The Pumpkin: An Outstanding Teaching Tool
Capitalize on the availability of this seasonal squash by designing a lesson for a variety of disciplines.
By Ann Whittemore
Ah, the noble pumpkin. Its wonderfully round shape, its hue that shifts from green to bright orange, and its potential as an effective and motivating teaching tool. As fall approaches, towns across the country will begin displaying and selling these lovely vegetables at very reasonable prices. Why not take advantage of the harvest and purchase a few pumpkins for your classroom? You may be thinking that pumpkins are the quintessential representation of Halloween, but they are more than that. Pumpkins are inexpensive, available, and can facilitate a wide variety of learning experiences. I’ve used pumpkins as tools in special-education classes, when working with pre-schoolers, when I was a nanny, and during after-school programs. In the fall, pumpkins are available, and one or two can be used to teach an entire class. If you are attempting to conserve, or have a limited budget, you have to remember to use your pumpkin wisely. For example, don’t cut into it to count seeds until you have used it completely in its untouched form. Once it’s cut, it’s a goner.
Monitor its Growth
I based a lesson on the book Pumpkin Pumpkin, which shows the life cycle of a pumpkin. If you start early enough, you may be able to plant some pumpkin seeds of your own and have them ready for use. First, read the story Pumpkin Pumpkin and discuss the life cycle of your plant. I like to have the kids make a life-cycle model by coloring and cutting each phase of the cycle and then attaching it to a construction paper pumpkin. Time-lapse video is also a fun way to show the life cycle, Neokids and Youtube have many to choose from. In a pre-school class, we concluded our life cycle lesson by observing a decaying pumpkin. I cut a face into my pumpkin and made pumpkin-shaped science journals for each child. We then looked at our pumpkin, taking notes (drawing pictures) and discussing what changes we saw each day. We also took a photograph of our pumpkin with a digital camera. I used the images I had taken of the decaying process to make a time-lapse video of my own. The class was thrilled to see how Mr. Pumpkin (their pumpkin) changed, this led to interesting discussions and was a great way to have the kids use the observations they made in an active and thoughtful way. So what did we do with the seeds?
Hone Math Skills
While our pumpkin rotted away, we were busy putting math skills to work. After discussing the parts of a seed, and carefully dissecting a few, I had the class estimate the number of seeds we removed from Mr. Pumpkin. We then counted out groups of ten seeds using an original worksheet that had pictures of 10 pumpkin shapes. Learners estimated how many seeds we had, then made an actual count. Next, they placed one seed onto each shape to make 10. Even though this was a very young group, I felt that introducing counting by 10s was beneficial. This activity built number-sense and began to help learners better understand quantity and number value.
Appreciate and Create
For older students, I think the pumpkin can be used in a more refined way. Because of its gorgeous color and shape, I use it as the center for art lessons. First, I share the beauty of still-life painting. I use PowerPoint to show examples. As a class, we discuss shape, color, line, and shading. I instruct learners how to create a horizon line, determine where the light source is on their subject, and how to create a dimensional shape through shading. Next, I bring out a pumpkin, place it at the center of the room, and show how the shading shifts depending on where the light source is coming from. I establish the image and allow learners to explore their artistic abilities. If time permits, I find I get the best results if I have the class complete an entire study of the pumpkin. First, they use pencils to draw and explore shading, then we move onto pastels, and finally I allow them to explore watercolor. For novice artists, the permanence of paint can be intimidating. I’ve found water colors to be a cheap and easy-to-use alternative.
Create Unique Photographs
Black and white still-life photography is another wonderful way to showcase the beauty of a vegetable. In the past, I was able to procure several digital cameras (on loan) from several kind friends. Then I obtained pumpkin subjects through a generous donation. I made a PowerPoint showing various ways inanimate objects have been brought to life through photography; Mapplethorpe’s flower studies provided great examples. Again, we discussed light, line, and shading. Next, I introduced visual symbolism in art. I gave an entire period to adjusting, altering, and photographing the pumpkins. Each learner chose their best image and composed a free-form poem focusing on descriptive language and symbolism.
Research Food Sources
Did you ever think about how food has changed over time or where it originated? Food domestication, it turns out, is a fascinating subject. Have your class follow the life of a domesticated food. This is a great way to build research skills and bring a deeper understanding of the cultural significance of food choice and subsistence strategies. Using your trusty pumpkin as an example, describe to learners where the pumpkin originated, what it looked like in its undomesticated form, and how man has changed, or chosen for specific traits, to create a better food resource. Each learner will choose one natural food to research. They will research where the food originated, what culture groups used it, if it moved or has been used in other places around the globe, if it had any impact on new cultures that encountered it, and how (if) it has been changed through the process of domestication. This project takes a series of weeks and culminates in an expository essay and PowerPoint presentation. It is a great lesson because it incorporates environmental awareness, research, reading informational text, analyzing resources, expository writing, computer skills, and cultural understanding.
Pumpkins are more than just doorstep decorations, they are wonderful teaching tools ripe for the picking.
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