Gardening with class
November 29th, 2011
07:38 AM ET

School garden cultivates more than vegetables

By Paul Frysh, CNN

Arugula, radishes, kale, pomegranates, persimmons, figs and quince - these are just some of the varieties of produce tended by students at Burgess-Peterson Elementary school, an urban school on the east side of Atlanta.

When the garden started three years ago, students hadn't even heard of - much less grown and eaten - a lot of the food now grown on school grounds.

And yet on the day CNN visited the school, fifth-graders ate quiche made with fresh spinach from the school garden, and fourth-graders chomped happily on slices of persimmon, an unusual orange-colored fruit, harvested from the school's fruit orchard.

You'd be surprised, said fifth-grade teacher Megan Kiser, what foods students are willing to try if they grow it themselves.

In the school's courtyard in November, students tended their plants - each class is responsible for a particular section of a particular bed. The students look in on their plants a few times a week, watering them as needed and harvesting them when the time is right. Each class from first to fifth grade weighs the produce for a friendly contest. The class that harvests the most weight by the end of the season wins a cooking demonstration from a local chef.

The garden is not just for looks: Eight pounds of produce from Friday alone went home with teachers for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Burgess-Peterson is not a facility one would immediately associate with such bucolic plentitude. Just off a major interstate highway in an Atlanta neighborhood known more for its funky, "transitional" urban vibe than for its fresh produce, Burgess-Peterson serves a large percentage of underprivileged students. About 90% of students at the school qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches.

After Georgia Organics set up the school garden in 2009, certified Master Gardner Adam Waterson volunteered to help maintain it - on one condition: That he be allowed to instruct kids on how to plant and maintain the beds themselves. "If they weren't learning something, I didn't care to take part," said Waterson.

Waterson had been maintaining a garden for kids for Dekalb County since 2007 and had grown frustrated with the lack of traffic - budget cuts had prevented schools from being able to get school buses to bring students to the facility.

A garden on school grounds sounded like an opportunity to really engage kids and teachers in the cycle of planting and harvesting, he said.

Waterson got the school principal to agree not only to getting the kids to help maintain the beds but also a weekly seminar in which rotating classes would get instruction on plants and their relation to everything from biology to economics to geography and even literature. But he would have to convince the teachers one by one.

Not all teachers were thrilled at the prospect of giving up class time for something they saw as an extra. But Waterson was convinced he could win them over.

"It took a couple of years. At first, they (said), 'We're busy, we have so many things going on, we don't have time to drop everything and go to the garden.' But now that they've seen the effects - the direct effect on curriculum instruction as well as the great experiences their kids have - they are much more excited about the program."

For each lesson, Waterson and his team put together a list of applicable state standards and confer with teachers on how best to address those standards.

"This year, I feel like really we started to prove our worth to them."

"Now the teachers come to us with an idea - and they say, 'I want to teach this - how can I relate that to something we would do in the garden.' "

Fifth-grade teacher Kiser has certainly been won over.

"It's been challenging at the outset just to see how can I take these plants and integrate them into the curriculum, but once you do, it's very powerful and very meaningful," she said.

"For instance, I tied it into an economics lesson. Talking about production, distribution, consumption - all those things that are, for a lot of these kids, just vocabulary terms.

"But when you talk about growing local organic produce and you talk about the impact of that versus the environmental impact of shipping things from Michigan or shipping things from Portugal ... they really get a closer view of economics in a way that sticks with them and makes sense. Whereas if it's vocabulary terms from a social studies book, it's in one ear and out the other."

And, said Kiser, "It gets them outside."

"A lot of the kids at first were reluctant to be outside: It's too hot, it's too cold. ... But now they're just accustomed to it. …They want to be outside, and they don't complain as much anymore."

Three years since they began, Waterson and his team, including Rebecca Kern, are an integral part of school life at Burgess-Peterson. All 14 classes at the school are part of a weekly rotation that works with the team in the garden, and students greet team members by name in school hallways. In addition, six teachers at the school joined a series of special Georgia Organics seminars to learn about incorporating gardening and nutrition into their lesson plans.

The school has even devoted one of its classrooms solely to gardening instruction.

Impressive guests have dropped by. Earlier this year, first lady Michelle Obama visited the garden as part of her initiative to promote healthy eating and exercise for kids.

Do not make the mistake of thinking of interactive educational experiences such as gardening as an afterthought to "real" education, said Turtle Gunn, senior elementary mathematics specialist for the Georgia Department of Education.

Loads of research suggest that when kids learn by doing, knowledge sticks, she said.

"When kids construct their own understanding and see the usefulness of subjects like math and science, they begin to see that these subjects don't exist in isolation, but instead that they are tools for making sense of the world."

That's why Waterson and his team, with zero pay and few resources, remain devoted to their school garden - they truly believe they are having an effect on kids' development.

Waterson is leaving at the end of the month to work in Europe, but the program that he developed will continue with his devoted team.

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Filed under: Elementary school • Lunch • Practice
soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. RMW

    I think all schools should be doing things like this. Not only would thier lunches be healthier, but they would cost much less, saving money for other things.

    December 8, 2011 at 11:42 pm |
  2. poke smot

    they need to invest in higher education and teach those kids to grow chronic

    November 30, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
  3. Melanie Clarke

    School gardens provide such important new aspects for children that books alone do not teach. We have a wonderful school garden at the Rockport/Fulton Elementary school here in Rockport that was started 10 years ago and not only has won numerous award and State recongnition but the teacher who started this project just won Teacher of the Year for her area and went to the White House for a special presentation from the President. Now for the sad news, just two months ago our ACISD informed the teacher that they are bull dozing the garden to build a new building. The community is very unhappy with this decision by the school board.

    November 30, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  4. adam sherr

    I hope other schools do more of this..Some of the best stories only get four comments, what a sad world.

    November 29, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  5. HF

    It's nice that Mr. Finkelstein's company goes around the country building gardens for schools, but a grassroots effort from within the community stands to last longer and make a bigger impact. The cost is minimized by volunteer labor and the enthusiasm of Mr. Waterson's team has spurred the growth of the garden and the contributions of the neighborhood.

    November 29, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
  6. poprice

    What a terrific story. Thank you for sharing. Pamela @ RedWhiteandGrew.com

    November 29, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
  7. Jared Finkelstein

    The impact of the garden at Burgess-Paterson is not unique. I have seen it first-hand throughout the country through my company, Teich Garden Systems, which installs school gardens nationwide. The impact has been amazing and not just with the students. The students bring home what they learn and experience at school and the entire family benefits. Not just from makng learing more interesting but their eating habits change as well.

    Further, gardens can be incorporated into more than simply science and math courses – they have been used in social studies for example by planting things that are native to a country or culture they may be studying. The possible uses are endless as teachers come up with creative ways to use this tool in their classes.

    November 29, 2011 at 10:12 am |