By Joseph Robertia
Outside his classroom at Tustumena Elementary, sixth-grader Sam Booker dropped to his knees and began to claw at the soft, rich earth. His glasses slid to the end of his nose and dirt got under his nails, caked to his hands and stained the sleeves of his fleece jacket.
He was digging with the zeal of someone doing a task they want to do, rather than are told to do, but this was no recess game. It was part of a science lesson, learning in the most hands-on way possible. As the blond-haired boy plucked a small, round, red spud from the ground, a smile grew across his freckled face.
“I got one,” he shouted. Almost simultaneously, kids around him echoed similar sentiments as they, too, pulled up potatoes — reds, purples and Yukon golds in various lumpy shapes and sizes.
“It’s hard to imagine that, three years ago, there was no fence, no garden, nothing,” said sixth-grade teacher Shonia Werner.
The potato patch is in a 60-by-40-foot area adjacent to the school.
The kids planted it at the end of last school year, as part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Schoolyard Habitat program. The aim was to make school grounds more hospitable to wildlife while simultaneously providing a place for children to learn about and connect with nature.
Now in its second full year, the program is operating at Kaleidoscope School of Art and Sciences in Kenai, Sterling Elementary and Tustumena Elementary.
Part of the Tustumena habitat plot was planted with 200 felt-leaf willows, a hearty variety that’s often used for stream-bank restoration projects. Dan Funk, Schoolyard Habitat coordinator with the Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District, did the bulk of the willow planting, hoping the school could eventually sell clippings as a fundraiser, while the kids could learn about science, nature and ecology in the interim.
Wanting to ripen the area for learning opportunities while the willows matured, instructors at the school also decided to plant a small garden, primarily made up of potato varieties due to their ability to thrive with minimal care during the summer break. It was clear from questions asked by this batch of sixth-graders this fall that they were in need of some food-chain knowledge.
“Are those the potatoes?” said one boy, pointing to the willow trees when the class first got outside. But by the end of the day, every student, from the sixth-graders down to the kindergarteners, knew what a potato plant looked like, that potatoes grew underground rather than on a bush like fruit, and a little about the annual cycle of planting, growing and harvesting.
Each class harvested about 5 gallons of potatoes. The spuds will have many uses — for teaching by weighing them and graphing yields, for language arts by having kids write a school potato cookbook, and, of course, for eating in a variety of ways.
“It’s great to give them the experience of seeing where their food and the potatoes they eat come from. Most didn’t know,” said kindergarten teacher Katie Blossom.
Each class planted a row of potatoes last year, but since last year’s sixth-graders have graduated to Skyview Middle School, many of the new sixth-graders and younger kids were surprised to learn that not all potato varieties are gold.
“Our potatoes were purple, which shocked them, because most had never seen purple before,” said Marina Bosick, who teaches second grade.
“Seeing the plants, the roots and the potatoes growing on them will give them something to hang new information on when we do a plant unit in science,” Bosick added.
Sixth-grader Emilie Hinz said that digging the potatoes was far superior to just reading a lesson about similar concepts.
“This was way better than learning from a book. It’s easier to remember when we touch and do things, and it’s way more fun,” she said.