You might remember from my last blog post that I’ve spent the majority of my teaching career in Vermont and Maine, two states blessed by communities interested in food- and garden-based education, but cursed with relatively short growing seasons. One can generally assume that for six months out of the year, November through April, very little outdoor gardening will take place. And as someone who loves working in the garden, independently and with my students, this reality is a relatively frustrating one (to put it lightly).
This long winter poses a number of challenges from an educational standpoint for anyone managing a school garden program. Mainly, how do you retain student interest in a space that sits idle for more than half the school year?
To answer this question, I had to do a bit of rebranding with my students. We weren’t just going to learn about gardening, we were going to learn about food in general, an all-encompassing lens that includes plant science, cooking, tasting, nutrition and food systems work. And over the course of the long winter, we slowly but surely (in 40 minute chunks of time each week) made our way through all these topics.
As with any subject, creating an outline for your coursework can be challenging, and I spent a significant amount of time figuring out where to start, how to transition between each lesson, and build up understanding sequentially from unit to unit. Below, I’ve listed some of topics and specifics I covered with my students to help get your own winter brainstorming session started:
Garden Connections: Wrap up your growing season by completing a retrospective with your students. How many hours did you spend in the garden? How many varieties of carrots did you plant? How many pounds of produce did you harvest or bring to your cafeteria?
Food Systems: While some food from your garden might make its way into your school cafeteria, other foods have to travel many miles before they reach your lunch tray. Trace and compare the steps in both local and conventional food systems.
Nutrition: No matter where food comes from, it can be categorized into one of the five food groups. Learn the health benefits of each food group (including how certain colors of fruits and veggies can help your body in different ways) and practice identifying foods by food group.
Cooking: (Ongoing activities in between units). Prepare a snack in class and keep track of recipes in a Tasting Journal. Tie your cooking and tasting activities to the topic you’re covering by identifying what food groups your ingredients are in, which plant parts they are, and which food system produced them.
Plant Science: When we eat fruits and veggies we’re usually only eating one or two parts of a plant. Learn all the plant parts and practice identifying what parts you’re eating. And once you know all about seeds, fruits and roots, move onto a discussion of life cycles (and maybe even pollination).
Garden Connections: Wrap up your lessons on life cycles from your Plant Science unit by planting seeds in growing flats and watching a life cycle unfold. Depending on your timing, these can be starts for your garden! Give students the opportunity to decide what they want to plant. Have them research new varieties, conduct school-wide interest polls and ask food service workers what they might be able to use in the cafeteria from the garden.