Staff Photo: Keith Farner Emily Theisen and Brandt Pance show a rose bush in their butterfly garden at Level Creek Elementary.
SUWANEE -- Looking for a way to add to the classroom experience, a group of gifted fourth-graders at Level Creek Elementary have built and maintained a butterfly garden based on "The Secret Garden."
Teacher Karen Cone said she wanted the material, which came from the College of William and Mary, to "come to life for them." And it's safe to say that after the garden suffered from the "winter blues," it's come alive with blooms all around.
"They just hoot and holler when they learn we're going to the garden," said Cone, who allows one or two days each week for the students to work in the garden.
The plot of "The Secret Garden" is about an orphan who goes to live at her uncle's house, and later finds a key to a locked garden.
The 18 fourth-graders were chosen out of seven classes, and qualified based on their score of 96 percent or higher on a prompted written piece. Scoring is based on the Gwinnett County Public Schools' rubric for style, voice and sentence mechanics. Scores were doubled for ideas, and Cone said the students mastered sentence structure very early in the year. "These kids give me a run for my money," Cone said. "They realized they earned their way in here and have to (continue) to earn their way," Cone said.
Cone made it a priority to avoid parent and teacher involvement. Parents are even asked to sign an oath that they wouldn't affect the students' major writings.
The students used shovels to mulch and hauled dirt and water to the garden. They learned basic life lessons, Cone said, like how to respect nature and how to handle things like ant hills, lady bugs and bees. They've even planned for summer gardening responsibilities.
"They get to choose a way in which they serve," Level Creek Principal Nancy Kiel said. "They learn to be responsible and persevere for themselves."
The project has also spread to other parts of the school, including to a science teacher who added a weather station.
At the outset, Cone wasn't sure of the reaction from her students. Would the boys be into flowers and gardening?
"I wasn't sure if I would get 100 percent buy-in," she said. "The guys, in some cases, are more excited."
Kiel said one of the school's priorities is to develop leaders, and Cone added that fourth grade begins the transition to middle school.
"This is the year we take off the apron strings," Cone said. "Let them start to be independent. Stop being followers, start being leaders. They have some of the most amazing thoughts in their heads."
Added Kiel, "She's created an environment where they own it."