Aug 9, 2011

Little BITs, Art and Science at PS3

It is the end of an era. June 28 was our last day of school at Public School number 3 on 490 Hudson Street in the heart of Greenwich Village. This school has been part of our lives for over ten years beginning with Orion's first day of class with Isabelle, a delightful (now retired) teacher who wowed us with her kindness and great attitude towards learning. Over the years the boys were privileged to be under the care of many teachers but shared only one, Cynthia W, (Sley) who is also the lead vocalist of the punk-rock band, Bush Tetras and performs regularly with her new band. The year ended with Andrea, a tough but caring teacher who kept her brood very close as she dispensed doses of discipline and imaginative tutoring while fostering independent thinking.

PS3 is a public school well known for its creative agenda and parent participation. For years I’ve escorted classes to numerous museum and science trips, Alvin Ailey performances, donned my cowboy hat and boots for square dances and attended scores of exhibitions and concerts. Several of these events were hosted or organized by parents. It also must be noted that many students are offspring of well known actors, comedians, models, musicians and scientists. I often bumped into Louis C.K. and his red-head daughters squeezing through the auditorium doors or that actor from Swimming With Sharks. Natalie Portman walks her dog past the school and I once got a smile from Edie Falco as she squatted with a little girl against the blue doors of the front entrance. The school has been dubbed The Hippie School for its bare-foot dance teacher and same sex parents parading the hallways and its laid back, almost-too-relaxed approach to learning. I am sometimes distressed at the fact that the use of computers has hindered the kids’ ability to write (will they ever write a love letter, in script?) and spelling does not seem particularly important since there is always spell check. However, the kids are happy and thriving and like my Julian, they are being accepted into some very competitive and sought after middle schools. Julian is always singing something or the other for a musical on the Civil Rights Movement, or from the most recent, The Internal Organ Hall of Fame, a full length musical. Julian was The Stomach, one of three organs nominated for induction into the Hall of Fame. I attended one of many performances of this play in which there was a scene where an incredible boy (PS3's own “Groovy Guy”) with tons of energy and charm appeared on stage in his role of Raging Hormone. Parents were on their feet clapping as he stormed off, flailing. Although it was funny and very entertaining, I found myself growing increasingly emotional throughout the performance. I kept thinking that soon I would no longer see some of those kids and of how they grew so well and so quickly and how I had witnessed my Julian become great friends with one boy he had earlier considered his “arch nemesis” while some other best buds became just friends.

"....Thirty feet of beauty, come and see
Each organ is a cutie, just like me
No wonder we are snooty
We're the best
Thirty feet of beauty
Let's digest...."

I watched as the Heart extolled his virtues, the Appendix bemoaned her insignificance and other organs danced and sang their parts with verve. It was exciting watching the kids growing into teens and poised on the edge of great futures but also sad, because they were so quickly shedding off their childhood. During the previous weeks I was often surprised to find that they were so brave, so talented, so funny and innovative and always protective and supportive of each other. I became increasingly grateful for all the parents who contributed financially or otherwise to make the process of learning a fun and positive experience for my children.

I read somewhere that gratitude is evident in the ability to give to others. After getting the Julian Nile Strait seal-of-approval I approached his teacher who agreed to let me have four sessions in which to introduce botany/ plant science to her brood of 4th and 5th graders. We started with a brief history of botany and the rise of interest in plants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I remember so well the look on Julian’s face after the first five minutes of class. It said “You are talking too much Mom. Don't bore us and embarrass me in front of my friends.” His expression changed as soon as I said "Now let’s look at some plants". The kids were encouraged to smell, touch and even taste. A little green spider helped to increase the excitement among the boys. In following classes we talked about the parts of the plants and their functions. Then there was a bit on how plants are classified and the simplicity behind the seemingly complicated business of botanical nomenclature or bi-nomial (two name) system. There is a lot to be guessed about that TV show Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader..... These kids are smart and curious and often when I thought their eyes were beginning to glaze over I found that they were absorbing the information and could later clearly repeat what I had said earlier. Their interest become obvious when parents started writing and stopping me in the hallway to say how excited their kids were about the class. In the midst of the first lesson one boy said “We are little bits.” “What?” I asked. "Botanists In Training “ he replied, and indeed they were. How quickly they understood that folia and phyllum referred to leaves, flora and flori to flowers and carpa to fruit. They got that bi, tri, odor, micro, acutus and palmate meant two, three, fragrant, sharp, palm-shaped, tiny and large and realized that if they listened to their brains a little they could sort out the meaning of descriptive names or the specific epithet of many plant names. The cor in cordate or cordata referred to the heart as in coronary and dent in dentata referred to teeth as in a toothed leaf. They understood that Hydrangea macrophylla had big leaves and that Quercus rubra was the scientific name for red oak. They picked up this stuff with ease. They also figured out that names including words such as cheninsis, peruvians, canadensis, virginiana, mexicana and so forth told stories about the origins of the plants and that names like Lewisia or Clarkia informed us about who may have discovered the plant or about who it was named after. Later the kids each selected two cuttings from flowering plants and common New York City street trees to be pressed. The trees included Ginkgo biloba, Liquidambar (sweetgum), Gleditsia triacanthos (honey locust), Quercus rubrum and Quercus palustris (red oak and pin oak), Platanus acerfolia (London planetree), Acer platanoides (Norway maple) and Tilia cordata (Little leaf linden).

We went on a trip to the New York Botanical Gardens and looked at botanical illustrations, made drawings of plants and went on a guided poetry walk featuring the poems of Federico Garcia Lorca. All the while our plant specimens were drying out in plant presses and under the large rug on which the class spent part of their day listening and voicing their options on various current events. Our final class together involved the mounting of the dried specimens which were immediately transformed into works of art by the sheer act of being placed against a white background, creating very graphic representation and documentation of natural history. I helped with the labeling. The kids were very proud of their scientific artwork and they had every right to be. They were beautiful.

A few days later I saw on the news that iPhone had just released
a new app aimed at helping users identify city trees. The app includes the option to photograph a leaf, type in the location of the tree and the correct ID is spat out. How cool is that! I hope I have done a little bit to inspire a few kids to become naturalists, more observant of their natural surroundings or even to consider careers in the field of botany, horticulture or environmental science. I hope they continue to impress their parents by noting the difference between a London planetree and the sycamore or be curious about the purpose of the hairs or waxy surface of some leaves. If they are curious about the meaning of triacanthos as in Glestidia triacanthos or notice the abundance of detail and beauty that lie in each leaf or tree bark then I’ve done a bit to improve their lives and our future.

In just a few weeks the Little BITs of PS3 will start new lives as they enter various middle schools throughout New York City. Many thanks to the teachers, parents, student teachers, office and support staff for their roles in creating amazing human beings (with intestinal fortitude) and for making the world a better place.


Russ, a recently added member, has been keeping the paths weed-free and tidy. The black swallowtail butterfly lays its eggs on bronze ...