Butler Tech teacher planting seeds that grow well beyond the classroom

Students in greenhouse

London Ramsey and Kami Green, Greenhouse Project

Several Butler Tech students enrolled in English class aren’t just learning in a classroom anymore. Instead, they’re being educated in a greenhouse.This may sound unconventional, because it is. But unconventional is often the case at a Career Technical Education (CTE) school, like Butler Tech.

“As a CTE we naturally attract students who desire to create and be hands on with their activities,” said English teacher, Brecka Russo. “Project Based Learning provides this for our students.”

Project Based Learning (PBL) is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge.

“PBL emphasizes 21st century skills by giving students authentic problems to solve in order to master content,” she said. “It requires students to develop a high level questions in order to solve a problem connected to academic and lab content.”

Students in a group will present an essential question they developed after receiving their problem. Communication, ingenuity, and media literacy are a few of the major skills needed to develop projects.

Russo says that this style of learning comes naturally for a few, but many students at first struggle with the transition from teacher-assigned school work to self-led learning.

“The beauty of PBL is that there is no true right,” she said. “It’s about inquiry, experimentation, problem solving, and reflection.”

In other words, the learning is in the process rather than the preconceived result.

At the D. Russel Lee campus, all of Russo’s English 11 and 12 students are involved. While some are working in the greenhouse, others have projects associated with their labs, such as Culinary Arts, Early Childhood Education, and Cosmetology, to name a few.

“We have so many wonderful resources and business partners who trust and value our students,” said Russo. “Students who get the opportunity to experience PBL get a valuable practice ground for real-world experiences while provides the schema to recall, when they face the real world.”

“I have definitely learned more in her English class than any traditional one I’ve taken before,” said senior, London Ramsey. “All other English classes seem to be based on mostly writing, where as we are actually doing things that are helpful to the community.”

Ramsey is referring to the partnership Russo’s class has with Hamilton Living Waters Ministry (HLWM). HLWM is recognized by the United States Department of Justice and the Hamilton City Police Department for being a safe haven for families and children.

“They provide help for those who are at a rough place in their life,” said Russo. “Many of our students could relate to that.”

So two years ago, a partnership formed and has been going strong ever since.

Ramsey and fellow student Kami Green enjoy working in the greenhouse growing sunflowers and marigolds.

“These will be used to spruce up the place,” said Green, referring to HLWM. “Also, marigolds and sunflowers have seeds you can take apart from the plant, so it’s a learning experience for the kids at Living Waters.”

Part of PBL, is working with the kids at Living Waters, teaching them about plants just as Ms. Russo teaches her class. But it’s not just the science students are learning.

When Ms. Russo was a young girl, one of her jobs in the fall was to help her mother close the vegetable garden and flower beds.

“My mother always grew marigolds as they are the perfect companion plant as they keep away the bad pests and attract the good ones to the gardens,” she said. “Once the plants went dormant for the fall, I would spend many hours pulling the dried pod of the flower that contained the seeds.”

In the spring, the seeds would be planted and then the cycle would continue.

Ms. Russo’s mother passed away in the spring of 2014, so in the fall, she went to her home and collected the Marigold seeds and has passed them on to her students.

“Since that time, students have grown the marigolds themselves at their homes and at Hamilton Living Waters Ministry,” she said. “The seeds have become a way to show that we are all companions, and no one is ever alone.”

The classes are now on their third round, cycling the seeds.

“Ms. Russo is so interesting and energetic,” said Green. “She truly cares about the community and us or else she wouldn’t have gone to all the trouble to teach us all of this.”

At the end of the course, students get the opportunity to present their findings to a panel of: educators, community members, business partners, and parents.

“The confidence they gain is so valuable,” said Russo. “It is academic learning with purpose.”

And the purpose for the plants in the greenhouse continues to “grow” benefitting the community. The lettuce and herbs will be donated to Butler Tech’s Café Lee. And those very special sunflowers and marigolds will be used both in the literacy garden at Hamilton Living Waters Ministry and for summer learning activities for the children there.