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Reading, writing and ratatouille: Students get cooking

18 Feb

Starting a school garden is not unlike buying a soup spoon.

You can’t fully enjoy a new soup spoon until you also buy the soup bowl and the soup to fill it. And students can’t fully enjoy a school garden until they harvest its vegetables and fruits — then take the next step of cooking and eating them.

Sure, classrooms can learn plenty in a garden, even without harvesting from it. There’s no shortage of literacy, science and math lessons to do in a garden, and in our school, teachers have already created 30 lessons’ worth of connections with N.C. Standard Course of Study.

But what students learn from an edible garden can and should go beyond lessons about the parts of a plant or decomposition. Students should be able to feel the thrill of pulling a root vegetable from the ground, tasting a tomato right from the vine, and fully understanding where food comes from.

At George Watts Montessori, we’re investing in the soup bowl, as it were.

I’ve asked a class of industrial-design students at North Carolina State University to design and build a mobile cooking station for holding cooking classes indoors or outdoors. With a fully loaded cooking station, our school nutritionist, Becca Wright, can do hands-on cooking and tasting classes with pre-K through fifth graders.

And that’s yet another way we’ll bring fruits and vegetables from the garden to students.

Becca works with our school through the DINE for LIFE program, which is offered by the Durham County Health Department. Right now, she serves three Title I schools in Durham, including ours.

Becca talks to students about fruits and vegetables ...

... then lets them taste the apple salsa she brought in.

Her sessions with students are way more engaging than you might imagine (if you’re envisioning the food-pyramid lessons you probably had in school). But still, there’s a lot of talk about food and nutrition, and not much doing.

Becca says that the students are ready to take the next step, which is to graduate from talking about food to cooking it — picking up valuable kitchen skills and nutrition knowledge as they chop and mix.

That’s where our industrial-design students — Daniel Lecky, Brian Besterman and Zach Hodgins — enter the picture.

A couple of weeks ago, I visited their class to talk to the students about the school-gardening project and our current challenge — getting more of our garden’s produce into students’ stomachs! We fund the project through a recent BCBSNC Foundation grant. These three bright students were excited enough by the challenge to take it on — and I’m so pleased they’re collaborating with us.

Their mission is to make it easy for Becca to whisk into a classroom or into the garden with a cart that holds everything she needs to cook with kids — including a cooking surface. The station needs to be nimble, kid-friendly, expandable, sign-bearing and safe.

Yesterday the NCSU students, along with their professor Tim Buie, came to the school to tour the school and garden, and to observe Becca give a fruits-and-vegetables lesson to one of the Lower El (1st, 2nd and 3rd grade) classrooms. They took a lot of notes and asked a lot of great questions.

It’ll be a learning experience for all of us. But we hope to have a prototype working within a month or two. Just in time for the garden’s spring crop!


5 ways edible gardens make kids smarter and healthier

1 Feb

I just created a presentation about the evolution of our school garden at George Watts Montessori. (I can’t wait to tell you why I was doing that, but that will have to wait for another post.)

To show what we’ve accomplished, I delved into the 5 biggest ways the garden has contributed to the students’ health and academics:

1. Kids are tasting more vegetables and fruits — and learning how to cook them. Tasting what’s growing in the garden is so essential, but it’s also a challenge to incorporate into the school day.

At schools like Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, Calif., they have kitchen and garden staff who work together in figuring out what’s ready to harvest and cook with children — and then do it during set-aside blocks of time. If you’re not lucky enough to have that arrangement, you have to fit in tastings somehow.

At our school, the tastings have happened as a school-wide “celebration” — like Harvest Feast or Green Smoothie Day — and also as an individual classroom activity. This year, for example, classrooms gathered lettuce to make salads for a mid-afternoon snack and harvested broccoli for a recipe a teacher brought in. Other classrooms nibble from the plants as they pass through the garden on their way to recess.

What can you make with spinach and strawberries (both grown in our garden)? Green smoothies!

This spring, we’ll be trying something new. More about that in a future post…

2. Kids move more. Outside in the garden, kids can stretch, soak up some sunshine vitamins, and have a sensorial experience, thanks to all the smells and textures in the garden.

But the biggest boon to students’ health? The .25-mile walking path that we installed as part of the garden expansion.

Many classes run the track before starting recess. It’s one way for teachers — and not just the P.E. coach — to help kids reach the daily recommended levels of physical activity, 60 minutes. A growing body of research shows the connection between physical activity and academic performance (not to mention the health benefits of exercise).

So anytime a teacher encourages a run around the track, she’s helping kids get smarter.

A class does a lap before recess begins.

3. It’s a learning lab. I’ve told you before about the garden-based curriculum we’re using at George Watts Montessori. But teachers don’t always need customized lessons to encourage learning outside. Journaling, measuring, making real-world observations, conducting experiments, gathering specimens — it’s all possible in a garden.

Students can witness what happens when they don’t water young seeds enough, or how slowly their compost heap decomposes. It’s like this Chinese proverb puts it: “Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I’ll understand.”

4. It brings food equity to our community. We have enough space in our garden now that we produce more than students can taste during the school day. So we’ve been able to think about how to share food.

Some weeks (with the help of the school’s counselor) we send home fresh vegetables to school families in need. Over the summer, everything we harvested was given away to families at a weekly Garden Giveaway Day at the school. At last spring’s Great Tomato Giveaway, every family who wanted one got a free potted tomato plant, along with a list of ways to cook and eat a tomato.

And recently, over winter break, 20 or so students and their families came to the garden to harvest spinach and carrots. We took loads of it to our downtown soup kitchen, Urban Ministries, so the chef could turn it into a meal.

5. It builds community. This means a lot of different things to me. It can mean a small group of parents coming together to work on the garden beds, or the entire school community coming together to celebrate Rootfest. Or it can point to the many connections our school has made via the garden.

So far, we’ve forged partnerships with urban gardening groups like Bountiful Backyards and SEEDS. We’ve worked closely with the nutritionists from DINE for LIFE who serve public schools. We’ve helped and been helped by Duke students who want to make a difference in Durham. We’ve collaborated with other teachers and parents throughout the public school system. We’ve received grants and in-kind donations from organizations like Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation, NC Beautiful, Whole Foods, Burt’s Bees, Cabot Farms and our own school alumni group Friends of Watts. (And our PTA continues to provide the critical financial and volunteer support that sustains this program.)

With all those people and organizations helping to lift up our students and lift up our school, we’ve accomplished a bazillion times more than we would have alone.

Victory Gardens, then and now

29 Jul

Today I was remembering the roots of the school garden. It’s funny to see all the patriotic fanfare that surrounded these old veggie patches.

Over time, they’ve changed. No longer a wartime necessity, school gardens are now a way to teach kids about the seed-to-table connection — and are one more way to build a sustainable, local food economy.

At Beecher Street School. Southington, Connecticut, May 1942. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Fenno Jacobs. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

At Sutro Elementary school, in San Francisco

Kindergarten students at work on their victory garden plots at the Benjamin Franklin Elem. School Garden, May 1942

Making the seed-to-table connection at MLK Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, CA.

The Pittsburgh Edible Schoolyard, a collaboration between Pittsburgh Public Schools and Grow Pittsburgh.

First Lady Michelle Obama plants a kitchen garden with local students.

Harvesting a cuke in the George Watts Edible Garden

Dig it, eat it: Wednesday is ‘Garden Giveaway Day’

17 Jun

“These cucumbers are prickly!”

“I’ve never seen so much garlic in one place.”

“My mom grows tomatoes like these at home.”

Ms. Brogden and students harvest onions, which we'll give out next week.

Students Daniel, Luis, Jonathan and Christina were full of observations as we harvested cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, basil and garlic in the George Watts Montessori garden yesterday.

As they plucked Sun Gold tomatoes and banana peppers from the vine, they were doing more than gathering goods for our first Garden Giveaway Day (more on that in a minute). They were gathering ideas for a writing exercise they would do back in the classroom.

Ms. Brogden later told me:

“When we got back upstairs, the kids were sooo excited to write about what they had seen and touched. We wrote stories, and they had so many descriptive words and experiences. I loved it … especially in contrast to my second group that didn’t go out in the garden and how much they struggled with the assignment of writing a garden story.”

It makes sense: Just think about how much easier it is to talk about something if you’ve experienced it firsthand. That’s one reason a school garden can be such a powerful tool.

When parents came to pick up their children, who are among the 40 participating in the summer GROW program, our Garden Giveaway was in full swing. We sent home over a dozen cucumbers, dozens of bags of Sun Gold tomatoes and basil, a handful of peppers, and I lost count of the garlic plants, but they formed such a heap people were audibly gasping at the sight of them.

(The market’s aim is to help support families with healthful foods. Since we have a limited supply of produce, we’re only distributing to families and teachers participating in the GROW program. We’ll run the market every Wednesday through July.)

The recipe of the week is one I got at the Durham Farmers Market and that my family LOVES. Admittedly, it’s a little naughty with its heavy cream. But you can substitute half-and-half.

Best part about it? The easy-to-cook dish uses three things that are in season and that we picked fresh yesterday from the garden — garlic, basil and Sun Gold tomatoes. During the Garden Giveaway, 40 GW families could pick up a recipe, along with fresh ingredients … for FREE!

Scroll to the bottom for the recipe…

Garlic fresh out of the ground

Students picking the (surprisingly) prickly cucumbers

Showing off some of the goodies we sent home this week.

Ready to help customers

Ms. McGill snags a garlic.

Shiloh’s Creamy Sun Gold Pasta

I’ve never used the shrimp when I’ve made this recipe, so you should know that it’s absolutely scrumptious without it. If you don’t have Sun Gold tomatoes — which are small, orange and sweet — try using sweet cherry tomatoes.

3 cups Sun Gold tomatoes, cut in half
1/2 cup fresh basil, packed
2 tbsp butter
6-8 cloves of garlic, minced
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
2/3 cup heavy cream
one hunk of Romano or Parmesan
Pasta of choice
Optional: peeled shrimp

Heat your pan and saute the garlic in butter, being careful not to burn it. Add salt, pepper and halved tomatoes and wilt them down a few minutes. Add cream and cook gently, allowing the sauce to thicken. When it’s to your liking, add peeled shrimp directly to the simmering cream sauce. They cook pretty darn fast, so wait until the end. Then chop your basil and throw it in. This is perfectly delicious without the shrimp, but incredibly decadent with them. Plate your pasta and smother with sauce. Serve with grated cheese on the side, so it doesn’t get wasted on the sides of the pan.

Making the jump from garden to Living Classroom

8 Feb

Science is everywhere you turn in a school garden, from the photosynthesizing leaves to the armadillo-style pill bugs that help break down leaves into compost.

But unless a teacher is already comfortable in a garden, he may need guidance in using it as an outdoor classroom where kids can get their hands dirty.

Before you start offering a teacher guidance, though, consider this: Teachers are already overwhelmed. Their task is to teach an ever-changing curriculum to a mixed bag of children, so that every student can pass a year’s worth of tests. How well they achieve that task affects the standing and funding of the school (and maybe even their own jobs, given the trend toward teacher evaluations that take test scores into account).

So think about how to make the school garden relevant to their goals. Because if it’s not relevant, why in the world would a teacher disrupt her routine to take students outside to a garden, when she could stay in her comfort zone?

That’s why I’ve started calling the George Watts garden a “Living Classroom.” The message: It’s not just a beautiful space. It’s a space where kids can move freely as they’re engaged in meaningful, hands-on science, math and literacy lessons that mirror the standard course of study.

(Just for the record: There’s nothing wrong with simply having beautiful spaces or letting kids explore nature independently or introducing kids to the idea of growing their own food. Some — not all — people believe in the value of those things. But if the goal is to get classrooms outside in the first place, it helps to tie the garden to something universally important and measurable, like learning science.)

I’m also filming short videos to show how some teachers are delivering hands-on lessons outside, to spark ideas among other teachers and to give parents a behind-the-scenes look.

In the short videos that follow, you’ll see Lower Elementary teacher Lauren Vejvoda lead third graders through an experiment that shows how good soil can be lost when rain and wind cause erosion — and why kids should care. (I posted the text for this lesson earlier.)

My favorite part: When kids make the connection between having healthy soil and making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich!

Science in the garden: Why soil matters

4 Jan

Winter is a great time to rest, whether you’re a plant or a person, so we’re all taking advantage of the lull in the garden at George Watts Montessori. Some of our vegetables, like the cabbages and carrots, are close to being harvested, and everything else has already been plucked or slowed down until spring.

Mulching with straw

Given the natural hiatus, it’s an ideal time to do some soil-and-erosion lessons with students in the garden.

Soil happens to be a garden lynchpin, in more ways than one. Obviously, you need healthy soil to grow things.

But soil is also a great way to connect the garden with the science lessons kids have to learn anyway — like, lessons about humus and soil absorbency.

My granddaddy, 1970s

What I think the garden can do that a book can’t is help kids understand why they should care about soil in the first place.

These are two of the activities we’re going to do with our elementary school students to directly connect science curriculum (N.C. Standard Course of Study) with the school garden.

You can find these sorts of hands-on activities from a range of sources, but this is from one of my favorites — Evergreen, an inspiring Canadian group that aims to deepen the connection between people and outdoor spaces. (I was lucky enough to hear a presentation by the director of the group’s Learning Grounds program at this year’s NC Outdoor Classroom Symposium.)

Work with your teacher liaisons on this. I found these specific activities after sitting down with a Lower Elementary teacher (1st, 2nd, 3rd grades) who is also on our school’s science committee. She told me about what will appear on science benchmark tests, what science “kits” classrooms receive during the year, and what she needs to cover as part of the N.C. Standard Course of Study for science.

Ask teachers what lessons they want to spiral review in the garden. What activities make sense? What materials should the garden have to make it a true outdoor classroom?


LESSON: The value of topsoil

THE BIG QUESTION: Why is topsoil important in our world? How does healthy topsoil affect our lives?

Worldwide, 25 billion tons of agricultural topsoil are swept away every year. That’s 7% of the globe’s good growing land every decade. In these activities students will come to appreciate how little topsoil there is in the world and how it can easily be lost through erosion. In the garden, students will discover soil stewardship techniques to build soil health and protect soil from erosion.

Activity #1: If the Earth Were an Apple…

Use an apple to demonstrate the need for soil stewardship.


• Apple

• Sharp knife


1. Ask the students what they know about soil. What is it? Why do you think plants need it? How does it help humans?

2. Show the students the apple and give the following demonstration:

Let’s say this apple is the Earth.

Cut the apple into quarters and set three of the quarters aside.

Three quarters of this apple represent all the oceans on earth. The remaining quarter represents all the land on earth.

Cut the remaining quarter in half and set one piece aside.

One half of the land is unfit for humans; it is either too hot, like a desert, or too cold, like the north and south poles.

Cut the remaining piece into quarters and set three of them aside.

Of the land that humans can live on, only this small piece is land that we can grow food on. The rest is too rocky, or there isn’t enough sun for plants to grow.

Peel the remaining piece.

This thin peel represents the thickness of the soil in which we grow our food. It is only about three feet deep. This tiny portion is the only area out of the whole earth where all the right conditions exist to grow food. Enough food has to be produced on this small bit of land to feed all of the people on earth.

3. With so little soil in the world, what should people be doing to take care of it?


Activity #2: Erosion

It takes over 100 years to produce just an inch of soil, and in many parts of the world existing soil is lost as much as 18 times faster than new soil is formed. This activity demonstrates to students how this important resource can be lost through erosion by rain and wind when the garden is left bare for the winter.


• Four waterproof trays — you can use old baking sheets with rims

• Sod to fit snugly in one of the trays

• Soil

• Watering can


1. In the winter, there is usually plenty of rain and wind. What do you think the rain and wind will do to the soil? When soil or rocks are moved from one place to another by rain or wind, we call this erosion.

2. Ask the students to make predictions about what will happen when the wind blows across the tray filled with sod and the tray filled with soil.

3. One at a time, hold the trays filled with sod and soil over one of the empty trays. Invite a few students to blow across each tray to simulate wind. Notice how much soil collects in the empty tray.

4. Lean the two sod- and soil-filled trays on an angle against a wall, with the base of each resting inside one of the empty trays to catch residual water and soil

5. Ask the students to make predictions about what will happen to the soil in each tray when water is poured across the top of them.

6. Pour an equal amount of water across the tops of the two trays for 5 seconds and observe the runoff that has collected. Which tray lost the most soil?

7. What happens to soil when the wind blows on it or it gets rained on? What might prevent soil from eroding? What could we do in our garden to prevent erosion?

We can point to three erosion-prevention tactics we’re using in our garden:

1. COVER CROPS (We’ve planted crimson clover.)

One of the ways students can protect their garden soil during the winter is to plant a cover crop. Cover crops are usually non-edible crops and often include a mix of different plants with roots that can keep soil from washing away during heavy rains and draw nutrients from deep down in the soil. Planting a cover crop also provides competition for weeds; well-established cover crop will shade out weeds entirely. In the spring, the cover crop is pulled up and added to the compost or cut down, left to dry and dug into the soil.

2. OVERWINTERING CROPS (In our garden, garlic and onions are examples of overwintering crops; we’ll harvest them in the spring.)

In addition to planting cover crops, a portion of the garden can be set aside for planting overwintering crops. These crops start their growth slowly in the fall and winter and do the rest of their growing when the weather warms up the following year.


Another way for students to protect the soil in the garden is to cover it with mulch. Mulch is a layer of organic matter put on the surface of the soil and may include materials such as straw, hay, leaves or compost.

A useful analogy is the annual shedding of leaves in the forest, creating a layer of leaf litter on the forest floor. Both fallen leaves and mulches provide a layer of insulation, suppress weeds, decompose to add nutrients and organic matter to the soil and provide a place for helpful insects to hide. Just like the forest floor doesn’t turn itself over, there is no need to dig mulch into the soil. Natural processes help to incorporate the mulch into the soil, and any mulch that hasn’t decomposed by the spring can be raked up and added to the compost.

** When you’re finished with this activity, return soil to one of the vegetable beds, the compost pile or to the bin where you found it.

** Lesson Extension: Have students walk around the school grounds and identify evidence of soil erosion. If they have access to a video camera, use it to document the examples. How could the examples of erosion be prevented?