Youth Gardening as a Pathway to Academic Success
by Tessa James, Kalyn Janae Marab, and Sabine Parrish
Caitlin Flanagan’s 2010 article in The Atlantic, Cultivating Failure, ridicules the idea that schoolyard gardens can help children in any way become better educated. Her principal argument is that gardens do not teach students the necessary skill sets to pass the standardized examinations required of most students across the nation:
“Here is the essential question we must ask about the school gardens: What evidence do we have that participation in one of these programs — so enthusiastically supported, so uncritically championed — improves a child’s chances of doing well on the state tests that will determine his or her future (especially the all-important high-school exit exam) and passing Algebra I, which is becoming the make-or-break class for California high-school students?”
Contrary to this statement, there is growing evidence that gardening cultivates not just crops but young minds. This includes teaching environmental consciousness — but gardening can also teach practical and applied lessons in science and math and is an engaging and creative way to explore natural and cultural history. The question should not be, “Will our students pass these tests?” Instead, we might ask: “Why have we developed a system in which standardized tests determine our children’s future?”
Part One: The Garden Listens
The system we currently have in place is what we should call into question. Flanagan fears that our children will not be prepared for the “real world,” yet perhaps we should focus on the misguided priorities such a worldview champions? Improving test scores across the board will not prepare every student for college and it will not guarantee every student a well-paying and meaningful job in the future. Flanagan argues that gardening cannot teach what students need to prepare for state testing. However, this argument, without real evidence, basically assumes that gardening fails as a creative and collaborative learning opportunity for many children and especially those for whom traditional pedagogy may not work.
Flanagan and others are likely threatened by the school gardening movement because it teaches values and knowledge that are not legitimate within the mainstream American culture and discourse. Privileging the western/scientific mode of schooling that aims primarily to prepare students for entering the capitalist economy as good workers is just one more way to discount alternative forms of knowledge and learning. Gardening can show students that there are other ways to learn; ways that might connect some students to more relevant and personally meaningful lessons from traditional subjects like Algebra and the Sciences.
Some students may benefit from standardized curricula. This is why it is important to have multiple avenues of intellectual exploration open to all students at all grade levels so that they may be exposed to the benefits of many disciplines and different pedagogies. Be it gardening and math, art and science, history and languages, or any other subject, students should have a chance to explore and find what best suits their talents and interests.
Flanagan’s article is especially critical of gardening education in schools that teach children of farm workers and immigrants. Her idea is that the parents of these students did not come to this country so their children could be farm workers too, and that these students especially need to focus on an intensive academic curriculum. However, she overlooks the fact that many of the students whose parents are farmers or farm workers are not immigrants and instead hail from families that have been in the U.S. longer than the U.S. has been a country.
Flanagan claims that school gardening is “a way of bestowing field work and low expectations on a giant population of students who might become troublesome if they actually got an education.” However, as seen by the rising test scores of many students who participate in gardening programs, gardening and academic success are not mutually exclusive. Her statement is also problematic because school gardens are popular in schools in upper-middle class white districts too. Flanagan does not seem too concerned about white students compromising their test scores by working too much with their hands in the dirt. Seattle’s Queen Anne Elementary, on the notoriously white and wealthy Queen Anne Hill, is starting a garden and has plans for garden-based education. Would Flanagan see this as “fieldwork” and “low expectations” or does the meaning and purpose of school gardening change with the neighborhood? The article does not address the implications of gardening for wealthier children, potentially leading to the conclusion that she doesn’t find a problem with it.
Flanagan’s double standard is obvious: She appears to support (or at least condone) gardening at schools serving a higher socioeconomic bracket, yet thinks it is a waste of time for immigrant students or anyone whose parents have ever worked in agriculture. She is championing the exclusion of children from innovative educational programs. Garden-based curriculum might not be your standard academic fare (and if you’re Caitlin Flanagan it might not teach to your mainstream values), but it is still education, something all children have a right to. Students in Berkeley are entitled to the same standards of education as those in Seattle, and if gardening is one way to teach students important content and process, then it cannot be denied to one group but championed for another.
There were many problems with Flanagan’s article, the logic behind it, and the way she chose to defend her arguments. One of the most blatant issues is that she did not interview any students that have participated in garden-based learning of science, math, history, and cultural studies. Before offering wild conjectures about garden work hurting and disadvantaging these children, why not first talk to them? Ignoring the children who are being affected by the movement for a schoolyard garden curriculum takes them out of the discussion. By referring to them in the abstract and through presumably valid and representative statistical data, Flanagan disenfranchises and discounts their views and experiences. She also denies them the opportunity to build on their own knowledge bases or to benefit from the value of learning how to live in solidarity. She denies them the prospect of community-making through the spirit and ethics of stewardship and collaboration.
It is not uncommon for adults to overlook the thoughts and reactions of children and to not give them much credit, but this article focuses largely on middle and high schoolers. They have their own thoughts and feelings, and they surely would have something to say about their curriculum and what they think they get from it. Gardens give children and teenagers a place to actively shape and work with ecology and society. Gardens teach collaboration and respect for others including the Earth.
Adults do not always listen to or value the views of the young but a garden does. A garden reacts positively to anyone who cares for it; to whomever tends it. For youth, who often have little control over the rest of their lives, a garden is a unique space to begin to understand one’s self and to shape an auto-topography. This sense of space and responsibility is something that isn’t taught in school, and it shamefully won’t be assessed on any exam.
These values and the special and positive benefits of school gardens they represent are likely to be overlooked by detractors like Flanagan who have a national audience that will listen. A garden listens to what you plant and how you care for it. As one former school gardener says, “This is a way of giving kids a sense of ownership, a place to stay off the street. It saved me, and it saved a whole bunch of us. It can become so much bigger than just a garden.”
Perhaps next time, Flanagan should talk to the kids. The students in Berkeley at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School and those at Queen Anne Elementary in Seattle might have some important and similar things to say.
At present, there is an emerging but limited social scientific literature assessing the benefits of school gardens and how these positively affect student ability, skill, and grades in other courses. There is an abundance of positive anecdotal evidence, yet very few scientific studies have looked critically at the blossoming school gardening movement. The few studies that have been conducted do find a positive correlation between gardening and increased achievement in science and increased interest in eating and identifying vegetables. Schools involved in the Berkeley/Edible Schoolyard programs have seen a rise in math and science test scores. However, without more studies to confirm these benefits, detractors like Flanagan will continue their crusade to delegitimize and remove gardening education across the country by asking questions that pose an artificial divide between a good education and the availability of the unique learning and social opportunities posed by schoolyard gardens.
Part 2 – White Privilege and the Politics of Schoolyard Gardens
While the benefits and joys of teaching urban gardening in schools can be easily embraced by parents, students, and community members, there are opposing viewpoints and also unequal access to the resources needed to establish school gardens. Not every school that wants a garden can get a one established. Some schools are located on landfills or in other contaminated sites that complicate matters.
There are plenty of examples of successful school gardens. For example, take South Portland High School’s school garden. It was started to make use of a greenhouse that had stood as an empty segment of the science wing, and has since flourished into a place in which students are learning to make things grow. Classes are held there, teenagers are learning valuable skills and scientific knowledge applicable to real world work and academic scenarios, and generally beginning to comprehend the value of knowing where food comes from, and knowing that the answer to that question is not, “Um, from the store.” SPHS even received a $750 grant from the Communities Promoting Health Coalition to pay for soil, seed and other supplies.
However, there is one issue with this otherwise empowering and constructive idea; South Portland High School does not appear to be located in a place of need and indeed reeks of ‘white privilege’. The population of South Portland, Maine, is almost entirely white at 97 percent. Over 89 percent of its populace is high school educated or higher. Only 3 percent of its citizens are unemployed.
A garden for South Portland’s children and all it could offer them is a lovely project for any student to be involved in, but those children and their families likely already have access to fresh, organic produce. They probably have grocery stores within walking or driving distance, and they probably have enough money to buy food in those stores, as well as cars to drive to them. The majority of them probably have homes with space to create gardens in their backyards, and perhaps even parents or family members who would be willing and able to help them learn to cultivate the land. These are the children of families that can afford to participate in Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs).
Are these really the kids who most need a grant to start an urban gardening project? A similar situation is that of several Seattle schools; one being Bagley Elementary in the Green Lake neighborhood of Seattle, which has a school garden, again with a predominantly white middle to upper class student body. However, there are also excellent examples of agricultural enrichment programs happening for kids in underserved areas and underfunded schools. One of those in the Seattle area is the Concord Elementary program at Marra Farm in South Seattle. Concord’s student body is a mix of highly diverse, primarily Latino students. They are involved in gardening and farming in a variety of ways. According to the program site:
With the help of a University of Washington intern, the education program [farming, gardening, cooking, documenting experiences] now includes two 3rd grade classes, two 5th grade classes, two after-school groups from Concord Elementary, age-appropriate field trips for up to 30 children, and a thriving summer program serving 60 children! With continuing support from volunteers, we expect the Children’s program to grow even stronger.
Furthermore, there is evidence these kinds of programs can help kids beyond learning how to grow food – they can learn to connect the food they’re growing to the food they’re eating and encourage their families to have healthier dietary habits; they connect real-life scientific scenarios with what they learn in school and are able to experience a tangible interest in science. In the case of the original urban garden-school collaboration of the Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley, CA, students involved in gardening have even showed dramatic growth in other academic areas:
In another study of a district-wide place-based math and science initiative over a three-year period, the percentage of 4th graders performing at an unsatisfactory level dropped 13.2 percentage points compared to a statewide decrease of 6.5 points. Math scores saw a 14.1 percent point decline in district students with unsatisfactory performance compared with a statewide decline of 3.6 points. Students at these schools were involved in more outdoor experiential, place-relevant learning, including nature trails, gardens, and studies of weather and soil.
On that note, another issue of concern with Flanagan’s argument is that she simply assumes that in teaching gardening, students will be stripped of their ability to surpass expectations in anything other than manual labor. This is a particularly unsettling aspect of her stance on gardening because it makes an unstated and unsupported assumption about the impact on children with immigrant and farm worker parents: In the opening paragraph, Flanagan patronizingly portrays the “tragic” story of an undocumented immigrant who arrived in the United States and spent his childhood and adult days working on farms. One day in the schoolyard garden, he sees his own U.S.-born daughter in the same position – pulling lettuce under the hot sun. Flanagan wants us to see this as a picture of injustice. As a violation of an undocumented father’s values who sees this as a barrier to better prospects for his daughter as an American citizen. He sees the garden as a symbol of his own plight as an undocumented immigrant and wants fair educational opportunities for his daughter.
There are many problems with this argument despite its appeal to equality and fair opportunity. First and foremost: Why does teaching gardening have to imply that students, and particularly those who come from immigrant backgrounds, cannot excel in other subjects? While hard data is scarce and is primarily anecdotal, some test results have shown that Berkeley, California students participating in nature walks, gardening, and other outdoor studies experience a dramatic improvement in science and math performance compared to their indoor-study counterparts. This evidence suggests that schoolyard gardening is not detrimental to the learning of other school subjects or test performance.
Time spent outdoors in the garden does not mean time wasted. It is not as if Alice Waters and her proteges are forcibly sending the children of immigrants back into the fields and the world of exploited manual labor that many of their parents have endured. It does not mean failure in Algebra and English and the inability to compete with colleagues who have not spent time outside during class or after-school hours.
Transferring knowledge and skills gained in the garden to other classes where this is relevant is possible. For example, students can present recipes in English class or calculate the formulas for creating a garden bed in Math class. They can collect samples and analyze the soil composition in a Science class. Obviously, this does not mean that gardening will make those subjects any less effectively taught. Indeed, it may help students to become more holistic in their learning orientations. It may make learning more enjoyable and applicable to real life, better grounded in place, and hopefully even more fun for these kids, attaching a sentiment to sometimes unpleasant subjects that transforms these into something they can enjoy.
Flanagan feigns to stand up against school gardens so the children of Latinos can become enlightened and better educated and pass their standardized tests. But this pushes a paternalistic and ethnocentric agenda that assumes children of color, who are already struggling, will suffer from having any time taken away from the grinding study of standardized curricula. Her stated fear is that this will simply boot them back to the Stone Age and miles behind their white counterparts, and that they came to the United States to escape from the poverty and presumed ignorance of their homelands.
This view assumes that it is only in the American school system, with standardized testing that privileges white middle-class culture and already leaves millions of children of all colors behind, that they can learn to succeed and become prosperous and productive adults. This logic is faulty and it is dangerous. Flanagan proposes that those who have already had the system fail them will agree with her and join an ill-advised campaign that separates the real and imagined horrors of the burdens of agricultural work from public education.
The truth is that getting all kids to enjoy learning through experience will help them continue their education regardless of racial/ethnic or class background. Flanagan assumes the self-anointed role of the champion of the rights of Latino children, urging them to avoid repeating the hardships faced by their parents. However, she does not even understand the rich cultural legacy of farming and farm work nor does she appear to understand the complete legal and political conditions these children and their families have faced over decades of structural violence and inequality. She fails to consider what it means to teach gardening to students who she instead proposes should actually be taught to devalue who they are and regard their origins with contempt.
All of this goes to show that while urban gardening in any school is a worthwhile and important endeavor, it can especially provide an extremely valuable service to children in underserved and marginalized communities who may otherwise lack opportunities for holistic growth on their academic path to adulthood. Schoolyard gardens may also help communities attain local food sovereignty.
Part 3 – Food Sovereignty and Schoolyard Gardens
We believe that those who are opposed to and those who advocate for school gardens are equally motivated by a desire to promote social justice and education. What is interesting is that they are taking opposite approaches. One of Flanagan’s main arguments is that children of immigrant farm workers are being re-enslaved to the land through these new programs. She speaks to the parents’ attempts to alleviate their children from the burden of laborious, unrewarding farm work in this new movement of gardens in schools that pushes them back to the land-based jobs that have largely oppressed their ancestors.
This argument displays the imbalances in our society as well the socially constructed and misconstrued ideas of oppression, success, and education. The anti-school garden arguments have value in the overall movement of discourse. Rather than responding to these viewpoints by simply denouncing opposing opinions, it is valuable for a constructive discourse to emerge. Marsh Guerrero, the executive director of the Berkeley Edible Schoolyard responded to Caitlin Flanagan’s article in a different article entitled “School Gardener’s Strike Back.” Her response was, “There are a lot of crackpots who don’t understand what we do.” This is too flippant a response for a movement seeking to be taken seriously.
How is Guerrero’s reaction helping to foster the movement? This rhetoric only gives the crackpots [sic] one more reason to rise up and challenge school gardens. How can we take Flanagan’s article and make something positive out of it? This is a question we should be addressing.
School gardens have been established in people of color and low income communities and in middle-to-upper-class predominantly white communities. In these contrasting environments, students are facing different issues and these gardens can respond to the specific place-based needs of each place.
Flanagan claims that education with textbooks and standardized testing is helping kids to, “attain … cultural achievements … that have lifted uncounted generations of human beings out of the desperate daily scrabble to wrest sustenance from dirt.” First of all, to discredit the essential human profession of growing our food as a “daily scrabble to wrest sustenance” is insulting to a number of people and cultures; especially to many of the immigrant families with histories of family farming that she is so valiantly trying to defend.
Flanagan’s statement is, unfortunately, a reflection of how many people view farm work in our society. Our country has a collective memory of farm work as slave work. It is misconstrued as a job that requires very little skill or education. If our country had a deeper collective memory it would know that, historically, the cultivation of our food is an honorable and essential profession that ought to be highly regarded. The knowledge of indigenous cultural methods, sustainable practices, and organic farming are seeing a revival in new forms like the Permaculture concept, going off-the-grid, small family organic farms, and urban farms; all of these are gaining popularity.
Recognizing the deep roots of these movements in indigenous methods and practices can teach our country’s children a deeper history. Learning about native cultures from American soil and the rest of the world begins with the cultivation of food. This could demonstrate intercultural recognition and the value of social equality can be promoted through something as simple as a school garden.
Beyond cultivating traditions, the botany and agroecology of the food crops and their origins can instill in children a respect for diverse cultural heritages. In turn, this could rework the condescending view towards those who work with the land. In any given predominantly white community, with very little racial diversity, children can be at risk of internalizing the values of white supremacy, lacking an understanding of the rich diversity that lives beyond their neighborhoods or county lines. All youth are at risk of not knowing where their food comes from and this only furthers the current disconnect people have in relation to the cultivation and consumption of food. Changing our food system rests in the hands of current and future generations and the decisions they make about what they value. If we can internalize values of respect for the land, each other, and the people who grow food, how could we not seize that opportunity?
You cannot continue to allow your appreciation of the earth to be handicapped or imprisoned by the memory of how you were treated because this will continue to give birth to generations that have disdain for the earth. – Reverend Robert Jeffrey
In racially diverse or low-income communities there can be an even deeper connection between the cultivation of food and the ability for all children to connect with their personal cultural heritage. Immigrants often cannot educate their own children on native farming practices. The capitalist economy places overwhelming pressure on the working class so they may not feel they are of value anymore. Is this not a threat to preserving our cultural diversity and diverse national history while restoring our capacity for economic solidarity and autonomy?
A common and unfortunate view is that farm work is slave work and is oppressive. School gardens, as I have discussed, can help us move away from this mindset. In Seattle an organization called “Clean Greens Farm” is addressing this issue. Clean Greens is an organization started by three predominantly African American churches in the Central District. They partnered with local farmers on a piece of land in Duvall, northeast of Seattle. Reverend Robert Jeffrey, who was one of the organizers of this project, has an inspiring and insightful set of messages in a short film about Clean Greens.
Rev. Jeffrey says that prior to his experience with the Clean Greens project, “his sense of community was very racially driven, it was about helping African American people.” He admits that “it was very contextual, very narrow; this experience has opened my eyes to the universality of benevolence and how much people care.” The Reverend sees Clean Greens as more than just a farming project. He believes that “Finding common ground, in things that we can do together [is] a historical problem in our community. A large part of the people have [sic] a collective memory of their ancestors in the south, and the horrors that they faced. Unfortunately that memory is tied to the land.” He goes on to share his views that, “you cannot continue to allow your appreciation of the earth to be handicapped or imprisoned by the memory of how you were treated because this will continue to give birth to generations that have disdain for the earth.” He challenges the inner city African American community to address this psychological mindset, because the earth is not the enemy, it is the answer.
Can this common ground of coming to the land to cultivate food break down our racially and socially segregated society? It has already started to do so in small but significant ways. This will only spread and is part of the birth of a major social movement unfolding right before our eyes.
There will always be critics. But it is how those critiques are handled and received that will keep us from finding yet another thing to disagree upon and another reason for our society to justify continued segregation and social class inequalities. This view was not likely the intent of Flanagan’s article but in the end it does display a perversion of values in American culture. Addressing these values of farm work, racial equality, and collective memory are essential to moving forward with school gardens as a united whole, as a human race.
Additional Online Resources:
The authors are all students in Devon G. Peña’s winter quarter course at the University of Washington, “Food Sovereignty.” Sabine Parrish wrote Part 1; Tessa James wrote Part 2; and Kalyn Marab wrote Part 3. This essay originally appeared on the Environmental & Food Justice blog, and is reprinted here by permission.