Cows In the Garden: How One Teacher at a NYC Eco-School in the Bronx Engages Children in Science

One sunny day in 2010, a farmer came to visit PS 69 Journey Prep School in the Bronx, a NYC Eco-School. The farmer brought Rainbow, a 7-day-old calf, along with him.  While Rainbow munched contentedly on plants in the school garden, the farmer spoke to students about growing food and dairy farming.  He also brought a truckload of composted manure for Jill Weingarten, PS69’s science teacher and Sustainability Coordinator, and an avid gardener since 1997.  The farmer’s composted manure was delivered to PS69 by Green Thumb NYC. It enriched the soil for the garden she built and uses as an outdoor classroom 11 months of the year.

Rainbow the calf visits PS69’s garden, 2010. Photo courtesy Jill Weingarten.
Weingarten is passionate about composting and kids.  “When I talk to my students about composting, I connect it to the human body,” says Weingarten.  “We need the same vitamins and minerals in our bodies that our vegetables and soil do to grow well. Bananas give us potassium, egg shells provide calcium, tea bags and coffee grinds give us nitrogen and all go back into the soil when you compost,” she says.

PS69’s garden produce. Photo courtesy Jill Weingarten.
PS69 student weeding in the garden. Photo courtesy Jill Weingarten.
Thanks to Weingarten and her students’ tender loving care, PS69 has a bountiful edible garden.  The garden is registered with Grow to Learn, NYC’s citywide school garden initiative. Recycled plastic raised beds are used to grow a variety of produce: peas, lettuce, cabbage, cauliflower, potatoes, onions, leeks, radish, kale, chards, tall corn, peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, garlic, shallots. Children label and tend all the crops, then harvest the veggies for a July cookout. Two Garden Gourmet composting bins receive kids’ banana and apple peels and cafeteria workers’ leftover vegetable scraps. The finished compost goes back into the garden to nourish the soil.

In the summer of 2012, to diversify the garden and create habitat for wildlife, Weingarten added a pond, dogwood shrubs and perennials. Last fall, second graders planted a birch tree and a magnolia tree near the pond, and also planted ten trees around the school’s perimeter with MillionTreesNYC. As the weather warms this Spring, they will plant additional trees and shrubs.

Weingarten says that, since starting PS69’s garden and planting trees, she and her students have noticed more wild visitors including Quaker parrots, starlings, mourning doves, as well as squirrels, butterflies, and “lots of bees.”  Weingarten recently applied to have the school’s garden certified as a wildlife habitat through NWF’s Schoolyard Habitat program.  She will be working with NYC Eco-Schools and ioby to raise the funds needed to enlarge PS69’s pond, add fish, tadpoles, water striders, and dragonflies, and create a drinking source for birds and beneficial insects.

The garden is a constant source of inspiration for Weingarten, who left her career as an advertising agency art director to become a teacher. Weingarten has been able to use her experience and connections in the television industry to get her students to engage with science in new ways. “We pick topics from the science curriculum and teach the children how to write and create animations about them,” she says.  The first animation, about simple machines, stars a wheelbarrow in the leading role – inspired by the wheelbarrow that delivered compost to the garden.  The second animation about the water cycle won the 2012 ASIFA East Excellence in Education Award. For the third, The Food Chain, she enlisted the talents of animator Jose Moldinado and writer Pammy Salmon (who created an episode of PBS’s beloved Martha Speaks television program) to help the kids create story treatments, a script and finally a storyboard.  Students have learned to use animation software to reinforce science concepts.

PS69 students make musical instruments from recycled materials. Photo courtesy Suzanne Robinson.

Weingarten also uses art to create opportunities for lessons on the environment.  She shares ideas with PS69’s art teacher, Peaches Lewis, about how to reuse materials to teach children about recycling. Students have been encouraged to bring in recycled materials to create drums, guitars, maracas and tambourines. “In this way, students help their environment while enriching their study of sound,” says Weingarten.  They also make windowsill flower boxes from old juice cartons to plant garlic, potatoes and carrots, later comparing plants grown outdoors vs. indoors. This year, students will build tree guards using recycled materials.

Students at PS69 will soon be ramping up their energy conservation efforts too. Weingarten currently raises the shades in her classroom to use natural sunlight and makes sure that her students turn off the lights when they leave a room. But the school just received a $500 mini grant from NYC Eco-Schools to implement the Cool School Challenge  – a program that engages schools in practical strategies to save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions school-wide. As part of the program, students perform energy audits of their classrooms and then create a plan to reduce energy use and emissions. Weingarten says that NWF’s Eco-Schools’ program materials and resources have helped her understand how much her school needs to do to reduce waste and conserve resources. “It’s all about students experiencing first-hand how they can impact their environment, and having the tools to combat the serious environmental problems we all face,” she says. Weingarten credits PS69’s Principal, Sheila Durant, with having the vision to nurture and encourage the incorporation of sustainability principles into PS69’s curriculum.  “We’re very appreciative of Principal Durant’s support,” says Weingarten.

Please be sure to tell us about what you’re doing at your school to save energy, recycle, and help wildlife!  Register to become an Eco-School and take advantage of NWF Eco-Schools’ free online resources to green your school!