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The Garden of Knowledge: A Collaborative Learning Experience


foodJennifer Bettini Baldwin is Director of Art Therapy at a therapeutic day school for ages 6-21 in Virginia. She has been employed there for nine years. Shelia Conant Baldwin is an Associate Professor in Curriculum and Instruction at Monmouth University, West Long Branch New Jersey and an advocate for service learning.

During a summer enrichment program at a therapeutic day school, students transformed a plot of land on the school grounds into a prolific garden, aptly named the Garden of Knowledge. On a typical day during the school year, an observer can see the garden being utilized as a focal point of a teacher’s lesson, a quiet respite for a child, a showpiece for visitors. Since its inception, the garden has become a source of fulfillment for the entire school community.

Marquis is a seven-year-old boy diagnosed with ADHD who did not like taking his medication regularly and often became uncontrollable without it. Working in the garden became an antidote for his noncompliance. His teacher often noticed that even though he was smaller than most of his classmates, he was the first to roll up his sleeves and grab a hoe to help till the hard soil. Like Marquis, the many students involved in the garden project during the summer enrichment program have not had positive experiences with learning. Their creation of the garden provided that needed feeling of success.

ETTC is a suburban therapeutic day school for emotionally and learning disabled students ages 6-21. The majority of students come from inner city public schools that do not offer the required intensive services. Each child participates in a specialized program that can include individual psychological services, art therapy, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy and group therapy in addition to a regular curriculum. The extended school year program (ESY), the focus of this account, is a six-week summer enrichment program for approximately 75-80 students, ages 6-14, that are in need of continued support and review of their academics as recommended through their Individualized Education Plans (IEPs).


foodThe Evolving Garden of Knowledge
Teachers and students worked together to create an interactive garden on the school grounds. Teachers’ lessons incorporated the planning, measuring, and selecting of plants that aided students’ development and utilization of skills in math, science, health, reading and language arts. Also, students incorporated the garden theme creatively through the writing of short stories and journal entries, cooking activities, and art projects. They learned the practical aspects of garden maintenance with weeding and watering, and about the life cycle of plants over the different seasons. By planting both perennial and annual flowering plants that attracted butterflies and other kinds of insects, the students furthered their understanding of how living things, such as themselves, depended on plant life. 

The teachers were enthusiastic about the Garden of Knowledge theme, realizing it as a creative and interactive way to hook the students into learning and a fresh approach to curricula for the teachers, drawing on their imaginations. Many teachers had students keep journals where they would record what they had accomplished each day with the Garden of Knowledge theme. The students shared their journals with their families, thus, bringing their families into their school experience, as well as, showing them what they were learning.

Ms. Campbell, the science teacher, became the catalyst for the planning, budgeting and developing of the garden. She was able to rotate the classes so each one could work in the garden at least twice a week.

She reflected:

It took about a week just to dig the garden and turn it. The kids worked really hard. They hand tilled it; they turned it with shovels.  The bigger kids did the shovels and the younger kids pulled out a lot of the rocks and stones. Some of the younger kids actually did some of the shovel work. Because Virginia clay holds a lot of water, they had to add sand and conditioner. Learning ways of problem-solving accomplished a main IEP goal for many of the students.  The finished garden measured approximately 15l feet long and 7 feet wide.

My curriculum evolved as the garden did. I tried to build it around the work with the garden…there were so many different lessons that came out of that. I was able to have different perspectives on a subject and teach kids about things that were also about gardening and sneak in my core curriculum lessons that I wanted to teach.

Mr. Lang, a first year elementary teacher, described the effect of the Garden of Knowledge theme on his curriculum planning:

I wanted to incorporate the core content areas of English Language Arts, Math,  and learning about gardens. For example, we read The Gardener-about a little girl who goes to live with her uncle in the city, taking with her seeds to plant and her love for gardening. The story is told through the letters she writes to her family. It was a great way to incorporate what it meant to grow a garden and how to write a letter. It was learning from all different angles, through creative writing, expression and thought. They really grew to enjoy what they were doing and looked forward to it. It turned learning into something challenging and fun for the students at the same time.


Effect on Children
The students learned how to care for and respect another living thing through their involvement in the garden project. Many of these children display aggressive tendencies and need a break from the classroom to calm down. They had to pass by the garden on their way to the “time out area”, and despite feeling out of control and angry, they did not attempt to damage the plants or disrupt the work.

The garden afforded the students an opportunity to feel special and useful which bolstered self-esteem, feelings not usually experienced within the academic setting for many of them.  Several students expressed feeling pride in the simple tasks of creating and maintaining the garden. Malcolm, a 14 year old student who had never worked in a garden before explained, “Digging was my favorite part. I dug around the circle of the garden to make a place for the water to go.”

The garden has provided other important means of social-emotional support to this population, specifically to 12 middle school girls who were having problems with fighting, threatening, and spreading rumors within the group.  As an art therapist, I facilitated an art-based, team building intervention with the aid of other teachers and clinicians. The girls were encouraged to participate in making stepping-stones to add to the garden. While they worked they were able to openly and honestly discuss several topics such as: sharing, respect, trust and talking about boys. They placed the stepping-stones in the community garden and dedicated them to all middle school girls in an attempt to promote community and solidarity.

The garden promoted motivation and investment, and, as a result, a decrease in behavior problems when involved in the work. The students were attentive and focused when working in the garden, something the teachers did not always see in the classroom. This kind of active, experiential curriculum had a very positive influence on behaviors and seemed to put the students on a similar level, despite the varied disabilities. The students have displayed continuing ownership that is very unusual. Many students are highly impulsive and have difficulty investing in projects for a long time.

Effect on Teachers
Many teachers commented that the idea of the service-learning curriculum was useful and there would be a benefit to continuing with this approach to learning, especially with such a challenging population. Many ideas were generated from the garden idea, such as the social aspect of food, their own environment, community, responsibility, and finally, taking what they have learned back to their own communities.

Future Plans for the Garden of Knowledge
By the end of the summer program, the garden included a large variety of perennials with sprinkles of annuals for added color. The initial garden generated future plans among teachers and administrators. Many of the teachers involved have continued to incorporate the garden into the regular school year curriculum. Mrs. Campbell has started seeds in her science class, and has planted bulbs with her students. In the elementary classrooms, teachers and students have discussed starting a memory garden, planting a plant in memory of someone, thus, a chance to add to the garden individually. Other students have built birdhouses. In addition, the success of the garden was observed by the school administration that has encouraged additional plantings and garden plots. 

Growing a garden has provided not only something aesthetically pleasing, but also has acted as a conduit to promote overall psychological well-being and chances to be a part of something larger than oneself. It has offered lessons that span great areas of learning, eventually promoting growth as individuals within a community experience.

Finally, it has served as a bridge, better connecting teachers, students, and students’ families.

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