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Mrs. Murphy’s Sunflowers is a unit of study found in Ellsworth Collings’ 1924 edition of An Experiment With A Project Curriculum. Might this be the book used for inspiration by the Corporation For Common Core Curriculum Craziness as they constructed their test riddled unit on Early Civilizations? No, probably not.

Back in 1924 Ellsworth Collings was not driving data points into the hearts and minds of little children and he was not abusing his status as “expert” by dictating courses of study and exam content for human beings he had never met and knew nothing about.

Sure, standard subject matter was actively in the mix, but it was never weaponized to precisely and intentionally destroy student development. Collings threw the education machine into reverse and then paid close attention to what happened when human beings were guided to select activities and PURPOSE their own learning based on interesting, immediate, everyday life.

One day Carl called a group meeting of his fellow 6-8 year olds and asked why did they think Mrs. Murphy was forever growing big sunflowers at the BACK of her vegetable garden. It didn’t make any sense to him. The other kids agreed. Weren’t flowers intended for flower gardens or front lawns? Iona said she had no idea what a sunflower looked like so if they wanted her help, she would need a first-hand visit to Mrs. Murphy’s. So off they trooped armed with two questions. Why was Mrs. Murphy growing these sunflowers at the rear end of her vegetable garden? How were sunflowers different from her other flowers?

Next day, Mrs. Murphy walked everyone out back and introduced them to the color, shape and distinct seed of the sunflower. She had them inspect the stem, the leaves and explained that she planted strategically so her cucumber vines would be protected from the hot, late afternoon sun. To the children’s delight, she actually cut off the head of a big sunflower and pitched it over the fence to her chickens so the class could watch the flock devour the seeds off the flower head. “Homegrown poultry feed,” she announced matter-of-factly.

Later, back at school, of course there were paintings and drawings of beautiful sunflowers and many, detailed, written accounts. These were enhanced by reading and researching flower guide and nature study books but also by uncovering stories and poems about sunflowers in traditional texts like the Elson Readers: Book Three and several others. Lantern slides and stereograph pictures of wild flowers were also put to good use.

And what did Carl make of this adventure? Well, here is what he reported in cursive handwriting, accompanied by a detailed, scientific illustration of the sunflower.

The Sunflower

Mrs. Murphy uses her sunflowers to shade her cucumber vines. The sunflower has a big yellow flower. Mrs. Murphy’s chickens like sunflower seed. She gave us some seed to plant. Sunflowers make pretty yard flowers. I am going to grow some in my cantaloupe patch next summer to shade my cantaloupes. They grow best in a rich soil, sunshine and moisture. They are easy to grow.

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