Students at Walker Elementary School in Ashland get hands dirty for Earth Day

    To motivate her students for the garden project they were about to begin, Walker Elementary fourth-grade teacher Jennifer Parks explained that, according to an article she had recently read, the act of tilling through dirt with your bare hands actually triggers the release of endorphins — the brain’s feel-good chemicals.

    Parks then led her class out of their room to Walker’s raised garden beds in the courtyard, where students got the chance to test that theory while preparing the beds for the planting to come.

    As they reconvened for the short walk back to class, a boy gave Parks the confirmation she was looking for.

    “Ms. Parks,” he said with a playful flourish, “the endorphins are flowing.”

    It sure seemed that way Tuesday as Parks’ class, along with five others, got their hands dirty preparing the school’s nine beds for planting later in the week. It was only the first step in a project that they hope will yield a delicious crop of assorted fruits and vegetables, some of which will be donated to the Ashland Food Bank and some of which will be served in the Walker cafeteria for lunch.

    It’s no coincidence that the garden project falls on the same week as Earth Day, which is today. Parks and fellow fourth-grade teacher Dylana Garfas-Knowles — the two teamed up to organize the garden — thought that timing would be appropriate.

    “We planned it to all connect,” Parks said. “We’ve been talking about what we wanted to do and thought this is a natural time to debut (the garden) to the kids. Spring can be a challenging time at school — it’s beautiful out and it’s hard to keep kids interested, so anything that’s fun and engaging is great. It gets them out in the dirt and thinking in a different way about the environment.”

    On Tuesday after lunch and recess, Garfas-Knowles talked to her students in the classroom for a few minutes about what they were going to do, then led them out to the beds. There, she directed her 23 students to the two beds that her class was responsible for and compared the weed-infested boxes to a pair of freshly-raked rectangular beds nearby that another class prepped earlier that day.

    The students were impressed.

    “If you’ve noticed what the other classes have done, what they look like,” Garfas-Knowles said, pointing, “we need ours to look like that as well.”

    Her students got right to work, half of them pulling on gardening gloves and digging in — no shovels, only hands — and half pulling out their notebooks and pens and scooting into some nearby picnic tables for some journaling. After 15 minutes of work, the groups switched places and started again.

    “This is fantastic,” Garfas-Knowles said of the project. “It’s hands-on learning. They get to experience the outdoors, digging in the dirt. This is the best type of learning. Look at them.”

    Indeed, the 9- and 10-year-olds appeared to be completely immersed in their work, using their fingers to trench in against the tiny weed trunks then tugging for the satisfying root pop-pop sound. They made progress, but the growth was substantial and separating the salvageable from the weeds required a concentrated effort.

    One girl yanked out what she thought was an onion, until she showed Garfas-Knowles, who recognized it as a tulip bulb. A keeper.

    “Let’s put the tulips aside,” she said. “Nice.”

    Walker is also making use of its recently-repaired greenhouse. The structure, which is conveniently located adjacent to the raised beds, was basically a waste of space only a few months ago, but the Rotary Club of Ashland mended the broken panels and built shelves, raising it from the dead.

    The seeds will be planted later this week and the Rotary, which has its own garden, will help distribute the produce to the food bank.

    Though they were working hard on a warm day, the students didn’t’ seem to consider Tuesday’s project a chore. The consensus was that it’s better to plant in the dirt than read about it in a book.

    “I live in an apartment and I don’t get to work in a garden that much, so this is actually fun for everyone,” said Makayla Knight, a precocious 10-year-old who shook off a bad collision during recess to join her classmates outside. “You can see they’re playing in the dirt and they’re just having a blast pulling out everything. I’m actually really excited to do this because this is our first experience doing gardens.”

    Lief Erickson, a fourth-grader who said he was "9-¾" years old, couldn't wait to get home so that he could pass what he has learned on to his family and perhaps start a similar project there.

    “I have two gardens,” he said, “except we haven’t been growing them and I’m going to tell my mom all about this stuff, like how to do a garden and stuff.”

    Up until now, Walker’s garden had been maintained only by the kindergarten class and was used mostly for flowers. When Parks and Garfas-Knowles decided to take over, they prepared by visiting school gardens throughout the valley, attended gardening meetings once a month and signing up for a week-long program — on their own time — focused on environmental education.

    Parks said there’s no telling how well Walker’s first full-fledged garden will do. It is, after all, a sort of test run for both the teachers and the students. Also, the weather will be an uncontrollable variable. But even if nothing much grows, there is still plenty to be gained by trying.

    “Data collection is such an important aspect of science,” she said, “but it’s one thing to record what I provide from a book, and it’s another to gather (the data) for themselves. Hands-on projects — especially when we’re outside — it just makes all the difference.

    “We want to make this part of our school and create a foundation to get everybody involved year after year. And it will get better. We’ll get better at it and make it better for the kids. That’s our goal.”

    Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or

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