"Whenever we go outside," says Amy Woodard, horticulture teacher at Cedar Lane School, "I point out where our class planted bulbs last fall. When the leaves and blooms appear in the spring, the students are very excited."
Planting bulbs and waiting for them to bloom is only one segment of a program that seems to be an example of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. Horticulture is an established and important aspect of learning at Cedar Lane, a Howard County public school for mentally and physically handicapped students.
To sit in on one of Woodard's classes is to experience many levels and nuances of learning, not just horticulture, but day-to-day self-sufficiency.
"We are not trying to create horticulturists in these classes," she says. "We are trying to give the students job-oriented skills." And she means this in a broad sense.
"What's the No. 1 rule in horticulture class?" quizzes Woodard, as a group of five energetic middle schoolers is escorted into her small work place.
"Don't touch anyone," says one girl. And she is right. One boy carries a picture of "Miss Amy," a strategy to help him remember where he is headed this Friday morning. Most of the children seem anxious to start whatever project is waiting, but it takes a lot of time to get everyone focused on listening to the instructions. Learning appropriate ways to relate to peers, learning to listen and to follow simple directions are primary aims of the program at Cedar Lane.
Soon, most of the children are busy cutting sprigs of white pine from large branches for future wreath-making. Calls of "help me, help me", and grunts of frustration as well as satisfied smiles, accompany the snipping.
But before long, the period is gone and it's time to bag the pieces of pine (a physically difficult task for some), wash hands, remove aprons and find the correct place to hang them up. All the children demand some form of individual attention and receive praise for their work. Paper tokens given out for a job well done symbolize the money that a real job would pay.
Woodard is not an easy taskmaster. She makes it clear that she expects cooperation and results in class. She is well aware that coddling these children is not in their best interest.
With state and federal government emphasis on the "mainstreaming" of handicapped children into regular schools and, later, into group homes and jobs, each child must be helped to make the most of his or her potential.
Trying to treat each child in an "age appropriate" manner is not an easy job.
For instance, most of her middle schoolers are not fully toilet trained and have trouble feeding themselves. The challenge is compounded with those children who are "spoiled" at home, she says.
She sees great potential in all her students. Her enthusiasm for their progress goes without saying. Teacher burnout is not a problem for Woodard, even after 12 years, when she first started teaching at the old Scaggsville school here in Howard County. She has since taught in various places, including Baltimore City.
She continues to love her work. She is one of those unusual individuals who knew from childhood what she wanted to do in life, got the training (a university degree in horticulture) and is doing her job in what she describes as a very positive environment. "The school has a very cohesive and supportive staff," she adds.
The student population at Cedar Lane represents a broad range of physical and mental disabilities. The students' ages range from 1 to 21.
Some children are only mildly handicapped, and some are severely and profoundly handicapped. Many are in wheelchairs and walkers. But even the students in wheelchairs who are unable to respond to her verbally, get something out of horticulture class, notes Woodard.
The smells, textures and colors that fill the attached greenhouse teach every sense. She selects plants for that very purpose. The pastels of coleus, and the sharp reds and whites of poinsettias, mingle with spikes of cacti and shiny-leaved vines. Touching is encouraged. Although projects with these students can be one-sided conversations, she says, a great deal can be said with smiles and nods.
One of her high school classes contains a challenging mix of mentally and physically handicapped students. Each student operates on a different level, one patiently working at the physical mastery of grasping a handful of soil and getting it into a pot. Another brings in fresh greens for cutting from an outside storage area. One boy tries hard to focus his attention on stacking small pots, one inside the other.
Cedar Lane High School students are given the chance to work with Howard County Technical Center horticulture students. Bused to the center, each one is paired with a Technical Center partner for cooperative learning.
This integration into a "regular" school works beautifully, says Woodard.
The technical students learn from the experience as well, and there is never a lack of volunteer partners there.