In 2009, when Michelle Obama broke ground on the largest and most expansive vegetable garden to date on the White House lawn, she invited all sorts of accomplished educators from around the States who ran school garden programs. Evidently, every one of them had completed Life Lab's Garden Educator Certification. Life Lab has been doing school gardens since 1979 and their mission is to "cultivate children's love of learning, healthy food, and nature through garden-based education."
This past Spring 2021, I was invited to join their School Garden Support Organizations Leadership Institute sponsored by Whole Kids Foundation, as one of two Canadians out of 38 participants. Together, we conducted all sorts of interviews and collectively created some pretty useful content here about sustainable staffing models, funding, equity and inclusion, and curricular connections. It was extremely inspiring to learn more about these other extraordinary school gardens programs all over North America.
So, when I saw that Life Lab's Garden Educator Certification was freshly offered online, I jumped on it! The program includes four one-month courses, synchronous weekly zoom meetings, at-home work, and one-on-one coaching. Even though I detest Zoom, I enjoyed meeting other school garden champions from around the world, the exposure to new and different programs and curricula, and Jenna Mobley and Sara Severance were helpful mentor-coaches.
Here are some of my favourite take-aways from their four successive courses that apply to our work and community here in the Southern Gulf Islands:
Course 1 - Building Connections in the Garden
RAINBOW ACTIVITIES ARE MY FAVE.
Last year I gathered beach rocks, painted them, and hid them around the garden as a sort of rock-Easter hunt. Then, children were asked to arrange them on this boulder and then find objects in the garden that matched the colours. Life Lab shared another approach to rainbows in the garden using paint chips, which we tried, too. Later, in the Plant to Plate course, we learned ways to teach children about how to "Eat a Rainbow" learning about all sorts of red-orange-yellow-green-blue and purple foods that benefit our different body systems, and then making a rainbow salad, stir-fry, smoothy or canape.
CIRCLES & AGREEMENTS.
The importance of opening and closing each garden time with students in circle was emphasized, along with consistent upfront sharing of garden agreements (aka rules). At SSE, we gather in circles to start and end our garden time together, often with verbal reflection on favourite experiences or what was learned to close, but I've never been that great at setting out rules. After reviewing "agreements" of the garden classroom more consistently this past fall, most kids now know all five: 1) Ask before you eat; 2) Don't stand on rock or wooden tables (this is a classroom, too!); 3) walk don't run (we don't play tag or grounders on the garden beds); 4) tell an adult if you need to leave the garden; and, 5) be kind and respectful to all plants & creatures (including each other).
The course offered stories as a great reminder that we can consciously make efforts for greater equity and inclusion every day by inviting families or community members with different food, garden plants, or stories/celebrations to share through the gardens.
Course 2 - The Garden as a Classroom
THE GARDEN IS A CLASSROOM
While other courses encouraged me to let the garden prompt lessons and teaching, this course provided a new perspective for me by looking at it as an actual classroom. You know, with alphabets and learning prompts on signage, good seating and work-stations, and as a respected space for education rather than half-playground. How is teaching in the outdoor garden different than teaching inside in a more traditional classroom? Many children experience stepping out the school doors as a release to recess, so in this setting, they need reminding that garden class is a classroom, too. It reminded me to have extra clipboards with scavenger hunts or other activities or pre-arranged exploration stations set up if kids desire more engagement or finish early. Along with these, our gardens could use better signage, more art, and a toolshed to stay better organized.
LINKING ACTIVITIES TO BC CURRICULUM
While this course focused on U.S. education standards, it was a good reminder to dig back into those "Big Ideas", "Core Competencies", and Content lists... Here's a lovely page by BC Farm to School summarizing related BC curricular connections for school gardens activities. Since this course, the wonderful teacher Jill Schultz (with a Bachelors in Ag, too) has offered to collaborate on planning for better curricular integration for SSE's weekly garden classes for K-6 in 2022.
Course 3 - Plant to Plate
When asked what we should definitely do this spring in the gardens, most students included "Eat!". They love harvesting, cooking, and sharing meals together outdoors. For 2022, I am committed to integrating food as much as possible into our garden experiences (which also focus on local ecology, creating great soil, and growing plants).
Like the garden agreements, I sometimes gloss over this very important step of setting out careful directions when handling sharp knives, but NO MORE! I will use some of their teaching techniques to "claw" the veggie, flat side down, cut through the arch, and keep the knife on the cutting board whenever not in use.
What an awesome resource for food & garden education. Emphasis on veggies & fruits and whole grains & plant proteins. The course included an activity where students design their own plateful of foods or categorize foods into proteins, carbs, fruits/veg, and fats. Yum!
While I missed the zoom portion of this unit, the links... Life Lab's "Teaching Composting" and "Ultimate Compost Resource" pages are super helpful. But, the video created by Kiss the Ground really takes the cake -- showing me and students why all this composting is SO important! Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=npu6GBbB-Oc
Course 4 - School Garden Program Sustainability
BUDGET & FUNDING
It takes money to make the magic happen ~ and I'm constantly writing grant proposals, donation requests, and doing admin to track it all. Each month, I update this website under Resources with new grant opportunities for school gardens in the Gulf Islands and beyond. This course provided a good reminder to review grant lists and other garden fundraising successes in Life Lab's various resource pages and via KidsGardening.org.
TELLING THE STORIES
Part of my commitment to this blog came after a discussion with Jenna Mobley early in the course, and it's really been a great way to track what we've done and also share stories outside the school. Sometimes I wonder, though, about so much video and photography as a message to students who are already inundated with screens... But the course reminded me of the importance of sharing what we do in the gardens with parents, community and beyond. Thanks.
CREATING A SUSTAINABLE CULTURE
Finding the right balance between delivering programming to students, fundraising and admin, professional development, committee & community-building, and more is what the Green Tool can help you do. It's a study of sustainable school garden programs in New York that boiled down elements common to successful, long-term school garden programs. A few years ago, I created my own version by combining the Green Tool diagram with the Happiness Index/Wheel of Life and it helps me see where I may be out of balance with this work. During Covid, maintaining community connections and support has definitely become more challenging. This is where I will put more energy in 2022.