Recently, students at the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind entered the Carton 2 Garden Contest for their on-campus milk carton garden. Nearly 130 schools from across the country took part in the competition, which required them to use at least 100 milk cartons and create a garden that was sustainable, showed creativity and was tied to the students’ learning.
On May 11, they found out they had won a $1,000 prize in the middle/high school category, but their victory is only where the story begins.
What started as a conversation in biology class about global warming and being environmentally friendly turned into a schoolwide project that has students with visual and hearing impairments working together to create a gardening program that is here to stay.
“It just kind of evolved into the little things that we can do to make a difference,” said MSDB special education coordinator Missy Hill, who added that many students live on campus and have never grown anything on their own.
“I really wasn’t sure how well it would go over,” Hill said. “I thought there’s going to be some kids who really aren’t thrilled with it, but I was surprised. Almost every single student in this school had their hands in it.”
MSDB has 51 students currently enrolled, and around 40 of them participated in the project in some way, transforming a potting shed that was being used to store bicycles into a greenhouse and cleaning up an unused outdoor space to create their gardening area.
Winning a prize was definitely a thrill, but it’s the sustained interest from the kids that’s the true victory.
“The screaming that went on when I announced it was phenomenal,” Hill said. “The kids were jumping up and down, they were so excited. Now all they keep asking is ‘When can we eat the food?’ and “What are we going to buy?’”
As the potatoes, peas, lettuce, gourds, melons, tomatoes and flowers continue to grow, the gardening has become a way to tie academics to real life. Students can learn the science behind making things grow. Teachers can incorporate math skills to determine how many people you can feed with home-grown plants and what the savings are versus buying the food in a store. It also gives everyone a chance to practice their sign language.
“These kids, because they’re missing that sense, they need that tie-in,” Hill said. “‘How does that affect me in real life? Is that even important to me?’”
For students with hearing impairments, the garden is a treat for their eyes, and students don’t need perfect vision to identify plants by touch, feel the soil in their hands or smell the dirt and flowers.
“We have a windmill, and the idea came from a totally blind student who had never seen a windmill,” Hill said. “He decided how big the blades would be and how tall the windmill would be and how many milk cartons we should use on it.”
Another blind student had a history of tactile defensiveness, which is a sensitivity to touch sensations that makes ordinary experiences and activities difficult and overwhelming.
Hill said the student was not thrilled with touching the dirt until new compost material was brought in.
“He loved that smell,” she said. “And now every day he’ll come in … hands all-in and thrilled to do it. His parents were like ‘Really?’ And I said, ‘Oh my gosh, y’all need to start a garden. He is loving this.’”
In the time since they entered the contest, the kids have transplanted almost everything out of milk cartons and into donated coffee containers and planters. The next step is to get rain barrels, planter boxes, and other supplies to turn their outdoor space into a full garden.
Hill is currently waiting for a call back from Home Depot hoping they will match the school’s winnings to help buy a new greenhouse.
“I want them to see how awesome they can make a little, dreary space,” she said.
Other teachers have donated garden furniture and gardening supplies, and Hill plans to teach kids to preserve, dehydrate and store the items they grow.
“Eventually I would like to have enough stuff planted and growing out there … to be able to send a couple plants home with students to plant in their own home,” Hill said.
“These kids have taught me so much just watching them,” she continued. “Just because they’re blind or just because they’re deaf or hard of hearing or visually impaired doesn’t mean they can’t do it. I just want them to walk out of here with the tools knowing how to do it.”
Reach Tribune Staff Writer Traci Rosenbaum at 791-1490. Follow her on Twitter @GFTrib_TRosenba.
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