[This blog post is adapted from a lightning talk given at the Southeast Farm to School Conference, September 24th, 2016.]
Today, dear reader, I’d like to share three quick stories that illuminate how our schools in Habersham County, Georgia have used our gardens to help students shine, especially those students who may not shine in the traditional classroom environment. These experiences were truly reciprocal in nature: the students benefited from their encounters with the gardens, and their work contributed directly to the robustness and sustainability of our programs.
Mr. Jones’ class was an emotional/behavioral disorder (EBD) class with whom I worked, and they were incredible in the garden. I want to highlight the student in the tie dye t-shirt in the above photo—I’ll call him A. A was pretty combative inside the school building; he frequently got in fights with his peers and often attempted to fight his teachers. He had to stay within the self-contained EBD classroom, because he wasn’t able to be successful in the general classroom environment.
In the garden, A was my number one guy. He was eager. He was focused. He was a great listener. One day, I taught A how to use the watering can, “Hold it with two hands, and make sure you go nice and slow and water the roots of the plants, not the leaves,” and then I moved on to working with another student. A few minutes later I turned around, and A had his arms wrapped around the other student pictured (let’s call him B). A had his arms wrapped around B, and was teaching him—in the kindest, gentlest, most soft-spoken way possible—”Ok, now, make sure you go slow and hold it with two hands and don’t water the leaves…”
To see A have his arms physically wrapped around another student while exhibiting those kinds of leadership skills—that pulled at my heartstrings.
So, not only did Mr. Jones’ class get to work on their social skills and burn off some energy in the garden, but the whole school benefitted from their involvement, as well. Their skill and dedication in watering and weeding multiple times a week is what kept our garden growing last year. We could not have had the same garden program without them.
I’d also like to share the story of the student all the way in the back in this photo—let’s call her C. One day, I was in C’s classroom teaching a lesson when I noticed that she didn’t speak English, that she had another student translating for her. I found out later that C had just moved to our school from Mexico a few months earlier, and was basically getting minimal quality instruction because her teacher didn’t speak Spanish and our ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) program was already stretched pretty tight.
We decided to loop C into our already existing fifth grade garden blog, in which fifth graders take photos of the garden and write, edit, and publish blog posts on our school website. She became our Spanish-language blogger, to help us connect with the Spanish-speaking parents in our community and to allow her the space to express herself in the language with which she was most comfortable.
Y’all, her first blog post blew me away. She wrote about our worm composting bin, and connected the role of worms as decomposers to our place as humans in the web of life. She urged readers to respect the natural world because we, as humans, are part of the natural world. Not only did C get a chance to become a part of the school community, show off her stellar writing skills, and make friends with the other girls who wrote the blog, but she served our garden program by helping us connect with the greater Spanish-speaking community in our county.
Finally, I want to tell y’all about D. D was an autistic high school student in a self-contained special education class, and he vehemently refused to participate in our school garden. D was convinced that he would kill any plant he touched, and therefore he would not help his classmates in the garden. But, little by little, D’s attitude transformed from refusal to hesitance to enthusiasm to expertise. D became a huge asset in the garden; I could trust him to water, weed, and plant with skill and attention to detail.
The icing on the cake, the veggies on the salad, came when D—a student who started the year refusing to ever participate in our garden—made a public presentation to the community on behalf of our garden program.
These students grew in meaningful ways from their experiences in the garden, but the work they did—the maintenance, planning, reporting, and presenting—formed an integral part of creating robust and sustainable garden programs. If you have a school garden or are thinking about getting a school garden, I invite you to think about incorporating EBD, ESOL, and SPED students, to help both your students and your garden grow to their full potential.