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March 10, 2017 / Rick Swann

Janet Wong

wong  Last night I was lucky enough to be able to assist well-known children’s poet and author Janet Wong in her presentation Here We Go: Teaching and Learning in a Time of Social Change that she delivered to the Seattle Reading Council. It was a powerful presentation, full of great ideas. Have you ever considered teaching the building blocks of poetry (alliteration, rhyme, rhythm, personification, etc.) using the phrases found on protest and other types of posters? It works!

Her new book on the “hows” of writing poetry, Here We Go: a poetry Friday power book that she co-wrote with Sylvia Vardell tells a story of social activism by four students while also modeling and encouraging the writing of poetry. One of the activity the students do is plan a school garden!

Check out her book at!

November 16, 2015 / Rick Swann

Salmon, Sound and cell phones


Chum salmon are running up nearby Piper’s Creek and I hiked down to see them. It’s always impressive to see large fish in a stream that, in places, is about three inches deep and only several feet across. The salmon announce themselves as they battle through the shallows with steady splashing. There were quite a number of them and volunteers have put a lot of effort into cleaning up the creek and making it more fish friendly.

While I was there the sun peaked out. It’s been really soggy lately so it was a treat. I continued down the creek until it reached the beach that you get to via an overpass because the rail lines run right along the water on their way to Vancouver, B.C. From the overpass I could see that the south end of the Olympic Mountains were peaking through a temporary break in the clouds. It was my first sighting of fresh snow since last February or March.

The tide was low and a lot of the creek was exposed as well as a lot of beach. Crows and gulls lined the creek feeding on salmon carcasses. There were five other people besides myself. One was a fisherman waist deep in Puget Sound using a fly rod to try to hook a fish before it reached fresh water. The other four were scattered up and down the beach, mostly sitting on the massive logs that have ended up buried in the sand over a period of years. With the only sun of the week, and the mountains and salt water as a backdrop, every single one of them was staring down at their cell phones sitting with their backs to the sun in order to shade the screens.

piper's creek

Can you spot the two salmon in the stream?


Crows were still working this one over but flitted off a few feet as I inspected it.

September 24, 2015 / Rick Swann

Bellingham visit

I spent the day yesterday in Bellingham, Washington with fellow author, Katherine Pryor. She has a new picture book out, Zora’s Zucchini which is the perfect read for the end of summer. It’s about what to do with all those zucchinis your garden keeps yielding, but you are tired of eating.

Sponsored by Village Books, we had wonderful day. We had two fun assemblies with the fantastic students of Birchwood Elementary School followed by a tour of their impressive school garden run by Common Threads Farm. In the afternoon, Kathy read at the farmer’s market located out the back door of Village Books and then we both participated in a panel discussion about food literacy with local food experts.

There’s a lot of amazing work going on with local food and food literacy in Whatcom County!
village books birchwood

April 8, 2015 / Rick Swann

VIctory Garden Posters

Our school garden

The end of the 19th century in this country was a time of increased urbanization. People were leaving their small farms and moving to cities to find work in a rapidly industrializing nation. Some educators worried that urban areas were no place for children. School gardens were developed to: foster better nutritional habits; teach responsibility and character building; and to allow urban children to connect with nature.

Then the Great War broke out. These same educators saw an opportunity to nationalize a school garden curriculum—the country’s first national curriculum, by the way. They created the U.S. School Garden Army as a way to educate children as well as make up for the food production needed with the lack of crops being grown in war-torn Europe. Several million school children participated in the program before it lost funding after the Armistice.

At its zenith in Seattle Schools, 15 tons of seed potatoes and 10,000 packets of seeds were ordered for the School Garden Army volunteers who grew $100,000 worth of produce. Adjusted for inflation that’s $1,325,000 worth of produce in 2012 dollars.

People believe that the World War II “Food for Freedom” gardening campaign was so successful (40% of all fruits and vegetables consumed during this time was produced in the 21 million Victory Gardens leading to the highest percentage of fruits and vegetables in our diet in recent times) because so many of the adults participating in the program had belonged to the U.S. School Garden Army during World War I and immediately saw growing food as a way to support the war effort.

One of the best things about the school and community created in the two wars were the colorful posters encouraging them. Poet Tom Delmore sent me this link to a poster slide show:

A great thing to do with kid is have them make their own posters about possible community responses to make the world a better place. Some great examples can be found at Victory Garden of Tomorrow:

October 22, 2014 / Rick Swann

Potato harvest and lesson!

Makah Ozette potatoes


The Makah Ozette Potato is the only potato in North America that did not come here via Europe. It was imported directly from South America, arriving via ship in 1791. That spring a ship arrived in Neah Bay, Washington, manned by Spaniards with plans to establish a mission there. They planted a garden, but abandoned the site within the year when severe winter storms created conditions unsafe for moorage of their vessel.

The Makah people continued to grow the potatoes the Spaniards brought with them directly from from South America, and it became a staple in their diet. In 2004 Slow Food recognized the potato by naming it to their Ark of Taste. Slow Food Seattle has been making Makah Ozette seed potatoes available to local school gardens and I’ve been working on lesson plans for this crop that is so rich in history.

Here is a math lessons with a Common Core tie in:

Mathematics: Have students count the number of seed potatoes, and depending on their age, weigh them as well. Weighing them can introduce a lesson on grams and kilograms. CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.4.MD.A.1 Save the data!

At harvest time, next year’s students can compute how many potatoes each seed potato produced and, for older students, ratios of seed potato weight to harvest yield. Word problems such as: “If you had used x amount of seed potatoes what would the harvest have been?” can be constructed. CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.4.MD.A.2

This summer I grew potatoes in an old 10-gallon bucket in my backyard. I started with it 1/3 full of soil and added more to it as the plants grew over the course of the summer, ending up with a bucket full of soil by early August. I put in 3 very small Makah Ozette Potatoes I had left over from the year before. My harvest, pictured above, was 51 potatoes, or 17 times the number I started with. But the potatoes I grew were much bigger! By weight my yield was 42 times what I started with!

In 1919 the Seattle school district ordered 15 tons of seed potatoes for students to grow as part of the U.S. School Garden Army initiative that began during the Great War. Now I can understand how students managed to grow over $100,000 worth of produce. Adjusted to 2014, that’s about $1,300,000 worth of vegetables!

These potatoes, by the way, are great eating. The trick is to not eat them all, so you can grow them again the following year! Just store a few in a cool, dark, and dry spot over the winter and plant them come spring. Can’t wait!

May 22, 2014 / Rick Swann

New Center for Ecoliteracy publication


A Center for Ecoliteracy has teamed up with National Geographic to create Big ideas: Linking Food, Culture, and the Environment. It identifies key concepts that link food, culture and the environment and aligns them with Common Core Standards; Next Generation Science Standards; College, Career, and Civic Life Standards (C3); National Health Education Standards; and California Nutritional Competencies.


The publication highlights activities that can be done with students in kindergarten through grade 12. What I like are the ideas linked to great books. This publication can be downloaded for free! Check it out at

April 24, 2014 / Rick Swann

Roly-polies: perfect pills for your garden

pill bugs

I was moving stones in my backyard yesterday and had to stop because I was disrupting the lives of too many pill bugs. I love these animals—they are like little armadillos because they can roll up into little armored balls. When I researched them for my book, Our School Garden!, I was amazed by all the different names that they had: Some of my favorites are: butcher boy, gramersow and slater, along with the ones I use in my poem—potato bug, cheese log, doodlebug and chucky pig. Most of the kids I know around here call them roly-polies.

            Pill bugs are primarily detritivores.  That means they eat dead vegetation and dead animals. They also eat mold and fungi and some living plants. When they eat living plants they prefer to eat young and tender shoots and fruit such as strawberries. Pill bugs are considered beneficial animals for the garden. Like earthworms, they mostly feed on dead vegetation and help turn it into soil by breaking it down during their digestion process.

A great fact for kids is that pill bugs are coprophagous animals. That means that they eat their own feces. Copper is an essential element in their blood and they need to eat food with copper in order to survive. Decaying leaves are a good source of copper. Pill bug feces are rich in copper, too. When there isn’t a good supply of decaying leaves to eat, pill bugs will recycle their own copper.

That makes them useful to pet owners. They put pill bugs in cages with their pet reptiles, insects or tarantulas. The pill bugs eat the feces, mold and dead vegetation and help keep the cage clean. Depending upon the type of animal in the cage, some of the pill bugs end up being part of the pet’s diet!

            Female pill bugs have pouches a lot like kangaroos. Usually a male fertilizes a female pill bug’s eggs, but pill bugs occasionally reproduce through parthenogenesis–forming young from unfertilized eggs. In both cases the female forms a pouch around the eggs to protect them. The female has from a dozen to two hundred eggs at a time. She carries them in her pouch for two to three months.

When pill bugs hatch they look just like small light-colored adults. They are born with only six pairs of legs. Several days to several weeks after they hatch the babies molt, shedding their first shell that they have already outgrown. Now they have seven pairs of legs. It is time to leave the pouch.

Their shells won’t have hardened yet. They cannot protect themselves from predators like spiders, lizards or toads. It is also easy for them to dry out. As a result, there is a very high mortality rate at first. Pill bugs that survive are able to breed at about one year of age. The females carry one to three sets of eggs each year. Pill bugs can live from two to five years.

They are found all over the world. Look for them in your yard!