Healthier schools come as a result of many passionate people working to ensure that kids grow up healthy. I consider myself lucky to work in a community and at schools that have some of the finest school food champions I’ve ever known. Sarah Wheeler, a Garden Educator with the School Garden Project, is one of those passionate champions!
The School Garden Project (SGP) is a non-profit “helping Lane County Schools create, sustain, and use onsite gardens by providing resources, professional consultation, and educational programming.” SGP provides science-based lessons using the garden as a classroom both during school and after school. SGP also serves as an incredible resource for member schools providing consultation, plant starts, seeds, and tools to schools needing school garden support. SGP also publishes garden curriculum online that’s free for any educator to use.
Sarah has been a Garden Educator with SGP for three years and also coordinates the support services for member schools. With a background in environmental education and experience working in a nursery, Sarah brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her position. In Bethel schools, Sarah teaches lessons at two elementary schools engaging the 3rd graders at Fairfield Elementary and 4/5th graders at Clear Lake Elementary in garden-based lessons, inquiry activities, games, garden work, and tasting.
For her students, Sarah hopes that their time spent in the garden will be an experience they carry with them into adulthood. She recalls working in the nursery and seeing adults come in with no gardening experience and a large amount of intimidation and fear around gardening. Sarah wants her students to have confidence in their ability to garden and a love for trying new fruits and vegetables. On a bigger scale, she also hopes students learn the importance of caring for habitats and the environment.
Sarah loves being in the garden with kids and seeing their excitement for learning. She remembers working with one of her first groups of students in the garden and asked students to (if they could) identify what was growing in the garden. After pointing to different greens, students kept responding, “Um, I think that’s called salad.” By the next week the same students were saying, “Ms. Sarah, can I get more kale or more chard?” This cute story is a reminder about how powerful hands-on garden education can be.
As a seasoned school garden education, I asked Sarah to share some of her wisdom and tips for other educators.
Crops to grow in the garden:
“When picking crops, kale is great because it lasts a long time, gets pretty big, is really sweet, and I’ve found students love eating it! Currant tomatoes are also awesome. They’re like cherry tomatoes, but smaller. The plants are huge and sprawling and it gives students the ability to eat almost endless amounts when we’re in the garden. Snap peas are fun and so are onions so students can eat the onion tops.”
“If you can find volunteers to come out with you in the garden, it really makes a big difference. We try to have two volunteers at each session so we can break into three small groups. The students are more engaged and behavior management is easier.”
On working with students:
“Be sure to give really clear instructions about what you want to happen. Often, a verbal explanation isn’t enough. Doing an actual demonstration will help students complete the task efficiently so you don’t have to fix it later.”
“Focus on tasting etiquette when out in the garden. Make sure you explain why it’s important to have tasting manners and go over what those might look like: take a small amount, no spitting things out or making gross faces, or using a thumb-o-meter to share taste preferences.”
The Bethel community is lucky to have Sarah’s passion and experience working with school gardens and students. Students love garden days and take ownership over the garden spaces they’re able to take care of with SGP. I know many students are more confident gardeners and more adventurous eaters thanks to Sarah’s hard work with SGP.
Thank you Sarah for your commitment to healthy schools and communities!