SEASIDE — A new elective class at Seaside High School introduces students to a combination of studies, including art, botany and ethnobotany.
Teachers Julie Greene and Dorota Haber-Lehigh offered the art of ethnobotany class as an elective to 33 students in all grades.
The teachers shared the importance of maintaining a diversity of native plants and their importance to humans and the ecosystem in the Pacific Northwest.
“It was more along the lines of environmental education, appreciation for nature and for what surrounds us,” Haber-Lehigh said. “I’m hoping the students will see some of it and have different attitudes toward nature and also toward being resourceful, being caring and being more sustainable.”
Greene has more than 15 years of experience in botany and biology and Haber-Lehigh, an artist, has taught multiple botanical drawing classes and workshops in the community. The two instructors were looking for a new teaching opportunity and the chance to offer something different for students. They decided to collaborate on the art of ethnobotany.
“It’s something fun that combines our interests,” said Greene, a special education teacher.
Students could choose to earn either art or science credit for completing the course. Throughout the class, students were taught the basics of botany, how to identify both native and non-native plants, discern if they were edible or poisonous and collect written observations. They learned how the plants historically were used by humans of many cultures for various things: food, medicine, clothing, shelter, arts and crafts, construction material and more. The primary focus, Greene said, was on how indigenous people used the plants. Additionally, students learned how various plants are used — or sometimes not used — today.
“It’s not just learning botany,” Haber-Lehigh said. “Ethnobotany is the relationship between plants and people. And we threw in the art component, because it’s fun to learn about plants and nature through drawing and sketching.”
Haber-Lehigh, who teaches English as a second language, said she’s always been interested in indigenous cultures. In her native Poland, she said, there is an emphasis on using native plants medicinally and foraging for edible plants, such as huckleberries and mushrooms. She hopes to instill similar values and interests in the students through the class, so they will be conscientious of their natural surroundings, and protect the environment from over-development.
“I think all humans have an innate love of nature, and you just kind of need to rekindle it,” she said.
The teachers stressed hands-on and experiential learning, rather than relying heavily on textbooks and classroom lectures.
At least one day per week, the students were outside in the field. They foraged for edible plants and made tea from yarrow, rose hips, Western red cedar, Douglas fir branches and clover flowers. The teachers gave them worksheets to help them pay attention to details.
The students took three field trips, funded by money raised through the Tillamook Head Gathering fundraiser earlier this year. At Fort Clatsop, Gearhart Ridge Trail, the Mill Ponds and the Necanicum Estuary, the students identified and sketched plants and made field observations.
As a service project, they pulled invasive ivy from Sitka spruce trees on the south side of the school campus.
Drawing real plants gives people a unique relationship to the plants, Haber-Lehigh said.
“The art gives students a deeper appreciation and depth of knowledge about the plants,” she said. “It forces them to look closely and see all the patterns and details and intricacies.”
For the final project, students had to create a PowerPoint presentation showing the natural history and native uses for 10 of their favorite plants. Students also could choose some non-native plants or plants native to the places they grew up, as long as they identified the plants properly.
The teachers felt the class was well-received this year.
“It was so varied, it kept their interest,” Greene said. “I think that’s a joy for any teacher. When you see your students enjoy and get excited about their class.”
They hope to offer the course again next school year, possibly in the spring term so students can see different kinds of plants in different stages of growth. The teachers said whether they can offer it depends on class scheduling and working it around their other primary obligations.
Greene feels the class this term successfully showed “it’s popular and went well and we learned a lot.”