REAL School Gardens is an organization that helps elementary schools in North Texas install and maintain school gardens as a teaching tool. A big part of the REAL School Gardens mission comes after a school has installed its garden.
That mission includes showing teachers at the school how to use the garden as a teaching tool, how to apply the garden to all school subjects, from math, to science, to social studies.
In fact, this may be the biggest part of the organization’s purpose. REAL School Gardens’ job, says Jennifer Fitzgerald, director of Community Relations, is to “facilitate a place where teaching and learning can happen.”
Many teachers need to be shown how to turn their lesson plans into a hands-on lesson, and how to take their students outside and apply what they want to teach to what the school garden and natural world they find outdoors provides.
This is the job of the REAL School Gardens educators, who go into the schools and ‘model teach,’ showing the teachers how it’s done. For instance, the school’s garden can be used for a math lesson by counting seeds from a single piece of fruit, or pieces of fruit that grow from a single seed; a science lesson can be garnered from seeing how new plants grow in distant places.
The REAL School Gardens way of teaching is very hands-on, interactive, and involves “accountable talk,” where children talk among themselves to come up with the answer(s) to a question. They ask questions, or touch, hold, or examine up close something in the garden to help formulate an answer. The REAL School Gardens teaching model asks the students to be scientists, using the tools they all have: their senses.
This inquiry-based learning is part of what makes a lesson ‘stick’ with the children, and keeps them interested and engaged, even at the youngest ages. And no age is too young for learning from a REAL school garden: even pre-K students can learn about seeds and plants, and can delight in having their own little patch (or tub) of garden, planting and harvesting.
According to Eric Vanderbeck, a REAL School Gardens educator, there are five Es for working with kids: Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate and Evaluate. Working outside in the school garden does all of those things, making it an ideal teaching method.
Every school garden is different, and the gardens have evolved over the years, as experience has fine-tuned the process. One of the first REAL School Gardens is at Worth Heights Elementary School in Fort Worth; which was installed five years ago. In this garden, every grade has its own garden tub, there are two compost piles, and two rain barrels.
Five years of experience have taught educators here, however, that although the school garden itself is a success, its location does not work so well. Located near a highway, traffic noise often makes it difficult to teach; with support from REAL School Gardens, plans are underway to move the garden to another location.
Because school gardens are perennial, and live for years and years, a single garden can touch the lives of uncounted students and teachers. With 66 gardens already in place in North Texas, and several more planned for 2010, the reach of REAL School Gardens continues to grow.
Personal interview, Jennifer Fitzgerald and Eric Vanderbeck, REAL School Gardens
Personal visit to Worth Heights Elementary School, Fort Worth