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Teaching Comes Naturally
Melanie Pepper uses nature as a classroom to teach almost anything.

By Melanie Pepper

Growing up, I wanted to be exactly like my two older brothers. They were my tree-climbing, river-swimming and garden-tending heroes. Their deep love for the earth quickly made me an ally and student of Mother Nature.

Now, as a recent college graduate, I'm transforming this love into a profession. Every day I work with San Francisco public elementary school students to bring science learning to life in an outdoor classroom. I'll admit it's not always easy. Where I work, some students have lives that make doing well in school a challenge. One bright but struggling 3rd grade student comes to mind. He showed me, in one afternoon, exactly why I do what I do.

For weeks his classroom teacher and I brainstormed ways to manage his behavior, without much success. Then, one day after school I saw him hanging around the yard. I invited him to join me as I worked in the garden and was pleasantly surprised when he enthusiastically ran over.

I taught him how to place a young lettuce plant into the soil. Then he planted another by himself. Before I knew it, he was totally engaged. We worked side by side for a while. The door for deeper connection opened.

I asked how school was going. He brought up having trouble with fractions in math. So we made up some simple fractions using the lettuce plants. How many heads of lettuce did we have here? How many had red leaves? How can we show that as a fraction? Immediately he was drawn into the lesson. I pulled out my white board and soon he was scribbling fractions all on his own. And he didn't stop at the lettuce. He also created fractions to describe the pea plants, the carrots, the kale and even our garden tools. We had taken a simple math concept and found a way to apply it to something tangible that he enjoyed. In the weeks to come, I watched his math skills improve and his leadership in class garden visits grow.

I hope to connect with many more students like him. Whether it's math, science or language arts, the garden provides natural points of entry to educational curriculum for all ages. And, just as my brothers fostered the love for nature within me, I try to inspire the future leaders of tomorrow to be strong students and stewards of our Earth.

With a Perspective, this is Melanie Pepper.

Melanie Pepper is a member of the Education Outside Corps. She teaches at Sanchez Elementary School in San Francisco.

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