How a garden is helping Naperville students learn English

  • Shawn Sherry, 7, watches teacher Melissa Eaton point out plants growing in a community garden at Cowlishaw Elementary School in Naperville, where the garden is a lab for English language lessons.

      Shawn Sherry, 7, watches teacher Melissa Eaton point out plants growing in a community garden at Cowlishaw Elementary School in Naperville, where the garden is a lab for English language lessons. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Melissa Eaton helps student Shokhjakhon Djamalov, 7, pick broccoli from a community garden at Cowlishaw Elementary School in Naperville. The garden helps students who are not yet fluent in English learn the nuances of the language through what Eaton calls "real stuff."

      Melissa Eaton helps student Shokhjakhon Djamalov, 7, pick broccoli from a community garden at Cowlishaw Elementary School in Naperville. The garden helps students who are not yet fluent in English learn the nuances of the language through what Eaton calls "real stuff." Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Strawberries and broccoli are among the fruits, vegetables and herbs growing in a community garden at Cowlishaw Elementary in Naperville.

      Strawberries and broccoli are among the fruits, vegetables and herbs growing in a community garden at Cowlishaw Elementary in Naperville. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

 
 

When it comes to mastering a new language, it's often best to learn by doing.

That's the real reason English Language Learners teacher Melissa Eaton planted a garden at Cowlishaw Elementary School in Naperville.

It wasn't to grow produce to cook with students each fall in the teachers lounge, or to clean up an area that had turned to weeds amid a tight landscaping budget, or to teach students and parents what's a weed, what's a plant and how to make things grow -- although all those things have been positive side effects.

What Eaton originally was looking for, though, was a way to keep her students, who do not yet speak fluent English, learning through "realia" or "real stuff," during the summer.

"You do things, and then you read and write about it," Eaton said.

In the garden's first year, back in 2013, she quickly saw it worked.

"Just from the experience of digging and turning over the soil and finding worms in the soil, they wanted to write stories about the worms," Eaton said about her students in kindergarten, first and second grade.

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Once or twice a week during the summer session, Eaton said she brings her students out of the classroom into the garden. The area includes four raised beds, each 14 feet long, 4 feet wide and 18 inches deep -- measurements specifically tailored to the arm length of elementary school students and designed to allow an entire class to work on one bed at a time.

Frequent visits to the place where things like strawberries, lettuce, broccoli, dill and cilantro grow allows Eaton to show her students how the plants change and to teach them the difference between present and past tense.

"I promise you, there's a language lesson in everything I do," she said. "It looks like we're having fun out there, but there's a language lesson."

Some students might be learning prepositions, so Eaton said she can point out one plant that is in front of, behind or next to another. Some students might need help with vocabulary, so gardening helps them with words such as stem, flower, leaves, branch and bark.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"In a natural setting, where the kids are so hands-on," Eaton said, "it happens so organically."

Seeds for the garden -- including unique ones such as purple carrots and striped tomatoes -- come free from Whole Foods, along with a grant the grocer gives to support the garden. This year, Eaton said, Ball Horticultural Company in West Chicago chipped in by donating all the soil she needed to freshly fill each raised bed.

During the school year, several classes visit the garden for science lessons, and this spring, horticulture students from Metea Valley High School helped with planting, Eaton said. Students with their parents stop by outside summer school hours as well to pull weeds and gather crops.

Eaton even has a digital microscope on a computer she can bring out to the garden for a closer look at what's growing, moving or changing.

"That's what I love about the garden," she said. "There's like a million lessons."

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