An Algerian, a Filipino, a Sri Lankan walk into a garden. . .
Each child learns in their own way, and in Thornleigh, on their own patch
Published 15/06/2011 | 05:00
William Shakespeare, coining one of the most famous phrases in the English language, had Juliet tell Romeo: "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet."
The bard's point was that it doesn't matter what we call objects because they have an essence beyond words.
As always, Shakespeare was spot on, but if he'd been running a modern primary school drawing pupils from a score of countries and cultures, he might have tweaked the line a bit.
The Thornleigh Educate Together National School in Swords, Co Dublin, has installed a Magical Sensory Garden, and its first and foremost purpose is to furnish a common ground for young children coming from many parent tongues.
A rose is still a rose whether it's named in Romanian or Chinese or Estonian, and the various features encourage the children to converse in the universal language of play, curiosity and discovery.
The refinement Shakespeare might have made for today's multicultural Ireland is that "a rose" is the vernacular name we use for that particular flower, and it is vital that all the children learn it.
The garden has a key role to play in the teaching of English, and one of the kids' favourite pieces is the towering wooden Gulliver Chair built for a giant, from where the teachers read stories to their charges sitting at dainty picnic benches.
The school's garden and its principal, Paula Carolan, came as a package when it opened in 2008.
She explains: "A sensory garden appeals to the five senses of taste, sight, hearing, scent and touch.
"I got the idea when I saw one at Bloom in the Phoenix Park some years ago and I felt it fitted in with Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligence.
"His philosophy, which I share, is that no two children learn in exactly the same way and that each child has his or her own strengths. So when I applied for the job I explained my belief that children learn outside the box, not just inside the classroom.
"The school was a greenfield site, so it was the perfect opportunity to integrate the garden around the building.
"We started out with 23 pupils and now we have 140. The mix is 97% international, which has partly to do with our proximity to Dublin Airport.
"We didn't realise the international intake would be so high when we started, but the language barrier disappears when they come out here."
The garden has been a great boon as a cultural melting pot, but its purpose goes beyond that to reflect Howard Gardner's belief that the educator's role is to help students find their individual strengths.
Carolan points out the oversized shoe on the verge beside the main entrance.
She says: "This is the shoe from The Wizard Of Oz. Dorothy meets three friends along the way who thought they didn't have a heart, or a brain, or courage.
"She thought she didn't have a home.
"They all went along to this Wizard they thought was going to give them these things, and on the way developed friendship, self-belief and self- esteem.
"In the end they find that there is no real Wizard. He can't give them anything, but they've discovered what they needed to find within themselves along the way.
"And we the teachers represent the Wizard: you come along with us.
"We're the facilitators of your learning and self-esteem."
The school doesn't yet have a yellow brick road, but there is a pathway lined with flower boxes designed as tea chests to represent travel.
Each contains a plant to represent the pupils' homelands. Last week was multicultural week and parents helped the children to paint each box with national flags spanning the globe from Algeria to Uzbekistan, from Moldova to the Philippines and beyond.
Sadly the shrubs from Sri Lanka, Egypt and Sudan couldn't deal with the Irish climate, but substitutes were planted under the grandmother rule.
Carolan says: "The plants combine lessons in geography and history because you learn about the routes travelled.
"The kids checked the maps to see where everywhere is before painting the flags, which is itself an outdoor art lesson. And everything outdoors is followed up in the classroom."
Other features include a wind chime, which doubles as a large hanging xylophone for whacking, and a wooden bug skyscraper for the study of insects and the birds they attract.
There's a willow dome made of living trees bent into the shape of a tepee.
The outdoor classroom with its wooden benches and blackboard is surrounded by troughs of organic plants including potatoes, sweetpeas, pumpkins and onions. The plants are guarded by scarecrows made by the children, one of which cuts a striking figure in a sari.
Carolan reflects: "Some children are happiest when they come out to dig the garden.
"Some would have been seen before as troublesome because they're in the classroom and they can't do it, but they come out and they know all of the names of the plants and the birds.
"It covers every subject. They're big into the weather."
They're even big into the weather to the point they don't let it play the killjoy.
Paula Carolan says: "We've been very lucky. Last autumn was very good and we even got out a bit in the snow.
"This year we plan to buy the junior infants wet gear and little wellies so they can come out here even when the weather's not ideal."