Harvesting deeper-level thinking
GILMORE CITY – Gilmore City-Bradgate Elementary school has planted some seeds for success. OK, they have planted a lot of seeds.
Across an acre-and-a-half, there are vegetable gardens and fruit orchards. A chicken coop houses four friendly egg-bearing hens. And 98 percent of what’s grown ends up in the school cafeteria. Oh, and let’s not forget the learning kitchen.
Clearly this is no ordinary school garden. More to the point: It’s an integral part of learning at this small school of 70-or-so students. It’s creating opportunities for deeper-level thinking, incorporating academic standards and 21st century skills.
It was the brainchild of Superintendent Jeff Herzberg, who was inspired with the MUSE School during a trip to California. The MUSE is a private school that, in part, focuses on home-grown foods and preparation.
Up until then, Gilmore City-Bradgate just had a garden-variety vegetable garden, which was weeded occasionally by teachers. But after the MUSE visit, Herzberg upped the game, hiring registered dietitian nutritionist Kelsey Upah.
In the course of one year, Upah, whose title is Seed to Table Garden manager, has created a program that is educational and nutritional, all of which is thoroughly ensconced in the school’s curriculum.
“We’re trying to educate youth on how to prepare healthy food and snacks, and harbor a place to teach science in conjunction with the gardening classes,” Upah said. “We use a project approach – we call them passion projects – so that they dive in really deep into their project and learn something that interests them.”
Passion projects at Gilmore-Bradgate Elementary can be of any topic that interests the students. Last year, Upah’s project attracted two students to incorporate gardening to their passion projects. This year, it’s projected to be as many as 10.
“The kids love it,” Upah said. “The kids enjoy gardening class. They will say, ‘do we have gardening today?’”
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Though gardening is thought of as a warm-weather activity, Gilmore City-Bradgate’s is year round. During cold weather, the school’s greenhouse bustles with activity, whether growing food for consumption during the winter or growing seedlings to be put into the outside garden when temperatures warm up.
Then there’s the learning kitchen – an old lockerroom converted into a full kitchen – where students learn how to prepare foods.
“We teach them to cook,” Upah said. “They learn how to cook potatoes different ways. We teach them how to do different recipes with eggs. And we teach them how to roast vegetables.”
One person suggested – tongue firmly in cheek – that the school start its own winery with grapes picked from the school’s vines.
“Can you imagine kids making their own wine and selling it?” Upah asks with a big smile. “I somehow think that won’t fly.”
Lessons are as focused as they are varied. There is a unit in tree identification where students not only learn which trees are which, but also which trees work well in the Iowa climate. Another unit is seed saving in which students collect seeds from this year’s crop, all of which will be used for next year’s crops.
There’s even a monarch butterfly unit, in which students chart the growth of the butterflies. This year they learned that butterflies grow to maturity in captivity at a much higher rate than those in the wild, a stunning 62 percent survival rate to nature’s 2 to 5 percent. Once the butterflies are ready, they are released just in time to migrate south for the winter.
Principal Jeff Fenske, in his first year of leading Gilmore City-Bradgate Elementary, is agog about the program.
“The growth mindset aimed at the children is what really stuck out to me,” he said. “It is project-based learning, and it’s really changed the dynamics of the school.
“The teaching and learning part of it is impressive, and it’s an incredible overall experience for every child. I am amazed at the depth of the program and the opportunities for the kids.”
“For me, I always wanted to connect agriculture to nutrition, that the food has to go through many steps to get to your table,” Upah said. “We have a large obesity problem in the U.S. Part of the learning is to teach students to nourish their bodies rather than just putting food in.”
The fall is a particularly busy time for the garden program. In addition to harvesting all the vegetables and fruits, the school hosts a harvest dinner for the community – with all the ingredients coming from the garden. It makes a bit of money for the program.
“For a free-will donation, you get a homegrown meal,” Upah said. “We had a net profit last year of $182 for our Harvest Soup Supper, and $230 for our Harvest Supper this year.”
There’s also a fiscal side to the gardens.
“Based on what we served, the current market price, and our current harvest records (in pounds), our average cost savings is $1,183,” Upah said.
Upah stresses that any school can do this, even if it doesn’t have space for an outdoor garden.
“You can still have an enormous impact with container gardening in the classroom” she said. “Just make sure you tie it to their passions.”
Upah knows how to do that.
One student was at a loss for what kind of passion project he wanted to take on. His only passion, he said, was football.
“I said, ‘OK, you are going to work on making a perfect turf,’” she said. “There’s always a way to connect to gardening.”
Learn more about Gilmore City-Bradgate’s garden.
What they grow
Cabbage, tomatoes, radishes, kale, garlic, peppers, eggplant, sweet corn, herbs, different varieties of popcorn, lima beans, green beans, purple pole beans, cantaloupe and honey dew and watermelon, cucumbers, gourds, and fruit: apples, pears, cherries, aronia, strawberry, blueberries and grapes