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.

"The garden was planted for my own use, yet we knew something big was going to become of it," Cool wrote in an e-mail. "What Stanford is doing by investing in this project, most importantly into their fledgling primary education curriculum, is admirable. For an institution of this stature, educating upper level or graduate students is the norm. To realize that the education of young children is equally worthy is the real news."

Garden of learning

In early spring, STEP's 20 elementary student teachers headed to Cool's home to get a firsthand look at the garden project. "We encourage the STEP teachers to look at what [educational] standards have to be taught and think about how to embed these into their activities," Costanzo says. "This really makes for a rich, integrated experience."

On May 26, Harwell welcomed Rowe's third-grade class to the garden. He showed the children how to expand their senses by making the most of their "deer" ears, "coyote" noses, "owl" eyes and "frog" skin. "Who has seen a coyote?" Harwell asked. He explained that wild coyotes are related to dogs and have a sense of smell a thousand times stronger than humans. "I want you to explore the garden" using all your senses, he said.

"This is so cool," says 10-year-old Yamilet Paredes, as she wandered through the vegetable beds. "I like the plants," says Victor Machias, 8. "And I like apples—apples are good for me."

Loeb, who has landed a teaching job at Stanford's new elementary school that is set to open in East Palo Alto this fall, said 90 percent of the students at Castro Elementary are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunch. All her third-graders are native Spanish speakers. "One thing that these kids lack is experience," she said. "In their daily lives, they don't get hands-on experience. This [project] gives them a frame of reference. It's great to get outside for a unit on energy transfer. They are learning that energy comes from the sun. This experience gives them something to ground that to."

In Cool's kitchen

The third-graders rotate between working with Harwell in the garden, studying the energy cycle with Loeb, making herb salt with Rowe and finally visiting Cool's kitchen. The chef repeats her sustainability mantra: "We start the seeds in the earth, the sun makes the plants grow, we pick them, we cook them and then we take all the scraps to the compost bin where energy makes more dirt and we plant more seeds." When a student recoils at finding a bug munching a vegetable, Cool says kindly, "Hmmmm, if the bugs liked it, it must be good. So don't be afraid of bugs. They are a part of life." She then picks up a large book called Hungry Planet: What the World Eats and compares what a family typically eats in one week in different parts of the world. There is a striking contrast between the grain-based diet of a family in Mali and an American family's dependence on packaged, processed food. "Who's heard of obesity and diabetes?" Cool asks. Pointing to the American family in the book, Cool says, "Watch how much processed food they're eating and how much fresh food we're eating today. Sugars can be a good thing and a bad thing. The trick is to eat as much fresh food as you can and only a little bit of junk food."

The students are famished by the time the meal of cooked vegetables, organic pasta, cheese, salad and whole grain bread is served. They line up for firsts and return for seconds. The group then reconvenes in a circle and shares what they have learned. "I learned that worms are helpful," says Eberado Zapata. Trishia Nunez says she learned how to make rosemary salt, which each student will take home in a jar.

Cool is confident the students will remember their class and hopes that they will take home lifelong lessons on sustainability and healthy eating to share with their families. "We all realize the possibility for a multitude of curricula being developed through hands-on gardening and cooking," she says. "But so much more can happen and the seeds it can plant in the minds of children are endless."

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