What do onions, hawks, trains, and Ed Denes have in common? They’re all part of our shared GFA story. This spring, the Lower School embarked on a quest to learn more about these topics, along with many other aspects that comprise the spirit of GFA — in some cases, before it was even a school.
PreK through fourth-grade classes had their first-ever “mini-term,” where they spent a week (or more) delving into GFA-related topics that reached beyond the curriculum in new and exciting ways. At the end of the week, they shared their new-found knowledge with the other grades, making further connections between the mini-term topics.
“I want the kids to understand and have a connection with this area. I want them to know why this school is special,” Lower School Head Aléwa Cooper explained. “My firm belief is that you have to know who you are, where you are, and where you’re from in order to understand where you’re headed.”
The idea for the community-focused project came from a professional development session with educator and author David Sobel. His book, Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms & Communities, focuses on the concept of using “the local community and environment as the starting place for curriculum learning, strengthening community bonds, appreciation for the natural world, and a commitment to citizen engagement.”
Sofi Kurtz, Lower School Science Teacher and one of the mini-term leaders, knew this would be a perfect project to implement at GFA.
“Getting to know the place where you live makes you more connected to it. You want to be part of that community now while also building a foundation for the strength of that community in the future. I think that’s what true place-based education is,” she explained.
While this goal was always the priority, the administrators, teachers, and even the students began to make other unexpected connections throughout the week. For instance, third graders heading out to count the school’s oak trees — which are symbolized on our crest — discovered wild onions growing on the property. They couldn’t wait to run back to share their findings with the second graders, who were studying Westport’s former glory days as a worldwide onion producer.
The students were also excited to discover that their topics seeped into their other classes, like art and music: In art class, the onion researchers painted onion flowers (called allium, they learned). In music class, students studying the history of the Greens Farms sang songs from various periods in this area’s history.
“It’s a way to teach that’s more like life. You’re learning how to be part of a community and how things relate to each other,” Kurtz explained. “Life isn’t always broken down into subjects. They were seeing how their subjects integrated into everything, and how fun it could be if everything is related to each other.”
This first mini-term included topics that neither the teachers nor the students had studied before, so many times they were learning the information together. Even for the teachers, the mini-term was an exercise in risk-taking. Both Kurtz and Cooper agreed that this unexpected outcome was among the most fun aspects to witness.
“It was magical — the students and teachers would muse together, ‘What does this mean?’” Cooper said. “What I loved about it is that the children left feeling like they had done the bulk of the work as opposed to the teachers, and that’s the best kind of scaffolding. It takes a skilled educator to make it feel that way.”
While mini-term referred to a specific week, Kurtz and Cooper were pleased to discover that not only are teachers continuing their topics this year, many are considering making them a regular part of their curriculum next year as well.
“In many ways it feels like we were getting to know this place that we all come to for the first time,” said Kurtz.
The PreK Welcoming Project is actually a secret! Click here for a sneak peek.
Subject: The History of GFA
In the basement is a dumbwaiter that used to bring food up to the former dining room — what is now the faculty lounge.
- Made campus maps of their classrooms and the science room
- Visited Adams Academy to learn about what school was like in the past
Former faculty members Patti Hiller, who helped them make a May Pole, a former GFA tradition; and Ed Denes, who took the students on a tour of the campus.
Subject: Peeling Away the Layers of Our History (aka the history of the Westport Onion Farming Business)
- In the mid-1800s, the GFA property was an onion farm.
- An onion flower is called “allium.”
- Made (and ate) onion soup
- Painted allium in art class using oil, pastel, and water colors.
Fairfield Historical Society, alumna Sefra Levin ’03 (aka The Seed Huntress)
Future Mini-Term ideas: Onion recipe book!
Subject: How Do We Use the Local Trees?
- Land was once occupied by the Pawgusset Tribes, and later by a farmer named John Green.
- To heat a colonist’s home, it took 35 cords of wood.
- There are about 20 oak trees on campus.
- Planted native acorns; if they germinate, the students will take them home to plant in their back yards.
- Planted two oak trees at GFA
Fairfield Museum and History Center; Tom Barry, GFA Grounds Manager
Subject: History of the GFA Train Station
- The Greens Farms train station was built in 1848.
- Each year approximately 39 million passengers take the MetroNorth train line
Crossover discovery: It used to take a ship one week to transport Westport’s famous onions (see third grade project) to New York City but after the train lines were built, it only took two hours to transport them.
Future Mini-Term ideas: Take a train ride from Greens Farms Station to Grand Central Station.