The Organic Garden as Classroom

We're very excited about the fact that so many colleges and universities are implementing sustainability programs on campus, but we also know that if we want children to grow into full-blown Treehuggers, we have to start early. So, we're encouraged by a new pilot program in Stanford University's Teacher Education Program that's taking elementary-aged students out into local organic gardens owned by restaurateur Jesse Cool for a full day of activities that include digging in the garden, harvesting food, and cooking it for lunch. The pilot is a test run of a curriculum developed by two students in the teacher education program, and everyone involved hopes it not only exposes kids to the whole process of food production, but also creates a legion of new teachers committed to getting their students out of the classroom and into the compost pile:

Molly Loeb, a student in STEP's new elementary teacher program, which offers a master's degree in education and a California teaching credential, is completing her practical training in [third-grade teacher Ellen] Rowe's class. Loeb and STEP student Stephanie Chui have developed a curriculum based on Cool's garden and kitchen to teach a unit on energy. STEP also is using the hands-on experience to develop K-6 curricula in literacy, history and math. If the pilot takes off and secures funding, STEP may expand it to include secondary school students.

"This is not a typical school garden project," says Ruth Ann Costanzo, director of the STEP elementary program. In such programs, she explains, students may simply go on a field trip to have a "garden experience" but do not take anything lasting back to the classroom. "What Jesse wanted to do was to see how we could integrate a garden into the curriculum of our teacher education program," Costanzo says. The objective is for freshly minted STEP graduates to take the experience with them to their new jobs and start simple gardens. In urban schools, for example, plants can be grown in pots. "We wanted to do something really simple and low-cost, something that could be done all over the country," Cool says. "I didn't want to teach just children; I wanted to reach further."

This unique partnership recognizes something fundamental about teaching children at the elementary school level: they're much more interested in getting their hands dirty than in listening to a lecture, and they learn well through active experience. The teachers-in-training, as well as their mentors, realize the potential for teaching a wide range of subject matter just by taking kids to the garden and showing them the process of growing, harvesting and cooking the food. According to Loeb, "One thing that these kids lack is experience," she said. "In their daily lives, they don't get hands-on experience. This [project] gives them a frame of reference. It's great to get outside for a unit on energy transfer. They are learning that energy comes from the sun. This experience gives them something to ground that to." It's likely also an experience these kids, mostly from low-income, urban backgrounds, won't soon forget. :: Stanford Report

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