Engaging students who do not engage routinely

The Vegetable Project engaged 375 Albany students in outdoors hands-on learning opportunities in the first month of the new school year. We took 15 classes at Myers Middle School and Albany High School for touch-and-taste walk-arounds in our gardens, during which we encouraged kids to pluck tomatoes and beans and more and pop them right into their mouths. Ten classes at North Albany Middle School participated in a daylong celebration of doing and touching and tasting and experiencing that revolved around establishment of the new Friendship Orchard at the school. And we launched another year of our after-school Garden Club at Myers.

We take some satisfaction in the numbers of kids who we are reaching. Academic research makes a compelling case for both outdoor learning and hands-on learning.

But even more important than the numbers of kids we intersected with, at least for the folks who volunteer their time to make Vegetable Project programming happen and we think for the friends who contribute to our work in so many other ways, are observations of some of their teachers. Teachers pointed at individual students time and again in just these first couple weeks of the school year and told us something along the lines of “S/he is so engaged. I have not seen anything like that before.”

One teacher said in a text message that one of her classes was especially skeptical about walking “alllll the way to the garden” before heading outside, but couldn’t get enough of every taste and touch and smell once there.

Not every kid, of course, is smitten with what we have to offer. And as powerful as contact with nature is and as rich with potential doing and experiencing are, some moments click and others don’t. Still, we think we have a pretty good idea of how to capture the attention and interest of kids who don’t buy the usual classroom fare. We think that we have learned some things over the years about fostering a sense of meaningfulness. We understand that rushing through “experiences” doesn’t really provide as useful experience as fumbling and struggling and discovering do, through fumbling and struggling and discovering do take more time. So, we will continue talking up what we do and hope that the school world will come around to our way of seeing and doing things.

In the meantime, a huge thanks go out to 77 individuals who purchased flower bulbs worth $3,650 in our just-completed FlowerPower Fundraiser. We will receive half of that total, $1,825. And we will plow those funds into doing more of what we know makes a difference to kids, and especially the kids who do not respond so well to what feels to them like an endless succession of admonitions to “sit still in your chair and look up at the front of the room.”

We funded the construction of a garden shed by Albany High students in the spring. Sure, we needed the storage space. But we also wanted to create an opportunity for students to say “I did that” every time they pass by the beautiful structure they built. We’re building season-extending hoop houses now. We bought trees and perennials for our North Albany Middle School event. And we’re beginning to bring high school and college students aboard as hourly employees to build a capacity to connect with yet more kids.

These, we believe, are the kind of measures that will improve outcomes of the least engaged students.

–Bill Stoneman

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