Saturday, January 30, 2010

Youth Garden, Take 1

“Nono, no. I’m driving the car and holding the broccoli so that I can eat it when I need more energy, and then see, there’s the transporters so that I can go into the zone where I pick up as much broccoli as I can so then it just appears when I need more because racing is hard and you need a lot of energy and broccoli is good at giving you energy and there’s the swimming pool in the middle of the racetrack. And did you know that your name is my name but mine’s in French?”

It’s been a long time since I’ve been in third grade. In retrospect, it was silly of me to assume that the person-sized broccoli stalk with a face, sitting in the driver’s seat, was driving the car. As Andre dutifully pointed out moments later, broccoli don’t even have thumbs. Too true, Andre. Too true. Thankfully, he, a member of Ms. Harris’s third grade class at the Center City Public Charter School in Trinidad, didn’t make me feel too stupid at my outlandish suggestion. It was, after all, our first day in the classroom, and everybody wants to make friends on the first day.

I’m the new guy at the Washington Youth Garden, an educational nonprofit based out of the National Arboretum (one of the true jewels of the nations capital), which has been inspiring children and families to explore their relationships with food and nature for way longer than urban gardening has been cool. Established in 1971, the WYG manages a one-acre vegetable garden at the arboretum and runs a variety of interdisciplinary, hands-on educational programming.

Specifically, I am working with the Garden Science program, which, in its 8th year of operation, includes an 8-week environmental science and nutrition curriculum in six 3rd and 4th grade D.C. elementary school classrooms.* An exciting new aspect of the program is one in which we construct vegetable gardens with the students, at their respective schools, to be maintained by our students. The program culminates in a trip to our garden at the Arboretum, where the students finally get to let eight weeks worth of suppressed energy and excitement come flooding out. They rampage around the garden, playing with dirt, picking up bugs, and of course, productively observing and working in the garden.

There are a great many reasons why the Garden Science program is a wonderful service to the greater community and an integral asset to the local/sustainable/urban/whatever you want to call it movement that is currently whipping winds of progress around the DC area. Environmental education. Informal learning. Inspiring hope. Nutrition education. Respectfully informing children that neither pizza nor shrimp are vegetables. Smiling. Empowering children. Planting seeds. The list goes on. Embedded among the myriad justifications of Garden Science is the simple fact that the WYG is doing good work for good reasons, and have been doing so for nearly 40 years. Shazam.

Personally, I am excited to have the chance to be working with kids in a gardensciencey-infused atmosphere. To see the smiles that light up their faces at the mention of growing seeds and visiting our garden. To suppress my smiles when their faces scrunch and distort with the desperate straight-armed fingerwiggle maneuver, so desperate to provide answers to our questions. To see the potential in each and every child in the classroom. To get to know the students, and give them something to believe in.

Right, so why do you care what I have to say? I’m getting there.

Relatively speaking, I’m a rookie in this game. For me, youth garden/science education is the latest stop on a ‘tour,’ of sorts, of work around the theme of food and agriculture. So, as I spend time in the classroom, getting to know the kids and re-assimilating to the 3rd grade wavelength, I’ll make my best attempt to exhibit one of the fundamental pillars of successful classroom behavior: sharing.

Throughout my stint at the WYG, I will be writing weekly(ish) updates on the progress, content, and any or all funny, heart wrenching, politically or socially applicable, fun, thought provoking, visually appealing and/or silly bouts of creativity–like Eric’s ApplejuicePiemachine, a complex contraption involving quantum physics and elaborate engineering that consists of an apple-shaped central chamber that can dispense apple cinnamon, apple pies, apple cider, apple juice, apple trees, and of course, apples, at one’s convenience…but I digress–that come from our regular classroom visits. I’d like to think of this as a kind of window through which one can get an insider’s view of the Garden Science project. I hereby invite you to join in on the fun.

If you have any questions, comments, general concerns, or inquiries into the feasibility of re-creating the ApplejuicePiemachine for commercial purposes, you can contact me at

*The Garden Science program serves two classes in each of the following schools:

Imagine Hope Community Charter School

Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School

Center City Public Charter School, Trinidad Campus

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