Cultivating Curiosity Through Student-Led Learning

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Cultivating Curiosity Through Student-Led Learning

By Annie Draeger

“Are the seeds in store-bought apples the same seeds that grow apple trees?” This question from a medically-fragile seventh-grade student prompted a year-long investigation into the origin of seedlings, plant species, and project-based learning driven by student interest.

Students living in Los Angeles County do not often have the opportunity to experience where their food comes from and Cultivating Curiosity Through Student-Led Learningwhat conditions need to be maximized in order for a seed to successfully bear fruit. Surrounded by concrete and without access to farming or gardening, many students do not understand the inner workings of plant life and the farm to table process. Ronald, a seventh-grade student, was being served in the homebound setting for his seventh-grade year due to surgeries that prohibited him from attending school. This was no easy transition for a social, sports-loving student who was eager to get back to school to see his friends and try out for the basketball team. Ronald was initially apprehensive about having a teacher come to his home for one hour per day, five days per week to provide the seventh-grade curriculum that would prepare him for his eighth-grade year. A few weeks into the school year, however, Ronald began opening up and offering information regarding what he was interested in and what he enjoyed most about school. This included questions pertaining to readings, projects, and compositions that he would complete during our time together each week.

One day, Ronald had been eating an apple before I came to instruct him for his lesson. As I was setting up for the day he asked, “Are the seeds in this apple the same as the ones that grow apple trees? If so, why don’t they grow into trees while they are in the apple?” Being an urban gardener myself, I took this opportunity to foster his curiosity while encouraging his independent learning and research skills. That day, we began planning how to plant, cultivate, and transplant apple seeds. Ronald also conveyed how he was interested in other vegetables and plants and would want to grow them as well. Living in a second-floor apartment and the absence of green space were primary challenges, especially considering that Ronald was physically unable to walk to the park down the street or to a school-based garden in the district. Ronald and I discussed what materials would be required to start seeds indoors and what seeds he wanted to focus on. We decided that beginning with seeds from the apple he was eating, as well as including store-bought lettuce, tomatoes, scallions and kernels of popping corn would be a great starting point for his investigation into plant life.

Over the next few weeks, Ronald nurtured his plants while I planned accompanying assignments that focused on California state standards as well as his home-school’s science and reading curriculum. He kept a daily online journal of each plant, recording observations based on soil consistency, leaf color, and size/shape of leaves. These observations eventually became the basis for a Google Slides presentation that we were able to share with his home-school principal and counselor.

Cultivating Curiosity Through Student-Led LearningRonald replanted his seedlings in larger pots and moved them to the side of his apartment complex where they would be accessible for him to water. The next few months were challenging; Ronald lost many of his seedlings to heat and sun conditions, inconsistent watering, and disagreeable neighbors. He continued to measure his plants and research best practices for growing tomatoes and corn, which became the surviving seedlings that would grow into plants. When we first began the school year, I had no intention of creating a botany unit, but the interest and inquiry of the student are what drove the lesson. This lesson allowed a homebound student to engage in scientific discovery and foster new ideas and observations about the world. Ronald was so invested in his plants that he continued to nurture them throughout the blistering southern California summer and had grown corn stalks and tomato plants by September that continue to grow today.

Letting the student take the lead on inquiry and instruction allows for interest to grow that can be continued throughout the student’s education. One question can lead to a lifetime of possibilities and inspired learning in a subject that could have easily been answered without further investigation. Instead of simply answering questions for students, educators can cultivate curiosity in any setting. Who knows, maybe Ronald will someday create drought-resistant crops that can feed the hungry because of one question that begged further investigation.


Annie Draeger M.Ed. is an ASCD Emerging Leader 2016 and a home/hospital special educator in Pasadena, CA. Follow on Twitter: @DraegerSpEd