For decades, Longwood Gardens has been a go-to place for teachers who want to give their students tangible experience with the natural world and who themselves want to expand their knowledge of horticulture through hands-on learning.
But during a major disruption like a public health crisis, how could Longwood Gardens engage an audience that couldn’t visit in-person? How could they keep learners active with events and programming? What could be done to bring the joy of learning at the gardens to people, no matter where they were?
As the saying goes, where one door closes, sometimes another opens.
In our previous post, we looked at how Longwood Gardens was able to transform a course that’s part of its Floral Design Certificate Program from a hands-on one, only offered in person, to an equally engaging virtual option, with flowers delivered right to some participants’ doorsteps. Here, we’ll explore how Longwood Gardens is reimagining professional development for K–12 teachers and making online teacher professional development programs more applicable, accessible, and engaging than ever. We talked to Heather Drzal, director of school and youth programs, Susan Caldwell, instructional designer and learning techniques manager and Nick D’Addezio, marketing director, to learn more about what virtual teacher professional development looks like at Longwood Gardens.
Bringing the Gardens to Students and Teachers Everywhere
Longwood Gardens has been providing education offerings for more than 60 years and has been online for more than 10 years. In a typical year, Longwood Gardens reaches more than 4,500 people with its in-person and hybrid continuing education courses and 5,000–10,000 people through its fully digital offerings. Its audiences are diverse, ranging from school-aged children and teachers to professional practitioners, hobbyists and everyone in between.
Although in-person visits weren’t possible for the majority of 2020, Longwood Gardens found a variety of other ways to get students and teachers active and involved. Our Garden Your Home is a campaign that was initiated to keep people connected to their favorite gardens through images, videos, events, courses, and projects. “We’ve been creating activities that encourage kids to get outdoors and interact with nature,” said Heather. “They can be done at home, but they’re also something teachers can use the classroom if they’re looking to get kids outside for a few minutes.” The garden’s virtual field trips have also soared in popularity. Normally, virtual field trips would host somewhere around 11,000 students per year. In the last year, attendees have been closer to 23,000. “What I love best about our virtual field trip program is that because it’s a live interaction, kids get to personally ask questions. You don’t necessarily get to all of them, but it does allow us to get to more kids too, which is a great thing,” said Heather.
In addition to offering a wealth of learning and engagement pathways for students, Longwood Gardens also saw an opportunity to better support K–12 teachers in the classroom and in their careers. “We did have an online professional development program for K–12 teachers a number of years ago that helped them plan, budget, design, and implement schoolyard gardens. The conversation started about reimagining this program using some of the resources we’ve already developed,” explained Susan.
“Before the course was very practical and focused on establishing that school garden,” Nick continued. “The shift now is really about creating a course that has a lot more applicability and can reach a much broader audience, helping teachers understand how to use plants to teach different lessons and embed horticulture into the STEM curriculum they’re building.”
1. Practical Learnings That Can Be Applied in Any Classroom
One of the courses Longwood Gardens offers is “Understanding Plants.” This is a foundational course for its Certificate of Merit in Ornamental Horticulture I, though the information it provides is relevant to anyone who wants to know more about the basic principles of plant nomenclature, morphology, anatomy, and physiology. “Heather was able to take the material and customize it for K–12 teachers so they can develop lesson plans and activities,” said Susan. The educator-specific version of this course is called Understanding Plants: Teacher Edition.
“Teachers not only get to learn the content themselves but also choose and adapt how they apply it in the classroom. I tried to be thoughtful about the activities so that something could be ramped up a little bit for your high schoolers or paired back down for your first graders,” explained Heather.
2. Tangible Takeaways to Demonstrate and Apply What You’ve Learned
In designing the course, one of the main goals was that teachers walk away with the ability to create activities to support learning. That was also a practical consideration as in some cases schools require that when teachers take part in professional development activities, they provide both a certificate of completion and additional evidence of what they have learned.
“Instead of doing a final exam, teachers create and have to submit a lesson plan,” said Heather. “On top of being proof of what they’ve learned, that’s something teachers can take back to their classrooms.”
“I think I mostly want teachers to know that this is meant to be a practical course,” Heather continued. “Yes, you’re going to gain knowledge of the content yourself, but the lesson plans, activities, and samples at the end are all there to help make your job a little bit easier.”
3. Interactive Experiences That Help Teachers Set the Bar
In addition to having activities and lessons ready to go, the activities included in the course are designed so that when teachers bring adapt them for their own classrooms, they’ll have an actual product they can show their students.
“One of the activities, for instance, is called ‘painting with nature,’” Heather said. “They collect sticks, twigs, leaves, and anything else they can find, and then paint a picture what they’ve gathered. When the teacher adapts that for their classroom, they have an actual picture to show their students, giving them an idea of what it could look like and helping them complete the activity.”
4. Opportunities to Collaborate and Get Feedback from Peers and Instructors
Longwood Gardens also leverages discussion boards to give teachers space to share their ideas and creations. “The goal is that an instructor would be popping in and out to give them feedback and that teachers themselves will be collaborative and encouraging amongst each other. Everyone knows that in the world of education, you aren’t necessarily looking to reinvent the wheel. You’re going to look for something you can adapt and use in your space with your students,” said Heather.
5. Experiences That Are Accessible and Applicable for Teachers Anywhere
Because Longwood Gardens sees students from across the US, all of its programs are tied to the Next-Gen Science Standards (NGSS), which set expectations for what K–12 students should know and be able to do. “Teachers can say ‘this is the standard I need to address, and here’s one way I can do that,’” said Heather. “It’s really just trying to show teachers a different approach. You don’t need to do it in a traditional manner. You can use the world of horticulture to help you.”
“NGSS is US specific, but the programs are designed to be accessed by anyone,” said Heather. “For instance, Operation Pollination goes through how a plant gets pollinated. It’s a universal concept that students in many other places are learning as well. Our virtual field trip program has also brought in students from around the world. Just this year, we’ve hosted groups from Canada, Mexico, India, and Kazakhstan.”
Longwood Gardens is excited to see where online professional development can take the garden, teachers, and students. “Historically, we’ve only done teacher professional development onsite. While we always enjoy seeing familiar faces in our classes, we can’t wait to reach to reach new classrooms and new teachers in new places,” said Heather.
Do you want to incorporate plant knowledge into your classroom but aren’t sure how to start? Understanding Plants: Teacher Edition starts June 28. Want to learn how to draw some of nature’s most bizarre plants? Drawing the Wacky and Weird World of Plants starts June 23.