Eight years ago I taught my first Living Classroom lesson, “Life Cycle of a Tomato” for a class of 24 second
graders. I could hardly believe my new job was to take students outside (during the school day!) to teach
environmental education lessons. That first lesson was a blur--anxiously I stumbled through the vocabulary
words, corralled the students through several activities, and ensured the parent volunteers were set up with
the necessary materials to assist. The hour flew by as the students squashed tomatoes with glee for seed
saving. Before I knew it, they were in a line to head back into the classroom.
I asked the teacher how she thought the lesson went. She said, “I think you need to slow down.”
I exhaled. She was right--why was I rushing the students through this experience? I had the opportunity to
let this hour together outdoors be truly meaningful, to let kids explore, discover, and feel joy. Here’s a
chance to bring what they are learning in their science textbooks to life through engaging, real world
One of our students said it best, “I like this program (Living Classroom) because a kid can go outside and get
dirty. Most of all, a kid can do the real stuff.” As environmental educators we get the unique opportunity, and
responsibility, to slow down with students and point out the “real stuff.” We get to say, “Look! THIS is nature,
and it’s right outside your door. See this leafy green top? Yes, you can pull it! You really have to yank it! Wow!
Can you believe it? That’s how carrots grow! Isn’t it like magic?” It’s understanding that an heirloom gets
passed down from generation to generation, an item to treasure, and seeds can be heirlooms too. They will
produce colors and flavors beyond our imaginations. It’s discovering that milkweed plants grow right outside
the classroom window and we walk by it everyday. That plant holds the secret for keeping an entire butterfly
species in existence. It’s noticing how your entire heart lifts up as you watch that Monarch land on the
milkweed, like there is some kind of order to our world. It’s how we plant tiny seedlings, how they only
measure up a few inches tall on our rulers, but we will troop back after weeks turn into months and they are
still there, only now proud and bursting, ready to be harvested. It’s patiently watching seeds sprout into green
spades of grass, into beds of wheat, that we will lovingly harvest, thresh, and grind into flour, that we will
bake into bread to understand what it means to be a producer, to be someone who creates.
Through Living Classroom I have met phenomenal teachers who have taught me how to engage students in
our curriculum. World class gardeners have taught me the importance of native plants and habitats. I will hold
all of this close in my next adventure, but what I will cherish most is the thousands of bright and curious
children who have helped me learn the importance of slowing down and appreciating the wonders that exist
in a seed, a leaf, or a beetle’s wing.
Last week I taught my last lesson as a member of the Living Classroom staff, and it was “Life Cycle of a
Tomato.” The students and I took our time exploring the “real stuff” as we shared our favorite ways to eat
tomatoes, sketched out the plant’s life cycle with all of the glorious details, and explored varieties of
heirlooms. During my time at Living Classroom I hope to have planted a seed that will grow future
environmental stewards through the lessons we have created, the volunteers we have engaged, and what
the students discovered as they explored nature on their own schoolyards. Full circle, indeed!
Ashley McConnell, public affairs officer, Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service