Tapping into nature: Schenectady schools look to expand farm-to-school programming

Fifth-grader Karlie Burkette, 10, empties maple sugar water from a tree as kindergarten students watch during a lesson on making maple syrup at Zoller Elementary in Schenectady on Wednesday.

Fifth-grader Karlie Burkette, 10, empties maple sugar water from a tree as kindergarten students watch during a lesson on making maple syrup at Zoller Elementary in Schenectady on Wednesday.

SCHENECTADY — The talk around the maple trees at Zoller Elementary School on Wednesday morning couldn’t help but turn to breakfast.

“I can’t wait until I get the syrup and pour it on some pancakes,” Zoller fifth-grader Xavier Seyboth said as he and his classmates worked to harvest the final push of sap in some of the school’s maple trees. “That’s the first thing I’m gonna do.”

“Pancakes are better than waffles,” fifth-grader C.J. Lloyd agreed with his classmate.

The students helped pour the clear tree sap out of blue plastic bags attached just below where the trees had been tapped. The students have been learning about the maple sugar industry and its role in upstate New York, and Rebekka Henriksen, who manages a federal farm-to-school grant in the district, explained the step-by-step process of turning the sap into sweet maple syrup.

“I think I have enough for everyone to get some syrup,” she said, promising the students at least a small sample of their joint harvest. But first Henriksen will have to boil off most of the sap’s water content — an hours long process she has done in her backyard.

After the students poured off the most recent batch of sap, Henriksen explained a litany of scientific concepts, ranging from light refraction to viscosity and density, through the lens of the maple sugaring process. And the students had questions: “How many gallons does it take to get that little jar?” “How does the sap go from clear to brown?”

Fifth-grader Oliver Verret said he enjoyed learning about the process and spending time outside doing it first hand. He said the process was a lot more involved than he thought, and the yield of syrup a lot smaller.

“I’m learning that you need more than you think you need,” he said. “You need a lot just to make one bottle.”

Ireland Magee, who got in on the pancake talk by highlighting the need to make something thicker than the true sap, also said she enjoyed the hands-on nature of getting into nature – even if it’s just the school’s sprawling grounds.

“I like it better,” Ireland said of the activity. “We’re not just learning, and the teacher is not just telling us. We get to do it too.”

 Henriksen,  who has worked in the district as a parent volunteer and paraprofessional and is now the district’s farm-to-school grant facilitator, can envision a lot more doing at Schenectady schools that goes beyond tapping maple trees. After leading a garden club at Zoller for about five years, she hopes to establish similar clubs, and gardens, at other elementary schools in the district next fall.

“We can start teaching in pre-K some of these concepts,” she said Wednesday after leading the maple sugaring lesson. “Every time they do a hands-on activity, they are absorbing the material in a different way.”

The two-year grant was extended through next year due to the pandemic, and Henriksen said the grant could be renewed in future years if the district is able to establish new programming.

Over the summer Henriksen will work at the district’s summer enrichment program, which is still in planning, offering elementary students daily lessons on food systems, soil health and plant cultivation, seed-saving practices and the basic science and biology that underlies the growing and production of food.

In the fall she plans to expand the garden club program she established in recent years at Zoller to other elementary schools in the district, and she intends to visit the district’s different schools in the coming weeks to survey existing and abandoned school gardens and map out space to build new ones. She said building out the garden- and farm-based programs could take time but can also start small.

“Even if you are just growing stuff in containers,” Henriksen said.

The Zoller fifth-graders, part of Nicole Boone’s class, recently started their own seedlings. They only just planted the seeds this week but hoped they may start to see green shoots by next week. Oliver planted celery seeds. Ireland planted broccoli seeds. (“Because it’s my favorite vegetable,” she said.)

Mary Jo Homenick’s kindergarten class joined the fifth-graders to help tap the maple trees; the fifth-graders held the hands of their younger counterparts and knelt beside them to help hold the bags used to capture the flowing sap. The older and younger students in the past interacted through a reading-buddy program, but it had to be suspended this year due to COVID-19 precautions. But going outside at the same time was a possible alternative once the spring weather emerged.

“We’d had enough being cooped up in the room with COVID,” said fifth-grade teacher Boone. “It was something to do … They are learning so much, and they get to buddy up.”

The kindergartners did not stick around for Henriksen’s entire lesson, but they had a chance to get their most pressing questions answered.

“How come there’s maple trees here and not on my street?” one of the kindergartners asked.

“Are you sure there aren’t maple trees on your street?” Henriksen asked in response, promising to visit the class to teach them to identify different types of trees.

“There might be,” the kindergartner responded, apparently reevaluating his street’s stock of trees.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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