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Schoolyard Habitat Connects Students

Students build a habitat garden and make connection with their native countries.

English as a Second Language high school students used Earth Day to connect their native countries with their new environment in America.

They dug a garden and pulled vegetation in preparation for planting flowers and bushes in early May. They are creating the food, water, shelter and space needed for birds, butterflies, bees and other animals. Mimi Westervelt, a Park View High School ESL teacher, said her students will plant vegetation that would thrive both in their native countries and Virginia.

"I wanted them to feel some sort of identity with their new surroundings," she said. "I hope this gives them a sense of ownership here at school. Some of them have just got here."

The students will plant a pepper tree from Bolivia, sunflowers from Honduras, Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia) from El Salvador and Mexico, a meadow rue from Chile, beans from Iran, a butterfly bush from Sudan and lavender from Guinea.

PREPARATIONS FOR the Earth Day activity started in November. Students experimented with the use of and lack of sunshine and water with seedlings they planted in paper cups. They used microscopes to look at plant cell walls and researched the Internet to find which plants would grow well in Virginia and their native countries. They also studied climate conditions for optimum growth.

Westervelt said the teenagers participated with Science Across the World, exchanging information about plants with students in Turkey, Thailand, the United Kingdom, Germany, Austria and other countries.

She said the students, some of them with only a third-grade education and others who have taken physics in their homeland, have been studying life science. Next year, they will focus on biology and earth science. The exercises prepare them for their Standards of Learning (SOL) tests.

Westervelt, who taught environmental science in the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Department for 20 years before becoming an ESL teacher this school year, based the curriculum on the Smithsonian Naturalist Center "I Wonder" program. The philosophy behind the program is to encourage teachers to answer a student's question with a question. This makes the student work for the answer.

"It teaches teachers not to give the answers," she said. "It encourages the students to answer the questions in their own words."

Westervelt said the program has made her a convert. "It's called, ‘Not being the sage on the stage, but the guide on the side’.''

THE NATIONAL WILDLIFE Federation certified the ESL Multicultural Garden as a 'Schoolyard Habitat' this month, providing the first certification of its kind in a Loudoun County school.

Maryann Skrzycki, head of the high school's science department, said other students celebrated Earth Day by planting red, white and blue flowers in the Senior Court. They match the school colors. They also cleaned the pond in the Science Court to get it ready for the fish that have been in a tank all winter. Zinnia, salvia, hosta and azaleas were planted. Teens also picked up trash.

She said it's important to observe Earth Day. "We need to give back to the planet that gives us so much," she said. "If we treat the earth well, it will be around for a long time."

Jessica Koss, a junior, said people ought to remember Earth Day because, "We all live on earth. You want to keep it clean," she said. "If it's polluted, nobody's happy."