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Teachable Moments with a Sting

Theory

The fifth graders had been asking me about nettles since they arrived on Monday. Asking where they were, how to identify them, if the group could eat the nettles, how bad they sting. And though our days were full of reflection, formal investigations, and cued observation time, I decided to go rogue from my scheduled plan when I saw a patch of the jagged heart-shaped leaves growing erect in a thicket.

Lopez Elementary School’s fifth grade class was participating in IslandWood’s School Overnight Program, a residential science program on Bainbridge Island, focused on stewardship of self, community and the environment. IslandWood graduate students seek to facilitate interdisciplinary lessons including Next Generation Science Standards, place-based culture, history, and the arts. Scientists, I remind all of my students, are not all men with crazy white hair who wear lab coats and have chemicals in glass beakers everywhere. We are all scientists because we make observations and ask questions—and sometimes those questions involve other subjects beyond science. Lessons are most effective when they can represent a Venn diagram of interconnections. Through interdisciplinary teaching practices, students are able to synthesize new ideas and topics, incorporating them into their lives to increase relevance, which will result in more meaningful learning and more “stickiness” with the topic at hand. When new information ceases to be compartmentalized, students have more agency in their learning and the relationship they develop with the new information.

The Art of Questioning

“Have any of you ever seen this plant before?” I ask my students. Some are very familiar with Stinging Nettle, Urtica dioica, others less so. Using my arm, bent up with my hand jutting out perpendicularly to represent the leaf coming off the stem, I show how most of the “stinging parts” are on the stem itself and on the underside of the leaf. So, it’s possible to carefully pinch the top of the leaf, as I demonstrate pinching my hand, folding my thumb to meet my pinky and pull away from the stem.

Students watch me demonstrate on the real plant and I pass the leaf around closely in front of them and ask what they notice. They observe that the “stingers” are on the top and bottom of the leaf, and we wonder and make claims together about why we don’t get stung when we touch the stingers on top (at least most of the time), or why this plant needs to have the ability to sting, anyway.

I mention that a lot of people are afraid of it because of the word “sting” in its name. But this has been a very important plant for thousands of years right here on Bainbridge Island among the Suquamish people. I ask students why native plants are so important, imagining what it must have been like to be an indigenous person discovering through observations and questioning the benefits of this sometimes painful plant.

Team-building and personal growth

It is now time for my students to harvest their own leaves. I remind them that it is not required, but that they have the option if they want to. Previously in the week, I drew a circle in the dirt on the ground, then a larger circle on the outside of that. The circle in the middle represents their Comfort Zone, which contains things like brushing your teeth, eating breakfast, and playing with friends. The larger circle on the outside is their Challenge Zone, which incorporates the things that make your tummies do flips, but which make you feel proud after you’ve accomplished them. For example, making your own lunch, going on a hike, petting a dog, painting a picture, talking to a new person, etc. Anything that is not within these circles is in the Danger Zone. These are things that might actually cause trauma if a person if forced to do them. For example, if I put a spider next to someone who is afraid of spiders, I might harm them and lose their trust. I highlight how unique we are as individuals which is demonstrated by the fact that all of our Comfort, Challenge, and Danger Zones are different from each others. My goal for students, I share, is that they keep challenging themselves while they’re at IslandWood and beyond, and soon they will see their Comfort Zone start to grow, causing their Challenge Zone to expand as well.

Chemistry

A few moments into harvesting, I start to hear a few “ouches” and I see students staring at their fingers, looking for a mark or a stinger. I use these brave souls as examples, asking questions like: Did you find a stinger? What did it feel like? Did it remind you of anything? This is the perfect moment to address alternative conceptions of the sting from the nettle being comparable to a bee’s. I begin to talk about pH and balancing acids and bases using a  student relevant example. “Has anyone ever eaten something spicy?” I ask, and many hands shoot up. Students share that the solution to get the spice sensation out of their mouths is not by drinking water, but by drinking milk. By drinking the milk, I explain, they are neutralizing the acid by adding a base; and water is already neutral. The sting from the nettle is not stinging because of anything sharp, but because of an acid. So what should we do? Neutralize it! For students who decide the pain is unbearable, I use the alkaline baking soda in my First Aid Kit. Several students turn to the Sword fern, Polystichum munitum, sharing that the “little brown dots,” spores, on the underside of the fronds help make the sting go away. (Using sword fern spores to cure pain is another cultural medicinal use of a plant that some students have learned previously.) Moving beyond chemistry, those inquisitive fifth graders have just opened the door to talking about plant adaptations, plant reproduction, and plant-based medicine.

Cultural Connections

Although my background is in farm/garden-based education, I never ignore the importance of pre-agrarian societies. Urtica dioica is a crucial plant in many cultures, including among the people of the Coast Salish tribes, specifically the Suquamish people on Bainbridge Island, right where I stand with my students. From making textiles and dyes, to food and medicine, this plant is rich in its varied uses, and rich in nutrients. Students’ ears perk up when they learn that people drink nettle tea to help with seasonal allergies. Since many students visiting suffer from seasonal allergies, this convinces those who have been weary of harvesting to try it out. This is a wonderful opportunity to have a discussion with students about whose land we are using, where we get our information, human impact on the land and on each other, and the rich cultural history of where their feet are currently standing. There is a tendency when incorporating indigenous people in a lesson to use the past-tense, but the tribes who lived on this land since time immemorial are still present to this day, and my students and I honor that. We use the gatherer’s creed and ask permission of the plant before we harvest, and we practice only taking what we need. We consider the living things from which we are harvesting, wondering what they’re feeling, and wondering what would happen if we harvested all of the nettle leaves we could see.

Community Stewardship

On their final day, students harvest more nettle. This time, to be more inclusive, I have gloves and scissors—though not enough for each student. They must work together with the materials present (and bare hands, if they choose) to carefully harvest and put the leaves in a paper bag, which we will bring to the garden. Students work together to harvest the nettle and encourage each other; they are also looking out for each other and comforting one another if they get stung. I hear a lot of students asking “Are you okay?” and “What does it feel like?” to the students who have gotten stung, offering support and even feeling admiration. Back at the garden, we steep our harvest in hot water, add honey, and enjoy our community tea as we wrap up the week of richly interdisciplinary experiences, with the concept of stewardship running throughout. IslandWood’s major curricular outcome is the concept of Stewardship. This concept is interleaved throughout the week--from picking up a piece of trash on the ground to join the Dirty Pocket Club, to learning about each other as part of a growing community, to challenging ourselves to embrace adventure. As stewards the entire week, students took care of themselves, of their community, and of the environment. This sense of stewardship is one of the main skills we want our students to walk away with. If the practice of stewardship can be transferred back to a student’s home community, it will become a baseline mindset when students consider their actions as they go on to make their own decisions the next day and for a lifetime.

The fifth graders had been asking me about nettles since they arrived on Monday. Asking where they were, how to identify them, if the group could eat the nettles, how bad they sting. And though our days were full of reflection, formal investigations, and cued observation time, I decided to go rogue from my scheduled plan when I saw a patch of the jagged heart-shaped leaves growing erect in a thicket.

Lopez Elementary School’s fifth grade class was participating in IslandWood’s School Overnight Program, a residential science program on Bainbridge Island, focused on stewardship of self, community and the environment. IslandWood graduate students seek to facilitate interdisciplinary lessons including Next Generation Science Standards, place-based culture, history, and the arts. Scientists, I remind all of my students, are not all men with crazy white hair who wear lab coats and have chemicals in glass beakers everywhere. We are all scientists because we make observations and ask questions—and sometimes those questions involve other subjects beyond science. Lessons are most effective when they can represent a Venn diagram of interconnections. Through interdisciplinary teaching practices, students are able to synthesize new ideas and topics, incorporating them into their lives to increase relevance, which will result in more meaningful learning and more “stickiness” with the topic at hand. When new information ceases to be compartmentalized, students have more agency in their learning and the relationship they develop with the new information.

The Art of Questioning

“Have any of you ever seen this plant before?” I ask my students. Some are very familiar with Stinging Nettle, Urtica dioica, others less so. Using my arm, bent up with my hand jutting out perpendicularly to represent the leaf coming off the stem, I show how most of the “stinging parts” are on the stem itself and on the underside of the leaf. So, it’s possible to carefully pinch the top of the leaf, as I demonstrate pinching my hand, folding my thumb to meet my pinky and pull away from the stem.

Students watch me demonstrate on the real plant and I pass the leaf around closely in front of them and ask what they notice. They observe that the “stingers” are on the top and bottom of the leaf, and we wonder and make claims together about why we don’t get stung when we touch the stingers on top (at least most of the time), or why this plant needs to have the ability to sting, anyway.

I mention that a lot of people are afraid of it because of the word “sting” in its name. But this has been a very important plant for thousands of years right here on Bainbridge Island among the Suquamish people. I ask students why native plants are so important, imagining what it must have been like to be an indigenous person discovering through observations and questioning the benefits of this sometimes painful plant.

Team-building and personal growth

It is now time for my students to harvest their own leaves. I remind them that it is not required, but that they have the option if they want to. Previously in the week, I drew a circle in the dirt on the ground, then a larger circle on the outside of that. The circle in the middle represents their Comfort Zone, which contains things like brushing your teeth, eating breakfast, and playing with friends. The larger circle on the outside is their Challenge Zone, which incorporates the things that make your tummies do flips, but which make you feel proud after you’ve accomplished them. For example, making your own lunch, going on a hike, petting a dog, painting a picture, talking to a new person, etc. Anything that is not within these circles is in the Danger Zone. These are things that might actually cause trauma if a person if forced to do them. For example, if I put a spider next to someone who is afraid of spiders, I might harm them and lose their trust. I highlight how unique we are as individuals which is demonstrated by the fact that all of our Comfort, Challenge, and Danger Zones are different from each others. My goal for students, I share, is that they keep challenging themselves while they’re at IslandWood and beyond, and soon they will see their Comfort Zone start to grow, causing their Challenge Zone to expand as well.

Chemistry

A few moments into harvesting, I start to hear a few “ouches” and I see students staring at their fingers, looking for a mark or a stinger. I use these brave souls as examples, asking questions like: Did you find a stinger? What did it feel like? Did it remind you of anything? This is the perfect moment to address alternative conceptions of the sting from the nettle being comparable to a bee’s. I begin to talk about pH and balancing acids and bases using a  student relevant example. “Has anyone ever eaten something spicy?” I ask, and many hands shoot up. Students share that the solution to get the spice sensation out of their mouths is not by drinking water, but by drinking milk. By drinking the milk, I explain, they are neutralizing the acid by adding a base; and water is already neutral. The sting from the nettle is not stinging because of anything sharp, but because of an acid. So what should we do? Neutralize it! For students who decide the pain is unbearable, I use the alkaline baking soda in my First Aid Kit. Several students turn to the Sword fern, Polystichum munitum, sharing that the “little brown dots,” spores, on the underside of the fronds help make the sting go away. (Using sword fern spores to cure pain is another cultural medicinal use of a plant that some students have learned previously.) Moving beyond chemistry, those inquisitive fifth graders have just opened the door to talking about plant adaptations, plant reproduction, and plant-based medicine.

Cultural Connections

Although my background is in farm/garden-based education, I never ignore the importance of pre-agrarian societies. Urtica dioica is a crucial plant in many cultures, including among the people of the Coast Salish tribes, specifically the Suquamish people on Bainbridge Island, right where I stand with my students. From making textiles and dyes, to food and medicine, this plant is rich in its varied uses, and rich in nutrients. Students’ ears perk up when they learn that people drink nettle tea to help with seasonal allergies. Since many students visiting suffer from seasonal allergies, this convinces those who have been weary of harvesting to try it out. This is a wonderful opportunity to have a discussion with students about whose land we are using, where we get our information, human impact on the land and on each other, and the rich cultural history of where their feet are currently standing. There is a tendency when incorporating indigenous people in a lesson to use the past-tense, but the tribes who lived on this land since time immemorial are still present to this day, and my students and I honor that. We use the gatherer’s creed and ask permission of the plant before we harvest, and we practice only taking what we need. We consider the living things from which we are harvesting, wondering what they’re feeling, and wondering what would happen if we harvested all of the nettle leaves we could see.

Community Stewardship

On their final day, students harvest more nettle. This time, to be more inclusive, I have gloves and scissors—though not enough for each student. They must work together with the materials present (and bare hands, if they choose) to carefully harvest and put the leaves in a paper bag, which we will bring to the garden. Students work together to harvest the nettle and encourage each other; they are also looking out for each other and comforting one another if they get stung. I hear a lot of students asking “Are you okay?” and “What does it feel like?” to the students who have gotten stung, offering support and even feeling admiration. Back at the garden, we steep our harvest in hot water, add honey, and enjoy our community tea as we wrap up the week of richly interdisciplinary experiences, with the concept of stewardship running throughout. IslandWood’s major curricular outcome is the concept of Stewardship. This concept is interleaved throughout the week--from picking up a piece of trash on the ground to join the Dirty Pocket Club, to learning about each other as part of a growing community, to challenging ourselves to embrace adventure. As stewards the entire week, students took care of themselves, of their community, and of the environment. This sense of stewardship is one of the main skills we want our students to walk away with. If the practice of stewardship can be transferred back to a student’s home community, it will become a baseline mindset when students consider their actions as they go on to make their own decisions the next day and for a lifetime.

About the Author
Meredith Rivlin

Meredith Rivlin is currently earning her Masters in Education with a focus on Education for the Environment and Community through IslandWood/University of Washington in Seattle, WA. She earned her B.A. at the University of Vermont in Burlington, where she first learned to appreciate worms and dirty fingernails. She has worked as a garden-based educator for Tilth, Common Threads Farm, and Oxbow Farm & Conservation Center. She can be found riding her bike, admiring bees in the garden, and fermenting foods in the kitchen.