Spring 2010 Issue

Fresh from the Garden

Two Barry education professors are helping to put radishes and research into action at Miami-Dade public schools

By Paige Stein

Students pictured throughout are from Miami Park Elementary, Lenora B. Smith Elementary, Carlos Finlay Elementary and Charles Hadley Elementary. Some photos are courtesy of the Ed Fund.

It is one thing to get kids excited about eating fresh vegetables, but it’s quite another to get them so excited that they are willing to wait in line to explain to a visitor what compost means and to read from their “garden” journals. In fact, some of the kindergarteners at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center in Miami lined up two and even three times to read yet another sentence about the carrots and lettuce and beans growing in their school garden; hoping the visitor wouldn’t notice that they had already had a turn.

Anthony, 6, in particular has affection for radishes – an attachment developed when he brought one home to his mom. “She told him how delicious this radish was and how much she loved it, even though she never thought she liked radishes,” explained kindergarten teacher Lesley Tompsett. “A lot of kids think vegetables come from Publix or the refrigerator. But when they grow it themselves, they’re much more likely to want to try and to find out they like it. It’s a whole different story.”

The garden where “Anthony’s radish” grew is part of the Plant A Thousand Gardens Collaborative Nutrition Initiative. Known as CNI, the program helps public schools in Miami-Dade County to plant and to maintain gardens. While the goal is to teach kids about nutrition and to foster healthy eating habits, in many ways CNI is as much about the teachers as it is the kids. That’s where Drs. Jill Farrell and Cynthia Lasky, professors at Barry’s Adrian Dominican School of Education, come in. When they talk about the project and how the teachers are not only invested in their school’s garden but integrating it into math, science, even language arts curriculum, their enthusiasm is evident - especially so with Farrell, whose normally fast pace speeds up even more when she starts talking about the “school garden project.”

“A lot of elementary and middle schools, even high schools have gardens, but they haven’t necessarily made the connection to the curriculum,” Farrell says. “Often, principals, for example, will be concerned about the FCATs and will say they don’t want [the kids] outside for hours taking time away from FCAT prep. But the garden can make the curriculum more effective. It fosters enthusiasm and that enthusiasm is something that can be harnessed to improve student learning. It can help them prepare for the FCATs through curriculum that is aligned with the Sunshine State Standards.”

‘Slow’ down

The goal of making the gardens an integral part of classroom learning is also integral to the story of CNI’s development. The CNI “seed” was planted in 2004 by Slow Food Miami, the local chapter of Slow Food USA, an organization that supports “sustainable food supply, local producers and rediscovery of the pleasures of the table.”

Unlike the term “organic,” which has been part of the American vernacular for at least a decade, the Slow Food movement was only recently brought to prominence in this country - most notably by Alice Waters, co-owner of the well-known Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, and long-time proponent of interactive garden classrooms for students as well as of planting a vegetable garden on the White House lawn.

Slow Food is more about sustainability and locality than about pesticides and chemicals, explains Slow Food Miami co-convivium leader Jo Anne Bander. “Food can be very healthy and not be organic,” Bander says, adding that Slow Food is also about celebrating and preserving cultural and ethnic diversity.

‘Most ethnic groups from Jewish to Italian to Dominican and more, really come together over meals and their own cuisine. The kitchen and dining table are really the essence of the community,” she says.

Expressing and celebrating ethnic and cultural diversity certainly resonates in an area like Miami, Bander says. An initial $12,500 grant from the Health Foundation of South Florida allowed the Slow Food school garden project to get started. However, Bander and Slow Food Miami quickly realized they had to find someone to manage a bigger project, someone who knows the school system inside and out and who could make the school gardens permanent and effective fixtures.

“It’s all important when you want to be there long-term,” said Bander, who contacted The Education Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to being an agent for change in Miami-Dade County’s public schools.

“We’ve worked with a number of initiatives that have been suggested by the community,” says Linda Lecht, president of the Ed Fund. “I think Jo Anne and Slow Food were aware of how we take something, a good idea or program, and work to get it really institutionalized into school systems. Our idea was never just to go in and plant a garden or provide a service. We wanted to find a way to train teachers and have the schools do it themselves.”

Lecht, in turn, contacted the fast-paced Farrell, who got the call while she was on the treadmill. “I knew I was interested right away. I thought it was a wonderful and do-able idea, and I told Linda that I knew the perfect person here at Barry who might be interested in working on the project with me, Cindy Lasky.”

Good news travels fast

Between them, Lasky and Farrell have more than 70 years of experience in the public school system, and Lasky has previous experience working with a school garden when she taught science at South Pointe Elementary in Miami Beach. “When I was at South Point, South Pointe Seafood House asked if our class would like to have a garden there. We started out with a garden for at-risk 6th graders and ended up with 14 gardens at school. Every class had a garden and we integrated math and science curriculum into the garden,” Lasky says.

The project also afforded Lasky, who teaches primarily undergraduate courses, and Farrell, who works with graduate students, the rare opportunity to work together. It also gave them both a chance to help local teachers put action research into practice.

Action research, Farrell explains, is a research method especially useful in such areas as social science, nursing, education and public health because it’s geared toward the individual practitioner who wants to improve his or her practice. It is a learn-by-doing method in which the teacher (or individual practitioner) keeps a journal or record of what they’re doing in the field as they’re doing it. By keeping a record or journal and continuously evaluating it, they can learn what works and what doesn’t and deepen their own understanding of their practice.

“Teachers are often intimidated by research,” Farrell adds. “They think ‘I’m just a little old teacher,’ but they don’t realize that they’re actually doing research, even if they don’t know it.”

So with the goal of not only expanding the project but making it a practical teaching and learning tool for both students and teachers alike, Lecht, Farrell and Lasky got together with Bander “to see what they could do with the seed of an idea and collaboration between all the parties.”

Teacher buy-in was the key. “If you plant a butterfly garden at a school, let’s say, teachers may think, ‘well nobody asked us if we wanted a butterfly garden. It looks nice but it really has no impact on me and my classroom,’” Farrell says. “I think that’s the reason the Slow Food model on its own could only go so far; you had to have that initial buy in from the teachers so that the garden becomes a focal point of activity and people begin to have that sense of ownership.”

In 2005, the Ed Fund received a $200,000 grant from the Health Foundation of South Florida to move the project forward. CNI initially involved 220 second-grade students from five Miami-Dade County public elementary schools. All of the schools chosen were considered high-needs with a large minority population and a substantial percentage of the student body receiving reduced or free lunches. Second-graders were chosen as the “pilot” grade because “FCAT starts in third-grade, and there’s already a lot of pressure in third- and fourth-grade from a curriculum perspective,” Lasky says.

Now in its third year, the program has 26 schools participating schools and has expanded to include other grades. And, in 2009, the Ed Fund won the Sapphire Award, along with a $100,000 grant from the Health Foundation of South Florida for its work developing CNI. It was one of only two nonprofits to receive the award, which recognizes nonprofits for “demonstrating excellence in addressing health disparities within their communities.”

Smarter than a fifth-grader?

Participating schools receive five visits a year from master gardener Claire Tomlin of the Market Company or a member of her staff. Tomlin helps the schools decide what to plant in their beds, develop a site plan and, at the end of the school year, get their gardens ready for next year’s planting. At every stage, there is an opportunity integrating the garden into the academic curriculum. At David Lawrence, for example, fifth-graders use math skills to measure the beds and determine the best dimensions for planting the beds. “You know that TV show, ‘Are you smarter than a fifth grader?’ ” jokes kindergarten teacher Tompsett. “Fifth graders here are pretty smart.”

The garden’s effectiveness as an anchor around which to center a lesson and make it come to life is commonly cited by the CNI teachers. “It fits with the core of my teaching philosophy,” says Hakim Mujahid, a second-grade science teacher at Lenora B. Smith. “Someone can tell you honey is sweet or they can get you to taste it. Before they got started, the students had to know the basic parts of a plant, the stem and the roots, and how it grew in the soil. But to actually cultivate it and see it grow, they’re seeing it for themselves, and that’s empowering. That’s taking theory and turning it into practical reality.”

Fresh herbs and fresh ideas

From the teacher’s perspective, participation in CNI is not merely a matter of going to a biannual meeting or filling out some forms; it’s an intensive commitment, and Farrell and Lasky provide the support needed to make the program thrive. Lasky, with her previous gardening experience at South Pointe, works with the teachers to expand their knowledge base on nutrition and healthy eating, while Farrell works with the action research component of the program. They hold a monthly meeting, during which they discuss new topics, bring in guest speakers and give the teachers an opportunity to share best practices.

“At first, teachers were sitting with people from their own school. Believe it or not, teachers are pretty isolated in the classroom and they don’t always get a chance to collaborate with teachers in their own schools,” Lasky says. “But then we decided to do a more collaborative piece and break them up and then they really started to interact with each other.” What’s more, Lasky adds, the number of e-mails she gets from teachers asking gardening or nutrition questions has started to decline. “In this case, that’s a good thing, because it meant they were e-mailing each other more.”

And, in fact, questions and answers fly around the room one Saturday morning in February in a meeting held on Barry’s main campus. The difference (or lack thereof) between Thai basil and regular basil is a hot topic; so is how much more flavorful and less bitter fresh herbs can be than the dried ones most of us buy at the grocery store.

“I’ve been doing a garden for six or seven years,” said Kathleen Cattie, a fifth-grade math and science teacher at the Fienberg/Fisher K-8 Center in Miami Beach and a first-year CNI participant, “but I never had a community of people to rely on before. Instead of being one lone gardener, I’m now connected. I’m actually getting resources thrown at me instead of having to do all the leg work.”

Of the 30 or so teachers at the meeting, many of them got involved in CNI through other teachers at their schools, and many more say that the knowledge they’re getting here will be passed on to other teachers who might not be formally be part of CNI.

“You see teachers kind of watching, getting curious. They kind of walk around the garden and slowly think ‘I’m going to walk in,’” said Mark Rosenkrantz, an art teacher at David Lawrence, who is earning a doctorate in curriculum and instruction at Barry. “Some teachers are not involved and then they are the most active two years later; they learn through modeling. Learning cohorts happen over time; they happen ‘organically,’ so to speak.”

Out of the Ivory Tower

Modeling and collective enthusiasm also plays an important role in changing eating habits, say Farrell, Lasky and many of those involved with CNI.

“I can honestly say in my many years of experience that I can’t recall a program I’ve evaluated that engendered so much enthusiasm,” said Dr. Barry Greenberg, the program’s evaluator for its first two years. Greenberg, a professor emeritus at Florida International University with 32 years of experience evaluating the effectiveness of educational programs, was brought in by the Ed Fund to evaluate CNI and measure its impact on the student’s eating habits.

“The results were quite definitive,” he said. “We found a 30 to 40 percent increase in willingness to eat a whole range of fruits and veggies; up to a 25 percent decrease in students willing to eat unhealthy foods. We found up to an 80 percent increase in kids actually eating vegetables with meals; almost 90 percent of parents thought the garden program made them serve healthier food either because they went to a workshop or because the kids demanded it.”

Getting such a high level of parent enthusiasm and involvement is another measure of CNI’s success, according to Farrell and Lasky. “Parental involvement is something you hear all the time but in actuality it’s really very difficult to get families involved, Farrell says, recounting the story of a father in a business suit, his eyes filled with tears: “He said, ‘I can’t tell you how thankful I am because it shows us that as families you care more about us than just our reading and math skills. You are teaching us skills that will last a lifetime. It has had an impact on our whole family.’”

Farrell and Lasky’s work through CNI is also having an impact on the teaching community, says art teacher and Barry grad student Rosenkrantz. “Their philosophy of education, and I think Barry’s philosophy, is not to say here’s a bunch of theories and then we never see you again. By going out to teachers in the field, going beyond sending in interns, you’re not only increasing the collaboration between university and school, but you’re bringing people back to campus; people like me who say ‘I want more of this. I want to learn more. I want to improve my practice and become a better teacher.’”

In Farrell’s mind, too, the benefits of continuing to engage with area public schools and their teachers is invaluable to her teaching at Barry: “If I was only here in the Ivory Tower professing what [my students] should be doing out there instead of really being out there, how can I really be honest in what I’m teaching?

“Teachers have to do a whole lot more than just prepare a child to take a test. If a child is hungry, or has a headache because he had too much sugar the night before, or is 30 pounds overweight at 10 years old, that child is usually not going to perform at their best. This project has the capacity to help teachers do what they intuitively know they should be doing: teaching the whole child.”