Amanda Mellenthin has turned a patch of land behind Carriel Junior High School into her field of dreams.
Mellenthin, who has taught science to seventh graders for 12 years in the O’Fallon School District #90, wanted to create hands-on learning. She has been at Carriel since it opened 10 years ago, and has received support from the administration, colleagues, parents and students to make her ideas a reality.
“Over the past several years, I’ve worked with other staff and students to establish a school vegetable garden, butterfly garden, and new ‘pollinator patch’ (native prairie area). Student will maintain and experiment in these spaces throughout the year, providing us with an opportunity to learn about ecosystem interactions, the diversity of life, and experience countless other ‘teachable’ moments,” she said.
She might be the busiest person in O’Fallon.
“This same space houses our school composting program where students care for several thousand earthworms that eat our school lunch waste and create fertile soil for our garden. Last winter we also gained a school greenhouse thanks to funding from the Emerson Gold Star Grant. In the spring we experimented with using this greenhouse space to produce of plants for our campus and community including hundreds of native milkweed plants for monarch butterflies,” she said.
Those are the big projects that consume the school day and off-hours.
“The students drive it. So, if they are getting something out of it, great,” she said. “You can’t substitute first-hand experiences for kids. I have found many teachable moments.”
She is the first one to credit others for their help.
“It’s not just me. It’s a whole bunch of people. People who are cheering us on. The administration who says, ‘I’ll let you do it,’” she said. “It’s been a community effort. A lot of co-workers. The Eco Team. The Art Club painted the birdhouses and the bricks. Parents come out in the summer and pull weeds. The O’Fallon Garden Club helps us.”
She has received five grants to help with the projects, including two St. Louis companies, Emerson and Monsanto. One provided 30 Chrome books for her classroom this fall.
One of the class’s biggest projects is the Monarch Butterfly Watch. Researchers from University of Nebraska are watching the migration of Monarch butterflies from Canada to Mexico. The Carriel Garden is considered a way station for the butterflies so they are being monitored.
That’s why they have planted milkweed, which provides food for the butterflies, and have zinnias, marigolds and other nectaring plants.
“We’ll collect the pods and save some for next year,” she said.
The Monarch butterfly is considered an endangered species.
“Their travel pattern is considered a phenomenon. They are the only insect to go that distance, starting in the summer in Canada,” she said.
Mellenthin said students also tagged the butterflies so they can be identified on their journey.
In the classroom, the students have seen the butterflies hatch from their chrysalis state.
“They learn more about the life cycle,” she said. “It’s fun for them to see how their wings unfold. We have adults too – staff will pop in to check on the developments.”
She grew up on a farm in Bunker Hill, Ill., and her mother was a special education teacher in Staunton.
At an early age, she discovered her love of science. After earning a degree in elementary education at Eastern Illinois University, with a specialization in science, she taught in Shelbyville for two years. She eventually earned a master’s degree in education administration at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
She loves her job.
“It’s really fun. I like seeing how stuff works, how things are put together, how living things go through cycles,” she said. “They see nature take its course and learn from it.”
In the Carriel Garden, which has a Facebook page and progress reports are frequently posted, along with videos and photos, every season has to-do lists.
“Even weeds can be a lesson. Even when it’s ugly, it’s educational.”
They will ask for help on the Facebook page.
“We’ll announce work days,” she said. “This is a lot of work.”
Other teachers, students and volunteers will help pull weeds and take care of what needs to be done, she said.
She works with Brittany Meredith, another science teacher, and Angi Piening, a social studies teacher, on garden projects.
Currently, her class is conducting a soil experiment – using the regular clay soil indigenous to the area, a mix of soils, soil with the worm compost and one with Miracle-Gro added.
“We will share our findings,” she said.
The first project was the Worm Farm. To make compost, worm beds are attended to by students.
The worms eat school lunch scraps. Students collect the fruit and vegetable scraps daily. The compost is then turned into soil. Students learn about recycling and compost.
“We had 15,000 pounds diverted from our landfill. Napkins, too,” she said.
Paper trash is used for worm feed too.
“Anything that comes from plants can be broken down,” she said. “Paper comes from trees.”
A functioning garden was next, with advice from the O’Fallon Garden Club. They helped till the soil and students planted rows. Later, they added raised beds. Currently, students are harvesting herbs – cilantro and basil are drying in a social studies class. The students gave away jalapeno peppers on Friday.
They plant vegetables in the spring, and those are harvested in the summer months. They give to students and staff.
“They’ve learned a lot. Some kids have never seen anything grow before,” she said. “It’s fun for me, fun to do and provides memories for the kids.”
It’s not all outside, though.
In the classroom, there are two fish in an aquarium – Rob the Catfish and Gerald, the blue African chichlid fish.
There are Daily Worm Data Sheets and temperature controls to monitor.
“Everybody’s got a job,” she said. “We check the temperature of the worms and get an alert when it’s too hot or too cold. It’s a very technical set-up. We use Christmas lights to raise the temperature in there if it’s too cold.”
Her children help pitch in too, especially in the summer.
She and her husband of 11 years, Joe, have three children: Isaac, 8; Eli, 6; and Ainsley, 2. They live in O’Fallon, not far from school. He teaches in Red Bud.
And at home, she gardens too. Her lifelong love of nature fuels everything she does.
“I think it’s important for kids to experience nature and life first-hand,” she said.
“With great power, comes great responsibility.” -- Spiderman
Q. Whom do you most admire?
“People who work really hard because they like it or because it’s the right thing to do.”
Q. If you could spend time with a famous person, past or present, whom would it be?
Sen. Tammy Duckworth and Jimmy Fallon.
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“The Hunger Game” series.
“Goof off with my kiddos, go on adventures with my family, gardening.
“Depends on the time of day. Mostly organized chaos. I try to tidy up before I leave most days.”
“The number of people who don’t appreciate public education or respect teachers. That and when people put aluminum cans in the trash can.”
“I like a little bit of everything - country, pop, ‘80s.”
“I love seeing kids learn, my teammates are awesome and my administration supports my outrageous ideas!”
“Knocking on Roy Landham’s door. I’d be telling him I’m ready to fund the not-for-profit foundation we talked about in college to get clean drinking water in Barasa, Haiti and like a million other service projects. That would be awesome!”
Q. If you were stranded on a deserted island, what would you have with you?
“A pilot and his helicopter with a full tank of gas.”