Planting the seeds of learning
By Anissa Martin-Conyers
As the new school year begins, many teachers are setting up their classrooms, preparing lessons that are Common Core-aligned, and deciding how to ensure those lessons meet the needs of all learners. If you are anything like me, you are also laying out a planting schedule for your next harvesting period.
As an educator in Paterson’s Public School #12 for the past 19 years, I have worn many hats, but this gardening hat is a recent one. It all began about three years ago with an empty lot adjacent to my school. A fellow teacher along with volunteers from Habitat for Humanity decided to turn that lot into a school garden. Shortly thereafter, however, my co-worker retired; with no maintenance or attention during the summer that followed, the garden grew into disarray.
In the fall of 2013, our William Paterson University Professor in Residence, Dr. Betsy Golden, recruited colleague Dr. Julie Rosenthal to help with the project; Julie teaches science and literacy to teacher candidates at WPU. A few weeks later, Betsy, Julie and nearly 20 of their undergraduate students gathered at the School 12 garden joined by City Green and Habitat for Humanity volunteers. By the end of the day, the group had cleaned and prepared the site for spring planting. It became quite clear to me that for the garden to succeed, I needed to take action.
That spring found us planting and reaping the benefits of a flourishing garden. On June 12, 2014, my students harvested their first crop of a variety of lettuce, amazed that we were actually going to eat what we had planted, grew and picked. Four days later, my students and I had a wonderful end-of-year harvest party. To make this day even more special, we invited my retired co-worker, Mrs. Sheryl Blankley, back to help celebrate our first harvest.
For our party, in addition to what we had picked, I had asked students to bring in healthy fruits and vegetables. We had a “buffet of healthiness” spread out in the back of the cafeteria. What started as a two-class party ended up being so much more: There were other classes in the cafeteria at the time, and while some of those children went outside for recess, many others asked if they could join our celebration. We had plenty, so we eagerly welcomed them, elated that these children were choosing to eat a healthy treat rather than go out for recess.
I knew I wanted to continue to encourage this type of healthy eating and way of thinking, and I knew that our garden was essential for my plan.
The next six months followed a similar pattern: summer decay; November efforts by my class aided by the WPU and City Green teams. With Jack Frost nipping at our noses, there wasn’t much we could do in the garden until it got a little warmer. I used the downtime to recruit other teachers, and one person stepped up – my dear friend and co-worker Ms. Michelle Albritton, who teaches sixth and seventh grade science. We would collaborate, sharing ideas, redoubling our efforts, and utilizing combined classes in the garden.
In March we began to plant vegetables in the classroom. As the plants began to blossom, students observed and graphed their growth. On March 25, our School 12 Community Garden was awarded a grant from City Green that allowed us to expand our garden from three beds to nine beds (search “Paterson Garden” on YouTube to see this transformation).
On April 21, we planted and began holding some classes outside. Students deservedly took great pride in their hard work. Weather permitting, we were in the garden daily, watering, weeding and observing. Thanks to our membership in the WPU Professional Development Schools network, Young Audiences of New Jersey and Pennsylvania had placed Creativity Consultant and artist Zach Green at the school, and he worked with the students and art teacher Mrs. Mayrenilda Tejada to create a mural on the garden’s surrounding fence.
On June 15, our students celebrated our long-awaited and hugely successful harvest party. This time we held the party during the last two periods of the day, and students stayed well beyond dismissal to continue to enjoy the healthy dishes.
Another summer arrived, and this time I refused to have the garden go to seed. I decided to try my best to come to the school at least once a week to water and weed the garden. I again enlisted the assistance of Ms. Albritton – and our children. I also received help from Habitat for Humanity and their interns and volunteers. Another great helper over the summer was our head school security officer.
With the help we have received this past summer, we have harvested sweet peas, cucumbers, squash, zucchini, string beans, tomatoes, basil, spinach, lettuce and even watermelon.
We have begun to plan our fall crops and recently began planting fall vegetables. We anticipate this new crop – along with new classes – will broaden our base and attract more community and family helpers who will in turn benefit from our wonderful garden.
If you are a teacher and have the opportunity to grow a garden while you are growing and expanding the minds of children, take the chance and do it!
In our garden we grew so much more than vegetables: we grew teamwork, friendships, responsibility, patience and open minds.
Students benefit from school gardening by participating in real hands-on learning. When gardening, they engage daily in many disciplines, including natural and social sciences. When students journal and graph their observations, they are involved in math and language arts activities. When students work with the artists, they learn about planning, development and cooperation. Students also learn about health and nutrition as we learn about and taste new vegetables.
As students try new foods and speak to their parents, they now serve as agents of change who can impact family eating habits – which in turn may help in our fight to end childhood obesity.
As a “gardening teacher,” I, too, have grown in awareness about what foods go into my body as well as my family’s, and the importance of bringing real-life experiences to the lives of children.
Gardening is a win-win for all parties involved.