drawing showed the top with a 72 degree angle so that 10 of benches fit together in a decahedron. One student knew that the interior angles of a 4 sided figure add up to 360 degrees and was able to identify all the angles based on that. The kids are learning about how the drawing shows the relative three dimensional views of the bench. They talked about using a drawing as a planning tool. While the benches were not self directed, this initial project provided students with a pathway for them to replicate on their own projects.

Marble runMarble runThe younger kids started with a project using scraps of wood from Jonathan’s workshop. He dumped these on the work bench and provided hot glue and paint for the children to make their own creations. Some of them were truly wonderful. This activity provides an introduction to assembling pieces to make something of their own design. The children love the opportunity to create in three dimensions—not a single kid was bereft of ideas.

Finishing tablesFinishing tablesWhen Jonathan started designing this class, he focused on themes of inquiry, and developed projects that relate to the natural world. As you know, our school devotes considerable effort to helping children appreciate the environment and we have a superb campus in which to do it. Jonathan was drawn to the Greek elements of earth, air, fire and water, beginning with air. He developed a number of projects that relate to air, wind, sound and flight—from parachutes to kites to propellers.

Teachers intuitively “get” this approach, but when teachers from other schools ask what I’m teaching, what's the academic content, what are the themes and how I’m going to do it, I’m afraid that I can’t come up with a particularly satisfying answer. The truth is that it’s less about what we’re learning and more about the process and the physical environment that encourages creation. The learning follows naturally, but it doesn’t usually proceed in a straight line. (More of a tangent!) The class is intended to support the work of the other teachers and to reinforce their efforts, but Jonathan doesn’t expect a comprehensive study on an academic theme. It’s scatter shot, but a given student may develop a particular interest in a topic and dive deep.

In this class, the curriculum is flexible and inspired by student curiosity. From start to finish they follow the spark of an idea from brainstorming to hypothesizing, designing, building, testing, and refining. It is wonderful to see the students so engaged. They will take their projects home and continue to add on and experiment, even long after the day's class is over. They've made benches and tables for classroom use, planes and trains with spinning wheels and propellers... even pinball machines, race cars, and elaborate marble runs. If they can imagine it, Jonathan will find the tools and pieces to help them build it.

Map of the Free Union CampusKatie and I discovered we had pirates and explorers in preschool fairly soon after the school year began. One preschooler wore her pirate gear (headscarf, vest, and eye patch) to school regularly and others spent every morning building ships to sail through the skies, the seas, and space. 

Kids working together on prints"I want my third-grade students to know that the intention and the work ethic you have and the way you think about things and keep working is what builds us to be better, to be great." (Blair Amberly, third-grade teacher)

A rainbow tornadoOur pre-kindergarten students see mistakes as opportunities for creative thinking.

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