Each spring, volunteer nasturtiums emerge in our school greenhouse near the site of the previous year’s nasturtium plants. This is how I knew that nasturtium seeds would winter over in this unheated gardening classroom. So, last fall, as we collected nasturtium seeds and then pulled out the long, trailing frost-nipped plants, I decided to plant some of the rough, round, tan-colored seeds in pots for easy transplanting. We sunk the pots into a bed for warmth and I congratulated myself on bringing order to the anticipated spring growth. This spring, a few of these pots hosted seedlings, but many were empty. Meanwhile, volunteer nasturtiums popped up, as usual, wherever they pleased, heedless of my attempt to regiment their growth.
This reminded me of my efforts to bring order to our regular classroom, to plant well-planned lessons about history, math or science that illustrate a main point, offer knowledge or share a perspective that I deem vital. I work in an independent school where teachers are expected to use their professional judgment in bringing a flexible curriculum to a class. So, as I smiled at the unexpected nasturtium plants, I remembered times when the best lessons were like the plants that volunteer from stray seeds. These lessons arise when students connect with a side story, an incidental explanation, or a classmate’s question and find that, for them, this is the main event, the growth point.
In the garden, we keep the volunteers, transplanting them where we want them to grow. In the classroom, I cherish the unexpected conversations that pull the whole class into a mood of exploration and discovery. If there is time after such an unexpected topic, I guide the class back to the original lesson. If we run out of time, I reorganize the next day’s lesson.
If we focus only on the seeds that come up in the pot, or the lessons that are taught for a test, so little is gained and so much is lost. Our children need teachers who are allowed to honor and support whatever grows