The cover story of this week's East Bay Express has a provocative teaser: "Berkeley's Edible Schoolyard teaches students how their food is produced and prepared. Is this overdue innovation or a distraction for kids who should be learning math?"
So part of me was expecting a thrashing like the one delivered by Caitlin Flanagan in the January issue of the Atlantic Monthly (which led to a number of spirited rebuttals, some of which I've linked to below). But instead of building up and knocking down an army of straw men from a distance, Luke Tsai actually visited the garden to see how it works and talked to the teachers and principal about the Edible Schoolyard.
Once a week, students at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley spend 1 ½ hours in the garden or the kitchen. A garden class usually starts with a lesson — like the life history of the mushroom — finish with the children doing some hands-on projects — like grafting branches onto fruit trees or replanting seedlings. In the kitchen classes, they learn about nutrition and cooking and prepare their own lunch.
"But wait," a skeptic might ask, "Isn't that 1 ½ hours they could be preparing for assessment tests? How can a school where only 26% of African American students demonstrate proficiency on the English language arts test, and only 17% do so on the math test allow students to muck about in a garden and chop vegetables in the kitchen?" Tsai explains that the time for edible education is taken from science instruction, which is not part of the assessment test. "And how can the district waste money on a kitchen and garden in these tough times?", the skeptic might protest. It isn't the district's money — the garden and kitchen programs are funded by the Chez Panisse Foundation. However, this need for private funding certainly prevents countless less well-connected schools from having their own programs.
Although it is difficult to perform analytic studies of the effect of the garden on eduction — think about the challenge of finding demographic matches among several schools and building up a sufficient sample size — teachers have good things to say about the program:
"I seldom see a kid who's not happy in the garden — who's not engaged," says Schaaf, the math/science teacher who sees these students in a regular classroom setting the other four days of the week. Schaaf, like many of her colleagues, credits the program with generating in her students an excitement for learning and, really, with opening up a new world for them. "A lot of these kids never touched dirt," she explains. "They don't garden. They don't have chickens and things."
Benjamin Eichorn, an assistant garden teacher, says "Privileged kids, they've got access to terrific camps. They're going to the mountains to learn about nature that way. Kids that don't have access to that stuff, their world is really small ... and when I'm working with one to four kids in a special-ed class, I can reach them. I can bring learning to life for them."
Jason Lustig, the principal of the school, notes that Berkeley schools try to educate the "whole child," and that if assessment tests are all that matter in our schools, why not drop history, art, music and science? There is no science portion of the assessment test, nor a history section, after all. Meanwhile, the school is making plenty of other efforts to help students improve their test scores, such as modifying the master schedule to allow a support period for struggling students and having more internal assessments for students so they can determine where they need to improve.
I agree with the staff: it's important to break out of the classroom, give kids a chance to have unexpected discoveries like a huge spider in the herb garden, observe the cycles of life in the garden, and learn countless lessons that are created by the randomness of gardening and cooking. This kind of learning can have a strong impact, providing some real-world relevance to the lessons of the classroom, while also opening up new avenues of discovery.
Before concluding with a heart-warming tale of the students cooking their own lunch "from scratch, no shortcuts, and with hardly any micro-managing" in a "calm and civilized" atmosphere, the school's principal has some advice for promoters of gardens. Although teachers frequently make connections between what the kids are seeing in the garden and what they are learning in the classroom — a poem perhaps, or a quick lesson in biology — they are less important than the garden and kitchen themselves.
But even these kinds of connections, says Lustig, aren't the best justification. As far as [Jason Lustig is] concerned, the only good reason to support the Edible Schoolyard program is if you think the things the students are learning from it — about gardening, about cooking, about nutrition — are valuable in and of themselves.
"At the end of the day," Lustig said, "I think it's going to be important for the people who support things like the garden and kitchen program to fight the battle on that ground."