Why Gardening Education is Perfect for English Language Learners

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An English Language Learners (ELL) class came to the greenhouse yesterday. They were a group of eager 3rd graders, recent immigrants from all over the world. We were harvesting different plants and learning how to describe their flavor, texture, etc. Many of the students lit up when they saw the plants growing in the garden beds. “We cook with that in my country!” I asked students to say the name of these vegetables in their native language. One student from China noticed the bok choy. “We cook that at my dad’s restaurant!” When I asked him what his family called it, he was hesitant to respond. “I’m too embarrassed to speak Chinese in front of everyone.” He ended up whispering the name in my ear. Báicài. I could have looked up the Chinese word for bok choy, or the Cape Verdean word for collards, but hearing it directly from these students was something else.

I am astounded by the power of simple vegetables to bring out so much about a person’s culture. For this reason, ELL classes feel like the PERFECT place to be doing garden education. This moment also made me think a lot about creating community across different cultures. I was struck by the fact that Jack didn’t want to speak Chinese in front of his class, a group of students who all spoke a foreign language. I wonder how we as educators can make our classes safer spaces for cultural sharing, and sharing words from different languages. It’s such a special opportunity for everyone!