For Tu B’Shevat with my First Grade class, I wanted something hands-on, but not paper-based. Something thematic that links the Land of Israel with our own community, something the kids could make or do to gain a concrete reference point to a Jewish Spring holiday in the midst of a Nashville Winter. We’d already done nearly instant-gratification Tu B’Shevat gardening (eggshell garden), and I didn’t think they’d mind a project that required patience and uncertainty.
In a nutshell (an almond shell), here’s what we did, as copied from my exclamation-marked blurb in the school newsletter:
We finished up our tree celebration with a look at what happens in the land of Israel on the 15th of Shevat (the sap rises and the almond tree—ha shkedia—bursts into blossom). We touched almonds in the hull, cracked them open and ate the nuts, and then planted a few to grow our own almond trees. In contrast, we looked at the 15th of Shevat in Nashville and visited several trees at synagogue, touching, smelling and dissecting buds that will soon become flowers and leaves. Ask your child to tell you what made the rows of holes in the big sugar maple trees and why (yellow-bellied sapsuckers, to drill holes for sap and to trap insects!).
And, here’s the detailed version: Tu B’Shevat Almond “Sow” and Tell
Ideally, the almond tree is the first in the land of Israel to burst into Spring blossom, and it does so in delicate pink and white glory. Like most stone fruit trees, it’s in the rose family, and the flowers definitely have the family face.
Tradition tells us that the sap rises on the fifteenth of the month of Shevat, and this life-force is what triggers the tree’s reproductive cycle to start all over again: flower, pollination, fruit, seed, plant, flower, pollination, fruit, seed,
plant, ad infinitum.
I wanted my students to visit an almond tree, but as we don’t have one on campus, we had to make do with a poster. I used a 3 year-old potted apple tree as our pretend almond tree, and a silk blossom to stand in for the real bloom, so we could re-enact the progression from bare twig to bloom to fruit (almonds still in the hull) to seed, the seed being a delicious almond, ready to eat or plant.
Kids don’t realize an almond is a seed, and can grow a whole new tree. I’m not sure most adults do, either. But, I found online gardening forums in which folks happen to find a germinated almond in the compost pile, or where gardeners have tossed a few almonds from the grocery bulk bins into dirt, and voila: seedlings. Other sites tell me how difficult it can be grow almond trees. Almonds can be bitter or sweet, and come in varieties with different hardiness ratings. They can be tricky to germinate, as they need weeks of rest in the fridge for proper stratification and perhaps a good soak in water before planting. But, my class took our chances and just poked some seeds in dirt. I suspect that any pots coming home from Sunday School aren’t welcomed with a great deal of coddling anyway…
What I saw immediately is that my students don’t know how to plant anything. They put the almonds at the bottom of the peat pots. Then, they wondered how to get the organic potting soil from the big bowl into the pot. It didn’t occur to them to use their hands? I showed how to fill that pot to an inch below the rim, place a couple (define the word, ’cause some kids still won’t know that a couple means “two”) of seeds on top and then sprinkle more soil so that the whole thing comes to 1/2″ below the rim. We measured with our thumb joints. Then, we watered with a small spray bottle: one that young children can operate by themselves. Watering with a watering can would have splooshed the whole mess up and out of the pots.
Clearly, they need to plant stuff more often than once a year. Dirt is for hands!
Then, we went outside to “see how the fifteenth of Shevat looks in Nashville.” It looked cold. It looked blossom-less. We had a few young trees with twigs low enough to reach and examine. Our Star Magnolia (Magnolia stellata: an exotic from Japan) had huge, velvety buds that smelled wonderful (“lemony,” “clean,” “spicy”), and when we opened one up—very carefully and reverently— we saw the layers and layers that will soon become a flower. The Star Magnolia is an early bloomer with flowers that appear before the leaves, and I’ll make sure the class visits it again when it happens.
But our favorite tree was the native Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum). The trunk was dotted with nearly uniform rows of pencil-size holes, as if someone had gone mad with a 7/32 drill bit (yes, I tried it. The holes look bigger, but a 7/32 bit was the largest that could fit). What could have made those holes and why? And what does a Nashville Sugar Maple have to do with Tu B’Shevat? Yellow-bellied sapsuckers drilled those holes to release sap beneath the bark. They lap it up with a specialized, brush-tipped tongue, and they know perfectly well that the sap will attract the next course of the meal: insects. Sapsuckers live in Nashville during Fall, Winter and Spring, so they don’t wait till the fifteenth of Shevat to start drilling. Had the day been any warmer, we would have seen a dark, wet stain drooling down the trunk. Two days later, the temps were 20 degrees higher, and that’s just what happened.
It’s the sap that connects us to the holiday, even though we are so far away from where the holiday began. The sap is the life.
Overall, the kids got a history lesson, a taste test, a gardening project, a nature walk, and an inkling that different places have different habitats. And hopefully, they got that “concrete reference point to a Jewish holiday” that I natter on about so often.
This whole project took 30 minutes, start to finish, which is all I’ve got with this class once a week. I did a bit of planning and prep to make sure I could cram it in. Short, sweet (literally), and definitely worthwhile. I’ll post an update on the success or failure of the almond seed planting. If you’ve had experience with this sort of thing, holler.
By the way, what Yiddish word for a full-figured woman is derived from the German word for “sap?” Zaftig. As in “juicy,” full of sap.
NOTES: I used a Jewish calendar poster to introduce the name of the holiday, because my kids weren’t clear on the fact that we have a Jewish calendar with Hebrew months.
And, I brought a fresh jar of maple syrup in my pocket, so I could whip it out when they realized what the holes in the Sugar Maple were. Maple sap = what you put on pancakes (well, after you boil 30 or so gallons down to one). They were thrilled.
And P.S., if I had more time, you bet we’d take those sliced almonds and make mandelbrodt (almond bread) cookies in class. Maybe next year?