Previously, it was more common to think that the flow of innovative ideas between university educators and those working in schools was mainly first to second. But as the education system has become increasingly fractured and complex, and teachers face challenges specific to the geography and demographics of their students, the field knowledge of innovative teachers is receiving much more critical attention. . An excellent case study is a recent project led by Julie Anne Taylor, education professor at UM-Dearborn, which takes an intense look at a learning garden led by Detroit teacher Marquita Reese. School garden programs are of course not a new idea. What makes Reese’s Learning Garden Project special, Taylor says, are the areas of educational content she uses to frame her students’ garden experiences. Typically, learning gardens in schools are used as a platform to teach children about nutrition, agriculture, and STEM topics. And while Reese’s work covers these things, for her, the garden really is a launching pad for thinking critically about topics we would normally associate with the social studies curriculum: social inequalities, food insecurity, sustainable communities, black male identities and how to harness the levers of power to transform society.
Reese started her garden in a way that many gardens in Detroit begin – on an indescribable, grassy piece of land that had a previous life like anything else. In her case, the site was the former training ground for the football team at her small, alternative boys-only high school, and she recruited several students to help with the initial transformation of the pitch. As in other school garden programs, they prepared the soil, planted seedlings, controlled pests and diseases, and learned how to harvest, cook and even sell their produce. This part that Reese describes as “easy”. The biggest challenge is what she calls the â€œwhyâ€ part – her shorthand for a wide range of society-focused topics that come out when you start to think critically about food systems. Why is it difficult to find fresh produce in many parts of the city? Why are so many people in the community struggling with heart disease and diabetes? How is it that before the garden existed, one of the boys had never eaten raw green beans? Why is it that large multinational corporations control so much of the food supply? How could they learn to use environmentally friendly methods so that future generations still have a world in which to live and grow things? And how could they find allies to help them continue their work and build a better world?
These are just a few of the themes that Reese and her students explored during a program where she said there was almost no topic they hadn’t discussed. It was emotionally and personally intense at times too, as the socially charged themes brought out many of the challenges young men faced in their own lives. But digging that deep has helped Reese focus on what she says is really the end goal of the program: learning how to make a better world. This phase of the work took all kinds of forms. To support the project as it grew, students learned how to write grant proposals, several of which were funded, including one from Senator Debbie Stabenow. On another assignment, each young man was tasked with landing a corporate sponsorship, which required researching local businesses, their ownership, and missions, and then making an in-person pitch for a funding. They appeared on local television and radio, giving interviews that forced them to overcome their nerves at speaking in public and speaking out clearly about their cause. They even learned to cook with the food they had grown, often incorporating the cooking styles of the various immigrant communities in the Detroit metro area through the connections they made.
â€œI find Ms. Reese’s work remarkable because it is so interdisciplinary. It addresses so many standards and methods of social studies through a learning garden, â€Taylor says. â€œIn general, we don’t look at learning gardens through the lens of social studies, but its approach is rich. The depth of what she did with the students and what they understood made a huge impression on me.
Inspired by Reese’s work, Taylor spent two years documenting the project, its methods, and its impacts on young men, all of which were recently summarized in a new article published in Social Studies Teaching and Learning. (The article was co-authored with UM-Dearborn Associate Professor Dara Hill and PhD student Jerry Tait.) In particular, the intimate portraits of student growth that emerge through detailed interviews suggest that Learning Gardens have much broader educational applications than previously thought. , including for educators in the humanities.
Tait, who is also an assistant principal at Cooke STEM Academy in Detroit, said he would personally like to bring something like this to his school. They already have a garden and a greenhouse, which gives them a good start. The challenge, aside from funding, he says, will be to replicate the fluid, interdisciplinary approach Reese brought to the table as a team of one. But he and Taylor believe that multi-educator teams from the social sciences, STEM disciplines, and art might be a viable way to replicate some of the magic they’ve witnessed in a very special school garden in Detroit.