It’s Thursday evening in Casa Grande, Arizona, and I’m sitting in the local Chick-fil-A, decompressing from the freeway trek northward to Phoenix and reflecting on my day in Tucson. I am sunburnt, wind-whipped, and pretty exhausted, but it was a good day. I spent the day doing something I love—learning how to educate children in the outdoors.
I was given the opportunity to go to the Tucson Village Farm to learn about school gardening and nutrition, organized and provided by the 21st Century Community Learning Center of Arizona. The 21st Century Community Learning Center federally funds the creation of community learning centers that provide academic enrichment opportunities during non-school hours for children, particularly students who attend high-poverty and low-performing schools. My school has received a 21st Century grant for several years, and through the funding of this program and a grant from the Western Grower’s Foundation, I created a school garden in 2008 and have organized and facilitated the school’s Garden Club throughout the last six years.
Back to my day– about 40 educators met together at the Tucson Village Farm to learn about garden design, composting, amending soil, pollination, nutrition activities, cooking, etc. Most of the workshops were spent in purposeful hands-on activities, either in the garden, around an outdoor kitchen, or under ramadas. The time was spent laughing and learning while everyone was excited to be outdoors and get our hands in the soil. No matter how long you have been gardening, it’s always exciting to pick vegetables from the earth, wash them off, and immediately enjoy!
I had three reactions from this fun experience. My first reaction- I was a little disappointed that as a classroom teacher, I was in the minority of participants. Most participants were affiliated with the Cooperative Extensions of Arizona counties, 21st CCLC, the Arizona Department of Education, or school/community gardens. I was thrilled to network with this rich variety of resourceful professionals, but I was wondering why more educators were not included. This experience provided me with many interesting ideas to teach life science to my Garden Club students when I get back to school. I know that a day of hands-on life science projects on a farm would restart any teacher’s scientific batteries and rekindle the students’ love of science. Today’s focus on Common Core standards for math and literacy and Social Studies DBQs (Document Based Questions) has depleted many teachers’ energy to even start or finish a science unit in the classroom. (I’m not blaming Common Core standards, just the time it is taking teachers to plan and execute lessons.) Teachers need to get out, get their hands dirty, and remember the impact of hands-on science projects have on students!
My second reaction was a strong mixed bag- here’s an interesting label- bemused sardonic frustration. At the end of this inspirational day of learning, a member of the Arizona Department of Education got up and announced an ah-ha that she had- the state has been placing too much emphasis on academics and not enough on “youth development.” Yes, most of us who actually work with children have come to this conclusion about a decade ago. This ADE representative announced that “it’s about time” that students become leaders of their own learning through hands-on, project-based outdoor activities that involve exercise and collaboration. She also shared that children are getting weighed down by the academics and not getting enough leadership development. I hope that her sentiments influence future decisions made pertaining to Arizona’s educational system.
Excitement is the color of my third reaction to my day at Tucson Village Farm. I was quite impressed with the amount of school and community gardens that are developed throughout Tucson. There is an impressive amount of parent and community volunteers who are participating in these gardens, and students are learning not just the value of applying academics to gardening, but also teamwork with these prized community resources. I also learned that several Native American reservations have structured community gardens in which they are applying native gardening techniques to bring organic produce into their communities. It was inspiring to hear of their stories of how they create flour and other products, using native Arizona trees and plants. As the cooperative extension gardeners shared how gardening has produced a therapeutic environment for troubled, hurting children as well as a leadership model to introverted students, I was excited to know exactly what they are talking about.
It was a great day to remember who I am as a teacher, who I want to be as a teacher, and how I need to get back to why I became a teacher. For me, it really boils down to the garden. As a teacher, I need to use something I love to inspire the students’ interest and curiosity to become lifelong learners. We as teachers need to grow our students as lifelong learners, so they can blossom and continue the cycle.