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Waters of Wisconsin Program Blog


Stories from Latino Earth Partnership: A School Rain Garden

Mon, 05/23/2016 - 12:26pm -- Sarah Niesen

The Latino Earth Partnership (LEP) initiative of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) Arboretum Earth Partnership program promotes collaboration between educators and Latino communities by engaging youth and families in culturally based ecological restoration. Environmental stewardship is integrated with culturally authentic resources, Spanish language curriculum, and citizen science process skills like data collection and analysis, habitat restoration, and water stewardship.

In Madison, Earth Partnership will offer a one-week LEP institute at the UW Arboretum in the summer of 2016 for teachers and youth interested in ecological restoration, Latino cultural connections, and environmental stewardship. Partners include Centro Hispano and the Catholic Multicultural Center. The essay below is written by Sarah Niesen, a teacher at Nuestro Mundo Community School who participated in the summer 2014 LEP institute.

Steve Laubach, UW-Madison Arboretum



Bryn Scriver, a parent volunteer, assisting students on planting day at Nuestro Mundo

Do you want to involve the children in your community in protecting precious water resources? If you are a teacher, do you want to look forward to coming to school to teach outdoors and to hear excitement and enthusiasm from your students?

In my professional teaching career, I have never participated in a course that has rekindled the spark in my teaching and brought the community together as much as the Latino Earth Partnership (LEP) institute. I have twelve years of teaching experience and degrees in Elementary, Middle School, Spanish, English as a Second Language, and Bilingual Education. I currently teach third-grade bilingual students at Nuestro Mundo, a dual immersion school in Monona, Wisconsin. The collaboration and professional development through LEP has not only impacted me as a teacher, but has positively influenced student learning and our community.

In the summer of 2014, Claire Shaller Bjork, Graduate Assistant for LEP and instructor for a Nelson Institute Capstone Course, highly encouraged me to join. Though my work load was already full, I thought that starting a rain garden would be a good LEP project that I could take on within the next two to three years. I was concerned about time and whether my principal would allow me to step out of the box to try something new. But once it began, the project was contagious and exciting, with no signs of stopping or slowing down. I heard nothing but positive feedback and encouragement from my principal, colleagues, students, and parents for all of the amazing LEP activities our class was trying.

Sarah Niesen, third grade bilingual teacher, with her students on planting day at the Nuestro Mundo Rain Garden

A garden committee, our “Green Team” as we called it, began meeting in my room in October of 2014. At first I felt overwhelmed. We had people with experience, but not a way to pull it all together. The Green Team worked on next steps, looked and applied for grants, connected with our school custodians and principal, and contacted the Nuestro Mundo board for additional support and funding. I contacted Claire to see if she had any suggestions or connections for us. She passed along a name, Lisa Kohlmann, a UW-Madison capstone student.

Lisa took us to the next level. Beyond attending our Green Team meetings, she volunteered in my classroom. She taught the third graders about the importance of a rain garden in helping water soak slowly into the ground, which protects water quality, prevents groundwater depletion and flooding, and provides native plant habitat. Together, we showed students how to test the soil outside in the future garden space. In her spare time, Lisa read them stories related to the importance of clean water, the rain garden root system, and reducing stormwater runoff. 

With more support, experience, and confidence, I then contacted Cheryl Bauer-Armstrong, Director of Earth Partnership, to request that our school host a workshop to help start the process for building a rain garden. We invited parents from our school, teachers who had previously participated in the institute, and other members of the community to attend.

In collaboration with Cheryl Bauer-Armstrong, Director of Earth Partnership, we set up a school workshop at Nuestro Mundo Community School.

Thanks to LEP, we were able to offer the workshop at Nuestro Mundo. Luckily we had just rented a sod-cutter that was quickly put to use! A small grant was awarded to us to buy starter plants. Parent volunteers created a schedule and had each teacher sign-up to take their class outside to plant. Every student in the school was given the opportunity to plant one native plant in our rain garden.

Families have continued to contribute to the garden by building benches that flip into tables so we can take our classes outside. Another grant allowed us to purchase some gardening tools and supplies such as magnifying glasses. We set-up a Google Calendar to ensure the garden received care over the summer months, and the Nuestro Mundo Rain Garden Facebook Page keeps our families connected.

Our next steps include fundraising and and encouraging more teachers to use the Nuestro Mundo rain garden as a learning space. The Green Team is also planning to start composting soon.

Third grade students in Sarah Niesen’s class at Nuestro Mundo, Molly and Angel, testing the soil for the future rain garden site.

Taking the LEP institute has left a positive imprint on my teaching career, my students, our families, our community, and our environment. If you are a teacher or community member and live near an institute location, I strongly recommend that you take part. If you are looking to refresh your teaching career, make a difference in your community, or improve water quality in Wisconsin, start planting the seeds now and the roots will grow deep.


Stephen Laubach ​is an outreach specialist for the UW-Madison Arboretum Earth Partnership program and a writing consultant on cooperative conservation projects​.

Sarah Niesen has her dream job teaching at Nuestro Mundo Community School. She graduated with a double major in Elementary/Middle School Education and Spanish Education. She also received her dual Master's Certifications in English as a Second Language and Bilingual Education through UW-Whitewater.

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