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Building Bridges in the Garden March 7, 2016

Filed under: Books,Everything Under the Sun,Gardening,Inspiration — explorergarden @ 5:50 pm


Problem Solving Opportunity:

Last year, students in the Cardiff School garden helped build a simple arch trellis out of rebar and hardware cloth to hold up four new passion fruit vines. I had read that it would take 3 years for the vines to produce fruit, so I figured the trellis was all we would need.


Imagine our surprise when the start of the new school year revealed a four fully-established passion fruit vines heavy with fruit! Within months, the entire trellis collapsed inward, completely filling in the tunnel with a mass of vines.

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Seeing an opportunity in the problem, the Cardiff MAC (Mixed Age, gr. 1-3) class , where I teach two afternoons a week, embarked on a 6-week mission to build a new trellis. Since a trellis is a type of bridge – a span helping something or someone cross a divide – we began with a study of bridges in order to understand the best way to build a trellis.


We began by looking at a Powerpoint presentation with pictures of different types of bridges from all over the world. We learned the types of bridges: Beam, Arch and Suspension, and looked at pictures of each type. We learned that a bridge needs to be the right strength to hold up the load, and the right size to span a particular width and allow something else to pass underneath. We learned the basic parts of a bridge: the piers that hold up the deck of a bridge, and the span is the space between piers.

These books were especially helpful. They helped us learn about types of bridges and how they are constructed, gave us experience with  narratives from the lives of people who build bridges,  and gave us ideas for experimenting with bridge building ourselves.


Experimenting with Bridges

We experimented with tension cables to see how they could work to hold up a load in a suspension bridge. We wondered how many children it would take to pull on a rope to hold up the weight of a seated teacher – me!  (It took six children – three on each side, holding on and leaning back.)

Working in groups of two, we made plank bridges out of paper and blocks to hold up pennies. We experimented with making the deck stronger with more pieces of paper and by putting an arch of paper underneath. We also discovered that the closer the piers were, the more pennies the bridge would hold.

Next, we learned how engineers add strength to bridges to make them especially strong, using arches and triangular-shaped struts for strength. We looked at pictures of strong bridges that used struts. Then, working with a partner, we made our own struts out of index card strips and brads.

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Trellis Design

Now that we knew what made bridges strong, we were ready to design a trellis that was:

  • Strong enough to hold up four heavy passion fruit vines;
  • Tall enough for a tall adult to pass underneath;
  • Wide enough for our ramp to fit underneath;
  • Simple to build;
  • Pretty to look at;
  • 84 inches tall x 48 inches wide x 26 inches deep

We began by looking at photos of trellises and noticing what made them appealing and strong. In our writers’ notebooks, each child began by sketching his/her own trellis, with a front view, side view, and top view.


Then, each child shared their design with the other students at their table. They came up with a group design for each table showing front, side and top views.

At a class meeting, each group got up to share their work on the document camera. They explained their design, and what they felt were the most important elements of the design.

Then, working as a class, we took the best parts of each design to make a single class design that included all the necessary elements and proper dimensions for the front, side and top of the trellis.


Mrs. Elliott took the design to Dixieline with a list of supplies, and a very kind man named Gerard helped her choose the wood, and then cut it to the proper sizes.

Building the Trellis — Day One

During garden time, the class divided into three groups. Mrs. Elliott worked with one group while Brodie’s Dad, Mike worked with another group, and garden teacher, Mr. Brink, worked with the last group in the garden. Students learned how to properly use a Phillips head screw driver and a power screw driver to drive wood screws into predrilled holes.IMG_0600 IMG_0598 (2) IMG_0633 IMG_0632 IMG_0631 IMG_0628 IMG_0627 IMG_0624 IMG_0623

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trellis 4




Weeds Found a Way in our Garden — So We Made Art! February 1, 2015

Filed under: Books,Gardening — explorergarden @ 8:12 am

Kindergarteners read Weeds Find a Way, by Cindy Jenson-Elliott, then pulled weeds and then learned their names. They drew several iterations of their chosen weed and worked hard to get the details right in their pictures. Here are the results.e9baba031001fc9fcffb37dabf77f648_twp1   IMG_0464IMG_0460 IMG_0466 IMG_0463 IMG_0461IMG_0467 IMG_0469 IMG_0470



Planting Weed Seeds and Reading Weeds Find a Way with Friends at Barnes and Noble, La Jolla May 11, 2014

Filed under: Books,Gardening — explorergarden @ 7:12 am



Weeds Find a Way Curriculum Guide March 2, 2014

Filed under: Books,Environmental Education,Gardening — explorergarden @ 4:37 pm

Weeds Find a Way has a new curriculum guide — written by me and published by Simon and Schuster —  on how to use weeds in your schoolyard science and writing programs.  Every teacher  at the SDSEA conference Picture Books in Schoolyard Science session received one, but  it is also available for download on my website at Here is a photo of the guide and our friendly worms, which we used in the session in our hands-in exploration of worms.

curriculum guide


Weeds Find a Way is on bookstore shelves

Filed under: Books,Gratitude — explorergarden @ 4:33 pm

Is it the height of nerdiness to run out of a store to grab your camera the first time you see your book on a bookstore shelf? With thirteen other books on the shelves of libraries and in schools, you would not think this would be so exciting, but it was a THRILL to see Weeds Find a Way in all it’s weedy glory. Thank you, bookstore owners everywhere for  making a plant geek happy and for bringing weeds to the world of children everywhere!




Great Books About Plants — Ten Plants That Shook the World; Seeds of Change

I just came across two amazing books — one brand new, and one very old — and am using them to teach how plants have moved around the globe — particularly potatoes, as that is a focus of our school garden program. Plants can be used as a frame of reference to look at global migration, and the impact that the movement of people and plants has had across the world.

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Happy Birthday Little Book! February 5, 2014

Celebrating Book Launch Day for Weeds Find a Way with this book trailer by Carolyn Fisher. Happy Birthday, Little Book!


Weeds Find A Way 2 January 22, 2014

Filed under: Books,Environmental Education — explorergarden @ 8:08 am

My first picture book Weeds Find A Way will be out on February 4 and on Christmas Eve, as I lay in bed sick with the flu, my husband brought in a package from the doorstep — my book!!  An early copy!e9baba031001fc9fcffb37dabf77f648_twp1

We may not think of weeds this way, but they’re a valuable educational resource — and they’re free! Download  curriculum about weeds — Science, Common Core Writing, Art, and Social-Emotional Development activities — on my website at so you can use weeds as an amazing — and, yes, sometimes annoying — resource.

Here are a few weeds living in my garden this week: purslane, a dandelion relative, grasses, stinging nettle, and cheeseweed.

I am told purslane can help prevent cancer.

I am told purslane can help prevent cancer.

A dandelion relative.

A dandelion relative.

Stinging nettle -- ouch! It has  acid in its tiny hairs!

Stinging nettle — ouch! It has acid in its tiny hairs!

Cheeseweed -- in the mallow family.

Cheeseweed — in the mallow family.

A grass of some sort.

A grass of some sort.

A tiny weed -- I need to learn its name -- growing next to my baby beets.

A tiny weed — I need to learn its name — growing next to my baby chard.


Weeds Find a Way November 8, 2013

Filed under: Books,Environmental Education,Everything Under the Sun,Gardening — explorergarden @ 1:10 am


My new book, Weeds Find a Way, is coming out in a few short months! Here’s a link to an interview I just had with Henry Herz at, an online journal.

The first review of WEEDS is in, and it’s lovely. This is from Kirkus:

Adaptable weeds find ways to spread themselves and their seeds, to grow in strange places, and to be loved and admired.

Mixed-media digital collage illustrations on double-page spreads follow a girl and her dog through a world of weeds, from seeds to flowers. Sometimes—as in an image of milkweed seeds shooting from a pod—these pictures focus on the weeds themselves; sometimes they include parts of the girl or dog; and some are full scenes. Weed seeds wait through a winter snow. They bake on hot sidewalks. They sprout “in a tangle of tree roots” and flower into “umbrellas of the finest white lace.” Some shatter and spread when pulled; others avoid being eaten, thanks to thorns and poisons. The hand-lettered alliterative text provides a simple introduction to the idea of weeds. With very few lines to each page, it reads aloud smoothly. The author, a California-based nature educator, includes a “Meet the Weeds” afterword, defining them as plants growing where they aren’t wanted and describing 24 common U.S. weeds, from dandelions to wild oats. A small, suggestive image accompanies each description.

Neither formal introduction nor field guide, this unusual reminder of weeds’ admirable qualities nevertheless merits a place on the nature-study shelf of preschool and early-elementary classrooms. (Informational picture book. 3-7)


World Book Night April 29, 2012

Filed under: Books,Gratitude — explorergarden @ 6:22 am

April 23 was World Book Night. I had the great honor of being selected as a Book Giver. I had written an essay describing how I became a reader, the book that turned me into a reader — Annie Oakley, Little Sure Shot — which I read in grade 2 or 3 (and still own) and why I wanted to be able to give someone else that experience of becoming a reader. I picked up my books last weekend, but had no time on April 23 to pass them out. The trick was, they had to be given to reluctant readers — folks who don’t read a lot. And the book I was given to pass out was a wonderful book — but it was for adults. As a teacher, I encounter many children who don’t love to read yet. Passing books out to adults seemed daunting….

So this morning, I went to our largest, busiest municipal park with my box of books. A Shakespeare Festival was underway — I was worried there would be no reluctant readers in the crowd. But I was wrong. Adults don’t read because 1. We don’t have time; 2. We don’t know what to read; and 3. We read all sorts of stuff we HAVE to read, so the great joy of reading disappears….

That is, until we rediscover it.

Today I experienced the great joy of connecting people with a great book — The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao, but Junot Diaz, winner of the Pullitser Prize for Literature a few years back. I read it a year or so ago. I was worried passing it out because it is NOT light reading. It is great, compelling reading. But it is pretty intense. I walked around the park telling people I was giving away books for World Book Night, but said that I was not allowed to give books to people who would already describe themselves as book worms, or who already had their noses buried in books. Then I asked them how they would describe themselves as readers. Many said they read a lot — a book a week, one man said. But many said they have no time, but would love a good book. I gave away a box of books in about an hour. I had some really nice conversations with people about books and reading, about this book in particular, and about what they were doing at the park. Two photography students took books — and also took pictures of my patched pants. My city is so beautifully diverse, it felt so wonderful to connect with all kinds of people — all ages, ethnicities, genders and socio-economic levels — over something as magnificent as a book, that we all can share and enjoy.

So, thank you, World Book Night, for allowing me to share my love of reading with strangers in such a beautiful experience!

Here’s the link to World Book Night.


Susan A. Olcott

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