Digging In to Save the Bees
Following months of interdisciplinary study, third graders from Tisko Elementary School got to work at Branford’s Foote Riverside Park, digging in to help save bees and other pollinators.
On May 22, busloads of students arrived to plant two gardens they’d drawn up and designed, carved out by Branford Public Works. With help from public works crew, educators and project parents, the kids planted dozens of pollinator-friendly perennials they’d previously researched and hand-picked for success.
The new gardens are an outgrowth of studies, fundraising, and bee-themed events held throughout the year by Tisko’s third-grade class. Now in its finished form, the group effort has added to the Town of Branford’s growing pollinator path at parks and other points across town.
Tisko science/STEM teacher Nicole Cosgrove and literacy coach Jacquelyn Courtmanche teamed up to lead the project, which also involved students working with third grade teachers across disciplines, library media specialist Lydia Kroeber, and parent support.
“We started in science class, and it built out from there,” said Cosgrove. “Some of the suggestions at the end of this unit were to make a model garden, or to make some posters to teach people about the importance of bees. We did all of that, but then we said, ‘Why don’t we do something bigger, so the kids are actually doing something to make a difference?’
The team credits third-grader Alyssandra Aguilar with sparking the project idea last fall, after she got to thinking about the planet-wide affects of certain animals disappearing. The concept is highlighted in a series of books by artist/author Lily Williams, including “If Bees Disappeared” (Roaring Brook Press, 2021).
At the beginning of the school year, “...Alyssandra had remembered one of the books, ‘If Sharks Disappeared,’”said Courtmanche. “They were learning about bee life cycles, so I read ‘If Bees Disappeared’ to the science classes. And then they really followed a year-long, integrated thread with reading, writing and research.”
Last fall, the students brought sketch pads on a planning trip to map out garden locations at Foote Riverside Park. The passive recreation site is situated on Town land beside the Branford River, along Pine Orchard Road.
At school, they looked up different pollinator plants that would grow in Connecticut, heard talks provided by a local beekeeper and a Branford Conservation and Environment Commission member, and collected research and ideas in a bee notebook, among other undertakings. For a segment studying opinion writing, every third grade student wrote a letter to the Board of Selectmen (BOS) seeking approval to install the gardens at the public park. Ultimately, four letters were selected to be read to the BOS, which approved the request.
As the project’s Town involvement progressed, “...the kids each got a copy of the final Town plans to see how the gardens would be laid out, which was really cool,” said Courtmanche.
Meanwhile, student fundraising events, including “Dress Like a Bee,” helped to build up the project coffers, together with plant donation assists from Van Wilgen’s Garden Center in North Branford, and a donation from the Menunkatuck Audubon Society. The program also received financial support due to an effort initiated by Blanchette, who applied for a community matching grant from Sustainable CT and started up an online funding drive to reach the goal.
As a UConn master gardener intern, Blanchette said she had been seeking an outreach project to conduct when her daughter, Tikso third grader Maeve Blanchette, brought home news of the pollinator garden project.
“We had to set up a budget for the project and submit it to Sustainable CT, and we had to fundraise for half of it, and they matched it,” said Blanchette. “We got $2,500.”
“With the money, the kids planned out what we could purchase,” said Courtmanche. “We’ve also purchased a sign that will be coming, and we’re hoping to come back before school ends so that we have can have a ribbon-cutting for the Town.”
Kroeber said the project really motivated the third graders as they undertook library research with her.
“This was something that they were interested in that was in their own community, [and] this was a question that came about organically,” said Kroeber. “It was something they were motivated to do on their own. They really took to the internet, looked in books, and came up with a list of questions; and from those questions they determined key words; and looking into those words helped them to come up with even more critical thinking.”
The newly-installed gardens include a mix of echinacea (commonly known as coneflowers), monarda (bee balm), blueberry bushes and several other pollinator-friendly plants, said Blanchette, who also helped to review the final list of student plant choices.
“They picked the right plants, and they’re putting them in the right spots, and they’re really into it,” said Blanchette, there to assist with the installation May 22.
It was a fantastic day for the third grader who help kick-start the project idea, too.
“It was really fun that we planted flowers. I’m really amazed by it,” said Aguilar.
Cosgrove and Courtmanche said this is a lesson that will likely stick with these students well into the future.
“There are not a lot of real world projects that we do, where they really learn something about science, reading, writing and then actually do something about it; especially in a program that goes through the whole year. That’s pretty unique,” said Cosgrove.