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When life gives you tomatoes - make salsa!
Growing Learning Communities, a UC/community partnership, provides young students with hands-on lessons from the garden

| 05 October 2005

A collaboration between the UC Botanical Garden Education Program, the Lawrence Hall of Science, and 18 elementary schools in five East Bay school districts is moving learning beyond the confines of the classroom.

Launched in June 2003 with funding from the National Science Foundation, the Growing Learning Communities (GLC) project strengthens the teaching skills and leadership abilities of K-6 teachers through professional development linked to school gardens as outdoor science and mathematics laboratories. The resulting foodstuffs and flora are just a bonus: Community members and parents are drawn into the schools as project participants, teachers gain new teaching and leadership skills, and students learn lessons about the environment, nutrition, and collaboration, in addition to science and math.


The Growing Learning Communities project helps teachers and elementary schools create gardens where students learn both academic and social lessons. (Jenny White photo)
The two university partners took an unusual tack in their approach to professional development during the project's preparatory summer institute this year. Instead of focusing on content and the act of teaching, they incorporated a method called Japanese Lesson Study, which entails teachers working together in teams to set educational goals, assess student learning, gather and analyze data, and revise lessons as needed. Many teachers, who never see their colleagues at work in the classroom, are invigorated by this sharing of expertise, and likewise find themselves energized to take responsibility for their own learning as well as that of their students.

"It's great as a teacher to have lessons modeled for you and get lessons you can take away," says Alexandra McGann, who teaches third grade at Oakland's Fruitvale Elementary School. Fruitvale, like the majority of schools in the GLC program, comprises primarily a low-income, underserved population with many English-language learners.

When McGann signed up for Growing Learning Communities, the garden at her school had not even been developed. Along with her kindergarten and first-grade colleagues in GLC, she helped organize a workday that attracted parent volunteers as well as students.

Once the garden became established, McGann says, her charges were "extremely excited about getting out of the classroom and pulling weeds." McGann's class is a real East Bay melting pot, with Latino, African American, Asian, and North African students in the mix. The teacher used the garden to teach nutrition lessons - "We had a few tomatoes, so we made salsa" - and to illustrate and make math concepts meaningful.

"When you learn perimeter and area as a child, it's usually with paper and pencil," explains McGann. "We did it by measuring leaves and flowers. Since the students had an actual area they were measuring, they really understood the difference."

Sixty-seven teachers took part in Growing Learning Communities this past year. Those teachers recruited other teachers in their schools to participate, resulting in the program's expansion.

Lauri Twitchell of the UC Botanical Garden works as GLC's school-garden specialist, helping teachers and students design, build, and plant their gardens. While every school garden is different, she says - "some are the size of a quarter acre; others are built in wine barrels that have been sawed in two" - Twitchell wants each one to be sustainable.

"The teachers are leading the effort," she says, "because they have the overarching goal of teaching the lessons, but GLC is trying to get everyone involved - including administrators and parents. We want the larger school community involved; we've even had city council members participate."

The Growing Learning Communities program was recently honored by Chancellor Birgeneau as one of several University/Community Partnerships whose efforts benefit local residents (www.berkeley.edu/news/berkeleyan/2005/09/22_partners.shtml). Community groups that support the venture include the Hayward Nutritional Learning Communities Project, Willard Lesson Study Team, Santa Rosa Lesson Study Team, Joaquin Miller Hillside Garden Club, Laurel Neighborhood Group, Cherryland Garden Committee and Parent Group, Snow School Parent Garden Committee, Ruus-Peixoto School PTA, and Franklin Garden Collaborative.