Science at the Lower School
Teaching Stewardship & Becoming Agents of Change
It’s never too early to start learning about environmental stewardship and our connection to the Earth. Friends’ Central’s Lower School science sets out to teach both in an ever-evolving program, with some exciting additions on the horizon.
“Stewardship begins by embracing where we are and understanding how a connection and love of that place leads to becoming agents of change,” said Lower School Assistant Principal Rowena Castillo Lesher. “Starting with our youngest learners and all the way up to 5th grade, responsibility for the Earth and constant encouragement to explore curiosities and inquiries spark our young minds daily.”
“We have kids that will transform the world; I really believe that.”
The teachers who oversee the Lower School science program include Natalie Martin, who teaches Nursery, Pre-K, and Kindergarten, and Tiffany Borsch, who teaches grades 1 to 5. Natalie and Tiffany work closely together to create a well-rounded curriculum that guides students through the lens of stewardship, encouraging a sense of responsibility for the Earth and our place here.
Before coming to Friends’ Central in 2020, Natalie taught Pre-K at The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education’s Nature Nursery in Roxboro, PA. “[At The Schuylkill Center],” Natalie said, “I learned how to lean into play-based education, and I was able to see how the students engaged with the natural world. I learned a lot about nature-based education. I learned about the Reggio Emilio educational philosophy there for the first time. In the Reggio pedagogy, the learning setting is extremely important.” For Natalie, the transition into Early Childhood education at Friends’ Central made sense; she felt that her skill set and interests matched the goals of the FCS science curriculum.
Tiffany has been a teacher for over 20 years. Her work and classroom style are inspired by her steadfast belief that teaching and giving others the ability to grow their own food is an important way to combat climate change. “Climate change is scary,” she said, “but we have an imperative to teach students about it. So my question is: How do I fill them with hope and empowerment that they can do something? I think that growing your own food is an act of resistance.” Tiffany also believes that gearing each lesson to fit the student’s interests makes learning easier and fun. “Students are encouraged to explore their own curiosities. We’re interested in what the kids know and what they want to know.” Many Lower School science units culminate in a larger creative piece where students get to use their voices.
When Tiffany started at Friends’ Central in 2015, she was mentored by legendary long-time Lower School science teacher Peter Grove after whom the Lower School farm, The Grove, is named. Peter retired the following year. “I quickly realized when Peter left, that he did a lot,” said Tiffany, “So I decided to use the current infrastructure to create a sustainable model for our gardens.”
The annual Lower School Harvest Fest – a weeklong festival focused on the garden – began over 20 years ago. Tiffany sees this festival as a way to, “…get the kids to do the work – the planting, the tending, the harvesting – and then all of the kids get to share in that.” “Starting the previous spring,” explained Natalie, “we work together with the students to prepare the garden, plant the garden, and tend the garden. In Nursery-Kindergarten science classes, we spend our time immersing ourselves in the garden.” During the week of Harvest Fest, students harvest carrots, beans, onions, and more from the garden to create a delicious soup, inspired by the book Stone Soup. The project is guided by the message in Stone Soup, which encourages community members to share what they have so everyone can eat. Tiffany said, “The Grove is about sharing food and growing community.”
The Science curriculum is designed to be cohesive and build across the grades, explained Natalie. “Throughout the year, we have foundational, community-wide celebrations to orient our curriculum,” she said. “Along with Harvest Fest, we are excited to be adding in a Winter Festival to celebrate the solstice and the return of longer days.” There will also be a Pollinator Party in the spring.
On the gardening front, there are some exciting innovations afoot, including the breaking ground on a new greenhouse on campus. Recently, Natalie worked with Nursery and Pre-K classes to process the luffa (a.k.a. “loofah”) plants that were growing in the garden. “The students had a blast working the luffas by stomping them, throwing them, and smashing them in any way possible in order to loosen the skin enough to peel it off and reveal the spongy fibers within,” she shared. In Natalie’s Kindergarten class, they are exploring the on-campus frog pond, measuring the pH of the pond and learning what constitutes a good environment for a frog. The Kindergarten class is also exploring the forest and gaining firsthand experience with decomposition and the roles that fungi can play within the forest ecosystem.
With her older groups, Tiffany began a recent climate-change lesson by asking the students, “What have you heard? What do you know? What do you wonder?” This is based on the teaching method of “Know, Wonder, Learned,” where students share what they know, what they wonder, and what they learned in the end. “It’s a way for me to take some of what they’ve heard and dispel those myths, discuss what they know, and then lift up those wonders,” she explained. “Most of the ‘wonders’ are, ‘How do we fix it?’”
During the 2019-2020 school year, Tiffany taught her fifth-grade class about Paul Hawken’s Project Drawdown. Her goal was to make the students feel confident when discussing climate change and to empower the students to become climate activists. “Everything we do is geared towards social and environmental justice through the lens of stewardship,” she said. The students selected one of the 100 solutions proposed by Hawken, and they produced short stop-motion Public Service Announcements to try to encourage others – and potentially lawmakers – to make the necessary changes to combat climate change.
In the younger classrooms, Natalies said, “I don’t explicitly teach climate change. However, our curriculum in Nursery-Kindergarten is focused on learning to love and care for the land on which we live and learn.” She uses the beauty of the campus to inspire her students and takes that as the base for her lessons. “I see it as essential for children to first learn to feel hope and joy in their relationship with the land. The students learn about how to treat the living and nonliving things in their environments with love and respect.” Natalie went on to say, “I would describe my style of teaching as directed exploration. I like to give the students a chance to make mistakes, try new things, and safely push themselves a little bit outside of their comfort zones. My teaching style is process over product.”
“I planted a seed for the first time seven years ago,” shared Tiffany. She frequently starts with that declaration when talking with parents, colleagues, and students about the impressive garden which spans half an acre of the Lower School campus. She wants people to know that she became a professional gardener less than a decade ago and that anyone can learn how to grow from seed. She wants the people around her, especially her students, to know that they can become farmers too, because, “Everyone needs to eat.” She hopes that her students, “…understand where we are – on the Main Line, Pennsylvania, North America, the Earth – and how do we affect that and protect that? What’s our responsibility? That piece guides us, that responsibility.” She goes on to say, “We have kids that will transform the world; I really believe that.”
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