Teaching opportunities come alive outdoors

If our science teacher friends, especially at Myers Middle School in Albany, could stand a classroom lesson suggestion from the Vegetable Project folks, it would be to get classes outside, find your way to the milkweed plants in the accompanying picture, share with students the story of the amazing annual monarch butterfly journey and create a project around documenting Monarch sightings. Maybe even offer extra credit for collaborating with the Vegetable Project to put a variety of flowering plants that will attract mature monarchs to our garden. A number of candidates are listed here.

Maybe the monarch butterfly and its relationship with milkweed – monarchs deposit their eggs on milkweed, which serves as the sole food source for the monarch caterpillars – is no more important than 900 other items in the 25-mile wide and quarter-inch deep curriculum cooked up by the state Education Department. A visit to the garden, however, the significance of milkweed to a struggling species that tugs at the heartstrings, the devastating role that people play in in threatening the monarch’s survival and so much more can captivate disengaged students and stimulate a sense of awe. It can equip students with enough knowledge to proudly share with parents or others in their lives. And these are as crucial to teaching as the information or skills being taught. The opportunity to do and touch and experience create possibilities for motivating engagement that so many classroom moments lack.

More than just opportunities around the milkweed/monarch butterfly connection, we would urge members of the mainstream education community to get hands around voluminous research that points to social and emotional health benefits associated with contact with nature. Thus, teaching opportunities can come alive outdoors.

We have not planted milkweed. But we have been seeing more and more of it in recent years at our Myers garden – and considerably more this year. Right there is one of the coolest things about nature, the ability of seeds to survive and travel until finding a suitable spot to grow. And then, more than science lessons about species in the plant and animal kingdoms are windows into conversations about ecology, conservation, public policy and more. In other words, the milkweed/monarch connection offers educators a chance to let academic disciplines support one another. And that might be the biggest benefit of all from getting so much closer to real nature than textbooks and videos permit!

–Bill Stoneman

Mission matters now more than ever

With a mission that includes harnessing the power of exposure to nature, the Vegetable Project proposes to develop an outdoor classroom at Stephen and Harriet Myers Middle School in Albany. We work with teachers to bring classes outside from time to time. We hold up scholarly research as we come across it that explains how exposure to nature contributes to wellbeing. And of course, we encourage kids – gently – to experience working their hands in soil and to experience the taste of freshly harvested produce.

At a time when school buildings are closed and students and educators are Continue reading

Life lessons in 3-inch pot full of tomato starts

There is a lesson in the overstuffed three-inch container in the accompanying photograph. It may not fulfill any of the official New York State Education Department learning standards or make an appearance in official state curriculum. It’s next to impossible to imagine squeezing anything about it into a standardized test. And still, we would submit that the lesson is among the most important that we can share with our students.

Of course the lesson, like all the hands-on learning opportunities the Continue reading

Start lifelong learning in the garden with pea shoots

Long-time friends of the Vegetable Project know we get a kick out of sharing the art (ha!) of growing pea shoots with everyone we meet. It’s the closest thing we know of to instant gratification in the world of growing edibles. Start seeds today and you’ll be pinching stems and popping them in your mouth in 10 or 12 days. And they’re delicious.

So please indulge us as we revisit the subject: In this time of social isolation, we Continue reading

Gardening makes sense at times like nothing else

Christine Smith, who leads the Seadleaf community garden organization in Lexington, Ky., wrote last week, “In times of fear and confusion, the only thing that makes sense to me is to get outside and garden.”

Of course, she’s not the only one to express such a sentiment. Seed companies across the country say they’re overwhelmed with business. So clearly droves of people have similar ideas as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread. Smith, however, is particularly eloquent in explaining Continue reading

School garden creates experiences, community

The head of an English elementary school started a garden to teach kids about where their food comes from. But the garden quickly assumed a much larger role.

“Gardening has become a central part of the curriculum,” writes Tim Baker, headteacher at Charlton Manor Primary School in London in a blog titled How a School Garden has Transformed the way we Teach, published by The Guardian. “A recent creative writing task on buried Continue reading

Seed pack instructions offer reminder about faith

It’s National Spinach Day today, at least according to email that we received this morning from the John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds company. And though the day does not have the official status of, let’s say, Memorial Day, or the cultural import of religious holidays, it does offer a small opportunity to reflect on great concerns of the day.

If there’s any rationale behind someone deciding that we should pause a Continue reading

Might be time to grow more food at home

The coronavirus outbreak raises a question that 21st century Americans haven’t thought much about: Can we take well-stocked supermarket shelves for granted? One friend in Cobleskill reported this morning that pickings are slim in his Schoharie County community. Another, Scott Kellogg, the education director of the amazing Radix Ecological Sustainability Center in Albany’s South End, wrote yesterday that it would be “prudent for us to scale up local food production as much as possible,” given great uncertainty of what the months ahead will bring.

We don’t know the extent of stress that current circumstances are putting Continue reading

Subtle moment in garden yields powerful results

The coolest things the Vegetable Project does are probably also the most powerful things it does: We get kids who are convinced they do not like vegetables to give them a try. And we foster a sense of connection between field and table that is foreign to so many kids and adults these days.

So what’s the big deal about these? Students, so many of whom are skittish about trying so many things, food-related or otherwise, tend to say, “Okay,” when we offer. Well, actually, they often first say, “No way am putting Continue reading

Indoor lives creates need for outdoor teaching

Americans are spending sharply less time outdoors than even a decade ago, according to a recent report by an arm of the Outdoor Industry Association. And that should be as big a concern to schools and other civic institutions concerned about healthy development of kids as it is to the businesses catering to people who get themselves outside. Academic research linking exposure to nature with Continue reading