Students learn about plants by helping prep the school grounds

Mesa Elementary third grader Robin Howe pulls weeds with her class Wednesday morning, in front of the school. The children learned how to recognize weeds from plants before moving to the garden. (Staff photo: Sharna Johnson)

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

Mason Odom knelt among the woodchips and intently unearthed a weed. The 8-year-old is getting some experience in the world of all things green.

Odom and other Mesa Elementary third-graders are prepping the ground outside their school for iris, hyacinth and daffodil bulbs.

“I planted a sunflower at home last year, but it got struck by lightning. It was all black, so I think that’s what happened. This time will be better, if I listen to the teacher, I think I can make something grow,” Odom said.

Third-grade Mesa Elementary teacher Callene Zapalac won a National Garden Association grant, which paid for the purchase of the bulbs. The Muleshoe, Texas, resident waved her hands Wednesday morning before letting her students dig into the dirt.

“What are these?” she asked the group. “These are our materials,” she said, her students shouting out the same phrase and wiggling their fingers. “What we are doing today is like a science experiment.”

Zapalac keeps a bag of potting soil underneath the sink in her classroom so students can delve into nature inside, too.

A plastic tub with light bulbs and a grated bed sits against the wall — it will later be home to student-raised indoor plants.

“Learning should be hands-on,” she said. “If (students) can see it, if they can touch it, it becomes so much easier to learn. (Having students plant) that’s something I can do to change their attitude as soon as they walk in the door in the morning. They really treasure it — it’s something they can take ownership of.”

Zapalac is part of a growing trend, according to Zia Elementary principal Jarilyn Butler.

“More and more teachers are doing things like bringing plants into the classroom,” Butler said, standing in her school’s atrium, a room with a trickling fountain, a pond, and vegetation. Students in two classrooms are separated from the atrium only by a glass pane.

“The more we learn about the brain, the more school environments change,” Butler said. Evidence at Zia: Teachers decorate classrooms with house plants, classical music plays in hallways and some students store water bottles on their desks, Butler said, all practices supported by brain-based research.

The Royal Agricultural College recently studied the attendance and behavior of a group of 34 students; lecture locations altered between a room with plants and a room without plants. In the room with plants, poor student behavior, such as yawning, talking, and fidgeting, was reduced by 70 percent, according to research team correspondent Nancy Tamosaitis.

Kindergarten teacher Gina Davis isn’t familiar with the Royal Agricultural College study, but she helped turn Mesa Elementary into a naturalist’s haven.

One of eight types of intelligences coined by Harvard professor and psychologist Howard Gardner, naturalists are adept at classifying and observing the natural world; Charles Darwin is one of the most famous naturalists, according to

The eight intelligences are posted on the wall in Davis’ classroom. She said all Mesa Elementary school teachers use Gardner’s work. “We believe each kid is smart in different ways,” Davis said.

Davis identifies herself as a “nature girl” and dedicated a corner in the Mesa hallway to naturalists. It is filled with big, leafy plants, reminiscent of the garden and pond area outside the school, which Davis also sought funding for and helped design. She plans to enhance other spots in the school, as well.

“It helps to have a beautiful environment for kids to learn in. Teachers here are really trying to tap into kids and their needs. It’s a lot of work but it’s very rewarding,” Davis said.

Third-grade Mesa student Julia Simmons perhaps put it best: “(Flowers and plants) are great to look at and they make me happier when I am sad.”