“If you told me at the beginning that this pollinator garden would be the best thing I’d ever do as a teacher, I would have said you were crazy.” Jessica Cipicchio thought that this would be a fun project to start, but now she could talk all day about the positive changes the pollinator garden has brought to her school and the joy it has brought to her students.
Jessica teaches kids with learning disabilities at a school in Chicago. It all started with a desire to build stronger connections between the school and the local community. She considered ‘something like a small gardening project’, using a few neglected garden beds at the school.
Jessica did some research and came across the Chicago Sustainability Challenge. Supported by Microsoft, funding was available to start a pollinator project or one of 10 other environmental projects in the Greater Chicago area.
Jessica decided to give it a go.
I didn’t know anything about the topic, and I don’t have a green thumb. I couldn’t have done it on my own. But with the support offered I felt like it was something we could get going.
Together with a group of 14-16 year old students, Jessica applied to start and they got to work on completing the 30 day challenge.
We went through the application process together and the kids researched all about pollinators in Illinois and the local plants that would thrive here. They did sketches of the landscape with the art teacher. We measured the space and came up with our plan of what to do. I thought it would be a nice community project but I never thought about how academic it could be. This project had everything, from math to art and biology.
In the morning we’d go out and take care of the garden. They watered it, they weeded and every time we got out there, there were big fat bumblebees and butterflies. Right at the beginning we saw a couple of hummingbirds which I had never seen before.The kids were so excited. We wanted to help pollinators and every day we were seeing more of the pollinators we were trying to help. To be able to track that stuff, is so amazing. We weren’t in a classroom but we were doing so much learning in one place.
These are kids that really have a lot of struggle, some of them can’t speak clearly, some can’t read. So some people looked at it thinking this was above their heads, they won’t be able to do this. And at first, I struggled. How much of this will be me digging alone in the garden and how much will the kids be able to do? But every kid was able to do this in their own way, no matter what challenges they had.
When the garden was complete, the school hosted a small community event, inviting parents, staff and the wider community to learn about the project. The kids gave short presentations and handed out 75 seed bombs they had made with local seeds for people to take home.
The kids were so excited to welcome the community. They loved talking about it. It was great to see them so passionate about it. My students have a hard time learning and remembering things. But they can tell you more about pollinators than probably any of you guys could. I think it has helped the community to see our school in a more positive light and it has helped our students take pride in their school and in themselves as advocates.
Jessica explains how the kids have taken on leadership of the garden. They are the ones reminding the teacher that they have to stick to the schedule of watering and to check on the plants. They think about it when they’re in a shop and they bring back new seeds, or come back with a branch to decorate the garden bed during the winter.
It’s always on their minds. It’s keeping them engaged and excited. When parents come and pick them up, every time, the kids want to take them out to the garden and show them. You can see these goofy smiles on their faces, they are about to explode. Just being outside with friends. learning a new skill. It’s priceless.
I wish I had filmed the first time one of the kids found a worm. You would have thought they’d found a bar of gold. They were so excited.
After the first welcoming event, that garden attracted not just pollinators but also people from the local community.
There is not much green in our community. People now come by to sit on the bench we put out and read a newspaper. Children sit there and read with their friends. Parents stop with their children and talk about the colors of the plants. People walk out of their way to walk past the garden. The community now feels that it’s part of the neighborhood.
The seed bombs the children handed out are now working their magic in gardens around the community. From regular neighborhood walks with the kids, Jessica estimates that 40 people have put the seed bombs in their gardens and this will continue to attract many more pollinators all over the neighborhood.
The grant allowed Jessica to cover expenses that she, as a teacher, or any of the parents wouldn’t have been able to cover. For example, all the kids got their own gardening gloves.
We spent 60 dollars buying gloves that the kids thought were ‘so cool’. You should see their excitement when they’re putting the gloves on to work in the garden. When companies like Microsoft do this for kids and teachers, I hope they understand how valuable that money is. It sends the message that we see value in the work you do and in the students. We got 1000 dollars but it might as well have been 1 million dollars, we got so much out of it.
Jessica can’t wait for spring to come, when life will return to the garden. She has some funding left and wants to continue the project with another 15 students.
It’s so encouraging as a teacher to know there are people out there who care and trust you with what you are doing. I’m so grateful that I accidentally came across this opportunity. It’s the best learning experience I’ve ever had.