top of page

Garden becomes organic classroom for third-graders

"Garden becomes organic classroom for third-graders" originally appeared in Stanfard News, June 6, 2006 -

It's a breezy spring morning and a gaggle of third-graders are standing in a ring around a garden bed filled with kale, radishes, beets, garlic and onions.

"My name is Jesse Cool, and this is my garden," says a woman with a friendly smile and a purple streak in her auburn hair. The third-graders squirm and one shouts, "Is it true that you have three restaurants?" Cool nods her head—she runs the Cool Café at the Cantor Center for Visual Arts—but tells the students from Mariano Castro Elementary School in Mountain View that they have come to learn firsthand how energy from the sun helps to grow food that they will harvest, clean, cook and eat together that day. Food scraps from the meal will be composted into nutrient-rich dirt to support new crops. Nothing will be wasted. "Today, you're going to learn a big word: 'sustainable,'" Cool says. "It's called seed to seed, soil to soil."

The third-grade English-immersion class, taught by Ellen Rowe, is participating in an innovative pilot project supported by the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP) in the School of Education. Molly Loeb, a student in STEP's new elementary teacher program, which offers a master's degree in education and a California teaching credential, is completing her practical training in Rowe's class. Loeb and STEP student Stephanie Chui have developed a curriculum based on Cool's garden and kitchen to teach a unit on energy. STEP also is using the hands-on experience to develop K-6 curricula in literacy, history and math. If the pilot takes off and secures funding, STEP may expand it to include secondary school students.

"This is not a typical school garden project," says Ruth Ann Costanzo, director of the STEP elementary program. In such programs, she explains, students may simply go on a field trip to have a "garden experience" but do not take anything lasting back to the classroom. "What Jesse wanted to do was to see how we could integrate a garden into the curriculum of our teacher education program," Costanzo says. The objective is for freshly minted STEP graduates to take the experience with them to their new jobs and start simple gardens. In urban schools, for example, plants can be grown in pots. "We wanted to do something really simple and low-cost, something that could be done all over the country," Cool says. "I didn't want to teach just children; I wanted to reach further."

Cool, an organic chef and restaurant owner, also runs a catering business and has prepared food for Stanford events. About five years ago, Jeff Wachtel, senior assistant to the president, met Cool when neighbors complained about a small chicken coop she kept behind her garden on a sliver of Stanford open space. Wachtel was enthusiastic about Cool's close connection to the land. "He was awesome," Cool says. "He thought it was great that someone in the community still had a connection to food." The chicken coop is gone—there are plans to rebuild it—but Cool has expanded her garden with the help of Drew Harwell, former manager of the Stanford Community Farm. Cool and Harwell met when the organic community farm collected food scraps from the Cool Café and turned them into compost.

Under Harwell's care, Cool's garden has grown to 12 vegetable beds, a greenhouse, fruit trees and a compost heap. A visiting scholar at Stanford, Cool has permission to cultivate the strip of land until the university wants it back.