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Content Knowledge in the Pumpkin Patch

We're in the thick of pumpkin patch season. Children around the country have been heading out on field trips with their classes and families, bumping along on hay rides to find the plumpest pumpkins they can get their hands on.

Good teachers know how to turn these field trips into curiosity-driven moments of learning for themselves and their students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds who finally have a chance to hear, see, use and interact with objects and concepts that they rarely come across in their everyday lives.  As a New York Times story highlighted yesterday, for some children a trip to the pumpkin patch means being able to hold and touch what is essentially a foreign object. When a classroom of 25 children at Harlem Success Academy 3 were asked how many had ever held a pumpkin, only two raised their hand.

The importance of content knowledge in children's reading comprehension has been a favorite topic on this blog, and field trips can be powerful conductors in this realm. A child who has explored a pumpkin patch will have a much easier time in the future when he or she comes across paragraphs about vines and tendrils, maturing fruit and harvest time. And it's not just children's reading skills, of course, that can improve. Their grasp of science and social studies becomes more sophisticated too.

For an example of how pumpkin picking can provide kids with a strong foundation of content knowledge, check out this video from a first-grade teacher who goes by the name of Wojtera and runs a class blog:  

 

Not only are these children having a chance to see, up close, what tendrils are and how the fruit gains shape, color and heft over time, their teacher has extended the experience as a science lesson in the classroom, giving children a chance to see what pumpkin vines, flowers and seeds look like under a microscope. As students see and ask questions about pollen magnified 60 times or a tendril at 10 times the size, they gain more facility with the words and concepts of biology and horticulture. As cognitive scientist Dan Willingham writes in his book, Why Children Don't Like School and explains at the Core Knowledge blog, without this content knowledge, students may never fully comprehend what they read. They may be able to artificially pick their way through a paragraph about a farmer checking her pumpkin crop or a scientist peering into a microscope, but they will not have enough content stored in their long-term memory to be able to really make sense of what the paragraph means.  

By the way, I came across the video of this field trip while reading the comments that accompanied one of the posts on The Early Years, a blog published by the National Science Teachers Association. The blog is written by science teacher Peggy Ashbrook, who last week was looking at state and national-board science standards as she grappled with what is a tough balancing act for early educators: being sure not to underestimate what children can learn about the relationships in natural systems, nor overestimate their cognitive abilities to understand abstract and tricky concepts like the importance of sampling sizes in conducting science experiments. In the post, she posed a great question: "Is anyone very satisfied with their state or program content standards for preK-grade 2 science?" Anyone with experience in teaching science in the years from pre-kindergarten through third grade should chime in.

Pumpkin on vine photo by flickr user John Carleton reprinted under Creative Commons license.