It barely took four months for Michelle Schwendemann’s math classroom to start looking like a jungle.

When she set out to grow plants hydroponically — meaning in water rather than soil — Schwendemann wasn’t concerned that she’d never tried it before. After all, her teaching philosophy boils down to letting students lead the way.

And they did. Her ninth-grade algebra students stayed after hours at Ben Carson High School of Science and Medicine to build a frame for a 25-gallon water tank. They planted herbs and peppers, and watched day by day as the tank overflowed with dark green leaves. They measured and graphed the changes, debating whether the plants’ growth was linear or exponential. (It’s the latter.)

We spoke with Schwendemann about the lessons she’s learned in 18 years in Michigan’s largest school district. She is a “master teacher,” tasked with mentoring other teachers at Ben Carson.

Her colleagues also help her. Her lessons incorporate history, English, science, and medicine. Once, Schwendemann teamed up with a history teacher to explore the geometry of the Egyptian pyramids.

She spoke about what she calls “hidden curriculum” — the life lessons she tries to build into all of her classes. In Detroit, where many students live in neighborhoods without access to fresh produce, the lesson concealed in hydroponics is especially urgent.

“If you’re living in an apartment or a place without soil, you can still grow something,” Schwendemann said.

Lessons that connect to life are inherently exciting, that’s the key to student learning, she says.

Sometimes, after her students made a breakthrough, they brought friends into the classroom to show off their work.

“Their excitement and their engagement with learning, that’s what it’s all about,” she said. “When the students become the teachers, I’ve done my job.”

Our interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I went back to school after my husband died. I had children and I needed to have a better education to support them. I wasn’t initially majoring in education, and I would sit outside the math building with other adults who had gone back to school. They had questions about math, and I was always able to break it down for them. Over time, even some of my professors said you know what, you should become a teacher.

I used to struggle as a student, so I know where my students are coming from.

How do you get to know your students?

I do an ‘all about me’ PowerPoint, and I ask them to do one about them. When I do my assessments, I talk with every student one-on-one to find out about their situations. I had a young lady a few years back whose mom was incarcerated, her dad was working second and third shift, and she had a few younger siblings. She was getting them up in the morning, then getting herself to school. There are circumstances that some of these students are dealing with, and unless you have these conversations you don’t know.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

I don’t know what it was about this year, but we planted on Friday, and the kids came in on Monday and they had chamomile sprouts. They came in after the weekend, saw the sprouts, and said ‘oh my god, I’ve grown something.’ To see them realize that they’ve grown something —  it’s just that excitement.

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

I read my Bible every day at lunch time. It resets your mindset about the priorities.

What part of your job is most difficult?

Getting my students to believe in themselves. That is the hardest thing. Once they believe in themselves they can accomplish anything. The sky’s the limit. Actually, there is no limit.

What was the biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

I was unaware of the amount of planning that goes into it to make a difference, especially with these interdisciplinary kinds of lessons. I’ve met colleagues before for whom it’s a paycheck. They come in when they have to come in, and they go home when the bell rings. That’s not what it’s about. I’m willing to do anything that they need me to do to help them be successful.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

You need to have patience. I have my pacing charts, but there are days when I have to take an extra day or two with students — that they need more time. You have to understand that you’re teaching to the whole child, and that you’re teaching whole life skills.

PHOTO: Koby
Images taken from a presentation made by Michelle Schwendemann show the progression of hydroponically-grown plants in her classroom.