The school gardener strikes back

Caitlin Flanagan is throwing bombs at garden-based education. To this teacher, they're all duds

Published January 15, 2010 6:01PM (EST)

A student in Novoselick's school garden
A student in Novoselick's school garden

Last month, Alissa Novoselick wrote a wonderful story for Salon about starting a school garden in rural Camp Verde, Ariz. So when Caitlin Flanagan wrote her sneering attack on Alice Waters, the Edible Schoolyard, and school gardening in general, Alissa chose to respond. Also read Andrew Leonard's response here.

When I read Caitlin Flanagan's "Cultivating Failure" in the Atlantic, my heart broke. Then, like most grievers do, I got angry. Throughout her drawn-out, misinformed piece, Flanagan says that school gardens destroy standardized test scores, promote apathy for education, and are ...  racist? Please. Flanagan slashes at the tenets of strong educational tactics and makes me wonder if her "I-live-right-by-Compton credentials" (yeah, us white people all know someone from the hood somewhere) really have any validity at all. School gardens do exactly the opposite of what she states: They create excitement, create learning opportunities, and create a sense of community in classrooms where that is hardly ever seen.

Flanagan writes that gardening, of all things, is robbing our students of "reading important books or learning higher math … that have lifted uncounted generations of human beings out of the desperate daily scrabble to wrest sustenance from the dirt." Not underpaid teachers, or lack of technology, or homeless students, or incompetent instruction? Funny, she doesn't seem to think any of those very real factors are very important, but says that gardens distract from "true" learning -- "leaving the Emerson and Euclid to the professionals over at the schoolhouse." She then dismisses the education that happens around gardening: "Students’ grades quickly improved ... which makes sense given that a recipe is much easier to write than a coherent paragraph on The Crucible."


In the garden I started last year with my 6th grade students, Emerson and his good buddy Thoreau tagged along wherever we went. You see, good educators don't leave the gurus behind when creating something exciting for the students; they include them. As the superintendent of my Camp Verde Unified School District, Dan Brown, told me this morning, "The best teachers use Bloom's Taxonomy through project-based curriculum. That forces students to create something of their own."

The application of the real world is the most powerful tool in our educator toolbox, and what better way to understand a philosophy about cultivating land than to do it? As we read pages of "Walden" and planted our seeds, quotes from Thoreau such as "I chose to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived," carried much more weight with action. And guess what? We even wrote paragraphs about it.

Gardening can be included as the best pedagogy. I fostered great relationships with students based on active learning and parental involvement, and they raised their writing scores on the standardized AIMS (Arizona Instrument for Measuring Standards). We went from 64 percent meeting the requirement to 85 percent meeting the requirement ... while we were "wasting our time" in the garden.

Flanagan never asked a student.

She never quoted a teacher.

Her quotes come from charter school administrators who have had extremely good luck with traditional English/math curricula. But she certainly does not know what my world is like in rural Camp Verde, Ariz., where this sort of education would be inappropriate and dull.

So when Flanagan argues that it is much more important to get a kid to read Shakespeare than play in the dirt, I say ... why not do it at the same time? And why not include the student's parents and community members who have many different ethnicities to help us learn about each other?

She says because it's racist: "Does the immigrant farm worker dream that his child will learn to enjoy manual labor, or that his child will be freed from it? What is the goal of an education, of what we once called 'book learning'?"

When your elementary-school child is forced to pick up his or her toys after recess, you are going to claim that because your child is a "privileged American" he or she should not be taught the values of simple tidiness? When your child has the opportunity to attend a field trip to the zoo to see the lions after studying the climate and culture of Africa you are going to say, "You're not going. Read another book"? And frankly, what about the farmers who enjoy their life as it is and truly do not need to know the entirety of "Hamlet" to have a good life and make a good living? She dismisses physical work, under the guise of respecting students' upward mobility, but it also hints darkly at her views of the people in those fields.

In my garden, I saw the Hispanic immigrant farmer teach the children (black, white, Hispanic, and Native American) about the tactics he used on the farm. I watched his daughter's eyes light up with admiration for the man that tucks her into bed each night. Students taught one another the medicinal properties of Native American plants. I'd say this cultivated not only math, science and historical and literary awareness, but cultivated community -- something which needs to be fostered above all of the disciplines. Students did not think of themselves as the "new child farm laborers," as Flanagan suggests, but begged to take part in the gardening, to touch the dirt, to help things grow.

"Some educational decisions must be explicitly hands-on," science teacher Matt Malloy told me. "Real-world application is where learning is synthesized and it's unfortunate that professors who do not know what the real (educational) world is like are writing curriculum and making grand assumptions." This assumption -- that a garden can cultivate failure -- is an idea that needs to be squashed.

I was so angry after reading "Cultivating Failure," that I assigned my 11th grade students a writing exercise on this question: "Is interactive learning important? Why or why not?" After 10 minutes of frantic scribbling, I heard about the necessity of things like our school garden in my students' own voices.

"The balance of all disciplines," Michael wrote, "is essential to gain knowledge. I learn just as much working in Auto-Mechanics as I do in Pre-Calculus. I want to do a hands-on job so it is more meaningful to me." So when Flanagan asks facetiously, "why not make them build the buses that will take them to and from school?" Ha. They want to. 

By Alissa Novoselick

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