Teaching in the kitchen and garden
By DK Holland
An 11-year-old boy, shovel in hand, was standing in the middle of an acre plot. He had a brain storm—“Let’s make a bed in the shape of a heart!” The garden as classroom is an intriguing teaching strategy that has been cultivated by local culinary legend Alice Waters in Berkeley, California and around the country since 1995.
Edible Schoolyard (ESY) gardens are laid out by the students who tend them, not by a landscape architect, so teacher Kyle Cornforth, brand new on the ESY staff, resisted informing her students that a heart shape would be a very inefficient use of space. “Let them learn on their own,” she schooled herself. “Give them agency.”
So after the kids created the heart-shaped bed, another team of students came to the garden and were serendipitously handed red bull blood’s beet seeds to plant. To the delight of all, bright red shoots quickly sprouted into what one student proudly named, ‘The Heart Beat Bed.’ Kyle reﬂects that, “The students were so pleased with themselves. Getting out of the way is one of the most important things you can do as a teacher.” This is just one of many life lessons learned in the 18 years since the ﬁrst ESY started. ESY Berkeley is now the oldest and largest in a vast network of over 3,000 ESY projects—happening at all imaginable levels—across the country, and Kyle is its director. It is the model program for the Edible Schoolyard Project, a national organization that houses an online network and open platform resource center to connect programs across the world.
Which came ﬁrst? Chickens? Eggs?
Kyle reﬂects on the moment she became a passionate advocate for teaching children about food. “I was 18, working with 3rd graders on a Community Sponsored Agriculture (CSA) project in Humboldt County. An 8-year-old boy picked a piece of broccoli, ate it, exclaiming, “This is really delicious!” And this was a child who had never eaten greens. This was my ‘aha moment.’ Working in a garden, seeing food in its natural state, was changing this child’s perception of food on the spot. In one day he was understanding, perhaps for the first time, where food came from, and he was adjusting his personal tastes in the process.”
It’s not unusual for the answer to the ‘Where does food come from?’ question to be, “From the grocery store.” While stroking clucking brown-feathered creatures (i.e., chickens) for the ﬁrst time, it’s not uncommon for teens to exclaim, “This chicken is chicken?” and “That’s where eggs come from? Wow!” No wonder. While 90 percent of Americans worked on farms in the 1862, that percentage has dwindled to a mere 2 percent in 2014. So where would these kids have seen a chicken or a stalk of broccoli in its natural state? How can they relate to what it takes to get food on their plate? (1)
Once a week, students and their teachers come to class from next door Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School, where the Edible Schoolyard model is a part of the culture, life, and academics. MLK Jr. is a public middle school with 950 students in grades 6, 7, and 8; all of them attend classes at the Edible Schoolyard. 45% of students qualify for free/ reduced lunch, 13% are ELL, 13% are special needs, 35% White, 21% Black, 21% Latino, 8% Asian, 15% Mixed Race or Other. “We have two classrooms: The garden and the kitchen.” Kyle says. Together the students and teachers might feed the chickens, gather the eggs, cultivate tomato plants, gather basil or other ingredients from the garden to make frittatas, pesto, pizza or omelets in the warm, inviting, collaborative environment which is the ESY Berkeley kitchen.
Everything about ESY is mindfully designed. Kyle explains the ESY philosophy which is “When you walk into a space that has been thoughtfully prepared, you feel respected, cared for, and loved.” This promotes a sense of security, calm, and harmony, often through visual cues.
Alice Waters is known to say, “Beauty is a language of care.” The opposite can be just as true: ugliness can stoke fear and disorder. (2) Many traditional classrooms have neutral white walls chock-ﬁlled with ephemera leaving no place for students to rest their eyes. ESY’s walls by contrast are painted in rich, earthy colors. Ornamentation and messaging is minimal and purposeful. Without an environment that’s thought through in this way, isn’t cultivating learning and inspiration more challenging?
At ESY Berkeley, students work within the ESY pedagogy: observation, awareness, and collaboration are key words. It’s essential for teachers and students to be actively in their environment, to be aware of their whole class. 11-year-olds appreciate the opportunity to take on responsibility: They are eager to be on a team. These correlations lead students to happily collaborate.
The garden, as in many classrooms, has a gathering place where students and teachers start the class. A garden teacher begins by asking a provocative ‘temperature check’ question like ‘Wasn’t that an unusually rainy weekend?’ Simple questions like this are meant to spawn easy dialogue, quickly build a community of learning. After some discussion, students and teachers are directed to choose their tasks for the 50-minute-class. They divvy up their tools from the tool shed and dig in. Since no more than 10 minutes is dedicated to lecturing, no hierarchy gets established: There is no ‘sage on the stage’ at ESY. The overarching strategy is to encourage social-emotional collaboration by talking and working together: Students and teachers guide each other.
Digging into cooking
The right tool for the job means everyone shares not just the shovels, but the tools in in the kitchen as well. This tool kit includes for instance, chef knives, wooden spoons and cheese graters. In the process, everyone settles on who gets what tools. Kyle says, “Cooperation is required.” She adds, “Knives are an important part of the mix. Risk is an essential part of learning and development. Research shows calculated risks help kids not to get seriously hurt later on.” (3)
Gardening in a ﬂower pot!
Schools don’t need a garden—or a kitchen—to be part of ESY. There are schools all over the country working at their own level, to their own ability. Some schools just have a hot plate and sauté pan in the classroom and grow plants in ﬂower pots. Kyle says, “We help schools scan the resources they have (i.e., kitchen facilities, school garden, ﬂower pots) and support their development.” She encourages teachers to get involved saying, “You can do incredible work with just a little. The big idea is that food should pay a vital part in all kids’ education.” Teaching the ESY way can lead to school food menu reform and help kids take ideas home to their own kitchens. It raises awareness about all the positive effects of mindful eating.
How do you know ESY students learned?
ESY teaches on many levels: academics as well as social-emotional intelligence, values, and life skills are lessons learned in health and the environment. Kyle hears anecdotally from teachers that, because of ESY, their students can focus more and for longer stretches in the classroom, that they score better on content learned in the garden than in the typical daily classroom. They verify that there is a rise in attendance on ESY class days. And because of ESY’s overall emphasis on visual information and stimulation, MLK Jr. teachers tend to bring more visual aids into their own classrooms.
This is especially helpful since visual tools transcend language—there are often multiple kinds of learners, as well as several non-English native language speakers in most classrooms. Overall, teachers say they need and want visual content in their classrooms but for most teachers, it’s hard to get to creating these tools. Kyle says, “It’s not that they don’t have the will or the skill, it’s that they are just so busy!” While they don’t have the time to create visual tools, when they see ﬁrsthand how beneﬁcial they are in the ESY classroom, they often use the aids provided by ESY.
Learning is most effective when the whole child is engaged integrating all their 6 senses—smell, taste, sight, hearing, touch—and intuition. ESY provides this holistic learning. Plus it’s really nutritious and tasty!
2 Evolutionary Biologist David Sloan Wilson, The Neighborhood Project