If Shaker Heights feels a bit more fragrant this spring, you can thank teacher Tim Kalan. Since 2016, Kalan has been leading garden clubs for kids in second through fourth grades at Lomond and Onaway Elementary Schools, and they’re about to enter their fourth planting cycle.
“It started off selfishly—I was gardening at my own house and discovered the importance of native plants when I was trying to draw butterflies and birds to my house,” shares Kalan of the clubs’ genesis. “I realized this was something everyone should be doing, so this was my way of doing outreach to the community through the kids.”
In getting the clubs up and running, Kalan developed a 10-class (and eventually, 12-class) cycle geared at showing students how native ecosystems work and helping them “adopt” native birds and butterflies. Each cycle concludes with several planting dates, in which students plant native-to-Ohio trilliums, purple coneflowers, ironweed, cardinal flowers, and more on school grounds.
“The kids are hopefully starting to see through this lens of providing habitat that can support insects and pollinators,” says Kalan. “[The ultimate goal is to help] rescue what is left of whatever ecosystems remain in our rapidly expanding development.”
Right now, there are 35 kids enrolled at Lomond, and 45 kids at Onaway. Kalan employs a SOLE (self-organized learning environment) approach, designed to help students “answer their own questions through open-ended research,” according to Kalan. “We teach students by their own inquiry—getting them to figure out what it is you’re trying to teach them.”
The SOLE approach is in line with Shaker schools’ International Baccalaureate learning style, and the garden clubs help give the older students a focus for their required project at the culmination of the school year (part of the IB curriculum).
“Fourth-graders are expected to spend their last month working on a project that allows them to take action,” explains Kalan. “[The learning benefits] extend beyond the club—it’s not just a fun way to get dirty.”
So far, the clubs have exceeded Kalan’s expectations on all levels—the first year, Kalan attracted 100 kids (50 at each school), more than he’d anticipated, and enrollment numbers continue to be healthy. He’s also been pleasantly surprised by the resilience of their collective planting efforts.
“The first year, I figured the plants wouldn’t live, but it’s amazing that so few things don’t make it,” he says. “90 percent of the plants have survived, and some thrive and grow and flower.”
Kalan also hopes to continue to nurture and grow the clubs themselves, with the goal of extending their efforts beyond school grounds to plant at places like the Van Aken District or even local private homes. It’s all part of Kalan’s ultimate goal of inspiring the community to embrace Ohio’s native plants and empowering kids to understand why they’re so important.
“I teach them about how life works, essentially,” says Kalan. “Everything is interconnected.”