There Are More Than Peas Growing in Our Garden

WestShore Center for Learning Healthy Eating SD062 School Level Secondary Island Health Authority Public

We are an alternative school that offers Sustainable Resources 12 as a science course. The course is designed to be highly experiential, most of the learning takes place in the teaching garden rather than in a classroom setting. Our learners struggle to make connections to the real world and their own lives. We wanted an inquiry project that would have a lasting impact on living sustainably.

After some team collaboration we ended up altering our inquiry from the initial inquiry question I posed in the grant application – What is sustainable living?

We began exploring the idea of what living sustainably was. The course has been highly experiential for our students and our focus has been on sustainable food production. We have been learning about where our food comes from i.e. cucumbers available to buy in the stores in Feb have come from very far away – this comes with many costs i.e. pesticides, carbon footprint, economy, etc. We have been to the local landfill to learn where our waste goes, and what alternatives we have to throwing things away. We have learned about how our waste can be used to make clean energy and compost to grow crops.

We visited the Royal BC Museum to learn about sustainability and have had a guest speaker teach us about GMO’s and the world food supply. We have invited first nation’s elders to come take us on forest walks to learn about local edible plants and traditional medicines. We have visited Parry Bay sheep farm and Pendray Farms, a local dairy farm to learn about meat and dairy production. We have visited the compost education center and have learned how to compost yard waste into nutrient rich organic garden fertilizer. We have built our own vermicomposter as well. Three times a week our students work with a master gardener and teachers with a background in horticulture. They have researched, planned, planted and are caring for a large teaching garden with several crops carefully selected for our local climate and high crop yields.

As a final project students each have their own personal box garden where they have selected a theme i.e. root vegetable box, gourmet salad box, Asian vegetable box, etc. and have to plan, plant and harvest by June and share an item they make with the vegetables they grew. Each Thursday we have a “family” lunch in our school garden that students have prepared from the weeks harvest, foods prepared include, rhubarb strawberry crisp, pea shoot and edible flower salads, roasted herb and garlic new potatoes, Asian vegetable stir-fry, strawberry jam and a variety of herbal iced teas. We have a partnership with the local YMCA to provide fresh vegetables harvested to a local food bank. We have used the resources purchased from Be the Change Earth Alliance as our course materials for the class. We have selected modules that focus on personal values for a sustainable world view. Each module contains five to eight student ‘Action Packs’ that provide research links and experiential activities to develop critical thinking, dialogue, solutions-based actions, small group collaboration and class presentations. In addition, students are keeping a personal learning log of their experiential learning in the community garden and we use our Sustainable Resources 12 Google Classroom web page as a forum for discussions and links to resources.

Change has been very evident in student perspectives with regards to living sustainably. Learning log books are full of insightful reflections, photographs of project success, as well as thoughtful insight into project failures (there were some). Most importantly, students have been challenge to bring their knowledge home and teach their family members. We have had students report on a variety of home projects that demonstrate life-long learning i.e. composting systems, one student built a greenhouse with her father and constructed some garden boxes and has shared her harvests from home with staff and students at school, another student created pallet gardens made from all recycled materials. I have had parents contact me with regards to information on recycling items they would normally discard into the landfill. There has been a lot of excitement and interest from other groups in the school and community. Our students mentored 2 grade 6 classes from a local middle school on how to plan, plant and care for a square foot garden.

Students have expressed that their favorite learning experiences have been under the mentorship and guidance of our community partners during field trips, guest speaker presentations and working in the garden under a master gardener and horticulturist. I have learned that a tool like a learning log allows freedom of expression even in a science course.  I have also learned to be careful of assumptions and judgements. Students will do they best they can with the skills they have, if a student is struggling, they need additional tools and mentorship. For example, I had a boy who would stand around in the garden while others were busy working, I learned that he did not know how to hold a shovel, he had never had the chance to in his life – he is 16 years old.

I have also learned the value of student choice. Students have been encouraged to approach the inquiry project with “curious wonder and observation”, I have had some student learning logs take a tangent I was not planning on, but nonetheless there is a lot of learning happening e.g. focus is supposed to be on food crops but one boy has taken a keen interest into insects in the garden.

My teaching practice has blossomed through the teaching of this course. I have seen pride and joy in my students and they are learning to deal with and work through failures and make connections to their food and the local community. My advice for others would be to create a framework for a course that allows flexibility to be tailored towards the student’s interests.