Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Readwrite think- Plant Inquiry

Diane Balanovich's picture
Student Objectives
Students will
  • Practice inquiry-based research in developing their own questions
  • Practice acquiring knowledge using the Internet and books to learn about a specific plant
  • Demonstrate comprehension by applying that knowledge directly to a growing plant and by presenting research to the entire class
  • Synthesize information about the plant by designing and creating an educational sign to place in the garden next it
Instructional Plan

1. Obtain enough seed packets so that there is at least one for each student in the class. You will want a mix of edible and decorative plants; organic seeds are preferable. You will also need sifted compost or organic gardening soil as well as tools for planting. A local gardening organization or nursery may be willing to donate all of these materials.
2. Create a classroom garden. You will need a sunny space, indoors or out, to plant the seeds in pots, containers, garden boxes, or directly into the ground. For edible plants, make sure there is no risk of heavy metals or lead paint in the soil and pick a place where refuse or animal feces are not deposited. If you will be using containers to hold the plants, set up a table where students can do their planting work.
3. If you need to, reserve time in your school's computer lab for research on the Internet. You will want at least three 45-minute sessions; these do not need to be on consecutive days.
4. Visit the websites listed in the Resources section and familiarize yourself with their contents. Many of these sites have excellent search tools that you can encourage your students to use. Some of them have links to other gardening sites that may or may not be appropriate for your class. Still others have areas that are intended for young gardeners. You may want to bookmark these sites on the classroom or lab computers that your students will use.
5. Assemble gardening books and encyclopedias that students can use for research. You can bring these from home or check them out of the library.
6. Gather materials that students can use to make signs: cardstock or other heavy paper, markers, scissors, glue, sticks, and tape. If you are able, arrange access to a laminating machine.
7. Make a copy of the Organic Gardening Research Project handout for each student in the class.
8. An optional activity for this lesson is to show the United Farm Workers video No Grapes (1992). This short and powerful film documents the work of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers to raise public awareness about the harm caused by pesticides in California's Central Valley. The language in this video is simple and the images are strong and clear, making it an appropriate teaching tool for middle school students.
Instruction and Activities

Session 1

1. Introduce the topic of organic gardening. There are several ways you can do this. You might bring in some organic produce from a local farmer's market, your own yard, or an organic food store. You might ask a farmer, agriculture professor, or representative of a local gardening association to come and speak to the class. Or you might show the film No Grapes.

You want students to understand that organic produce and flowers are grown without the use of pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Ask students to define the word pesticide, working toward a definition along these lines: pesticides are chemicals that kill small bugs that eat the leaves, roots, stems, and fruit of plants. Explain that farmers use pesticides to help protect their plants, but unfortunately pesticides are known to cause cancer, birth defects, and other problems, both for people who eat the food and the farm workers who are in the fields when they are sprayed. Instead of using pesticides, some people grow food organically and find other, natural ways to get rid of bugs.
2. Encourage student discussion about organic gardening. The approach you have used to introduce the topic will help guide your line of questioning, but the idea is to access as many things as possible that students already know about organic versus traditional gardening and farming, what the pros and cons of organic gardening are, why they might choose to grow a plant organically, and how organic farming affects all of us. You might want to write down the things that students say on the board or on a large sheet of paper that you leave up for the duration of this unit.
Session 2

Note: In between Sessions 1 and 2, choose one unanswered question or unresolved issue from your conversation in Session 1 and write three research questions designed to help you develop a deeper understanding of the subject. Strategies for developing questions include using questions stems such as:
  • What are some possible solutions for the problem of _______?
  • Why is _______ important?
  • What would happen if _______?
Some concrete questions about the plant could work too, such as:
  • How is _______ grown and cared for organically?
  • How is _______ used in our culture and in other cultures?
  • Where is _______ originally from? (Have a map on hand to show students).
You might also ask questions about organic gardening in other countries, the history of organic gardening, the costs of organic gardening, and how organic gardening is viewed by people in other professions (for example, supermarket owners, food manufacturers, or environmentalists).

1. Tell students they will be doing an organic gardening project in which they will choose a flower or vegetable to plant and research, plant seeds in a class garden, observe and write about the plant's growth, document their research and observations on a sign to place by their growing plant, and present their findings to the class.
2. Model questioning techniques for students by referring back to your discussion in Session 1, sharing the questions you have developed, and talking about how you came up with them. You might also show students some print or Internet resources you have found that might help in answering the questions.
3. Talk to your students about developing their own research questions. Tell them that they want to look at their questions and ask, "Who cares?" when thinking about the answers. In other words, who could benefit from the information they find and how? They might find information that will help people to better understand organic versus traditional gardening methods. They might look at the way that their plant is raised and how that affects the workers who tend it, the community around it, or the land on which it is grown. Or they might look at what kinds of questions a chef, doctor, or pharmaceutical scientist might ask about their plant.
4. Have each student select a seed packet. You can either put several on each table and have groups of students decide how to distribute them, have students line up and pick one when it's their turn, or have students pick one out of a hat and exchange as they wish.
5. Pass out the Organic Gardening Research Project handout and give students time to read through the first two pages. Answer any questions they may have.
Homework (due before Session 3): Fill out the first two pages of the handout.

Session 3

Note: You want to collect the homework, review it, and make notes to yourself and your students before you begin Session 3.

1. Students should begin planting. Have them read the back of the packet for instructions. Make sure they don't plant the seeds too deep.

Since you will be working with a few students on their research questions while the rest of the class is working, you might want to have another adult help with the planting—maybe a volunteer with some gardening experience.
2. When students are done planting, they should fill out the "Day 1" portion of the Observation Log on page 6 of their Organic Gardening Research Project handout.
3. While the students are planting their seeds and filling out the handout, have brief meetings with individual students to go over their research questions. Your goal is to encourage students to move beyond literal details as you did in developing your research questions and as you discussed in Session 2.
Sessions 4, 5, and 6

Note: As this unit progresses, you will want to remind students to fill out the Observation Log portion on page 6 of their Organic Gardening Research Project handouts.

1. If you will be working in the computer lab, these sessions will take place there; make sure you also bring along the print materials you have assembled for students to use. Before students begin their research, you should demonstrate how to use the websites that you bookmarked and the books that you assembled, perhaps using your own research questions to do so. Another technique you may want to demonstrate is that students can type "growing [their plant name] in the home garden" into Yahoo or Google to find resources.
2. Students should begin looking for answers to their research questions and filling out the handout. As students begin to work, touch base with any student you missed meeting with during Session 3 or those who might still need some help finalizing their questions.
3. While students are working, you can circulate and help them with their research or help them further refine their research questions.
Sessions 7 and 8

1. Students should have finished their research by Session 6. Tell them that they now need to make a sign for their plant and prepare an oral presentation for the class. Talk a little bit about what format the presentation should take and what students should include, such as:
  • The name and a description of the plant
  • Their research questions and why they chose them
  • The answers they found to these questions
Students should also share the sign they made and explain what they hope people will learn from it.
2. Once you have outlined your expectations for the presentation, have students make rough drafts of their signs. Talk to them about the purpose of the signs, which is to teach others important information they learned from their research. When people come to the garden and see the signs, they will understand what organic gardening is, why it is an important movement, how they can grow certain plants, and what the plants are used for.
3. Ask the class who they think will be reading the signs. Have them brainstorm what they want these people to learn and understand when they come to the garden. This discussion can lead to the criteria students need to help them decide what to put on their signs, which might include:
  • What is important about each plant,
  • How it is used
  • How to care for an organic garden
  • What inspires people to appreciate organic gardens
Emphasize that the signs should be attractive and easy to read.
4. Tell students to show you the drafts of their signs as they complete them. Provide students with appropriate feedback, helping them review their research if necessary to find additional or different information.
5. Once you have approved the signs, have students use heavy paper to make their final drafts (you might want to test the paper in the laminating machine first—if it's too thick, the machine may not accept it). Laminate the signs and give them back with two sticks. Have students tape the sticks to the back of the signs and place them by the growing plants. If their plants didn't grow, they can still place the sign somewhere in the garden. Signs can also be affixed to a nearby wall using nails or a chain-link fence using small pieces of wire.
Homework (at the end of Session 8, due at the beginning of Session 9): Complete the Organic Gardening Research Project handouts and prepare oral presentations on their research.

Session 9

Have students give short presentations in which they show the class their plants and their signs, and explain what they learned through their research and observation. Students should also turn in their Organic Gardening Research Project handouts.

Student Assessment/Reflections
  • Evaluate student ability to do inquiry-based research by reviewing their research questions. Do the questions show original, serious thinking on the part of the student? Will the answers help others learn about the plant and about organic gardening?
  • Evaluate student work based on thoughtful completion of the worksheet, completed sign, and oral presentation. Among the things you should look for are:
    • Was the work completed on time?
    • Is the information on the handout accurate?
    • Did the student use sources adequately?
    • Did the student stay focused and ask for help when he or she needed it?
    • Did the student make good choices when selecting information to include on the sign and in the presentation?
  • Tell students that cooperation with classmates will help their grade. Observe and take notes on how well students help each other throughout the project.
  • Invite self-assessment by having students write a reflection on what they liked and didn't like about doing this kind of project.