The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Features May 4, 2007

Garden Links Many Kinds of Oberlin Students
Pulling Weeds: The Eastwood Elementary School community garden helps educate students in environmental and science issues while linking them with College students.

It’s Saturday morning at Eastwood Elementary School and eight Oberlin College students are hard at work refurbishing a classroom. Instead of using crowbars and mortar, however, they’re using small shovels and seed variety packets.

The classroom’s d&eacute;cor: A sunflower hut.

The idea of an outdoor classroom sprouted in 1998 with the help of Sarah Lee, a second grade teacher at Eastwood. Lee planted a community garden on the east side of the school’s property and initiated the construction of a tool shed composed entirely of materials that were either locally harvested or recycled.

Lee hoped to use the garden as an apparatus to show students how they are connected to natural cycles, as well as a site for children and teachers to interact with adults. The garden was abandoned when its maintenance became too time-consuming.

Shoshana Friedman, OC ’05, was the first Oberlin College student to join the initiative to bring the garden back. She contacted Beth Blissman, the director of the Center for Service and Learning, who told her that she would sponsor her as long as she recruited some “youngsters” — rising sophomores and juniors — to sustain the project. As a result, the group, which consists of seven to eight members, emerged. All participants receive private reading credit for their participation in the project.

The CSL awarded the group two small start-up grants of $200 during the 2004-’05 and 2005-’06 school years. Community members also drop off paper to be recycled in the bins in front of the school, which usually accumulate about $30 worth of recyclable paper a month. This is enough to finance purchases such as a small wind dial or a water barrel.

In its quest to establish hands-on learning in the sciences, Eastwood Elementary is no anomaly. In 1995, California’s state school superintendent mandated that every public school have a student-maintained garden — an act whose purpose, according to the web site of the California Department of Education, was to “create opportunities for...children to discover fresh food, make healthier choices and become better nourished.”

Though it shriveled on a statewide scale, the city of Berkeley, CA embraced the idea. Berkeley public schools collected over $700,000 in grant money and gained support from figureheads such as Alice Walters, founder of Chez Panisse restaurants, to upkeep school gardens.

It may not be bolstered by such celebrity, but Eastwood Elementary has a similar academic agenda.

Brian Carter, the school’s principal, said one recent outdoor classroom lesson coincided with the health and wellness plan, which was “to get the children doing more physical structured activity.”

On Thursday, the group led an IGA walk. College students walked with classes to the local grocery mart on East Lorain, and explained to students the differences between different types of fruit. Students then picked out pieces of fruit to bring back to school. The students put their remnants — apple cores, banana peels, etc. — in the garden’s compost bin.

The outdoor projects involve more than just hands-on experience. For example, this week, seventh grade students in Oberlin will be tested for science proficiency. The results will identify weaknesses not just in the seventh grade science curriculum, but in those of elementary school curriculums as well. Carter says his goal is to link everything in the outdoor classroom to a fourth grade science curriculum. The tests and the garden project will help him to do this.

“Teachers can just take their classes out here and there’s a lesson waiting,” he said.

Carter works mainly as a facilitator between the Oberlin students and the teachers. During this past year, there has been much more dialogue to facilitate. The group has been much more active in the classrooms, which has required meetings to discuss lesson plans and projects.

The countenance of the gardens changes each year. Bean and squash have been frequent elements. This year, two theme gardens will be planted: a pizza garden and an herb garden.

Additionally, the group meets for two hours a week to discuss assigned readings and individual tasks. College sophomore Ayla Zeimer said that group members need to be autonomous, as they often work on small projects alone. The group conducts a workday once every semester that invites kids and their parents to help build or maintain the outdoor space.

“Outdoor classrooms are another place for students to gain a feeling of pride and worth,” Zeimer said.

She said that the most satisfying aspect of her job is the level of awareness it flickers in Eastwood students.

“It’s exciting to have a kid realize where his food is from,” she said.

Junior Abbie Sackmann reiterated the importance of gardening as a teaching tool when she described a breakthrough she had with an elementary school student who was struggling to learn how to read. Over the course of a semester, the two planted a seed in a plot and watched it grow. Sackmann was able to instill confidence in the student by connecting his development as a reader to that of the plant.

“It’s really important for kids to remember that life is happening,” she said.

The connection between Oberlin College and Elementary School students continues to grow. May 6 at midnight is the deadline for applications to be a participant in next semester’s outdoor classroom.


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