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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Community gardens and other service-learning projects benefit students in and out of the classroom

This spring, Bancroft Elementary School’s DC SCORES team hasn’t just excelled on the soccer field – where the boys will play for the City Cup championship at Jamboree! Saturday and the girls made it to the semifinals.

The Bancroft students have also worked extremely hard to plant a large garden as their service-learning project and donate its vegetables to the homeless. During the last week of programming, staff members got a chance to take some pictures of the garden – which showed all the hard work the students put in.

“We tried to help the teacher figure out what kind of plants we were going to plant,” said Damaris A., a fifth-grader also on the girls soccer team. “After we ordered them, we helped the coaches plan the garden.”

Bancroft’s project brings to light what was a hot-button issue during the winter: What are the benefits of such a project? To DC SCORES, they’re obvious – students learn to work together and take pride in taking ownership of a community project.

Alissa Novoselick, a sixth-grade teacher in Arizona, wrote a story for the online news site Salon, expressing the benefits of working with students to create a community garden for not only the students, but parents and community members, too.

The story, however, prompted a response from author Caitlin Flanagan, who wrote in the Atlantic Monthly that school gardens “cultivated failure” and were detrimental to students’ well-being.

While we should not flatter Flanagan by arguing with some of her outrageous statements (i.e. school gardens only represent a political agenda; creating school gardens is racist, etc.), she does touch on an important debate in the educational arena that must be discussed.

Is there a connection between regular school and the after-school curriculum?

Does one have any sort of influence over the other?

More clearly, should these educational environments be assessed separately?

In Flanagan’s world, the structure of a student’s time at school is black and white. The 8am-3pm instructional day is filled with teachers in front of 35 glossy-eyed students scribbling math equations, Shakespeare quotes, and scientific formulas on the whiteboard. After-school time represents freedom, as students participate in “extracurricular” activities served by school-run programs, community organizations and volunteers.

For Flanagan, introducing school gardens into the regular curriculum diminishes the integrity of the school day and impedes on a student’s ability to gain knowledge they need to advance in their education.

In my world, it’s a very big mistake to think of a student’s education in these terms. Studies have shown that students who participate in after-school activities perform better during normal school hours than those who don’t.

Putting aside the tremendous impact DC SCORES’ soccer program has on physical health, increasing self-esteem and teambuilding, students’ writing and reading skills improve after participating in DC SCORES’ poetry and service-learning programs.

The Writing for the Community projects are examples of how out-of-school-time learning impacts the normal school day. When students work together toward a common goal, there are always positive outcomes. Students build relationships with one another and gain a sense of responsibility for their actions.

“To help each other and to do a lot of leadership,” Damaris identified as the goal of Bancroft’s project.

While these qualities should not be overlooked, Flanagan would argue they can’t be measured by school teachers and administrators – one cannot grade character traits. But through projects like school gardens, students gain knowledge and skills that prepare them for their future education and careers.

It’s obvious that when building something (in the broadest sense), contributors automatically feel a connection to the project. Just like those who invest in companies or join a board and become stakeholders and have a say in the process, students gain this connection.

When students create a school garden, they have incentive to do a good job. Because the projects are student (not teacher) driven, students’ innovation and creativity injects new ideas into their communities and helps fight the continual problem of ageism. In the classroom, this stakeholder mentality is rare.

Another critical aspect to the WFTC projects are the steps taken to ensure the project is done correctly. Students achieve this through fundraising, forming partners with local businesses, teaching the community about local issues, learning research methods, community mapping, and many other methods. Students also periodically reflect on their progress through discussions, journal writing, and poetry – things most rote learning curricula leave no space for.

Over the past year, the Obama administration has emphasized the importance of service-learning with the signing of bills like the Serve America Act and initiating programs such as United We Serve. In his State of the Union Address, President Obama encouraged Americans to give back to their communities, explaining that college debt will be forgiven 10 years after graduation if people choose a career in public service.

Understandably, the focus on getting children to college is a top priority, and realistically good grades and test scores are needed to make this happen. But take a minute to put yourself in the shoes of a middle school student. If both helping to lead a school garden project and memorizing passages from Thoreau will result in similar educational outcomes, which one would you choose to participate in?

School gardens and other after-school activities must not be viewed as “extracurricular activities.” More research must be done, but so far there is a clear and measurable benefit to these student-led activities that extend into the normal school day. Their impact on student achievement should persuade school reformers to incorporate similar projects into the regular curriculum -- not the other way around.

And if you have a minute, stop by the Bancroft garden. It’s sure to wow you as much as any test score.

-- Written by Zach Elkin, Elementary School Program Coordinator

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