School gardens: one controversy I never thought would see the light of day

school garden at Claremont
Photo by D. Ross Cameron/Oakland Tribune

Some light reading for the rainy weekend:

Writer Caitlin Flanagan thinks school gardens are a rotten idea, especially for children of migrant workers. She blasts the Berkeley schools’ initiative in an essay titled “Cultivating Failure” in the January/February issue of the Atlantic.

Andrew Leonard, a Berkeley parent who helped build the garden at Malcolm X School, responded to Flanagan’s essay in a piece for Salon.com.

Of all of the things to find fault with in California public schools, I never thought school gardens would make the list. Who knows what Flanagan would have to say about the foodies at Melrose Leadership Academy, a middle school in East Oakland (their teacher, Gehry Oatey, blogs for Teacher, Revised)? Or the produce stands at 11-plus Oakland schools?

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Jose


    Flanagan is right in regards to Mexicans and the public schools. We did not come to this country to spend school time working in a garden. I think it is great for white students. They need the experience in the field.

    Our people need more math, English, and science in the classroom. Then, there would be more of us at UC Berkely.

    They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I say road is paved by white liberals with pot holes that suck up minorty students. The public school system is proof of this fact.

    Katy, Do you think we came to this country to send our children to school to work in a garden? I hope you will consider our experience is quite different from yours and most of those pushing the garden method of education in the schools.

  • Gordon Danning

    I don’t know much about school gardens, but Ms. Flanagan’s broader point has a great deal of merit — too much of what schools do (or at least, in my experience) consists of “feel good” exercises that seem like a good idea, but are not backed up by research or even by any thought about the ultimate goals of education. Nor are they preceded by any sort of weighing of relative costs and benefits. After all, students could be doing SOMETHING else with the time they spend in school gardens. Is gardening the best use of student time? I don’t know, but I’m guessing that neither Alice Waters nor school officials ever approached that very fundamental question in a systematic, thoughtful way.

  • Union Supporter-But


    I absolutely know that you did not mean to be racist, but as a mom of a Latina daughter, it felt very racist. My Latina daughter does need to learn about the community garden AFTER school. Just as her White and Black friends need to work on the garden AFTER school. Many families in Oakland White, Black, Latino, Hispanic and Mexican have gardens on their patio and in their yards as an economic necessity.

    What I see is that it is much easier for teachers to teach about gardening because there is no harm, no foul if the kids don’t understand. This is not true with core Reading, Writing, Mathematics, Science and even Social Studies that teaches about the cultures of all people. Teachers have to work only half as hard during community garden time as they do when they are teaching a child two digit multiplication or root words, suffixes and prefixes. A good teacher would use the community garden to teach math – how many centimeters did the plant grow this week, keeping a science journal of the sun and the rain and watching for trends and patterns. In my own experience in my two son’s schools tying the standards to the garden is not done.

  • Jose

    Union Supporter,

    Is the truth racist? How do you prepare our Mexican, black, or Indian students to excell on the SAT in your garden? Could you provide me with examples for the math, reading and writing part of the SAT that is used to determine if our children are prepared with the academic skills to enter universities?

    Based on your opion regarding a garden, minorites should be over represented in higher education because we have spent much more time working in agriculture than whites during the last 50 years.

    I worked in the fields picking tomatoes, water melons, green beans, etc. It was a terrible life. I had a black teacher Mr. MaC who kept me after school. He tought several of us how to read, write, and do math. This is what made it possible for me to attend a community college.

    Why hire a teacher to teach children how to grow a garden? It would be much cheaper to hire thoese of us who worked in agriculture? We have more expierence, however, what would the union say about that?

    It’s very insightful when the mom of a “Latina daughter” can sujest I am a “racist.” Does this mean you are white and use your inter-racial daughter as a shield for your views?

    I disagree with the garden idea as a method in preparing our children for higher education.
    Once again, where is the proof that it prepares our children for college?

  • Union Supporter-But


    Here are some examples that I have seen with an excellent 3rd grade teacher who is teaching a class that is approximately 40% Mexican/Central American, 30% Black, 15% Arab, 10% Pacific Islander and one white student. The students measured the seeds of various plants in millimeters and documented those results results and planted them in potting soil, top soil and the soil dug up from around the school. Students used peat pots to get things started in the classroom. One pot of each was fertilized with organic fertilizer. Evidence of growth was measured every day, including the amount of water.

    Students then made graphs (bar, pie charts and scatter graphs) which are three types of charts used in academic research. Students projected the daily growth and compared it to the actual results. Students then compared with the plants were transferred to the garden outside the classroom (hothouse vs outdoors). When there were holes in the ground or in the leaves of the plants students had to make assumptions about human or animal involvement and then support it with internet research. Students drew conclusions about the sizes of the seeds and the growth of the plants as well as the fertilizer.

    Students compared the labels on “Scotts” brand fertilizer which harms the environment, but touts huge growth in plants. Students results using organic fertilizer were similar to those using Scotts. Using the internet, students looked up the physical affect on humans using the chemical fertilizer. Students looked up the affect of organic fertilizer on humans. Graphs were made of the differences.

    In the end, students created power point presentations by table group based on their studies. They had imported photographs, using Excel created table with which they created graphs, then they wrote the narrative with a bibliography.

    When they completed their biography studies a few months later some students chose to study Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, one Filipina girl chose to write about Larry Itliong who led the Farm Workers strike which Cesar Chavez joined, the students used their research and their former work to show why the strike was important and how the chemical spray over the heads of the workers in the field affected that and future generations of farm workers as is was passed from mother to unborn baby.

    I will admit that this is an exceptional teacher. I will also admit that few than 1 in 100 would go to this extent for a third grade class – however, we on this blog and throughout Oakland need to be vigilant in pointing out good teaching and learning where it is found just as we need to point out injustices where they are found.

    The kind of project in Ms. B’s class is more in-depth than many middle school students are able to perform. By starting in elementary school we are teaching students that hard data is more effective than rhetoric in supporting your point of view, making change in the world and showing as well as telling why people are treated differently and how that treatment affected all parts of society we teach students how to make themselves and their ideas heard.

    And about my daughter: she was adopted “out of the system” and was the result of a pregnancy between a 13 year old Mexican girl and a 14 year old El Salvadorian boy. She is the delight of our family – and it is a struggle to make sure she grows up with a positive self image and that teachers in Oakland treat her with respect and high expectations of her long-term education.

  • http://perimeterprimate.blogspot.com/ Sharon Higgins

    I just filled out an OUSD community survey and invite others to do the same, especially current parents. It’s at http://www.ousd.k12.ca.us/199410102104342143/blank/browse.asp?a=383&BMDRN=2000&BCOB=0&c=57084

    One thing I’d like to see is OUSD reducing the number of programs, consultants, and coaches it purchases. Too many are outsiders who are feeding off the district. All the re-form efforts, test score pressures, and groping in the dark for the next miracle cure, has given birth o a whole profession that calls themselves “edu-preneurs.” In the last decade or so coaching and just about anything that promises to produce higher achievement has become very big business. The trend is just a part of the privatization scheme.

    Instead of hiring these parasites, OUSD develop programs of its own that would tap more deeply into the many outstanding and innovative staff members who are already in the district, such as the one Union Supporter-But has described — gardening debate aside. Having our own talent share their best practices would build camaraderie, help with teacher retention, and be good for the whole system. Every school has these teachers, and each site knows who they are.

  • Jose

    Union supporter,

    Thanks for confirming the garden does not prepare our children for college.

    Good luck with your daughter. She will need it in the Oakland public school system.

  • amy

    Jose and others,
    the gardens are there primarily for urban kids who don’t have homes with any outside play area, or space for gardening, who live in neighborhoods that don’t even have grocery stores, let alone fresh vegetables, friut, trees and flowers. and there for all the others too. The gardens at school are places of wonder and digging in dirt is essential to the development of the mind, not to mention the science. (wonderful lesson plan, awesome!). they teach kids how to grow food, and plants, and in some cases, how to prepare, cook and gain a taste for homemade food, and to have the pleasure of being in an outdoor space, so their minds and hearts are relaxed enough to learn. jeez, you’d think its the end of the world to smell the roses for an hour a week!
    most kids that go on to college do so either out of sheer will, an exceptional teacher that noticed you and gave you a little extra, or because their families valued education, not because they learned extra math or excelled at reading. that all takes TIME, like planting and harvesting, PLANNING, like planting and harvesting, and PATIENCE, like planting and harvesting, and a sense of WONDER, like watching a seed grow into a plant. Wonder is the SEED of education, it must be firmly planted in every child, and cultivated by witnessing the miracle of our natural world. get a grip! lets not argue about digging in the dirt, but rather about the lack of RESOURCES for urban kids and poor kids, compared to their wealthier counterpoints. CASE IN POINT: i know of very few private schools where there isn’t a garden. why is that? because it has proven to be of great value to the educational process, so those parents who can afford to pay will not have it any other way. ditto: the arts.
    mother of 2 kids of color, in oakland schools, who i insist dig into the dirt, and then come in and read a book!

  • Pepe

    It seems to me that people are confusing quality of teaching with school projects. I appreciated my kids’ ability to learn more about where their food comes from and how it comes about. Their experience in the garden did not take away from their education in any way, and that experience helped to get them and their classmates more excited about learning. The teacher they had tied their experiences to math and science they were studying. The experience took nothing away from the learning of their students.

    It seems in these days of testing and budget crises, enrichment activities are the first to be cut, and that is a shame. I don’t want my children to have 8 hours of math and reading–that’s a sure way to make school an intstitution that extinguishes rather than fosters the curiosity and interest in academic subjects.

    Also, I am actually glad that my children have an idea of what some of my parents cousins worked at when they came to this country. The only difference is that my kids see the garden work as fun, and my cousins worked to the bone to eke out a living.

  • Pam

    I have said it before and I will say it again. This blog can be weird sometimes.

  • david welch

    the capitalist , more-faster, philosophy is now in education,,,, it lead to an ill end,,,,, what good is education if you can’t enjoy it. people need down time, the garden is time well spent. jose’s comments about what his people need and what white people need is a racist opinion….. im white and take offence at being judged by my race. and im a little taken back by the comments of people that come here and then complain… put the shoe on the other foot,, try being a blonde, english only speaker immigrant and have the mexican govt. help you with your education. people that have children and dont do everything that can to help their child’s education are the problem,,,,, i know for a fact almost anyone can see to their child’s education. i have a friend that is a licensed attorney here in calif. his father came here from mexico and had no education . but he did have one thing,,,, the resolve to see his child educated……….. quit playing the blame game..

  • Cranky Teacher

    Atlantic monthly article was just “culture wars” raw-meat bait … and you all took it.

    A garden class is … whatever the teacher/school makes it.

    Can teach all core subjects through project-based learning, whether a garden, building a solar-powered vehicle or visiting Yosemite. Studies show that, done right, this is a better way to teach. Doing it right, however, is challenging — pretty much like anything in education.

    Take a breath, people.

    I suppose we should get rid of music, PE, drama and every other subject not related to phonics or basic math skills?