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the Good, the Bad and the Dirty — Gardens as Outdoor Jewish Classrooms

Gardens can provide amazing settings for Jewish environmental education to take place. However, gardens can also present challenges and difficulties that typical "indoor" classrooms do not pose. This article will examine some of my experiences using gardens as a vehicle for teaching Jewish environmental lessons. It is my hope that others can learn from my experiences and adapt their teaching approach according to their own individual needs.

First, a bit about me and my background. In the fall of 2003, I was hired as the first Adamah coordinator, a humbling experience that deeply influenced my outlook on Jewish and environmental issues. I had come to the Adamah program with interests in gardening, teaching, and Judaism, but had never combined these interests in such a cohesive whole before. The Adamah program emphasized the connection between Judaism and Care for the Earth in a particularly hands-on and immediate way. Jewish issues and Environmental issues did not need to be two separate ideas; the two were intimately connected in every aspect of day-to-day living. I took what I had learned from Adamah and returned to my native Chicago, where I got a job as a Sunday School teacher at Emanuel Congregation, the same synagogue I had attended as a youth. I immediately requested to start a small garden on a patch of grass bordering the back of the building and a parking lot. I made clear this garden would be used as an outdoor classroom in order to give a hands-on experience to my students. I have now been teaching Jewish environmental education to 6th graders for the past 6 years, and have learned a great deal in the process. I will briefly touch on some of the opportunities and challenges these experiences have presented.

The GOOD

Gardening with children has enormous potential for making a powerful educational impact. Learning something theoretically is very different from learning experientially. Gardening can provide a powerful experiential learning activity. Planting, weeding, watering, harvesting, pruning, etc. are all wonderful ways to engage students of virtually every age. Through gardening, students do not just feel like they are "learning something" but that they are actually "doing something." Lessons learned through "doing" are often remembered long after lessons learned in more traditional ways are forgotten.

Gardening is also beneficial as a way to get children outdoors. In this age of short recess (if any) and general lack of physical exercise amongst many students, getting children outdoors where they can breathe fresh air and work up a sweat should be highly encouraged, if not manditory. Getting hands dirty and brows sweaty is a great way to encourage physical activity and foster a connection with the earth in a way that classroom experiences simply cannot match.

Gardening with students has another benefit that indoor classrooms cannot provide — the ability to grow food, herbs and flowers!!! When students can literally "taste" the fruit of their labors, they feel rewarded and accomplished. Lessons in reading, writing, arts and other more 'traditional' forms of education have their place, but it is rarely that I have witnessed student's excitement from these types of activities match their enthusiasm for things like tasting a vegetable they grew, a pile of mulch successfully shoveled, or a stubborn invasive species dug up. The lessons learned from working in a garden may not easily translate onto paper, but the values of patience, perseverance, teamwork, and hard work are all lessons inherent in gardening that are difficult to teach in more traditional frameworks.

The BAD

There is nothing bad about gardening in an educational setting, however, there are many challenges. Before embarking on an educational garden project, there are many constraints that must be realistically evaluated in order to achieve a positive outcome. Here I will examine a few of the most common obstacles that keep teachers from starting gardens, or that keep the gardens from being successful teaching tools.

Lack of space is probably the most common obstacle faced by educators wishing to start a teaching garden. Synagogues in urban settings often lack open space, and even those with some open space may be reticent to part with this space in order to start a garden. There may be institutional opposition to change in general, or specific concerns regarding the care, maintenance and upkeep of the garden. There may be a real lack of space in which to garden, or simply a lack of enthusiasm from key authorities needed in order to get approval for the project. These concerns may be valid or may be exaggerated, but they can all be overcome with one major tool — Develop Stakeholders. Share your vision with others and ask for their help. Circulate volunteer sign-up lists. There is no obstacle that cannot be overcome when people work together toward a common goal. If there is really no open space in which to garden on-site, consider off-site locations (ideally within walking distance) or consider container gardening. Most institutions are understandably loathe to tear up lawns, landscaping, or concrete in order to make a garden unless they are fairly confident the garden will succeed. The more partners, volunteers, and stakeholders you have in your corner, the more confident the institution will be in your ability to deliver on your promises and therefore cooperate with your requests.

The second most common problem faced by educational gardens is the fact that the school year and the gardening year do not often coincide. This is a very real problem for me in Chicago, and in most temperate climates as well. It is indeed very difficult to teach anything in a garden covered with snow, and the school year is structured in such a way that the most productive gardening time – the summer – is also the time when students are away on break. Here in Chicago, I am lucky if I can take the students out to the garden in September, October and November and then again in March, April and May before the school year ends. Depending on weather and school schedules, the chance of frost passing in order to plant the most common vegetables before the school year ends is usually a tossup. Combine these factors with constraints such as holidays, rain, and bad weather, and the number of days available for teaching in the garden diminishes further. So, what to do? Again, developing stakeholders is a key. Working a garden alone all summer to get it ready for students in the fall is a lonely and difficult task, to be undertaken by only the most knowledgeable and committed of teachers, if at all. On the other hand, a garden with volunteers and regularly scheduled work days can be a joy to everyone and much more likely to be a success. Secondly, choose plants to grow that will work within your constraints rather than against them. For me, this means choosing plants that come up early in the spring and plants that survive late into the fall. In other words, Cold Hardy Plants. Some of my favorites include Cilantro, Radishes, Kale, Broccoli, Spinach and Horseradish. There is much more to add regarding plant choices and their respective benefits for educational gardening which I will save for future blog posts, so stay tuned.

Lack of knowledge on the part of teachers is another obstacle to running a successful educational garden. I have heard many teachers say that they would love to garden with their students but they "don't know anything about growing things". Fortunately, this obstacle is a bit easier to address. Hopefully Jewcology will help to bridge this knowledge gap, and there are many other resources available to would-be Jewish garden educators as well. Books and online resources are good places to start learning, but often there is no better way to learn than just to "jump in" by putting a seed in the ground, watering it, and paying attention. Plant choice is important in this case as well, as some plants seem to grow themselves while others seem to need more attention than an infant. Most important, however, is the willingness to take a risk by planting something. The next steps will develop from there. In the worst case scenario, the plant will die and you will learn something about caring for plants in the process.

The DIRTY

Teaching in a garden is often very different from teaching in a classroom. Students have the ability to walk around once outside whereas classrooms usually confine students to their seats or at least a prescribed area. It is easier to lose students in a garden than in a classroom, both physically (students walking away) as well as intellectually (more distractions when outside). Add to this the use of sharp or potentially dangerous tools in the garden, and the need for adult supervision is likely to increase in an outdoor classroom setting. It is also rare that there is enough work to be done in the garden that every student can do the same task at the same time. More common is that some students will be planting while others weed, prune, water, mulch, or do other garden tasks. This division of labor is great for students who wish to learn all about gardening, but very difficult for the teacher, who is forced to explain and supervise many different tasks all at the same time. Additional adult supervision, such as student teachers, parents or community volunteers may help to ease some of this pressure. Another technique for dealing with this challenge is to explain each task and then divide up the chores before going out to the garden, thereby reducing the amount of explanation necessary once in the garden. Students being unprepared for class in the garden is even more common than students being unprepared for classroom education (wearing climate inappropriate clothing, for instance) and therefore, additional preparation of the students is necessary. Additional preparation is needed for the gardening teacher, as well. Rather than just preparing a lesson plan and a compiling a reading list, teachers who use gardens as outdoor classrooms will need to prepare things such as tools, seeds and fertilizer in addition. Gardening is truly dirty work, and there is no denying there are numerous challenges inherent in undertaking such a task. However, I have found gardening to be one of the most rewarding and effective educational settings available to the Jewish educator, offering myriad benefits both for the teacher and for the students who participate in such programs.

Final Reflections

Teaching, like gardening, requires lots of hard work, a desire to overcome obstacles, and a willingness to get 'dirty' in order to 'dig' for knowledge. Combining teaching and gardening, therefore, can involve even more hard work and even more dirt than either one alone. However, the results can be truly inspirational. I will be blogging here regularly with status updates on my Jewish educational garden (currently under a blanket of snow) as well as with further thoughts and reflections regarding teaching Jewish gardening as a whole. Stay tuned for future updates, and please get in touch with me if you desire advice or insights into your specific Jewish gardening questions.

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1 Comment
1 Reply
  • Deborah Klee Wenger
    December 20, 2010 (3:10 pm)

    Looking forward to more!


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