I started teaching 5th grade nearly 15 years ago. In that time, I’ve done a lot of gardening with my students. Nothing gives me more joy than to spend time gardening with the kids and their families. Over the years it has allowed me to form very special relationships with the community I serve. Many children are tireless and cannot get enough. These kids can apply this hard-working ethic, which many get from seeing their folks working in our garden, to many life skills, including succeeding in school.
I teach at Daniel Lairon Elementary School in San Jose, CA, in a low-socioeconomic neighborhood made up mostly of Hispanic immigrants. When I started teaching I quickly noticed that the non-English speaking, immigrant community I served was reluctant to come to school. I had very few parents coming to Back to School Night, and even less would come to various other school functions. Working in the garden has changed this to the extreme. When other teachers get fewer than ten parents coming to Back to School Night, I now get close to twenty. Parents coming to school are extremely important to the academic success of the child. Gardening with my students is one of the activities that has allowed me to become a more effective teacher.
What started with a few tomatoes and has bloomed into over a dozen varieties of organic heirloom tomatoes. Summer is filled with watering, caging and caring for the plants so that they produce loads of luscious fruit for the families once school begins. Working in the garden over the summer gives the kids something to do and it allows me to stay in touch with some kids whom I love dearly.
Once the harvest begins, so does the feast. The kids get great joy from eating the tomatoes right off the vine. Most of them have never seen so many colors and sizes of all the different kinds of tomatoes. They love to compare and choose their favorite kinds. Many kids bring home tomatoes to meet their families’ needs and they use them in their traditional dishes. Some parents show their appreciation by sending back fresh salsa for the teacher to enjoy. If I am lucky they will send me some enchiladas. The best part comes when they invite into their home to share a meal. This is by far the best part of my job! While there, I bond with the kids, help them with homework and ask the parents to show me how they make their homemade salsa. The tips I have witnessed in the culinary arts of cooking with tomatoes the Mexican way is such a beautiful thing.
Currently the winter crop is in full swing. We have planted so many things. Over the years of gardening I have learned the two veggies kids enjoy most snacking fresh from the garden are peas and carrots. Who would have ever thought? Well we have red, yellow, white, purple and orange heirloom carrots growing. I know that the kids will be extremely excited to once we start harvesting these beauties. We are also growing about 12 kids of garlic, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, beets, spinach, at least a dozen kinds of leafy greens and more.
The kids never get enough. Our school has over 700 square feet of raised plots and not a single teacher uses them. So, what else to do but plant them all with my own students? Whether it’s pulling weeds, adding compost, layering mulch or watering…there is always an endless supply of little ones wanting to help out. The two favorite activities are turning the soil and planting. And, of course, everyone loves harvesting, eating right out of the garden, then taking home the rest.
I first gardened with a friend’s grandfather, and it was a very special part of my early childhood. I helped Mepa with the tomatoes, basil and peppers and trace my love of growing food to these early experiences with Frank and his grandfather. I think my students are also getting this kind of exposure in our garden. The health benefits of physical labor coupled with eating fresh produce will hopefully help them form lifelong healthy habits.
Our garden is 100% organic, and I emphasize this daily through our conversations of the health benefits not only for them when growing organic, but for the planet and all its inhabitants as well. Turning the soil, playing with it and getting to know it up-close shows the kids the joy of dirt and brings them closer to the earth that sustains us. Then there’s the critters. There isn’t a day that goes by where I am not informed of every worm, sow bug or spider that they encounter. We also conduct surveys and so do research on the butterflies, bugs, bees and pests that we find in the garden.
I would not give up my position in the community for anything. It is a very fulfilling part of my life. I look forward to many more years of gardening with my students and sharing the food and culture with their families.