School Gardens and Learning

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The Atlantic Monthly recently published an article by Caitlin Flanagan called Cultivating Failure: How school gardens are cheating our most vulnerable students which is criticizing Alice Waters and the Edible Schoolyard Movement which she believes is channeling students back to farm labor.  In this month’s Salon, Alissa Novoselick wrote a wonderful response based upon actual knowledge of how students learn in a garden, The School Gardener Strikes Back.  And while Atlantic  chooses not to publish comments on their article, Salon received many excellent responses from teachers and students.

Most of the responses focused on how gardening is not an end to itself, how teachers are bringing Walden and Emerson into the garden, are doing math over the planting process, are bringing in parents as educators, even immigrant parents who don’t usually participate and how they get respect from the children for their knowledge.  Many point out that Flanagan did not interview a single teacher, parent or child and that as an avowed “housewife” who admits she has never sewn a button on in her life, she seems to have a disdain for manual labor.   I especially liked a comment by Mr. Ed who tells how his grandmother showed him the usefulness of math, algebra and science by gardening, turning him around academically.

My critique focuses on the fact that children are botanically illiterate today.  I’m not a teacher, but I am an herbalist who was brought into a Brooklyn elementary school to talk about plants, both in the classroom and in a community garden, a former scout leader who taught city kids wilderness training, and an afterschool science teacher who specialized in hands-on projects disguised in a Harry Potter theme.

Our children are biologically illiterate. By that I don’t just mean that they don’t know the names of common weeds, which they don’t. The kids, who spend precious little time lying on the grass looking at the clover, don’t even know the basics of visually distinguishing plants. After spending 15 minutes in front of poison ivy on a scout trip, talking about how to identify the plant, a 12 year old asked me if the clover we were walking through was poison ivy because all he could see was three leaves. So we had to spend time looking at plants like Virginia creeper, strawberries and clover, talking about why they weren’t poison ivy, but might share certain visual characteristics.

I have had similar experiences talking with young adults who can’t see the difference between chard and kale, or turnips and parsnips. This means they tend to eat very little real food from the vegetable kingdom, and they often rely upon prepackaged e-coli factories masquerading as “cleaned” greens.

When students plant seeds, they see different stages of growth. They learn to differentiate the weeds from the crops (and if they are with me, how to eat the weeds.) They learn about the effects of light, minerals in the soil, pH, the mathematics of spacing and fertilizing, even of their own nutrition.  They pull food out of the ground and eat it.  They experience the miracle of growth.

I am glad that teachers are bringing Walden into the garden, using math and engineering, and even slipping in botany texts like Bloom’s Taxonomy. But even without that there is plenty to make a school garden a worthwhile botanical experience.


Alice Waters.  The Edible Schoolyard Video

Caitlan Flanagan  Cultivating Failure. The  Atlantic Monthly

Alissa Novoselick  The School Gardener Strikes Back.

Alissa Novoselick Growing More Than Food in A School Garden.

Andrew Leonard Rage Against the Vegetable Garden Salon

Hannah Wallace  Caitlan Flanigan: Cultivating Controversy

See Also:

Plantain, A Weedy Life Saver

Video on making Spit Poultices

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