Thursday, March 20th, 2014, 4:30-5:30 Central Time. Weaving the Earth Partnership for Schools Curriculm into a Middle School Program. Isaac Cottrell, Hillside Middle School, Northville, Michigan. Isaac will discuss the implementation of many projects he and his students have accomplished in the last few years. These projects include growing and maintaining a vegetable garden that offers food to the local food pantry, and animals of the animal room. They have established a tree nursery in a protected inner courtyard that allows the growth of seedlings into larger trees to be transplanted around the district and community. They likewise have planned and established natural areas and rain gardens to improve water quality of the local watershed, and have worked with their PTSA to focus outdoor plantings on areas that are of concern to the local watershed. Since the inception of many of these projects, Isaac has enjoyed helping develop some of these same programs throughout the district and area. He has especially enjoyed the introduction of the EPS curriculum to guide the implementation of natural areas on school campuses.

Presenter Bio
Isaac Cottrell is a 6th grade science teacher at Hillside Middle School in Northville, MI. A middle school educator of 17 years, Isaac brings a lifelong passion for the outdoors into the classroom, offering many ways for students to connect to nature. He and his students maintain a special classroom with many animals including tortoises, snakes, alligators, caiman, large and medium parrots, lizards and chinchilla and they raise Chinook salmon seasonally as part of the Salmon in the Classroom project offered through the Michigan DNR. He has participated in many trainings in order to enhance his understanding of nature, especially in watershed science. Over the past few years he has been a COSEE Coastal Trends participant, spent a week aboard the RV Lake Guardian (an EPA vessel studying the Great Lakes), participated in the 2011 EPS Restore Institute, and helped implement an EPS summer institute for educators in the Detroit area.

Presentation File
Click here to access Isaac's presentation. Click on the "download" button that appears and then click on the "prezi" icon. This may require assistance from a media specialist at your school or public library. Please contact Claire Shaller ( if you have any questions about accessing this file or the presentation recording below.

Presentation Recording
Click on this link to access a recording of the webinar:

Reflection Question - please respond to one of the two questions below by Monday, 3/3/14. You may respond in a separate thread so that people can comment on each other's posts more easily.
  1. There are many resources available to educators, some specific to your area, some more general. What resources (human, financial, natural, other) do you have available to you, and who might you talk to to explore additional resources? Or, for those that are informal educators or work in other settings, what can you or your connections offer to groups that are working on projects?
  2. These projects are certainly much easier with a team. The human resources listed above might be likely members of your team. Who will you approach to be part of your team and what assets do you feel they offer? (Consider those with connections in the community, those with expertise in securing money, those with the knowledge implementing projects, parents, community name a few.)

As you read other's lists, try to envision resources you may have overlooked and add them to your own list.

Q&A with Isaac

Animal handling logistics
What do you do about students with allergies? At our school we were told that we could not have animals in our classrooms. These animals are primarily in their own room, a vacant science lab that was converted for the purpose of handling the animals. We put a large exhaust fan in the room to help control odors. Most of the animals are reptiles and amphibians which are typically friendly to those with allergies. We have just chinchillas and a rabbit around the building in actual classrooms and they have yet to cause any problems, even with those with allergies. I do ask students and families at the beginning of the year if the animals pose a problem to allergies, and I have yet to have any students or families express concerns. The kids with allergies simply do not handle the chinchillas. This has included some fairly serious allergy cases too.

Can you discuss any licensing requirements for keeping the animals in your classroom? In addition, please share the cost of the husbandry. No licensing required. These are all pets you could pick up in a pet store. Nothing terribly exotic. They come to us in many ways…kids moving to college, families that no longer have space for them, relatives that have passed and need a home for their loved ones pets, the list of reasons is long. Because many of our animals are so common in pet stores, we actually turn down a fair number of animals that would duplicates in the room. We also do not accept anything poisonous, or highly aggressive. We only take animals that we can responsibly manage and assure the safety of our kids. Preference is given to those with temperaments that allow our kids to interact with them directly.
Our administration is in strong support as they know that this animal room is the only connection some kids have to our school. We hear several times a year how children are inspired to come to school because of the animals where parents have struggled to get their kids to school in the past. This special attachment also leads to donations of both money and time to help keep the program running. Our PTSA also understands the value of our animals and donates money to the program annually, but the largest sum of money comes from fundraising. The school does not have a budget for the care of these animals. And yes, we do write for grants, but many anymore seem to be for the purpose of establishing a program, or expanding a program and not many for the general up keep of the animals.

Pets in the classroom, has a small grant program that does supply for some money for the purpose of care and up keep. We order greens through our food service program at a discounted price and order crickets by the 1000 deliverd to the school to save in costs. We also grow some of our own food in the summer time. I have recently built the foundation of a hydroponics unit that will hopefully soon be providing more greens on a regular basis… the works still though. After that, I will be learning to raise my own crickets as they are a significant cost outside of the greens.

Do you have a grant to pay for feeding them all? Is it part of your school budget? All my classroom animals were fed out of my pocket, limiting what I could have. See note above.

Do you have to have the students/parents fill out a permission form for them to participate with the animals? No permission forms, but kids also do not care for the more dangerous animals. I am the only one that cares for the snakes, gators and caiman and they are kept in locked enclosures.

Salmon in the Classroom
Regarding the "Salmon in the Classroom" program - does the DNR provide you with the tank and other resources ? The DNR provides the salmon eggs and food. I wrote grants for the chiller and some filters. The aquarium, stand, hood and light were donated by a family in the district.

Does the DNR pay for busing for the salmon release location or does the money come from the school budget? No money for that exercise. I simply let families know of the release date and time and give them directions. They find their own rides if they want to participate. Typically they car pool to the location. We take lots of pictures to bring back to the other students.

Learning Extensions
Are you aware of past students continuing with the involvement of nature?
I have had students share stories of bringing family back to the gardens they have installed to monitor the progress of the garden. I do know that several of my students are in the environmental sciences at the high school, but the first round of kids that implemented a native garden are only 9th graders right now, so they are not too far removed for me to know long term impacts.

Are you able to use any of these activities as a cross curricular activity with other staff?
The math teachers at school have pretty much taken over the slope analysis and measuring of tree heights (similar triangles) I have handed over the vegetable garden to a special ed teacher that uses it for the purpose of teaching her kids measurement (proper spacing of plants and measurement of the plant growth.) We have also brought on board the teachers of our severely handicapped population with the implementation of the standing garden bed. The art teachers are contemplating using the natural areas for their purposes, but nothing has yet come of it. Most of it is used in the sciences….pond ecology with our runoff pond, photosynthesis studies (counting stoma on the back of a variety of plants), biodiversity studies, ecosystems studies, erosion studies, water cycle and runoff, human impacts…just few off the top of my head.

What does your high school do to build upon the knowledge your program provides at the middle school level? We have a wonderful environmental studies program that is involved with gardening projects and invasive species removal I believe at a local state park. They fortunately have students that can drive themselves to the state park for that purpose. We do not get to speak very often though as they are at a totally different campus. Being that I am still new to this myself, I still have aspirations of getting them more involved with us, but that simply hasn’t been the case yet. One of our elementary schools is within walking distance, and they have come over to do their studies of ecosystems in some of the natural areas on our campus. It is also my hope to get them more involved prior to coming to me. Still a long ways to go….baby steps.

Weaving in Curriculum Standards
What about schools that are fettered by teaching to a standardized test? Would this be able to be worked in?
My personal philosophy is that the test scores will come with the learning. I am still teaching the state mandated/tested learning objectives, I am just doing it through this project based approach. The kids are tested at the end using tests that mimic those they will see on standardized tests to help with the comfort level of the tests, the difference is in how they receive the information.

How do you assess/test when there is much time with hands-on activities? I plan the work according to the time and help I have. If it is just me and my kids, the project will be a bit smaller, or maybe even an enhancement of a previous project. If I am fortunate to have more resources, I will plan a bigger project. I also spread the work out over the course of the year, as it fits with my curriculum. I think this is what keeps it manageable in the end. I am not trying to do the site analysis, and environmental tests just prior to planting, but rather usually have that all done well in advance. For example, this past fall is when we did our site assessment as we were studying ecosystems and ecosystem benefits. The 7th grade did the light studies as part of their energy unit. We did our soils analysis when we were studying weathering and soil formation. My enrichment class worked on the plant selections and garden design given the light conditions and soil conditions from the earlier work. And if the snow ever goes away……..we will get the schools backhoe in to clear the site of our new rain garden. We just take it a piece at a time and eventually it all pulls together. The backhoe literally saves many days of work. Without it, we would take a much smaller swing at it. For the science teachers that have only a couple days to spare, they typically study the gardens we have in place, analyzing the purpose of the garden and then focusing on how to improve the existing garden, a much smaller commitment, but still valuable.

Technological Resources
Where were you able to get the satellite image of the algal bloom? Resource for this? it started here. It is nice to bring in current events in science and Michigan radio had a series going on the great lakes. Occasionally I let the kids listen to the stories as an alternative to listening to me ;) I forget exactly where I took the image I used, but it came from digging for more information related to this story.

Gardening on Campus
Do you have to get permission slips each time you do field work, or is it all on your school campus? Our school is pretty strict about leaving the grounds, even if it is walking distance. Most of our work so far has been on campus. When we do the water quality studies, we do have to get permission forms to walk to the local river.

Do your students do everything during school time or outside of school? They are mostly working during the school day. I will do prep work after hours that may save a bunch of time, and occasionally I will ask for volunteers if they are needed.
Are they long projects that kids continue to work on during class periods or one large pocket of one or a few days? We will mostly work during our class period…I will have all the equipment in place and then we will head out at the start of the hour and go as far as we can with the time allowed….then I pick up after hours.
How can you get all your other standards met while doing large projects like this?As mentioned before, we fit bits and pieces in with the curriculum as we are studying it. Once they have the site assessment in place, they have the vision of where you are heading, and it is easy to pull it back in at various points in the year as it fits your curriculum. And again, I scale my projects to my time and resources.

I have one hour class periods; do your students just use class time, their regular schedule, or do you have a special schedule on these days? Other content area teachers aren't too excited to give up their time too often. Mostly just my one hour, but talk with your math teachers…if they are involved in the site assessment and garden planning (square footage, volume of materials) you may even find them out there working with you!!!!

Is the backhoe owned by the school district, or the city? Does the city use the fact that they are partnering with schools on this in a PR campaign of any sort? That might help encourage cooperation, and would be something to keep in mind in other cities. How did you begin this partnership? The backhoe is the districts….our district is quite large and has some special equipment to handle the maintenance. We get our compost delivered free from the township. They have a yard where they dump all the leaves from fall clean up and they rotate it a couple times a year. After a couple years they have this beautiful mulch that is a nice addition to our compacted clays. They deliver for free…just so happens the man in charge sent his kids through our school. This connection was made by one of the teachers that has been in the district (teaching and living) for many years. While talking with him about my needs, he led me to the former parent that hooked us up with the compost.

Was there a liability issue with adding a water feature to the school grounds? We were simply asked to keep it under a certain depth. As you could see in the images, it is only mid-calf on a 12yr old girl.

How do you approach kids doing physical labor? I know it sounds silly, but I can see some of our uncooperative students or parents telling me they will not participate. Would you just give them something else to do? Just curious. I teach high school. They are a little sassier than middle school sometimes. Yes they are….one reason I didn’t head down that path. I do have kids that give me the talk, but the pressure of not being with all their friends seems to win them over….got to love peer pressure. I do make arrangements with another staff member and the kids know they will have plenty of work sitting in class if they choose not enjoy the sunshine with us. Kids are kids however and you will have those that just are not as involved. I try give them wheel barrow duty as it seems to be a popular job and one that gives them enough breaks that they just don’t seem make a fuss. The girls seem to fall for the planting even when they are not in the mood to help. In planning the garden, I try to keep many different types of jobs going always to offer some variety. We may not have an entire area prepped before I put another group on bring in compost, followed shortly by planters/waterers then mulchers. The lead area of the garden is just getting touched while the other end is already being finished. Helps with the management of tools too.

We have problems with our maintenance staff and doing work on the grounds because it is "taking away" work from the maintenance staff, and we are told not to do certain things like caring for gardened areas. Any thoughts or reflections on this? We have heard this in the past, but these gardens, being new, haven’t seemed to encroach on their “work”.With all the cuts as of late, they have been stretched incredibly thin and have a hard time keeping up with general maintenance. We haven’t heard anything of the sorts lately. That and because of the storm water permitting process in Michigan, our head of facilities has been very gracious in helping as we are also helping him with his permitting requirements. Our district gets credited in the storm water permitting process for implementing natural gardens/rain gardens and the like, and by incorporating stormwater education with our students. It helps having the one in charge on your side.

We had a couple false starts at a working compost pile do you have any good tips for school compost? We started with Vermicomposting….small, easy to do in the classroom…grow it as you want too…

Could you elaborate on the tree nursery? Species? Grown from seed? Once grown where do they go? Our tree nursery currently has American Plum, Sugar Maple, Wild Black Cherry and Choke Cherry. We received these trees from National Wildlife Federation, Trees for Wildlife grant. With the advice of our local extension office and a local tree farm, we took these seedlings and planted them for the future. When they reach a height of 6-8ft tall, they will then be moved around our campus, other school campuses in our district, or into the community. We will then replant with a new seedling. We have 80 trees in the nursery and hope to roll out about 20 each year, giving them about 4 yrs of growth in the nursery. After the grant trees are gone, we will try starting our own from seed and will take them from unwanted locations around campus….the ones that would typically get plucked from a garden bed and tossed on the ground to die. (We have a two red maples we put in the garden this way.)

Do you have a vegetable and flower garden? Who takes care of it over the summer? Both, the vegetable garden is cared for by a handful of staff. As you can imagine, we have people in often over the summer to care for the animals, and they often will lend a hand in the garden. It is definitely a team effort. The vegetable garden is irrigated on a timer….$30 home depot and we use landscaping cloth to help control the weeds to keep it a very manageable project. The flower gardens I have put in are all natives, and by nature they need much less work once established. We mulch heavy for weed control, but I also planted them incredibly this to choke out any weed growth. It has worked pretty well so far, and it looks nice too.

Have you ever had any vandalism issues with your students knowing the areas are there (like the gardens you put in)? I'm sad to be asking this but would be worried about my high schoolers. None, but he vegetable garden and tree nursery…the two most vulnerable, are both located in an inner courtyard that is only accessible through the school. All of our other garden projects have never been touched though. They tend to target other item to vandalize.

What type of terrace garden do you have? Is it native plantings or vegetable? How did you terrace the landscape, what did you use? The terraced garden was planted by a parent group. They get together each year and work on some of the gardens around school to get them into shape. While talking with us about our projects, I think we convinced them to go after a heavily eroded area on the side of the school. I suggested they may consider terracing the hill to help manage the flow of water, and they ran with it. They brought in some large stones and built the land up behind them. While they did not use all natives, they did incorporate some as there is definitely a growing interest in the kid’s native gardens. I think people are simply unaware of the beautiful flowers that call Michigan home and they are very inquisitive when they see our garden bloom. I have come to the conclusion that sometimes it is o.k. to accept non-natives if 1. Your not paying for them, and 2. They are not going to do harm. It is pretty easy start working native plants into an established garden area. Sometimes other teachers are more interested in doing this kind of work.

I am wondering if any of the plantings or gardens are designed for bird diversity? Also, if the gardening projects are tied to climate change monitoring? Our garden have not yet targeted any one particular animal, but rather try to incorporate as many different benefits as we can. The plants we try to select first are those that provide seed for birds, are larval hosts, provide pollen or any other benefits we can find other than being aesthetically pleasing. And no, we have not done anything with climate change yet, though I did see a cool one with Tulips……e-mail me if you have interest, and I will try to find the information. I took it in a set of notes somewhere.
Do the student participate in any of the citizen science projects like Monarch Watch, Monarch Larva Monitoring? You have milkweed :) We have not done anything like that yet, but I am becoming more aware of those types of projects. If you have a lead for me, I am very willing to look into it.

Building Partnerships
Do you partner with many organizations other than the DNR? Conservation districts, Stewardship Network, or university extensions? If so, do you find them eager to help? I have not partnered with anyone outside of our local area….yet. I have been very fortunate to find what I need locally, though with the granting of money from the Wildflower Association of Michigan, I am looking forward to a great deal of input from a group passionate about native flowers. They have expressed a STRONG interest in helping us successfully implement our next garden.

Do you have resources within the Water Resources Commissioner's office and also the MSU extension program - like Master Gardeners Program?? I do not directly, but I know someone who likely does. If this is information you are looking for, drop me a note and I will see what I can get you.

All, please feel free to contact me at any time. It may take me a day or two to get back to you. I certainly am not an expert on everything, but I will help how I can.
Isaac Cottrell