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Air Date: Week of

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Children's author Lynne Cherry believes that kids learn better when they're learning in their own backyards. To that end, she's on a mission: Cherry wants every schoolyard in the country to have its own garden. Living on Earth's Liz Lempert has our story.


CURWOOD: In her best-selling children’s book, “The Great Kapok Tree,” author Lynne Cherry tells a fable about preserving the Amazon rainforest. Millions of children have read the book, and many were moved to learn more about this exotic place and to raise money to save it. But Ms. Cherry says she’s uncomfortable with the way “The Great Kapok Tree” has been used in schools. If children are to learn about just one forest, she says, they should learn to care for the woods in their own community. To that end, she’s working with educators and parents to develop teaching methods centered on the local flora and fauna. From central New Jersey, Living on Earth’s Liz Lempert has our story.


CHERRY: OK. Who’s strong? This one is really heavy.

LEMPERT: Lynne Cherry hoists a white pine sapling into the arms of two third graders. The children lug it across the school parking lot onto an old playing field. It’s not long before they discover something moving in the grass.

MALE: I see bugs! I see grasshoppers.


MALE: Right there! Right there!

LEMPERT: Lynne Cherry drops to the ground.

CHERRY: Where’s your magnifying glass?


KID: Oh! Right here…

CHERRY: Let’s see if you can see one.

FEMALE: Do you need a little bug box to catch them?


CHERRY: It’s a little hopper. It has wings like a grasshopper.


CHERRY: When you bring these kids out they’re so excited. They’re just ‘Look at this. What’s this?’ Then you’re teaching using the inquiry method. The kids are driving the curriculum. They’re asking the questions. And then it’s so easy to teach that way.

LEMPERT: Lynne Cherry is best known as a children’s book author. But today she is here at Dutch Neck Elementary School in West Windsor, New Jersey as a sort of evangelist for environmental education. Her mission: to create outdoor learning spaces in every schoolyard.

CHERRY: Y’all paying attention? Okay. So you put a couple scoops of soil in here. And what you’re doing is you’re putting loose soil in because - Go ahead….

LEMPERT: The students are planting 10 trees – white pines, ashes and sweet gums.


LEMPERT: The new grove of trees will transform this old playing field into a new ecosystem, and hands-on classroom.

CHERRY: Right now we’re laying transects.

LEMPERT: Cherry helps the students divide the grove into squares with string, stakes and a yardstick.

CHERRY: Who wants to measure off 15 feet…

LEMPERT: Time for an impromptu math lesson.

CHERRY: Three feet are in a yard, so if you want to do 15 feet – how many yards?

LEMPERT: After they lay the string, each child will study one square yard of burgeoning woods. They will record the temperature of the air and the soil, and write down the names of the plants and animals they find. The idea is they’ll come back to the same spot, month after month, year after year, through the end of 8th grade, and see first-hand the difference planting a few trees can make.

CHERRY: Instead of putting kids on bus and taking them to a nature center, you can actually have the school yard become the nature center, and it’s right out the door. It costs almost nothing to create. Saves you a lot of money on field trips. And it’s connecting them with the place where they live.

LEMPERT: One hundred miles north, in the town of Ramsey, Tisdale Elementary has built a nature center right in the middle of the school. Inspired in part by a book Cherry wrote about a wood thrush, the inner courtyard is a birding mecca, packed with berry bushes and bird feeders. Cedar waxwings swoop in to snack on the winterberries, mallard ducks splash around in the pond, and great blue herons sometimes fly in for a snack. Inside, students study slides of local birds.

CLASS (together): Magnolia warbler.

PREDERGAST: Okay, field marks…Colton.

COLTON: It has black necklace coming down.

PREDERGAST: Excellent. I love that black necklace.

LEMPERT: Carol Prendergast, the school librarian, and a birding enthusiast, enrolled the school in Cornell University’s classroom feeder watch program. Now these 3rd graders can identify over 60 local birds, including 30 kinds of warblers.

CLASS: Ooh, ooh. Canada warbler.

PRENDERGAST: Canada. OK we need field marks. Gracie.

GRACIE: It has a black necklace

PRENDERGAST: Okay. That’s why I always got it confused with the Magnolia. So you need to tell me field marks that make it different. Kinto.

KINTO: The magnolia has like jellyfish shaped necklace.

PRENDERGAST: I love that description! He’s right. The necklace is shaped like jellyfish. I never noticed that before.

LEMPERT: The ability to identify local birds enables the children to contribute to real research. Librarian Carol Prendergast.

PRENDERGAST: Kids are using computers to transmit data up to lab, and then that information is being used to create distribution maps for across the country of where people are seeing birds.

LEMPERT: And Tisdale students have also used their birding knowledge as citizen activists. Several years ago, students went before the town council to help preserve a nearby wetlands. They described the discarded fishing wire they found on a field trip and why it was harmful to birds. As a result of their testimony, the council voted to ban fishing there. Lynne Cherry says when children use what they’ve learned to help improve the environment, they’ll remember the lesson forever.

CHERRY: This is not just learning for a test. It means that they’re learning what you’re teaching them. That’s really what the objective is supposed to be with schools, I think.

LIEBERMAN: It’s not that it’s difficult to teach, it’s that it isn’t the way teachers have been trained to teach.

LEMPERT: Dr. Gerald Lieberman is director of the State Education and Environment Roundtable, a consortium of 16 state departments of education. The group encourages schools to use their surroundings and community as a framework for teaching. But he says with today’s emphasis on standardized testing, teachers are under pressure to teach to the test.

LIEBERMAN: The movement towards having teachers focused on what was being taught has really caused them to shift away from thinking a bout and actively being involved in how things are being taught. Neither of these should be left along the sidelines.

LEMPERT: In fact, his group found that getting students outside, learning about their environment and community in a hands-on way, improved test scores, raised grades and reduced disciple problems.

LIEBERMAN: I think the students do better simply put because they’re engaged. The students stopped asking ‘why are we studying this?’ They really began to understand that when they were looking at water quality in a creek that they’d need to do graphing and rate calculations just to see what the impact of the pollution that might be entering the stream. They begin to see value in what they’re learning no matter what the subject.

LEMPERT: Dr. Lieberman’s group supports dozens of demonstration sites. He says educators are interested in the approach, but many still are reluctant to adopt it.

CHERRY: This is my new book. It’s about growing things, so it starts out from seeds

LEMPERT: Back at Dutch Neck Elementary School, Lynne Cherry is inside the classroom, talking about her latest book, “How Groundhog’s Garden Grew,” and her hope that the children will save seeds from peppers and pumpkins to plant in the spring. Cherry says she has a vision: within the next decade, every school in the country will use a garden to teach. For Living on Earth, this is Liz Lempert.

CHERRY: Those plants out there, those pine trees looked great. I think they’re going to do fine. You just have to remember to water them.

[MUSIC: Thomas Newman “Dead Already” AMERICAN BEAUTY [SOUNDTRACK] (Dreamworks – 2000)]



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