I went into my first meeting with the teachers at my daughter’s school armed with my vast collection of garden guides and curriculum books. I was ready with suggestions on how to integrate the garden into every grade level and every class. I proposed an extensive garden program, full of all the best activities and ideas I had ever seen in other school gardens across the country. Looking back, I just kind of roll my eyes at myself. What was I thinking?

Thankfully, the teachers were very kind, although I could tell the reception was a little bit less than enthusiastic. In our second meeting, I changed my approach and switched from trying to lead us in one direction to asking questions – lots and lots of questions. Through this second interchange, I was able to figure out what the teachers were interested in doing and how much time they had to spend on the garden. From there I was able to propose some garden program ideas from my bank of knowledge that matched their needs. Don’t get me wrong. I still try to plug some new additions each year, but I have definitely changed the scale of my suggestions.

Our 3rd Grade gardens feature tomatoes because learning about the life cycle of the tomato plant is part of the 3rd Grade required curriculum so it helps the teachers meet the standards.

My message here is not that what we do at our school will work at your school, but rather that each garden program needs to be designed to fit the needs of the teacher or teachers using it. The garden can be an amazingly flexible educational tool. Perhaps a teacher loves history. He or she could plant a Native American Three Sister’s Garden, a WWII Victory Garden, or experiment with raft gardens like those grown by the Ancient Aztecs. Perhaps his or her focus is literature. A storybook-themed garden for younger students or a Shakespearean garden for older students might help them bring classroom lessons life. Perhaps space exploration is their jam. Simulating the growing conditions found in space using grow lights might be the perfect addition to their classroom. The point is, there is not a one-size-fits-all garden program.

Gardens are not an effortless endeavor. You will sweat, you will get dirty, and you may need to work outside of the regular school day for maintenance (I know we will be up there watering this Memorial Day weekend). By and large the benefits of a garden more than make up for this additional work, but teachers really need to be invested in the program so they feel like it is a wise use of their time.

Is there anything more engaging than listening to a professional educator talk about something they love? You’ve had one of those teachers right? The ones who get so excited about what they are talking about they make you excited about it too? That is what I want for my kids – I want them to have teachers that are teaching from their hearts. I love this statement from the book “In the Three Sisters Garden” by JoAnne Dennee thanking the schools who participated in their pilot gardening programs for reminding them of “the critical importance of each teacher owning his or her own unique journey for integrated learning.” Exactly!

So my School Garden Tip #4 is to make sure to give teachers the opportunity to draw from their own passions and interests as inspiration in their own classrooms and in the garden. Take advantage of the flexible nature of the garden as an educational tool and allow it to be molded to fit your school’s unique curriculum needs. Never compare your garden program with one at another school. The only meaningful measuring stick is how well it is working for your teachers and your students!

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Blog By: Sarah Pounders

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