Thursday is Garden Day at Castlen Elementary School in the small Mobile County community of Grand Bay. The more than 430 school children who attend Castlen all know it, and so do the teachers because the children remind them.
On Thursdays, children spend time outside, in a courtyard-area turned outdoor classroom where they learn about plants and how they grow…and so much more. Castlen Elementary is Alabama’s first school in which the entire school is enrolled in the Junior Master Gardner (JMG) educational program.
JMG is a nationally-developed curriculum to engage children in "hands-on" group and individual learning experiences rooted in gardening. JMG teaches a love of gardening, develops an appreciation for the environment and cultivates the mind. Created by Texas A&M, the JMG curriculum is administered through 4-H and youth development programs in each state.
In Alabama, JMG program coordinator Luci Guthrie Davis provides educational training for school teachers and other adults to want to help youth learn the joy of gardening.
The Castlen teachers and administrators are guided by Davis along with Jane Hartselle, 4-H regional Extension agent, and James Miles, horticulture regional Extension agent. Both Hartselle and Miles are based in Mobile County’s Alabama Cooperative Extension System office.
"Castlen Elementary School is the example other schools in Alabama can follow to help children learn in ways that are exciting, creative and fun," Davis said. "We hope Castlen is the first of many entire-school JMG programs."
Before the 2009 academic year began, Davis, Hartselle and Miles provided a two-day training on JMG, 4-H and horticulture to get the teachers prepped for the year. Earlier this month, the trio returned to Castlen to learn about last school year’s successes and create a plan for this school year.
Last year, teachers and students planted multiple flats of tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, zucchini, banana peppers, marigolds, oregano, basil, mint, rosemary and onions to fill their planting beds. They also planted a bog garden and learned about carnivorous plants. Students were kept busy outside as they planted, weeded, observed insects and collected data in the outdoor classroom. Inside, teachers used those experiences and incorporated them into everyday classroom learning.
This year, teachers have decided to grow by grades – kindergartners and third graders will be responsible for seeding in a new greenhouse built next to the school; first graders will tend the butterfly garden; second graders will expand the bog; fourth graders will plant cabbage and collards; and fifth graders will plant onions and herbs.
Fourth grade teachers Wendy Adams, Sandy Potts, Kathy Erwin and Penny Jordan said all their students loved the program. JMG also teaches community responsibility and one project the fourth graders took on last year was a recycling program for the entire school. They donated proceeds to a Castlen student who was battling a disease to help her family pay medical bills.
"The recycling program taught the children about so much more than collecting cans and how that helps the environment," Jordan said. "They did it because they wanted to help a fellow classmate and they learned about helping others."
Potts said the children learned quickly while having fun.
"We were amazed at how fast they could tell the difference between a weed and a seedling, and know the different types of herbs and plants," she said. "They loved it and learned a lot."
Adams said the JMG program was a hit because it allows for all types of learners.
"There are many ways to learn and the Junior Master Gardener program and the kids loved it," Adams commented.
Hartselle, a 20-year 4-H employee, said the JMG curriculum extends the 4-H program because it is learning by doing.
"Castlen is a stellar school and they have been a perfect model for this program. Principal Jane Adams has been committed since day one, and the teachers are excited also," Hartselle added, "and that makes a huge impact on getting children interested in learning as well."
Miles provided horticulture knowledge in helping teachers decide which plants to grow and how well they would grow in the coastal region of Alabama.
"Some plants do better in soil versus raised beds and moisture makes a huge difference," Miles explained.
Luci Davis is the State Junior Master Gardener Coordinator. For more information on the program, phone (334) 703-7509.