Edible Schoolyard Berkeley: Garden Teaching Techniques

In a recent visit to the Edible Schoolyard Berkeley, I couldn’t help but focusing in on these interesting little creatures we call middle school students but the teachers captured much of my attention as well. They had some incredible teaching techniques that were embedded into their every word and every step that undoubtedly set the tone and expectation for the class.

Communication (and the Power of the Circle)

I first noticed that as soon as the students arrived, every teacher was standing at the entrance greeting every student as they walked in – making eye contact, greeting them by name when possible, giving high fives, ensuring that every student was acknowledged and the center of the teacher’s world from the moment they walked in.

When they walked in, they came into a circle – to sit on hay bales under the rotunda to be exact. This again served to ensure that every single student could be seen and heard at any given time. The attention was equally on the teachers (that were also a part of the circle) as much as on the students. The circle served to bring the energy to a common level and to communicate information to the whole group before splitting off into smaller groups to work throughout the garden.
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The circle was also revisited later in a small group when the instructor asked the students to stand Toe-to-Toe to debrief a lab activity they had just completed. Again, every student had an equal opportunity to take in the information the teacher was sharing and to contribute their experience and questions as well.

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Expectations and Consequences

In the rotunda the expectations were clearly (and beautifully) displayed – I think that beautiful part goes a long way. I liked that they started with values – open mindedness, teamwork, and collaboration. Then they continued into four simple expectations: be safe, be respectful, be responsible, be an ally. With only four, I can imagine that students could articulate these at any given time (essential to students meeting the expectations, it would be assumed). The poster also gave examples of exactly what it looks like to be safe, be respectful, and be responsible – it took simple but potentially abstract concepts and turned them into actions that students could understand and extend upon.

Throughout my time with the sixth graders in the garden, I did not see the need for any consequences (positive or negative) beyond verbal redirection. It was obvious that students were interested, engaged, and focused on meeting the expectations so that they would have the opportunity to be a part of the activity.

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Materials Management

This was a big one to me. As a teacher, I know that the time preparing for classes can easily be consumed by ensuring the right materials are in the right place… and I know that the time with a class (especially on a garden) can be consumed by ensuring the right materials are being used in the right way. At the Edible Schoolyard, I was so impressed that every tool was accessible at all times and every tool had a place. The students took the initiative to gather their materials for themselves, they knew how to use them appropriately, and when it was time to clean up, they knew exactly where to put them back so they were ready for the next class. Not only did this allow the teacher to spend preparation time actually preparing for instruction and class time being present with the students, but it also gave the students a sense of ownership and pride knowing that their teachers trusted them to do this on their own and keep it organized for the sake of the entire community.

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Engaging Instructional Experiences

The way the class time was organized, every student moved through the garden with a small group of other students and a teacher or two to both get their hands dirty and work in the garden but also to participate in an interactive lab that was setup (some classes also had time to visit the outdoor kitchen to prepare a tasting for the rest of the class – see more about that here). The opportunity to move through all of these activities (and most even had free exploration time at the end) was largely a result of their long class periods and in some ways possible due to their team of three garden teachers along with the students’ core teacher. I do believe, however, that the same sort of rotation would be possible without direct adult supervision in each group and there could be substantial benefits to having students changing tasks (right about the time that their attention spans allow) and engaging in both an instructional activity that works their brain muscles along with a work activity that works the rest of their muscles.

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When students visited the lab area with their small group, the teacher had an interactive simulation of how greenhouses work prepared for them. They labeled the greenhouse as the “Earth” and the garden table (about 20 feet away) as the “Sun”. Some students wore name tags that said “Heat” and modeled how it left the sun traveling (in hilarious hula-dance-like waves) to the Earth then bounced back off and into the atmosphere. Then a few students wore name tags that said “Greenhouse Gases” and created a barrier so the next time the heat traveled to the Earth and bounced off, some of it was trapped by the greenhouse gases. The class stopped to discuss how some greenhouse gases occur naturally and are completely necessary. The last simulation involved many more students labeled as “Greenhouse Gases” with the capability of trapping almost all of the heat waves after they bounced off the Earth.

To extend this activity, students were then paired up for a Walk-n-Talk in which they were asked to talk with their partner about where those additional greenhouse gases came from and what effect they could have on us down here on Earth. That led them straight into the Toe-to-Toe (mentioned above) to conclude the activity and articulate the takeaways.

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If you’d like to learn more about their teaching techniques and see it in action, consider attending their Edible Schoolyard Academy that they host each summer (I’ve been a handful of times and learn more with each visit)! You can see more information here: http://edibleschoolyard.org/academy

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