Why Garden in School (Part 1)

Why Garden in School (Part 1)

Can School Gardening Help Save Civilization?

(An Essay in Four Parts)



by Carter D. Latendresse
The Catlin Gabel School

This paper is an argument for gardening in schools, focusing on two months of integrated English-history sixth grade curriculum that explores the relationships between a number of current environmental problems—notably hunger, water scarcity, topsoil loss, and global warming—and the land-use practices that led to the downfall of ancient Mesopotamia. This paper suggests that world leaders today are repeating some of the same mistakes that caused desertification to topple the Sumerian empire. It then explains how our sixth grade class explores solutions to the existing emergencies by studying Mesopotamia, ancient myth, gardening, and contemporary dystopian fiction. Finally, this paper posits a new cosmology that might help to remake western civilization, saving it from the threat of present-day ecological crises.

Why Garden in School?

Part I: Four Enduring Understandings

During the fall months in my 6th grade English class, I teach gardening, ancient flood stories, contemporary dystopian literature, and ancient Mesopotamia. My colleagues and I ask our students to look backward to identify essential characteristics of the first human civilizations, so that they might look forward and imagine remaking Western civilization in the 21st century. During these lessons, my history teacher partner focuses on the development of agriculture in the Neolithic Age (8000 BCE to 3000 BCE), the rise of Sumerian city-states, the four empires of Mesopotamia, and the characteristics of ancient civilizations. In my English class, my curriculum parallels and interweaves with these topics at crucial points, especially around issues of soil, water, food, climate, environmental justice, and the stories we tell ourselves as humans to orient ourselves to Earth, to one another, to the other animals, and to the cosmos. Sixth grade students and teachers at our school can often be found outside during September and October, harvesting apples, grinding wheat, learning about bee keeping, planting overwintering lettuce, or baking pita bread in the garden cob oven. Several people have asked, “What does the garden have to do with English or history class?” or “Why do you garden in school?” This essay is an attempt to answer these questions.

The sixth grade teaching team begins its unit from the principles enunciated in the seminal curriculum design text, Understanding by Design, by Grant McTighue and Wiggins (2005). The authors show that the best teaching is, paradoxically, in preparation for college while it is also, at the same time, as John Dewey (1897) says, part of an informed “process of living and not a preparation for future living” (Article Two: What the School Is section, para. 2). We strive to present riveting, relevant, future-thinking curriculum that is rooted in solving the problems and celebrating the wisdom that exist today. The problem-based teaching with a backward design process outlined in Understanding by Design offers us a good model on how to remain, simultaneously, college preparatory and focused on today’s most pressing issues. The garden is our place of intersection for the teaching of ancient history, the novel, writing, economics, politics, anthropology, religion, myth, and science. Pedagogically, we have nine reasons for teaching the Sumerian empire in our organic garden behind the middle school building. These nine reasons grow up out of the four enduring understandings we want our students to chew on for the rest of their lives.

The first enduring idea or understanding is that the aims and desires of most people on Earth have been fundamentally similar since hunter gatherers first domesticated crops and animals in Iraq 10,000 years ago, and we can empathize with those people because we too desire, at bottom, the same things, which are connection and belonging. As humanities teachers, we do not present what some might term a traditional history curriculum to our students that focuses on names, dates, generals on battlefields, or famous men elected president. Such a presentation presupposes that the victors of confrontations make history, and that conflict, violence, and the will to power are the unconscious driving impulses scaffolding the metanarrative of the human species. Instead, influenced by new scholarship focusing on empathy, mirror neurons, the lives of women, the colonized, and ordinary people throughout history, we begin by asking, Whose stories get left out of history, and why? We unearth representative stories that could stand for the great silent majority of human history, and we presuppose, along with Jeremy Rifkin (2009, p. 9-26), that the deepest unconscious desires of Homo sapiens include companionship in towns that provide nutritious food, clean water, and safe homes for our children. By studying Mesopotamia, we get a snapshot of people putting these desires into action when they created the world’s first cities.

Our second enduring idea that we want our students to return to throughout their lives is that there exists today a phalanx of interwoven problems facing the human species—global warming, hunger, biodiversity loss, deforestation, poverty, water scarcity, topsoil depletion, each of which is exacerbated by overpopulation. While these global issues may feel both overwhelming and unapproachable, during the autumn of the sixth grade year, we teach that several of these problems are causal, one giving way to the other, and all have their roots in practices one can find in Mesopotamia. Such practices included clearing the land of trees, erecting massive irrigation systems, then farming monocultures, which led to erosion, then desertification, and then later empire collapse.

Ten years ago, Time magazine, in its August 26, 2002 edition, released a Special Report entitled How to Save the Earth. “Up to a third of the world,” the authors noted, “is in danger of starving. Two billion people lack reliable access to safe, nutritious food, and 800 million of them—including 300 million children—are chronically malnourished” (Dorfman & Kluger, 2002, p. A9). The authors also presented startling statistics on water scarcity: “At present 1.1 billion people lack access to clean drinking water and more than 2.4 billion lack adequate sanitation. ‘Unless we take swift and decisive action,’ says [then] U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, ‘by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may be living in countries that face serious water shortages” (Dorfman & Kluger, 2002, p. A10). Whereas Time magazine did not then connect the dots on the ecological problems it investigated, other writers since that time have.

J.R. Rischard’s (2002) High Noon was similarly foreboding but more thorough. The former vice-president of the World Bank gave us twenty years to address twenty pressing and mutually destructive environmental concerns such as global warming, deforestation, biodiversity loss, fisheries depletion, and water shortages. One wonders how far we’ve come in half our twenty years. Joining the chorus, the eminent historian Jared Diamond (2005) likewise proposed, in his book Collapse, his own list of eleven similar and overlapping ecological problems that require immediate attention: problems such as—pardon the repetition—deforestation, coral reef destruction, fisheries depletion, erosion and topsoil loss, the end of peak oil, lack of potable water, toxic chemical pollution, global warming, and overpopulation (Diamond, 2005, p. 487-496). Similarly, Clive Ponting (1991) argued that each empire, whether Sumerian, Egyptian, Roman, or Mayan, follows the same paradigm, already alluded to, during its downfall: deforestation, erosion, monocropping, overwatering, desertification, and eventual collapse.

What we want our students to investigate, as part of this second enduring understanding, is that these problems are interconnected. Global warming, peak oil, the global food crisis, poverty, the loss of healthy local economies, and biodiversity loss are mutually-supporting spokes of a wheel that continues to roll over the backs of billions, especially in the southern hemisphere. “It is wrong to grow temperate-zone vegetables [as monocrops for export, such as bananas] in the tropics and fly them back to rich consumers,” Vandana Shiva (2008) writes, articulating some of the sometimes hidden interplay between injustice and ecology. “This uproots local peasants, creates hunger and poverty, and destroys local agro-biodiversity. . . . Since vegetables and fruits are perishable, transporting them long distances is highly energy-intensive, contributing to climate change” (p. 128). Throughout the years, Shiva has continued to elucidate the point that the global food industry perpetuates economic and environmental injustice for local, most southern hemisphere economies that export monocultured cash crops such as sugar, bananas, coffee, cotton, chocolate, and tea to more wealthy countries overseas. Healthy local economies and ecosystems overseas are compromised, even ruined, by the industrialized global food system.

Carolyn Merchant (1989, p. 52) and Shiva (2008, p. 105) likewise note the tendrils connecting seemingly disparate issues: when lands are cleared for monocrop exports, pesticides and inorganic nitrate fertilizers are typically poured into the diminishing soil, which then invites pests and disease—as monocultures have easier genetic codes to crack than biodiverse fields—which in turn increases the need to clear and deforest more land for cultivation. So-called free trade agreements and exporter-friendly loaning institutions—such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organization—conspire to wrest land from local subsistence farmers so that the multination agribusiness corporations can buy out smaller farmers and expand.

Noting the preceding, concerned parents might worry that their children will look around the world—at India, Mexico, Ecuador, Indonesia—and assume that we in the U.S. are foisting our relative strong economy on other nations and therefore insisting that the errors of Mesopotamia be repeated in other modern countries today. We teachers share this concern, but we lean toward the notion that people, in their deepest recesses, seek belonging and connection rather than power and exploitation. In addition, we resist the hard-hearted theory of British economist Thomas Malthus (1999), who in 1798 proposed that population growth would outrun the ability of the world to produce food. Overpopulation, he said, would lead to war, famine, disease, and other calamities that would curtail human reproduction in a kind of macabre, unsentimental balance. Instead of simply cataloguing wrongdoing across the world and assigning blame, shrugging our shoulders in an unfeeling social Darwinism—which is counterproductive, in the end, to the creation of the empathic civilization that we hope to create—we sixth grade teachers like to move quickly to our third enduring understanding, which seeks to empower the students with problem-solving strategies.

The third enduring understanding we unpack for our students is that just as the current aforementioned global problems are interwoven and therefore seemingly intractable, multiple solutions will be employed this century on an international scale, and we, paradoxically, might most easily help on campus by studying local, organic food, responsible water use, and enlightened community engagement. If we grow organic vegetables at school, for example, in raised beds using low-evaporation drip irrigation, using seed we’ve collected from the previous year, and then we later harvest and eat that produce at lunch in our salad bar, we show the students how to support healthy, local, biodiverse economies—and overseas farming economies, by extension, who might convert their fields back to feeding their own peoples—while also reducing the use of inorganic fertilizers and pesticides, as well as diminishing global warming that follows energy-intensive global packaging, refrigeration, and shipping.

Paul Hawken (2007) states that the movement to establish a more sustainable world “has three basic roots: environmental activism, social justice initiatives, and indigenous cultures’ resistance to globalization, all of which have become intertwined” (p. 12). We in the sixth grade teach all of these topics during our fall Mesopotamia unit so that our students begin to see that environmental movements are really about social justice and health, at bottom, just as biodiversity is about local sustainability.

Various historians and social theorists suggest ways to live in post-oil economies. Indeed, the genre has become a nonfiction subgenre, claiming whole sections in bookstores. In addition, leading intellectuals, such as Richard Tarnas (2012), are pointing to ecovillages, intentional communities, and small, independent schools such as Catlin Gabel as ways to address a coming crisis of living in the world with more people and dwindling fossil fuel reserves, since smaller nontraditional living and educational sites can more deliberately incorporate the use of alternative energy sources and the new paradigms that are needed to sustain them.

What becomes clear after reviewing the three enduring understandings—human desire creates multilayered problems requiring multilayered solutions—is that the vision of human history we are presenting is paradoxical. Surely, the overall quality of life for most people on the planet today is more comfortable, safe, and enjoyable than it was for people living in the city of Ur in 2500 BCE. Smallpox vaccinations, electricity, indoor plumbing, telephones, computers, automobiles, and a thousand other technological innovations have bettered the quality of human life since the great cities of Mesopotamia fell and were reclaimed by the desert. However, we also live in an age of contradiction, during a time of converging ecological emergencies, and climate scientists might easily join Hamlet in his enigmatic assessment:

“What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust?” (Shakespeare, 2.2.295-300)

How should we synopsize these seeming contradictions? The students live on a beautiful, amazing planet, but one that is engulfed in growing environmental calamities. It’s our job as educators to resist dichotomous, simplistic thinking; rather, we strive to admit the complex truths and to problem solve collaboratively across coalitions and issues. It is also our job to resist cynicism, hopelessness, and paralyzing guilt as we explore these topics with our students. When we look to the past with our students, we can see the choices our ancestors made when they settled around reliable food sources in the Middle East at the end of the last ice age, building the world’s first cities, and we can imagine remaking our future cities this century with smaller carbon footprints.

Our curriculum design around Mesopotamia and the garden is to explicitly connect issues while resisting reductionist mono-issue, silver-bullet thinking. We do not proceed with the idea that a hydrogen economy will replace the topsoil, the fish in the ocean, or the trees being clear-cut in the Amazon. At the same time, we don’t deny it won’t help. We agree, in short, with Paul Hawken’s (2007) premise, in his book Blessed Unrest, that there is a massive social justice and environmental conservation movement afoot without one monolithic mission statement or central leadership. This movement is systemic, global, and broad, focusing on many issues and comprised of thousands of groups—for clean air, better public education, water conservation, and bans on GMO in food, for example. Despite the fact that there does not exist some central agency dispensing strategy and dogma, their aims intersect around two main principles: social justice and environmental conservation, which both lead to our last pedagogical goal.

Our fourth enduring understanding is that the stories a culture tells itself about its origins, its purpose, and its future will determine to a large extent that culture’s ability to survive the tests of time. Another way of saying this is that the stories we tell ourselves will help us to imagine the solutions we will need to fix the problems we have created. We teachers find that we are able to present both the intersecting problems and the possible solutions by retelling the oldest stories humanity has told itself about its creation, its place in the cosmos, its meaning and purpose. I therefore teach Gilgamesh (McCaughrean, 2003), the first of all written stories, from Mesopotamia. I also teach Genesis (Holy Bible, 2003), perhaps the world’s most influential narrative, plus a host of Greek myths, from the beginnings with Gaea and Uranus, through Cronos to Zeus, Prometheus, and Pandora, finally culminating with Deucalion and Pyrrha (Baker & Rosenberg, 1992). Similarities jump out when the three narrative strands are laid side-by-side: Gods create the world, including humanity; humans either lose or try to gain eternal life and fail; Gods become displeased with humans and send a flood, killing all except for a favored few, who survive in a boat and then go on to repopulate the world with the Gods’ blessings. The fact that the oldest stories all focus on an ecological catastrophe that is not dissimilar to the one featured on our nightly news today is not lost on our students. They see, for example, that global warming is melting the polar ice caps today, threatening coastal civilizations with flooding. This isn’t a grim news story “out there” somewhere or a tall tale easily relegated to a bookshelf labeled “myth and legend.” NOAA reports that half of Americans live within fifty miles of the coast (2011). If the ice caps melt, hundreds of millions worldwide will become ecological refugees. Studying the ancient stories in the contexts of both the founding of human civilization and our current ecological predicaments makes sense, then, as we want the students to analyze the old stories in order to eventually imagine new narratives for the coming century that will include heroic deeds of collaboration in order to create a just global village.

In addition to studying the world’s oldest stories, I also teach contemporary dystopian literature to explore a number of possible reactions to potential environmental troubles of the future. The science fiction and fantasy novelists have been at the vanguard of imagining solutions to life’s problems for over a century. The students are directed to probe the reasons for civilization collapse in their novels and to imagine resurrections based upon sustainable principles involving soil, water, food, housing, and energy production. I also pair the dystopian novels and civilization creation projects with nonfiction reading of four National Geographic articles on the first civilizations, food insecurity, topsoil loss, and water scarcity. Students are asked to image themselves creating their own civilizations in the next century, given certain definitions for advanced civilization and all of the ecological challenges we are facing right now.

Taken together, these four enduring understandings undergird our nine reasons for teaching in the garden. We want to provide students with the backstory for how we got to 2012 as a human species, emphasizing that the study of human history should elicit our empathy rather than condemnation. We also want to provide our students with interpretive lenses with which they can analyze both our current human impact and utter reliance upon Earth. Last, we want to offer students the schemata to remake a more sustainable, just, and enjoyable civilization for the world’s citizens in the 21st century.

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Integrating STEM and Sustainability through Learning Gardens

Integrating STEM and Sustainability through Learning Gardens


Integrating STEM and Sustainability Education through Learning Gardens:

A Place-Based Approach to the Next Generation Science Standards

by Sybil S. Kelley and Dilafruz R. Williams; Portland State University

O2ur ecological and social problems are deeply interconnected. Climate change, habitat destruction, loss of biodiversity, food insecurity, air and water pollution, along with innumerable other environmental problems, are increasingly related to issues of equity and social justice. Addressing these problems requires a citizenry that is both scientifically and ecologically literate, ensuring that all people are empowered with the understandings, dispositions, and skills to address the challenges of this modern world.

CLEARING readers are likely familiar with another crisis of our times, the idea of “Nature Deficit Disorder” that Richard Louv (2005) so poignantly described in his landmark book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. Louv and numerous other leaders of the No Child Left Inside initiative have done a remarkable job pointing out the parallel phenomena of increasing numbers of children with ADHD and loss of time spent in nature, particularly unstructured time to explore, engage in imaginative play, and utilize all the senses. Nonetheless, time that children spend in school has become more rigid, siloed by discipline (e.g. 90+ minute literacy blocks), and disconnected from students’ daily lives and lived experiences.

As a society, we place unrealistic demands on educators. Classroom teachers are continually expected to do more with less—less money, less support, less time—with increasing mandates and pressures of accountability, whether from No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top. Informal educators provide a remarkable array of learning experiences, yet many teachers do not have the time or capacity to make use of these opportunities, particularly since in most cases, field trips have to be rigorously defended and justified in context of the school-day curriculum. However, since the early 1990s, the school garden movement has been working to mitigate traditional schooling taking place within the four walls of the classroom by bringing students outdoors on school grounds right where the schools are housed.

The adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) by 26 states has the potential to transform teaching and learning in and out of schools. The focus of the NGSS is on 12 “big ideas” in science (the Disciplinary Core and Component Ideas, NRC, 2012), bringing these together into process oriented learning goals (learning performances) that bridge scientific content with the practices of science and engineering, and crosscutting concepts that span all the disciplines of science (e.g. patterns, cause and effect, and systems and system models). The NGSS raises the bar for science in schools, and will require that much more attention be paid to science starting in elementary school. To help in this process, the NGSS are integrated by design. First, science education has been integrated into STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), elevating the practices and content of engineering design to the level of scientific inquiry. Further, the NGSS provide connections and links to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), making them much more useful for developing integrated, project-based units of instruction. We believe that school gardens provide a rich milieu to put the NGSS into practice, making science relevant to the lives of students as they engage with their own place in meaningful ways across disciplines.


STEM and Sustainability Education: Sense of Place

As an individually and socially constructed phenomenon, relationship to place is complex and so is the creation and development of meaning, attachment, and identity based on this relationship. To know one’s place is prerequisite to knowing one’s self. According to several scholars, sense of place is recognized as a key component of sustainability and sustainability education. Wendell Berry (1990) tells us that if we do not know where we are, we cannot know who we are. David Orr (1992) explains that people with a sense of place become “inhabitants” who dwell deeply, steeped in connections. Similarly, David Sobel (2004) asserts that people tend to protect what they love and know; therefore the actual places where we live, work, and play, become an explicit part of sustainability initiatives.

Sustainability education takes a holistic, systemic view of the world, is place-based, experiential, and transformative. Effective, high-quality STEM teaching, which should include learning experiences that are relevant and meaningful to students’ lives, are active and interactive, and make use of observation and evidence to develop meaning and understanding (knowledge claims). STEM and sustainability education are complementary and should be brought together in mainstream education.

Not only do we need to weave STEM and sustainability education together, we need to elevate both more prominently in schools. Recent studies have illuminated statistically significant reductions in science instructional time in elementary classrooms (Blank, 2013). These findings are quite troubling considering the need for scientifically and ecologically literate graduates. If we wait until middle and high school to emphasize science, we have already lost a tremendous number of students, most typically students who are already marginalized in mainstream educational (and other) systems. Making use of learning gardens can provide a solution. Teaching and learning in gardens is a way to increase student engagement in learning, and also to support different learning styles, integrate various disciplines, and revitalize schools and neighborhoods.

Using “living soil” as a metaphor for re-envisioning education, Williams and Brown (2012) state,

Gardens present an appropriate life-enriching ecological practice that guides curriculum, teaching, and learning. In an era characterized by educational malaise and apathy and amidst a repetitive discourse of racing to the top, gardens offer an alternative and regenerative model for bringing schools to life that differs significantly from mechanistic techno-scientific reform efforts oriented toward economic globalization. (p. 22)

In other words, school gardens and the living soil within them can provide a place-based context for teachers and students to learn together, alongside other community members, including the non-human members, developing a sense of interconnectedness and understanding of our place in ecological systems.

Williams and Brown (2012) outline seven pedagogical principles that are foundational to garden-based education, and that shift learning from a dry, disconnected model to one that is active and alive. Learning gardens cultivate a sense of place, awaken the senses, and foster wonder and curiosity; further, through practical experience, learners observe rhythm and scale, develop understandings of interconnectedness, and value biocultural diversity. Much of schooling focuses on visual and auditory learning modalities. Learning gardens on the other hand provide multisensory, kinesthetic learning experiences for children (and adults). They provide accessible places to build connections to nature—allowing learners to see, feel, hear, smell, and taste the wonders of nature. In our own teaching and working with teachers in low-income schools in particular, we have found the desperate need for this connection among adults and children alike.

As districts, schools, and individual classroom teachers work to implement the NGSS, innumerable, place-based opportunities exist to address national, state, and local goals within the context of learning gardens. Nonetheless, it will require leadership at many levels to reach the vision of the NGSS and the school garden movement. Principals need to see the value of garden-based education and embrace this type of teaching and learning by supporting and protecting their teachers. As professionals and leaders working directly with students, teachers will need support in developing relevant, place-based lessons that address the NGSS. Teachers must be integral players, bringing their expertise and experiences to the process.

In our summer professional development course entitled, Integrating STEM and Sustainability Education through Learning Gardens, classroom teachers, garden-based educators, and graduate students in the Leadership for Sustainability program work together to implement a place-based curriculum with elementary students in a summer garden program through SUN Schools (Schools Uniting Neighborhoods). In the afternoons, this diverse group of educators has the opportunity to grapple with the content and design of the NGSS, and to work collaboratively to develop integrated, standards-based instructional units that are contextualized in school learning gardens. For the NGSS to become a reality, teachers will need more professional learning experiences that empower them to put their expertise and knowledge of their students (their place) into the design and implementation of well-planned instructional units. NGSS and the Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC, 2012) from which they were developed provide the structure and scaffolding for building curriculum, but efforts led by teachers and partners from higher education and the local community will provide the flesh and details for implementation.

In the following paragraphs, we will highlight some examples of what the NGSS in learning gardens can look like in practice. The first scenario provides an example of an engaging encounter that could open the door to numerous explorations, while the second is an actual lesson we have used in the summer garden program. Both highlight the rich learning opportunities that emerge and are literally just outside the classroom door.


Figure 1: An unexpected discovery of a Goldenrod Crab Spider feasting on an unsuspecting honey bee yielded immediate fascination and interest among students and teachers alike.

In science, teachers are often encouraged to use the “5E” instructional model (Bybee et al, 2006) that includes “Engage, Explore, Explain, Extend, and Evaluate.” In the garden, all five E’s can be woven together, but “engage” and “explore” are particularly ripe. Last summer, a group of teacher candidates and youth ranging in age from four to twelve years old were thoroughly engaged and excited by this predator-prey discovery. For teachers, such wonders provide an anchor for numerous learning experiences.

For example, a Kindergarten teacher could help her students investigate the needs of different plants and animals in the garden. By gathering age-appropriate data (perhaps a simple table with a name and/or drawing of the organism and what the students observe each organism eating), students can develop an explanation of how different animals eat different (and in some cases the same) things. This would directly address the Kindergarten NGSS related to structures and processes in organisms, specifically the component concept about matter and energy flow in organisms (from NGSS (2013), K-LS1-1. Use observations to describe patterns of what plants and animals (including humans) need to survive). First grade teachers and students could build on foundations laid in kindergarten by focusing on the structure and function of plants and animals, and how an organism’s structures help it survive and grow (1-LS1-1. Use materials to design a solution to a human problem by mimicking how plants and/or animals use their external parts to help them survive, grow, and meet their needs).

As another possible direction, this initial discovery could serve as the platform for introducing the 3rd grade standards related to heredity and biological evolution. By combining hands-on data collection in the garden with internet research, or perhaps inviting a local scientist/arachnologist to visit the class, students could compare the variations among this particular species of spider (e.g. some have red strips, others do not), as well as traits of other spider species. Using their data, they could construct an argument about why some species are more likely to survive in particular habitats over others (3-LS3-2. Use evidence to support the explanation that traits can be influenced by the environment; 3-LS4-2. Use evidence to construct an explanation for how the variations in characteristics among individuals of the same species may provide advantages in surviving, finding mates, and reproducing (NGSS, 2013)).

Figure 2: Students collaborate to gather data about the number and diversity of species they can observe and record in their habitat sampling area.

Figure 2: Students collaborate to gather data about the number and diversity of species they can observe and record in their habitat sampling area.

In each of these possible scenarios, there are also numerous interdisciplinary connections to reading and math expectations in the Common Core State Standards (CCCS) and to real world issues. For example, as third graders learned about the relationships between species and their specific habitats, they could also read a variety of texts describing the flora and fauna, as well as abiotic components, of different ecosystems. They could read and discuss the role of pollinators in ecosystems, and how pollinators are so crucial to our own food sources, particularly those in a specific location—i.e. for this place. As a culminating product, students could create a short video or poster that argues why sustainable agriculture practices are vital to food security and the planet as a whole.

The second example is one that we have experienced first-hand in the summer garden program connected with the Integrating STEM and Sustainability Education through Learning Gardens course—Is Soil Alive?—the driving question behind two days of soil explorations. The first day was spent collecting samples to test for soil composition. As students waited for the layers of sand, silt, and clay from various locations around the school yard to settle in their jars, they explored decomposers in the compost and worm bins, and those found in the garden. As a culminating activity (that could also serve as an assessment), students were given a worksheet that asked them to draw what they had observed above and below ground in the garden. The overarching question, “Is soil alive? Explain your thinking” guided students.

Figure 3: Students and teachers search for critters (aka, decomposers) in the raised garden beds at their school.

Figure 3: Students and teachers search for critters (aka, decomposers) in the raised garden beds at their school.

This cluster of lessons provides several clear connections to the NGSS, particularly related to “Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems,” “Cycles of Matter and Energy Transfer in Ecosystems,” and “Biogeology” of Earth’s systems. But equally important, an open-ended question such as “Is the Soil Alive?” helps students and teachers grapple with the nature of science. In this particular example of viewing soil as an ecosystem, students were provided with a concrete example of some relatively abstract, complex ideas. It let them think and learn about systems, interconnections, cycles, and flows, laying a strong foundation for further exploration and learning in upper grades. Students had the opportunity to engage in logical reasoning and discourse, using empirical observations to support their claims. Some of the more complicated explanations of why the mineral portions of soil are non-living while the system as a whole can be considered alive, at the most basic level, were understandable to the elementary-age students. If teachers had given “the right answer” as is traditionally related to properties of living and non-living elements of soil, they would have discouraged students from thinking, imagining, inferring, and looking for evidence. Furthermore, a response that declared soil as not being alive because it is made up of sand, silt, and clay could have denied students a deeper exploration into the microbial ecology of soil and compost.

Figure 4: While observing and recording the decomposers found in the compost bin, a student observed this black soldier fly emerge from its pupa. It is hard to imagine doing a better job of explaining life cycles than an experience such as this can provide.

Figure 4: While observing and recording the decomposers found in the compost bin, a student observed this black soldier fly emerge from its pupa. It is hard to imagine doing a better job of explaining life cycles than an experience such as this can provide

Recommendations/call to action:

School and community learning gardens provide rich, easily-accessible contexts for integrating STEM and sustainability education. Learning experiences that are multisensory, place-based, and interconnected come to life in the garden, making teaching and learning relevant and meaningful to students and teachers alike. The recent adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards, which emphasize application of knowledge, higher-order thinking skills, and demonstration of proficiency through performance, present the educational community with a unique opportunity to make better use of such spaces for teaching and learning. To help move our community closer to this vision, we offer a few suggestions to help in this process:

  1. Think big, start small—meaningful change takes time. It is important to spend time envisioning and planning in the early stages so that your garden-based aspirations can be turned into reality.
  2. Whether you are new to outdoor, garden-based education or an experienced practitioner, it is important to set shared expectations and norms with your students. Too many children have not spent a lot of time outside in nature. Furthermore, when they have been outside during school hours, it is often recess, not learning time. It is important to be clear that even though students are outside the classroom, it is still time for learning.
  3. Related to number two, get outside regularly. As students become more familiar with the garden routines, they will be more comfortable and “on-task.” Consider learning outdoors to be equally essential as learning with technology. Nature time is as important as screen time.
  4. Share your successes (and challenges)—with colleagues, your principal, parents, and your students.
  5. Connect with other educators and resources. For instance, the following websites can provide even more links to others interested in learning gardens: Oregon School Garden Summit (http://www.ode.state.or.us/search/page/?id=4202), OSU Extension’s gardening program (http://extension.oregonstate.edu/gardening/), Learning Gardens Laboratory (http://www.pdx.edu/elp/learning-gardens-laboratory) and many other local, regional, and statewide organizations.
  6. Most of all, have fun! Learning should be a fulfilling lifelong endeavor. That will only happen if it is fun, engaging, and meaningful. Learning gardens are the perfect mileau!

Photo Inspiration:

Figure 5: Learning gardens also provide numerous opportunities for arts integration.

Figure 5: Learning gardens also provide numerous opportunities for arts integration.

Figure 6: Arts integration and bilingual language development—gardens can provide a cultural entry point for many students from diverse backgrounds.

Figure 6: Arts integration and bilingual language development—gardens can provide a cultural entry point for many students from diverse backgrounds.

Figure 7: Collecting daily measurements of temperature and weather conditions helps students develop understandings of hard-to-grasp, abstract concepts. Additionally, they can observe change over time, make predictions, and record and analyze data.

Figure 7: Collecting daily measurements of temperature and weather conditions helps students develop understandings of hard-to-grasp, abstract concepts. Additionally, they can observe change over time, make predictions, and record and analyze data.

Figure 8: A one-on-one exploration of roots and soil.

Figure 8: A one-on-one exploration of roots and soil.

Figure 9: Early literacy skills can be developed and enhanced through journaling and data collection. Even the youngest learners can feel successful.

Figure 9: Early literacy skills can be developed and enhanced through journaling and data collection. Even the youngest learners can feel successful.

Figure 10: Teacher candidates discuss and reflect on the day's activities with a small group of students.

Figure 10: Teacher candidates discuss and reflect on the day’s activities with a small group of students.


Berry, W. (1990). What are People For? Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint.

Blank, R. K. (2013). Science instructional time is declining in elementary schools: What are the implications for student achievement and closing the gap?. Science Education, 97(6), 830-847. DOI:10.1002/sce.21078.

Bybee, R., Taylor, J. A., Gardner, A., Van Scotter, P., Carlson, J., Westbrook, A., Landes, N. (2006). The BSCS 5E instructional model: Origins and effectiveness. Colorado Springs, CO: BSCS.

Louv, R. (2005). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. North Carolina: Algonquin Book of Chapel Hill.

National Research Council [NRC]. (2012). A framework for K–12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next generation science standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Orr, D. W. (1992). Ecological literacy: Education and the transition to a postmodern world. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Sobel, D. (2004). Place-based education: Connecting classrooms & communities. Great Barrington, MA: The Orion Society.

Williams, D. R. & Brown, J. D. (2012). Learning gardens and sustainability education: Bringing life to schools and schools to life. New York, NY: Routledge.

About the authors:

Sybil S. Kelley, PhD,is Assistant Professor of Science Education and Sustainable Systems at Portland State University in the Leadership for Sustainability Education program. In addition, she teaches the Elementary Science Methods courses in the Graduate Teacher Education Program. Sybil has spent nearly 15 years working in formal and informal educational contexts. Her programming and research focuses on connecting K-12 students and educators in underserved schools and neighborhoods to authentic, project-based learning experiences that contribute to community problem solving. Taking a collaborative approach, Sybil supports teachers and community-based educators in aligning out-of-school learning experiences with state and local academic requirements. Her research focuses on investigating the impacts of these experiences on student engagement, thinking, and learning; and teacher self-efficacy, pedagogical content knowledge, and instructional practices. Prior to her work in education, Sybil worked as an environmental scientist and aquatic toxicologist. Correspondence can be sent to sybilkel@pdx.edu.

Dilafruz R. Williams is Professor, Leadership for Sustainability Education program, in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. She is co-author of Learning Gardens and Sustainability Education: Bringing Life to Schools and Schools to Life (Routledge, 2012), and has published extensively on garden-based learning, service-learning, urban education, and ecological issues. She was elected to the Portland Public Schools Board, 2003-2011. She is co-founder of Learning Gardens Laboratory and Sunnyside Environmental School in Portland. Additional information about her can be obtained at www.dilafruzwilliams.com


The Blessed Moment: Promise for Preparing Integrative Learners and Leaders

The symbolic act of learning and living sustainability in the future should intermingle the fabric of natural systems and human made social systems

by Pramod Parajuli, Ph.D.
Doctoral Program in Sustainability Education
Prescott College

The hundreds of thousands of initiatives of this blessed moment are not about the bread and butter, or just about the soil and water alone. Art and the things of beauty are emerging from the most ordinary—a permaculture household in El Salvador, a thread of garlic organically grown in the Chino Valley, Arizona, a solar cooker in the remote Nepalese Himalayas, a Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, a sustainable fishing regulation in British Columbia, or a bag of coffee produced under the canopy of agro-forestry in Chiapas, Mexico. One solar cooker at a time, one biogas at a time, there are millions of solutions, sprouting amidst crisis and seeming chaos.  The time has come as William Blake wrote:

To see a world in the grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower

What might all these imply as we prepare the future generations of learners, educators and leaders? The eight transitional insights I offer below testify that the symbolic act of learning and living sustainability in the future should intermingle the fabric of natural systems and human made social systems—two most complex systems on earth.  A new sustainable human trajectory will not be of humans alone shooting to Mars; it will require re-rooting ourselves with all our multiple senses, and working along with all more than human species.

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First, there is an Inviting Context: Climate of Change amidst Climate Change
By now, almost all have accepted that the climate change is real, undeniable, and is accelerating very fast. Most among us also admit that climate change is caused largely due to the way we live our lives, the ways we extract, use and waste our resources. Many also agree that it is urgent to address it from all dimensions. Fortunately, ferocity of these very real crises are accompanied by a “climate of change.”  This is the focus of my paper here, a unique opportunitythat accompanies climate change.

The “climate of change” is evident in the way hundreds of thousands of people and groups who are already involved in changing the way we have been doing things, living our lives or using our tools. In his new book, Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken estimates that worldwide there are at least 2 million such initiatives.  Maybe there are more, certainly not less.

Second, learning sustainability should help us live lives and be well in the World.
Let me offer a working definition of learning sustainability. Learning sustainability is “an art and a process that could reorient human beings to become a beneficial member of an abundant biosphere.”  First, it is an art and a process.  Second, the intent of this art and process is to reorient humans from one mindset/worldview to another that will then lead to new visions, dreams and designs. Third, humans can be beneficial members of the biosphere and that the human needs and that of the biosphere do not have to be in conflict but can be mutually enhancing. Fourth, the biosphere is abundant and based on that we can create foundations for an abundant and equitable human life.  Fifth, that we can prepare the next generation who can be beneficial members and who can make the biosphere abundant.

As sustainability educators, at the core of our concern is nothing less than “life” itself. For me the message is loud and clear: We can be resilient and bounce back towards a sound and satisfying life systems for humans and other-than-humans. But as the author of Biomimicry, Janine Benyus, advises, we have to learn from our own evolutionary trajectory and the memory line of DNA. She reminds us to be humble of our techno-industrial accomplishments because other organisms have done everything we humans want to do without guzzling fossil fuels, polluting the planet, over harvesting water, depleting soil or mortgaging their future. For example, how do other species clean themselves and why do humans need soap, shampoo and hot water to clean?  Rather than asking “What is the least toxic detergent to use?”, a more hopeful question, Janine Benyus, suggests, might be: “How does nature stay clean?” How does nature thermo-regulate?  How could our ecological designs be informed by these biophilic insights?

Third, Food and Gardens could be a Gateway to Deep and Delicious Social Engagements
For the last six years, I was involved in designing and implementing the learning gardens experiment in Portland, Oregon, and now in Prescott, Arizona.  We found that engaging children and youth in food and garden can offer avenues for a mode of learning that is multicultural, multisensory, interdisciplinary and intergenerational (Parajuli, 2006; Parajuli , Dardis and Hahn, 2008).
We have been a pioneer in developing curriculum for K-8 children and youth who learn at any point in the continuum between, what I call the “soil to supper, and back to Soil
(the SoSuS) loop. The SOSuS Loop not only connects children and youth with the earth, it also connected people to people, communities to communities (Parajuli, 2009). We then explore the continuum between “food to foodshed” and “water to watershed.”
Our initial conclusion is that if designed carefully and tended with heart, learning gardens may offer a series of benefits to enhance and deepen learning:
•    impact a school’s physical as well as learning environments
•    lead to academic enrichment and achievement for students
•    enrich learning of the whole child
•    cultivate and nurture motivation, resiliency and leadership among children and youth
•    promote multi-sensory learning
•    be applicable to grade by grade, subject by subject, and season by season instruction and learning
•    use recurring themes over K-12 span of experience
•    effectively link ecology, culture and learning
•    enhance interdisciplinary inquiry
•    address and fulfill academic benchmarks
•    provide the seasonal framework for learning
•    teach both time (linear and cyclical) and a sense of place
•    link experience to meaning, thought to action and classroom to community
•    be the best sites for inter- and intra-generational learning, and
•    connect/collaborate with the larger food and garden community

Not only in the arena of nutrition and learning, our engagement in food, water and soil can take us towards a mode of social engagement that is not only “deep” but also “delicious.” Interestingly, the flavor of local, organic, and sustainable food economy is much more alive in urban centers than in rural farms and communities.  Here again we are witnessing the melting of the old fences that divide the rural from urban, industry from agriculture, soil from food and people from the planet. By changing our food habits and preferences, we are witnessing a wide-ranging and a deep process of change from the very belly of the techno-industrial beast and what the food author Michael Pollan calls, the nutritional/chemical complex. Transition towards local and sustainable food could give us the most delicious inter-economic partnership, as premised in the diagram below.

Fourth, Enhance Maximum Partnerships to create a world that is not only Ecologically Sustainable, but also Socially Equitable and Bio-culturally Diverse.
For the last seven years, I have developed and used a “Partnership Model of Sustainability” as a guide to practice pedagogy for transformational leadership among the new generation of learners and leaders. This model addresses the issues of economy and ecology on the one hand and equity and bio-cultural diversity on the other.

A brief description of the four partnerships follows.
Intra and Inter-generational partnership: Explores social classes, gender, caste, race, ethnicity and other human created institutions and practices of social inequities and cleavages. Attention to intra and inter generational equity and partnership is urgent because inequality is also at the core of current ecological crisis.

Inter-species Partnership: Addresses ecological, philosophical and ethical aspects of human’s relationship with the more than human worlds. I am teaching that we humans are nature in microcosm. “We are nature in every molecule and neuron,” says Paul Hawken.  “We contain clay, mineral and water; are powered by sunshine through plants; and are intricately bound to all species, from fungi to marsupials to bacteria. In our lungs are oxygen molecules breathed by every type of creature to have lived on earth along with the very hydrogen and oxygen that Jesus, Gautam Buddha and Rachel Carson breathed” (Hawken, 2007:71-72).

Inter-cultural Partnership: Examines the field of biological, cultural, and linguistic diversities and the inextricable relations between the three.  It is about recognizing what I call the “ethnosphere,” the diversity of knowledge systems and diverse ways of knowing, teaching and learning.

Inter-economic Partnership: Includes mapping and reshaping of the global North and South as well as the social and economic institutions, trade, arrangements for exchanges and surplus, fair trade and free trade, rural and urban, agriculture and industry, raw and processed materials, and producers and consumers. Moreover, water, food and soil will be one of the most critical elements in the future of humanity.

Fifth, Learn and Lead for both Biospehric and Ethnospheric Health.
Through a deeper probing of the partnership model of sustainability, I have learned that no human solutions could be found by just rearranging the human world. We need to reshape our relationship with the more than human world. In the same way, ecosystems regeneration could not also be achieved by “fencing off” humans from the so called pristine natural areas but by changing how humans live their lives (Parajuli, 2004;  2001 (a and b). Thus our challenge is how to maintain the delicate balance between biospheric health and ethnospheric health.

In order to create the confluence between the three realms, the learning environment should be multisensory, multicultural and intergenerational such that it fosters interdisciplinary inquiry.  Much ink has been dried writing about multicultural education, as if adequate solutions were found simply by rearranging human relations, in race, class and gender terms.  While that is absolutely necessary, it is tragically inadequate. I realize that the future lies in multi-sensory pedagogy that nurtures our multi-sensory engagement in and with the earth. As eco-philosopher David Abram awakens us: “The fate of the earth depends on a return to our senses.”

Sixth, Learning should inculcate Integral Visions and Designs
The readers of this journal have worked miracles in the outward-bound and experiential education fields. But most of this genre is poised as antithetical to skills needed for what I call the “homewardbound.” On the other side, many of us have worked in creating sustainable livelihoods, through agro-ecology, permaculture, fisheries, sustainable industries and such.  These homeward-bounders have hardly any time to enjoy raw nature, like the “outwardbounders” do.

There is hardly any dialogue, sharing and mutual learning between the two genres. Such isolation does not allow us to find integral visions or integrative solutions. In other words, how could we bring the David Thoreau(s) and Wendell Berry(s) in the same imagination? Vandana Shiva(s) and Jenine Benyus(s) at the same table? I urge us to develop such learning designs that connect the outward-bounders with the homeward-bounders, the wild with the domestic, nature with culture and the forest with the farm.  A deeply and truly integrative vision and design is needed to heal the wounds that have been inflicted between the cities, where most of the consumption happens, and the rural where most of the production happens. The same could be accomplished between the industrial sector that eats up bunch of raw materials and agriculture where such raw materials are sustained. How could we bind the buyers and the producers by the same thread of ecological health, diversity, justice and integrity?

Seventh, let us move from Discourse to Design
My students tell me that they want to learn deep sustainability in product as well as process, in content as well as the method of inquiry. I am convinced, it is not by saturating them with discursive pessimism (even when substantiated with facts) but cultivating in them incurable optimism but which is informed by reliable dreams and viable designs. In my courses, such as Leadership for Sustainability, Sustainability Theory and Practice, Modes of Scholarly Inquiry, each student begins to articulate his/her wildest dream that they want to achieve in ten years.  Then they follow a 4Ds protocol: Diagnosis, Dream, Design and Delivery.  It is important that we embrace diversity of learning needs of each student and let them grow into their own space and dreams.  But push them to the wildest side, we must.

Eighth, Cultivate Leadership in the open Space of Democracy
Terry Tempest Williams has articulated the notion of open space of democracy for our turbulent times. She writes: Open space of democracy is interested in circular, not linear power—power reserved not for entitled few but shared by many (Williams 2004).  I also want to introduce a fairly new book by Otto Scharmer, entitled, Theory U:  Leading from the future as it emerges. To begin with, Otto asks us to have open mind, open heart and open will.  Only when we let go of the old habits, dreams and designs (the left line of the U), we can transition towards letting come of the new habits, designs and dreams (the right line of the U). The bottom line of the U is the incubation process between the letting go and letting come.
I urge the readers, you draw a U and practice for yourself.

Selected References

Benyus, Jenine. (2004). “Biomimicry: What would nature do here?” in Nature’s operating instructions: The true biotechnologies. Ausubel, K. and Harpignies, J.P. (eds). San Francisco: Sierra Club Books. PP 3-16.

Capra, Fritjof. (2002). Hidden Connections. Integrating the Biological, Cognitive, and Social Dimensions of Life into Science of Sustainability. New York: Doubleday.

Hawken, Paul. (2007). Blessed unrest: How the largest movement in the world aame into being and why no one saw it coming.  New York: Viking (published by the Penguin Group).

Jones, Van. (2008). The green collar economy: How one solution can fix our two pressing problems. New York: Harper Collins.

Parajuli, Pramod. (2009). Greening Our Cultures: Emergent Properties of Life and Livelihoods, Learning and Leadership. Manuscript. Prescott College.

Parajuli, Pramod. (2006a). “Learning suitable to life and livability: Innovations through learning gardens” Connections 8: 1: 6-7.

Parajuli, Pramod. (2006b). ‘Coming home to the earth household: Indigenous communities and ecological citizenship in India” in J. Kunnie and N. Goduka Eds. Indigenous Peoples’ Wisdom and Power. London: Ashgate. pp. 175-193.

Parajuli, Pramod. (2004). Revisiting Gandhi and Zapata: Motion of global capital, geographies of difference and the formation of ecological ethnicities. in Mario Blaser and Harvey Feit eds, In the way of development: Indigenous Peoples, life projects and globalization. London: Zed Press. Chapter 14. pp. 235-255.

Parajuli, Pramod. (2001). How can four trees make a jungle? The world and the wild. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press. pp. 3-20.

Parajuli, Pramod, Dardis, Greg and Hahn, Tim. (2008). Curriculum Development and Teacher Preparation for the Learning Gardens.  A report submitted to the Oregon Community Foundation.

Shiva, Vandana. (2006). Earth democracy. Boston: Southend Press.

Stone, Michael. K and Barlow, Zenobia. (eds.). (2005). Ecological literacy: Educating our children for a sustainable world.  San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
Williams, Terry, Tempest. (2004).  The open space of democracy. Barrington, MA: Orion Society.[/password]

Pramod Parajuli is the Director of Program Development in Sustainabililty Education at Prescott College in Arizona. He has designed and developed various academic and community empowerment programs including the Learning Gardens and the Leadership in Ecology, Culture and Learning (LECL), a graduate program at Portland State University, Portland, Oregon (2002-2008). At Prescott College, he is incubating several new innovations that could build on its forty years of accomplishments and seek new heights and horizons.

Teaching Teachers in a Learning Garden: Two Metaphors

Teaching Teachers in a Learning Garden: Two Metaphors


by Veronica Gaylie
University of British Columbia


There are no larger fields than these, no worthier games than may here be played.grow wild according to thy nature…let the thunder rumble…take shelter under the cloud…Enjoy  the land, but own it not. (Henry David Thoreau, From Walden)

How does eco-centred teacher education promote ecological ideals while transforming the teacher training process? How can a campus garden engage student teachers in environmental philosophy while promoting new metaphors for eco-centred practice?

One response to these inquiries was to build a campus “Learning Garden,” a model school garden and learning site for student teachers. Through research, physical labour and collaborative learning, the garden grew as a narrative where students learned to become teachers with heart, and earth, in mind. The Learning Garden also exposed new teachers to a concept of the land as both a physical space and an experiential learning process, concepts involving responsible land management, risk taking and community commitment.

BoxBuildingA community learning model, with garden work at the core, promoted local and global knowledge of drought, food systems and farming practices; the model inspired students to want to acquire such knowledge and experience in the first place. The garden shifted learner awareness from personal achievement to the environment itself: from student stewardship of the garden to the impact of that stewardship beyond the garden and into the world. The garden challenged assumptions of ‘teacher success’ and also some of the ideals of environmental education. It was especially the challenges that helped realign ideals and exposed students to the unpredictable processes of both teaching and the natural world.

The critical challenges of teaching teachers in the garden can be described through two metaphors: garden as (physical) environment and garden as community. The garden as environment, a literal outdoor space, involved awareness of local climate conditions and the necessity for drought tolerant plants and native species. An awareness of the garden as environment also promoted concepts of ecological and social justice, with, for example, the decision to donate produce from the garden to the local food bank.  In the garden as community, student teachers learned the importance of respecting and interacting with their location; the learning garden was (and continues to be) strongly influenced by local Okanagan Tradition, which challenged a focus on individual achievement common to most academic programming. In this way, the garden, both as physical space and as a conceptual model, also challenged the roots of teacher training.

SchoolKidsSchool Gardens in the Context of Environmental Education

David Orr (2004) calls for the integration of environmental education across the curriculum, and a Science curriculum linked to history, environmental ethics, citizenship, Globalization and first hand awareness of how scientific knowledge affects the world outside the classroom. Such a curriculum supports the belief that “…knowledge carries with it the responsibility to see that it is well used in the world.” (13)

Other environmental writings (Bowers 2006, Shiva 2005) discuss the reclamation of public space as a way of developing socially engaged, knowledgeable communities.  Shiva discusses ‘living democracies’ that promote biodiversity, local action, and ‘reinventing citizens’ and provide a solution to monoculture and socio-economic injustice. (84)

Researchers also outline the need for practical and critical understandings in school gardens and the need to examine concepts such as direct food, globalization and anthropocentric learning models. Such a need can be realized through teacher education that supports critical, eco-centred concepts with first hand experience of land and food. The garden provides a place where students can consider, up close, the threats to local food sources through global agri-business, the commoditization of a basic life source (land and seeds), and various forms of embedded knowledge that contribute to ecological damage. As gardens grow in North American schools, teacher education must prepare future teachers in critical, eco-centred methods and philosophy while exposing  them to tangible, contextual awareness of the learning process itself.

Garden as Environment

Work in the garden began with an Environmental Education class made up of student teachers and practicing teachers. While we weeded, we considered some conceptual approaches to guide the garden: sustainability (passing on the garden to future learners); interdisciplinary learning (connected learning); hands-on learning (learning by doing); xeriscape as alternative to green lawns (responding to local water issues); organic (a contextual awareness of our surroundings as ecological systems); aboriginal traditions (community minded teaching and learning); rotating stewardship (respect for future groups in the garden).  The means of developing the garden’s principles were also meant to create a tradition of discussion that would be passed on to future groups, who could discuss, change, solve or adapt the founding principles.  The basic plan was for a food/drought tolerant/flower mix that would create a blend of “beauty” and “use” while showing how native, non-native and invasive species responded to drought. If the flowers and vegetables withered due to a water shortage, and the xeriscape plants lived, students would have a visual example of the effects of drought. The plan was not to create a showcase of local plant life but to support a learning process where mistakes could bring understanding. This would be a valuable, difficult lesson for new teachers.

The idea of a “Learning Garden” took hold and local businesses eagerly made donations.  The first donation was from a local lumber yard which donated one thousand dollars of red cedar for raised  garden beds, with promises of supplying more at wholesale prices. Other local businesses in the small community recognized that their own children, and family members, would benefit from school gardens.

With so much imported produce in local grocery stores, most of it hauled by truck North on one highway, the students considered the value of maintaining local farms as a means of challenging global food trade. What were the land ethics, the issues of eco-justice involved in building large scale, permanent condo developments on fertile agricultural? What was the connection between a local garden and globalized food ethics?  How could students involve themselves in this knowledge by learning and working in school gardens?

The students engaged in conversations around the larger context of their  local work, providing a practical context for their readings in Globalization from previous course work and personal interest.  While students thought of innovative ways to bring this knowledge to their own classrooms, the method of linking local and global concepts through hands-on learning would challenge teacher education focused on performance standards, organizational abilities and classroom management. By learning in the garden, and in considering the role of the garden in the local and global agricultural community, students began challenging their own teacher training.

PondThe Pond

The garden is located next to a pond filled with a variety of migratory ducks, red-winged blackbirds and other wildlife. One early idea was to use the pond to water the garden, using a pump.

What was the environmental impact of draining the pond? How did we interfere with goals for long term, sustainable land and water use by removing water from the pond? Why was our first impulse in moving toward sustainable land management to destroy it? What previous learning had lead us to seek short term gains, while destroying other life forms?  Leaving the pond alone seemed like an obvious, ecoliterate choice; however the process of coming to this decision was our first instance where a practical need lead directly to questions of environmental ethics. The shift from seeking solutions to asking questions about ecological justice began with contextual awareness, occurring organically within community, within the decision making process itself. Students learned that eco-centred decisions require a constant, conscious effort to weigh the ecological impact of human actions within an ethical framework of ecological justice.

A second example of contextualized decision making occurred when the students developed their garden design plans. The designs were placed on a screen in the classroom, and included a mix of hand-drawn symbols, squares, circles, combined with computer generated garden designs.  One design clearly stood out: it was irregularly shaped, with the exterior parameter of the garden bulging into and oddly shaped arc.  This design was in the actual, irregular shape of the land itself, with areas drawn for garden beds which lead out from a (natural, tree-shaded) classroom area to the composter and soil areas. The plan was organic, irregular, and fit the imperfectly shaped land perfectly. The students were beginning to work with the land by listening to the land itself.

PIC_0379Garden as Community

A community model of teaching and learning grows from school gardens. Instead of prizing ‘ownership’ of land or ideas, the learning garden was focused on an ideal of shared local knowledge. The new cohort of students typically wanted a quick, practical route to becoming teachers. Most of the students had recently completed four year undergraduate degrees in single teaching specialties; they were conditioned by an academic system of independent achievement and individualized recognition. Students emerged from academic undergraduate conditioning and most wanted to know instead of learn in a learning garden. When I told the students they would be developing curricula, methods and lesson plans around native plants, global education, local food and other eco-centred issues, a handful seemed interested.  One student told me: “I hate nature.”  During the second garden cohort, ideals for an eco-centred, community model of teacher education seemed at odds with a college system biased towards grades and individual stamina and success. In Spring, a dedicated group of the middle school cohort, post-practicum, continued building the infrastructure of the garden by building up the soil and designing the beds. We learned of a plan to drain the pond to make way for the new business/engineering building.  Our very presence seemed to challenge the land development that suddenly surrounded us on campus. When I told the students, they wondered how a campus that prides itself on ‘sustainability’ could consider removing a pond. The argument for removing the pond was that the pond was man-made, and therefore not ‘natural.’

The water issue found us taking personal responsibility for decisions  which would have a lasting impact. Our first lesson in making positive, conscious decisions for the garden, taught us the importance of listening to all members before making decisions. The land taught us to stay still. And listen.

The students and I were suddenly aware of the power structures that surrounded us. One student offered to live in a raft on the pond in order to save it from destruction.  At this time, we learned the challenges of building eco-centred community within previous, existing models of learning.  We experienced the growing pains of eco-centred teacher education; their academic, undergraduate education had not nurtured a collaborative learning model and, through eco-centred teacher education, the students and I learned, with some difficulty, how to build community from scratch.

What is the role of a teacher educator in guiding student teachers toward community based, eco-centred learning? Planning the garden, then planning and replanting the garden during the second teacher education cohort, brought forward the importance of process. Nurturing plants from seedlings, observing their growth, at the same time students and teachers learn from the garden, is a powerful way to help future teachers learn how to learn. Initial reluctance largely gave way when students worked together to apply their knowledge. I observed how problems resolve with the literal manifestation of abstract plans and knowledge. If, for example, a student wants to plant a rose, instead of native, drought-tolerant plants, a prolonged, decontextualized discussion could ensue in a classroom environment.  In the garden, however, it is obvious that a rose in our local climate requires a lot of water and care.  Is the student willing to provide that? Is a rose practical in a desert landscape? What are the cultural assumptions that lead the students to believe a rose is ‘beautiful’ if it uses one hundred percent more water than a local plant, such as an Oregon grape? For students new to a garden, learning does not lie in certainty, but in mistakes, and in defying preconditioned notions of learning.

BigGardenDuring the first year, threats to the garden community (physical, ethical, external, internal) all somehow related to concepts of individual ownership. In a western model of education, it seems that just as people care about land, they also want to control it.  The experience of the garden as a co-operative, shared model of learning made us aware of land models based on ownership and profit. Building the garden made visible the larger learning community, and prompted new understandings of the role of teacher education within that model. Is the role of a teacher educator simply to teach students how to exert control over all other natural species, including their students?  As Wendell Berry (2002) states, a community “…must change in response to its own changing needs and local circumstance, not in response to motives, powers, or fashions coming from elsewhere.” (163)  When learning supports peace, community, and environmental awareness, new values emerge that help learners make ecologically just decisions that challenge ingrained learning patterns. In this way, a garden challenges teacher education at its very roots.

“Hope Trumping Despair”

The story of the learning garden is about the impact of local, small scale actions on larger systems.  One school garden, with sometimes just a single teacher’s involvement, can produce far reaching effects.

Garden-based teacher education puts the ideals of environmental education into practice. Conceptualizing new forms of eco-centred teacher education also helps remove the myth of control and knowledge “ownership” for new teachers. It would be impossible for one person to build and maintain a school garden, and it would be purposeless, since land cultivation is always rooted in a process of shared knowledge. A school garden is always, simultaneously, environment and community.

BuildingStairsAs David Orr and others have stated, while it is vital to inform students of the scientific facts about environment, it is even more important to change the ways of living and thinking that have contributed to environmental destruction. Working in the garden teaches teachers to approach the land in the same way they might approach their students, taking a holistic, process-oriented approach. Such a community depends on individuals succeeding within and for the survival of the community; in working the land, students see how their efforts helped the land produce at a level that is sustainable, in context, with minimal impact on surroundings. In a garden, students are not silenced into discipline or disciplined into silence; the reasons for both talk and silence are apparent. Community becomes both the process and goal of learning. As taught in aboriginal Tradition, a garden teaches young people to also learn ‘how our actions are always tied to others, and how some actions disappoint and hurt.’ (Armstrong et al. 2000)

Beginning with visions and ideals about the land and learning, the students teachers and I grew alongside the garden: unpredictably, in the context of organic life. A garden reveals how the process of learning, rooted in the context of one’s surroundings, becomes the lesson itself. To learn in a garden with students is to be in a constant state of environmental and community activism. As veteran social activist Grace Lee Boggs states, a community garden is a sign of “hope trumping social despair” at the grass roots level where we ‘regain our humanity in practical ways.’

Veronica Gaylie, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, has worked as a high school English teacher and is now a teacher educator in interdisciplinary, ecology-based learning. She is the founder of the learning garden at UBC Okanagan.

Why Care About Pollinators?

Why Care About Pollinators?

monarch1Many people think only of allergies when they hear the word pollen. But pollination — the transfer of pollen grains to fertilize the seed-producing ovaries of flowers — is an essential part of a healthy ecosystem. Pollinators play a significant role in the production of over 150 food crops in the United States — among them apples, alfalfa, almonds, blueberries, cranberries, kiwis, melons, pears, plums, and squash.

Bees, both managed honey bees and native bees, are the primary pollinators. However, more than 100,000 invertebrate species, including bees, moths, butterflies, beetles, and flies, serve as pollinators — as well as 1,035 species of vertebrates, including birds, mammals, and reptiles. In the United States, the annual benefit of managed honey bees to consumers is estimated at $14.6 billion. The services provided by native pollinators further contribute to the productivity of crops as well as to the survival and reproduction of many native plants.

However, long-term population trends for some North American pollinators are “demonstrably downward,” says a new report from the National Research Council1.

Observable decreases in wild populations of bees, butterflies, and moths are of great concern to producers of fruits, vegetables, nuts, alfalfa, and flowers. These crops depend on wild and domestic pollinators. Growers in California, Florida, Arizona, Utah, Washington, and Hawaii are especially concerned. More important is the disturbing notion of an imbalance in the natural ecosystem and biodiversity on which all food production depends. Habitat loss for pollinators by human activity poses an immediate and frequently irreversible threat. Other factors responsible for population decreases include invasive plant species, broad-spectrum pesticide use, disease, and weather.

For the most part, the general public is unaware of the decrease in pollinator populations and the implications this has for agricultural production. The Nature’s Partners: Pollinators, Plants, and You curriculum is designed to educate young people about

  • pollinators and the important role they play in providing many of the foods we eat and the plant fiber used in our clothing and household goods, and
  • ways they can help pollinators survive and flourish by protecting and creating pollinator-friendly habitat.

The Nature’s Partners curriculum is just one step toward increasing the public’s awareness and sense of responsibility that are essential to a successful conservation program for pollinators.

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