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From Classroom to Courtyard: Independence Elementary Students Turn Vision into Reality

From Classroom to Courtyard: Independence Elementary Students Turn Vision into Reality

“A rite of passage” is how fifth-grade teacher Heather Farnham describes the courtyard project-based learning lesson at Independence Elementary School. The students are charged with building on the previous class’s work to continuously improve the school’s outdoor learning space.

From design to implementation, the students had their hands in all aspects of the project. “As teachers, we act as guardrails for the project,” said Farnham. “The students lead the way.” Farnham also explained that the students use the skills they learn in class, like math and writing, throughout the project. 

Students smiling green sign Indy Pond

As a true example of the district’s vision statement “WE are In This Together,” students have collaborated with one another, the district, parents and local businesses to turn the courtyard into an even better learning environment. They even presented to the school’s Parent Teacher Association (PTA) to ask for funding. “This is all by kids, really,” said fifth-grader Shreya Subedi. “The teachers just kind of nudge us the right way.”

Working in groups, the students thought about their school and what type of learning environment they would like the courtyard to become. Beyond beautification of the grounds, the students decided they wanted to make the existing greenhouse more usable, revitalize the pond and build an amphitheater for a new learning space. “I want other kids to be able to learn in the courtyard and make it a better place for learning,” said student Sidharth Sunish.

While moving the existing greenhouse to a more central location was high on the to-do list, even more importantly, the fifth-graders wanted to make sure that the greenhouse was accessible for all students, including those with disabilities. “We want to get people in wheelchairs into the greenhouse so they can experience it, too,” said Xander Bruce. 

His partner Lawson Brown agrees. “If kids with a disability see other people going into the greenhouse and they can’t, it must feel frustrating. And it’s school, so we want everybody to be able to do the same thing.” After researching how to make a greenhouse handicap accessible, the students decided to lay a path of pavers to the door. The students are also working with Lakota’s operations department to make improvements to the space.

Greenhouse in courtyard

Elliana Mosteller was involved in the design of the garden areas, including the fourth-grade flower bed at the school’s entrance. “We really looked at the design of the front of the building to make it a more comfortable place for people to walk into,” she said. The students even designed signs for different learning spaces throughout the courtyard.

Partnering with Elliana, Emilen DeSantis worked on the design of the courtyard gardens, restoring the 650 gallon pond and a new garden backdrop for the amphitheater. The amphitheater, which is being built as an Eagle Scout project this summer, will be a platform for teachers to use as an outdoor classroom.

As the year progressed, the project picked up speed. “At first, it was intimidating because there was so much to do,” said Elliana. “But now, it’s all coming together.”

Research for the massive project hasn’t just been done on computers. The fifth-graders have been working with the Ohio State University Master Gardeners and the Cincinnati Zoo Botanical Garden. They’ve learned about different types of plants and what would be best to use in the space. In addition, both organizations have donated plants for the project. 

Students opening bags of top soil

With any project, staying within budget is important. The students came up with the idea of having a “dirt drive” to collect topsoil needed to create walking paths and gardens. The students put their writing skills to the test, sending letters to area businesses asking for donations. While not every business might sell bags of dirt, in addition to contacting local garden centers, they also asked businesses for prizes to award the top “dirt raisers.” Local businesses like the Cone, the Web, Donut Dude, Berns Garden Center, Main Event and Costco answered the call.

“It was fun,” said Lawson, specifically noting collaboration between the students. “We all got to use our ideas and help.” 

“It makes you feel proud,” said Emilen. “You’re thinking ‘I contributed to this.’”

  • real world learning