As educators one of the things we have noticed is that there are fewer and fewer opportunities for children to learn empathy for other living creatures, since much of their time is spent “talking” and interacting with the “world” through electronic devices that separate them from their physical environments. As a result, we are very proud to have used the grant from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s BirdSleuth program and Alaska Fertilizer to create new opportunities for explorations in safe, real-world spaces. Thanks to the grant, we have been able to encourage students who live in a low-income, semi-industrialized community to take pride in their ability to help birds and other creatures through the creation of a garden that is also helping them explore the many benefits of having peaceful places in their own neighborhood.
These students – who attend the Science Workshop that the Children’s Museum of Houston operates as an afterschool program of Edison Middle School – had been trying to create useful habitat for some time, taking over really overgrown areas on the school grounds and trying to organize plantings to help create spaces for food and shelter. What was extremely helpful was the use of BirdSleuth curriculum that helped the kids organize their plans in a thoughtful way. The curriculum gave them tools to figure out a course of action and understand the importance of all the decisions they were making with regard to which areas they planted, the types of plants chosen for these areas, and the type of materials they used. Every choice involved deliberate decisions.
In November 2016, we reached out for more help, connecting with Ed Dreier, a Texas Master Naturalist and retired science teacher who had previously taught at Edison. Mr. Dreier talked with the kids about what was already in the garden in Edison’s courtyard and what should be removed, providing information and advice regarding the types of resident and migratory birds in the neighborhood, the species we might attract, and what decisions should be made regarding soil, sand and water.
In December 2017, the students started to cut back overgrown plants, take out dilapidated trellis structures, and remove nuisance trees and weeds. We brought out the 7th grade science classes to help in the process of assessing what we had and what would be needed to create a great habitat for birds, integrating the work with a project that featured ecosystems. Students in the Science Workshop’s Green Class led the discussions.
The kids then began to think about the design of the raised cinder block beds they would build for the garden, having decided against landscape timbers due to the pace of decomposition in Houston’s semi-tropical environment. In January, the Green Ambassadors from nearby Furr High School came to talk to the kids about how to make raised beds and discussed issues they should consider such as the placement of the beds and pathways. The Green Ambassadors also talked about the programs they run and encouraged the kids to think about doing fieldwork with them once they enter high school.
Once the design for the raised beds was completed, the kids set about laying string to gauge how much material would be needed, measuring and calculating how many cinder blocks would be required. They also make the decision to dig out the grass in the courtyard, which was more weeds than anything else (as the soil is pretty bad in this area), and replace the grass/weeds with mulch and wood chips. We started to look for ways to get the wood chips donated, hoping that the soil would improve over time and that it would become easier to expand the plantings in the future.
In designing the garden, we not only wanted to create a good habitat for birds, but also wanted to create a beautiful and peaceful place in which kids and their teachers could enjoy being outdoors and watch the birds the garden attracts. After researching possibilities and looking at garden structures, the kids decided to create door arbors using repurposed doors and recycled wood. We went to the local Reuse Warehouse and picked up some doors and took apart picnic tables that were no longer viable, using the recycled wood to build the arbors. We also found old science tables that were being thrown out and changed our design for benches, substituting the table tops in place of a plan for landscaping timbers. In preparation for a Saturday community work day in February, the kids began cleaning, sanding, priming, and painting the doors, using liquid nails to secure the cinder blocks for the benches, gathering materials like the cinder blocks and mulch, and starting to assemble the door arbors. We started talking to parents during the monthly school parent meeting, giving out flyers before each workday and for the ribbon cutting event, and also sending emails to teachers and staff to invite them to help after school or during the Saturday work days.
Thirty-five students, parents, teachers, high school volunteers, friends and staff volunteers came for the February work day to help build the beds, remove grass, install a door arbor, and build benches. Edison’s PTO provided hot dogs and we had plenty of cool drinks, including water donated by the school nurse, and donuts brought by the principal who along with the vice-principal were on hand to help.
The courtyard is a really large space so our work this spring represented just a beginning. At first, the kids were very worried that the task was too big for them, but as things started to take shape they saw the possibilities. Work continued during the afterschool hours as the kids continued to remove grass (replacing it with cardboard, newspaper and mulch), made another door arbor, and used a level to create a stable base of cement pavers as they removed and leveled dirt and put down sand. The kids then asked for a second Saturday workday, which was really surprising. They were now fully committed and willing to give up another Saturday to make their deadline and were committed to doing it right. Students who in the prior year were likely to complain about hard work were now willing to come in on their “own” time. Parents were more committed too. One father who had tried to take his son out of the project “because gardening was for girls” became supportive and encouraging. Teachers started to drop by the courtyard at the end of the school day to offer words of encouragement and support.
On April 8th, we had another Saturday work day, attended by 20 students, parents and PTO members, school staff, staff volunteers and high school and college volunteers, who included former students and those associated with the University of Houston’s Latinos in Science and Engineering Club. The high school and college volunteers also helped out during additional afterschool hours. One teacher came out on several afternoons, helping students use his saw to remove a particularly stubborn tree.
Around this time we also reached out to Jed Aplaca, the Houston Parks and Recreation Departments’ Natural Resources Manager. We found out about him when we reached out to our contact at the White Oak Bayou Association while looking for information about birds in our area via use of eBird’s resources, the BirdsEye Texas app, and the Bayou City Birding Zines. Mr. Aplaca came out to visit the garden and mentioned that the City of Houston had just received their certification as the nation’s 100th NWF Wildlife Community Habitat, crediting the citizens and conservation groups who had helped. Mr. Aplaca viewed our garden and said that we should apply to be certified as a NWF Wildlife Community Habitat, which we will do in fall 2017.
Mr. Aplaca also told us that the Houston Audubon Society sold native plants, after which our contact at the White Oak Bayou Association made a connection for us. After consulting with Sarah Flournoy, Houston Audubon’s Bird-Friendly Communities Program Manager, and Conservation Specialist Flo Hannah, we worked with Mr. Dreier to figure out how much soil we would need, and then planted more than thirty plants purchased from Houston Audubon, including Aquatic Milkweed, Little Bluestem grass, Indian Blanket, Black-eyed Susans, Kansas Blazing Star, Texas Coneflower and Yellow Wild Indigo.
Some of the work with the garden happened serendipitously. One of the Science Workshop’s team members, while on her way to work, saw a crew cutting down trees nearby, using a wood chipper to break down the limbs. When we raced over and asked what they were going to do with the chips, we found that they were reluctant to give them to us. Once we explained what we wanted them for, they grabbed shovels and followed us to the school, where the Science Workshop team also grabbed shovels and joined in the unloading. All members of the tree trimming crew were grinning when they left.
Everything had started to come together beautifully and students were beaming with pride. The sense of accomplishment was great, with lots of students admitting they were nervous at first – not sure if they could carry out the plan for the garden. They also said they never could have imagined that the space could look so different. Many of these students were asked to be speakers at a 5th grade school recruitment presentation and talked about the garden and the importance of having a garden for the birds and the community. One said “Even though I got blisters and it was hard work, I gave up my Saturdays and worked hard because it is worth it to help the birds and community.”
The students requested that we have a Ribbon Cutting Ceremony and finally the day came for the celebration. The garden’s newly planted beds, door arbors, benches for classroom visits, wood chip surfacing, bird houses built from plans on Cornell’s website, and donated bird feeders were all ready to go. The students had a special honor for me – the Science Workshop’s Site Director – having gone around my back to ask the school’s Principal and the Museum’s Executive Director if they could dedicate the garden to me and my mother, who had passed away during the project. The plaque that hangs in the garden speaks to the pride of the students and to their gratitude for people who have touched their lives.
The support of Edison was essential throughout the project. The school contributed much of the mulch and dirt needed for the garden, and has encouraged teachers to work with the Science Workshop staff to integrate the garden into their classroom curriculum. Teachers supported the projects throughout, with Edison’s cooking teacher coming in the morning of the Ribbon Cutting ceremony at 6:30am so that she and a group of teachers and parents could complete the preparation of the food that an afterschool cooking class had purchased and prepped for the event. The kids did not want to leave after the Ribbon Cutting and they told us that they had never noticed or thought about birds before this project.
The bird garden project created leaders who are now awake and thinking about the environment and their ability to influence its well-being. And although we had students who began their involvement in the project only for social reasons, they became some of our hardest workers. We also worked with students who have turbulent home lives, who began their involvement on the fringes and were slowly drawn in, finding peace while sitting on the benches, watching the birds, and engaging in work that helped trade out action for anxiety. While students from the 8th grade would not be able to enjoy the garden on a daily basis after their graduations, they understood that what they were doing was community service representing something that would last, especially for the birds. These graduates have vowed to come back as high school volunteers, sharing that they see themselves as members of a family who have been bonded by their hard work and accomplishments.
Our work with the bird garden will continue. In May 2016, student’s associated with PBS’s SciGirls project performed bird observations for CUBS (Celebrate Urban Birds) in the garden with the support of Cornell’s Viviana Ruiz Gutierrez, who participated via Zoom. Kids enrolled in the Science Workshop’s summer camp program have planted more native grasses and are taking care of the garden: weeding, watering, cleaning the bird bath, and refilling the feeders. More and more birds are using the space, with the kids beginning to notice and appreciate differences between similar species, and with recent visitors including a hawk who swung by to check out the increased activity. We are looking forward to the fall semester and the next phases of the project.