Originally appears in the Fall 2012 issue
“We sure know how to party!” said Jayden, age 7, co-captain of the Stems table. He let visitors know that the stems were responsible for transporting water and nutrients from the roots up to the leaves. Then he offered visitors some choice stems for their salads: celery and asparagus.
Our first grade classroom was abuzz with visitors attending our class’s “Salad Celebration.” Parents, school personnel, and students from K-3 grade nimbly walked from station to station, filling their salad bowls with the edible parts of various plants, learning about the function of each plant part, as well as their flavours.
The first graders were aglow with excitement – partly because they could serve salad to the school, but also because they were finally displaying their home-grown fruits and vegetables after months of careful “farming.” They do not have access to gardens, but had found creative ways to grow carrots, radishes, beets, mangos, grapefruit, peanuts, onions, potatoes and sweet potatoes. DREAM Charter School, is located in East Harlem, in New York City, and most of the students live in publicly subsidized housing. Like many charter schools in today’s era of high-stakes testing, the school culture and environment is heavily focused on literacy, with little time in the curriculum for science and social studies. (My initiative to carry out this project and my commitment to offer health and environmental education to my students was essential to my purpose as an educator, despite the atmosphere of high-control test prep and deficit-based teaching.)
The students had been divided into different tables, each based on a different type or part of edible plants: the Leaves, Fruits, Tubers, Roots, and Bulbs and Seeds.
Students eagerly greeted visitors at the Leaves table. They explained the difference between Romaine and Iceberg lettuce, and demonstrated photosynthesis by reaching their hands up to the Sun and soaking in the sunlight.
At the Fruits table, students surprised their guests by informing them that fruits included many salad “vegetables” like tomato, avocado, bell pepper, and cucumber. They told guests in no uncertain terms, that, “if it has a seed, it’s a fruit!” They seemed to get a special satisfaction out of teaching the older students about this marvelous fact.
The potato farmers gathered at the Tubers table, and the Roots table included farmers of carrots, radishes, and beets. “Try some roots!” they giggled, as they served spoons full of carrots and radishes to their guests.
The Bulbs and Seeds table was the place to get your onions or sunflower seeds to top off your salad, and learn about how bulbs and seeds germinate. And finally, students in the Peace Corner served Peace Dressing, which we made from scratch earlier that morning. The dressing was also made completely of plant materials: olive oil, garlic, cilantro, black pepper, and lemon juice.
Our “Salad Celebration” was the culmination of a 3-month curriculum unit. The unit’s outcomes included student engagement and excitement about growing and eating plants, student opinion pieces that highlight the economic, environmental, and health benefits of growing food, and demonstrating knowledge of plant parts, their functions, and the role they play in our diet.
First Grade Science
Our journey to salad farming began with a modest science unit from the hands-on curriculum: Plants and Animals. In the Unit titled, “Roots and Bulbs,” students participated in exploratory investigations that led them to understand that planting roots or bulbs will grow new plants. Students experimented with carrots, radishes, onions, and garlic to determine which part of the plant would grow if planted in soil. They drew and labeled the parts of the plants, and watched movies on photosynthesis and plant part functions.
Student engagement was high, and we began talking about food all the time. We analyzed the school lunches in order to determine which plant parts (if any) were included. Students began scavenging for seeds in their apples and oranges, and the fever spread to other tables in the cafeteria. Soon the 2nd graders were also saving seeds, and before I knew it, I was advised by administration to please create a structure around seed saving so that the students wouldn’t start a riot. It appeared that the students’ passion for edible plants had taken on a life of its own.
In order to empower and encourage their interest in plants, the First Grade Team decided to assign each student an at-home science fair project that involved growing a fruit or vegetable, either from seed or from part of a plant.
With the help of the book, Gardening Wizardry for Kids, and their determined parents, the first graders got a chance to be real farmers and grow something that they could actually eat. The book is an illustrated guide to starting new plants from fruits and vegetables. There are directions for growing new onion plants from onions, new potato plants from potatoes, and new pineapples from pineapples. The idea of starting from a fruit or vegetable that you can find in the store, rather than from a seed, is inspiring to children because it seems so easily achievable. Additionally, this method of gardening gives children a sense of the continuity of plant life. Our classroom quickly came alive with healthy plants and curious learners.
My students’ concern and love for plants and farming inspired a range of interdisciplinary connections. Our classroom culture became infused with a budding interest in sustainable living. Students began reading the ingredients on their food at snack time and at lunch, and analyzing the production and origin of their food. The class responded with appropriate shock when Jasmine discovered that there was “corn in the milk!!” Her discovery of corn starch as an ingredient in her milk led to equally deep conversations between the students and their families, and opened up a line of dialogue around increasing food consciousness. Parents were eager to learn, and the children were eager to share their discoveries at home.
Our Morning Meetings grew rich with deep questions regarding food production, healthy choices, and being responsible eaters. The students decided that they should take responsibility for the well-being of all the plants in the school, and gave me daily reminders that the plants needed watering. Soon, even the plants in the main office depended on our little farmers to give them their daily water. Students became advocates for healthy eating, and shared their ideas with anyone who visited our classroom.
Social Studies was a dimension of our work throughout our study, via debate, critical thinking skills such as evaluation, analyzing assumptions, and inferring implications of food choices and growing food.
Student interest led to differentiated literacy centers with books about plants and gardening. I chose guided reading books with the same focus, and our reading conversations inspired visionary student-directed plans to build a “kitchen garden” at our school.
In Writing, we taught a unit on opinion pieces. Students learned to express their opinions in writing, and share them orally with an audience. When it came time for our Salad Celebration (A.K.A. Science Fair), students chose to write compelling opinion pieces about why we should grow our own food, why we should eat vegetables, and why plants are important.
Inanelis wrote, “It is good to grow plants because you can have food and can be healthy. When it’s winter and you are a poor person you have food and a home and over the summer you can plant more and for Fall you have food and in fall you can plant more food again for winter.”
Saniyah wrote, “I think we should grow our own plants at home like farmers because it makes more plants and flowers. We can all plant at home and we can make our own salad with our own vegetables. We can use things that do not hurt the plant because some farmers use those things to plant.”
Lancysa wrote, “I think we should grow our own food because if you don’t have any money you can’t eat. And we will be weak and clumsy… that’s why I grow food so I and others and my family can eat.”
Student opinions made it clear that the salad project was empowering for them. If nutrition and conscious eating were infused into the Core Curriculum, we would have a more empowered, healthier population. Even if students do not have the means to do their own gardening, the knowledge of the possibility and the experience of having grown food in school will influence their food choices.
Art was integrated into our work when students created water-color paintings of the many fruits and vegetables that we included in our salad. Students were completely engaged in carefully painting a tomato, a beet, green pees, sunflower seeds… the care that went into those paintings was heartfelt and serious.
This unit of study served to empower students to make healthy food choices and to realize that, even in a NYC apartment, food could be grown cheaply. However, if I had the chance to do this project again, I would work to secure a plot in a community garden near the school so that we could involve families and students to design a permanent garden. This would provide the community with ongoing access to growing healthy, delicious food. While the lessons in the classroom have an impact, I would ultimately like to bridge the divide between school and community. Authentic, student-driven, transformative projects can place students in leadership positions within their communities, which would be my ideal outcome.
Additionally, it would have been ideal to begin the project in September, so the students could experience the harvest and visit farms and farmers markets. Watching the markets and crops change with the seasons would be an excellent way to address the Science and Social Studies standards related to “change over time.”
To view the photo-rich magazine version, click here.
Sara Inbar currently teaches third grade at the Brooklyn School of Inquiry in Brooklyn, New York.