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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!


Are you ready?

20 Oct

Only 11 more days until the cooking-eating-gardening-crafts-and-music extravaganza known as …

Expect hands-on cooking lessons for kids, mind-bendingly good (and healthful) tastings, pumpkins for painting, games, crafts and live music! Kids can crank an old-fashioned apple press by hand and see the apples turn into juice before their eyes! Teachers will take to the stage for a performance you don’t want to miss! And the kettle corn and caramel apples will be as good as any at the State Fair!

George Watts Montessori wouldn’t be having this event if it weren’t for the organizations and businesses listed at the bottom of the poster — it’s as simple as that. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation gave us a grant to help enhance our grounds and outdoor education. Whole Foods is kicking in cases of apples and pumpkins. Chef Marco Shaw of Piedmont is donating his time and talent. SEEDS is bringing their apple press (operated by DIG kids). Boxcarr is bringing a special menu of items for the day — just for us. And NCCU students are devoting classroom time to coming up with some fun and educational booths for kids, which they’ll also be staffing on the day of the event.

Say THANKS to all these wonderful folks, next time you see them!

Path ready for prime time … almost

5 Aug

With the bulldozers running from dawn until dust, the playground walking trail is almost finished. Bikers and walkers are welcome to come take it for a spin.

This morning brought the arrival of a truckload of boulders, which will be used to slow down erosion on the grounds. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but every time it rains, the small rivers running through the playground carry off loads of healthy soil and mulch. That’s not good for our play areas and plant life, and it’s not good for the street drains, where all the stuff flows.

I’m guessing the students will like the boulders, as well, but not for their erosion-reduction properties.

Perfect for a stroll, right?

Or a bike ride. Just take it easy on the curves your first time around.


Thanks to landscape designer Katherine Gill, for all her work transforming the playground.

These paths were made for walking

30 Jul

If only you could look out my living room window and see what I’m seeing: The work crew is digging the new walking path for the George Watts playground as I write, and it’s all I can do not to run outside and trot around on all those new rocks. They’ve got backhoes and everything.

Here’s what’s happening today:

Also, I want you to meet Jonah Roberts of Tributary, who’s doing the work. Check out what he says about the project (and try to ignore the sweet, babbling 5 yr old beside me):

Here’s what things looked like as of Thursday. I’ll post more images as the transformation continues…

Raking out the gravel

... and dumping more gravel.

School walking path, outdoor classroom coming soon!

14 Jul

Eighteen months ago, a few dozen parents, teachers and students met in the George Watts media center to doodle and draw our way to an “edible schoolyard.”

Landscape designer Katherine Gill draws with students

The group, led by Durham Area Designers, was asked, “What would you want an edible schoolyard to look like at George Watts? Where would you put it? What sorts of elements would you include?”

What we ended up with were seven different drawings full of creative, amazing ideas that wrapped around the school building. From those drawings, we collected common elements — the ideas that came up again and again. From that list of elements, we created a master drawing and began work on the pilot garden, with the help and talent of Bountiful Backyards and a bunch of other folks.

One group presents its vision for an edible schoolyard

Our original master plan. See the link below for the NEW plan.

Now we delve into the biggest step of all — installing a walking path, an outdoor classroom, shed and more perennials and annual beds near the playground.

Click here to view a PDF of the NEW plan! **

What do you think about the plan? (Sorry I can’t paste it into the post, btw. But if you click on the link, you’ll get a nice printable version of the drawing.) Feel free to post any comments below.

We owe a big thanks to Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation, who believe in the project strongly enough to grant us $28,000 to add the physical elements to our grounds and develop a garden-based curriculum. (Note to other grant seekers: We applied for a Healthy Active Communities grant.)

So this summer, while a clutch of teachers writes a series of lessons, we break ground on the walking path. (When I say “we,” I mean someone with a backhoe.) And parents Kenneth Luker and Derek Jones, both of whom are architects at The Freelon Group, are designing the outdoor classroom space.

You should know that landscape designer Katherine Gill, who is pictured above, has been an incredibly valuable partner to our school from the get-go — and she’s not even a parent. Not only has she been with us from that initial drawing session in January 2009, but she drew (and re-drew) the most recent plan for the playground revitalization. As a volunteer.

She’s also working on a design for new gardens and playground at Durham Central Park as a volunteer. She runs an Urban CSA from her massive backyard garden. And she’s LEED certified. If you have any landscape design needs, please consider hiring her. She can’t buy groceries with my steady stream of “thank you’s.”

A blurb about her biz:

Tributary specializes in designing and using a diversity of materials, from native, edible and textural plant species, to locally harvested wood, stone, metal, and concrete that are custom-designed and built to work best within your landscape. As such, Tributary offers a unique ability to create lively, lovely, and downright delicious outdoor environments that work for you and the environment.

Email her at katherinegill (at) earthlink (dot) net.

** The plan was recently redrawn to allow the mural more visibility. All beds against the wall will be in-ground, as opposed to raised. The only bed in front of the mural has been pulled farther away, so that it’s on the other side of the walking path. And the plantings there will be low-to-the-ground things like lettuces and carrots.

Kid-to-kid: GW students gain a garden mentor for summer

29 Jun

Talk to anyone about youth gardens in Durham, and eventually the name “SEEDS” will be uttered. It’s simply one of the best programs going, when it comes to youth-oriented urban gardening.

So I’m thrilled that the George Watts PTA is collaborating with SEEDS on the school’s summer “Garden Giveaway Day” project, in which we harvest the George Watts garden and send produce home with families.

Today we welcomed Vianey Martinez of SEEDS to the George Watts garden.

Vianay is one of six go-get-’em teens hand-picked by SEEDS leadership to work year-round in their gardens. And now she’s coming to the George Watts garden twice a week to harvest with students and run our farmers’ market-style “Garden Giveaway” veggie stand.

Ranked third in her class, Vianey is a rising junior at Southern High School. She’s involved in her school’s garden club and Future Business Leaders of America, is bilingual and completely fluent in all things planty. Today, as we harvested, she shared English and Spanish gardening vocabulary words with the students enrolled in GROW.

We were floored by the number of ripe vegetables in the garden this week — the most squash yet (including the giant one pictured below), a mass of cucumbers, basil and tomatoes, which we tasted right on the spot.

Picked today: One giant squash, dubbed "Monster Squash."

We have so many cucumbers growing, they form "patches."

Vianey’s goal is to one day combine her love of math (economics) with her love of agriculture. Her future looks bright. Vianey, thanks for sharing a little bit of your knowledge and passion with our students!

Three more garden views: Bumblebees pollinate...

Bell peppers begin to emerge...

... and the hibiscus is in full bloom.

Free gardening class for teachers

4 Mar

Have you ever wished you felt more comfortable with gardening in a schoolyard setting? This is a golden opportunity, because it’s a free class from Frank Hyman, a wonderful organic farmer, landscape designer and local expert (who has installed gardens at Durham Academy and Central Park School for Children).

Frank donated a fig tree to our school garden, which came from his very own backyard. And whenever he stops by to see how things are going, he always passes along valuable gardening advice to me. I think you’ll come away from this class feeling inspired and capable.

Free organic vegetable gardening class for teachers (and volunteers at schoolyard gardens)
Sunday, March 21, 1:30-3:30 p.m.
at King’s Daughters Inn, 204 N. Buchanan Blvd.

The class is free, but pre-registration is required: Also send questions and suggestions.

The space holds about 60-70 people (thanks to Deanna and Colin at King’s Daughters Inn for donating their beautiful space), and the class will cover what attendees want and need to learn about growing organic vegetables (and fruits, herbs and flowers).