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The Atlantic Slams School Gardens

by: Jill Richardson

Mon Jan 11, 2010 at 18:49:21 PM PST


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I am baffled by the utter stupidity of this snotty Atlantic article criticizing school gardens and Alice Waters' Edible Schoolyard specifically. They begin by painting a picture of a migrant laborer coming to the U.S. to give their child a better life, enrolling them in a wonderful American school, only to have the kid waste his or her school day picking vegetables. They go on to say:

The cruel trick has been pulled on this benighted child by an agglomeration of foodies and educational reformers who are propelled by a vacuous if well-meaning ideology that is responsible for robbing an increasing number of American schoolchildren of hours they might other wise have spent reading important books or learning higher math (attaining the cultural achievements, in other words, that have lifted uncounted generations of human beings out of the desperate daily scrabble to wrest sustenance from dirt).

I'm sorry but you cannot get it any more wrong than that. I've been gardening with my boyfriend's kids for a few months now and the amount of science (not to mention language, history, and math) they have learned from our adventures in the garden is unbelievable. The potential for future learning is even more incredible.  

Jill Richardson :: The Atlantic Slams School Gardens
Here's just a little taste of what the kids and I have discussed:

  • The nitrogen cycle: We talked about how plants all need nitrogen, and the air is full of nitrogen, but most plants cannot use the nitrogen in the air. However, there are some special plants that CAN put it into the soil (beans, clovers, peas), so we plant those. We also rotate our crops so that our nitrogen-fixing plants put nitrogen in the soil all over the yard. We haven't discussed the role microorganisms play in this yet, but we'll get there. I'd like to talk about the role our compost plays in providing nitrogen to our plants.

  • Taxonomy: We've got a worm bin, so that was a good time to explain to our older daughter the big difference between people and worms. We have a backbone and they do not. We talked about how these are the two major groupings of animals, and how vertebrates include mammals, fish, reptiles, amphibians, and birds. We've also looked at fungi in our worm bin, and I explained that fungi are not plants OR animals - they are their own thing.

    On a more specific level, we look at how certain plants are related and then we plant them together. We have one patch for cruciferous veggies, and another one for garlic and onions, and a third for squash. At some point we'll plant squash and melon together and then talk about how they are all related. I'm also waiting to pick a rosehip from our rose bush to show her that they look similar to apples because they are related.

  • Reproduction: This is a major concept for our little one, who is just now understanding that plants grow from seeds and plants make seeds. Our older daughter is more advanced, so we looked at all of the various stages of fruit formation on our lemon tree, watching the flowers form and then turn into fruit. We also looked at worm eggs and talked about how each worm is both boy and girl. Neither kid is hip to how humans reproduce yet, so there's a limit on what we can discuss, but I definitely try to point out what I can to them when we notice things in our garden. I'd really like to tell our older daughter how bees and fungi (mushrooms specifically) reproduce. I think bees in particular are fascinating. And we might get a fig tree, which brings in the wonderful story of the fig wasp.

  • The Food Web: This is kind of a big one for our youngest daughter. I explained to her that spiders eat bugs, and our cats can eat spiders. If we get chickens, the chickens will eat bugs and worms and spiders too. I want to teach her the song "There was an old lady who swallowed a fly" to drive this concept home. We also talk about how we grow food in the garden so we can pick it and eat it. For our older daughter, I want to explain more about soil organisms at some point.

  • The Energy Cycle & Photosynthesis: A very related concept is how all energy comes from the sun. With the little one, we discuss how plants drink water and eat sunshine. I tried to explain how plants breathe in CO2 and use that and sunshine to make food and then exhale oxygen (which we breathe). Then, of course, we eat plants (or animals that ate plants, or animals that ate animals that ate plants). And everything decomposes because our worms and bacteria and fungi eat it. Then we put the compost in the garden to make more plants for us to eat!

  • Fermentation: We've made yogurt already and we're going to make sauerkraut. When we do this, we talk about how there are organisms who are doing the work for us to make our food.

  • History: When we were weeding the garden the other day we talked about how hard it was and discussed how for most of history, people had to do this or else they couldn't eat. They didn't have a store to go to. I also want to talk about how lucky we are that we have water available for our plants because for much of history, if it didn't rain then people didn't have water.

  • Math: We're now maintaining two graphs. One shows how many days it takes each plant to germinate. The other one shows the growth of our pea plants. I've put lines on the graph showing the height of each family member, so we can see how the pea plants' height compares to ours. Additionally, I have her measure things and do simple calculations (how many 1/4 cups of flour do you need to make 1 cup?) when we cook.

  • Language: Both kids are learning tons of new terminology related to gardening. Additionally, our older daughter is helping me maintain a notebook where we write down everything that happens in our garden. That gives her practice writing (and using and spelling her new vocabulary words). I'd like to have her write up a blog post about her worm bin too. She's also got a standing weekly school assignment to write a story that is at least 5 sentences long, so I am going to have her write about the garden for that. I also have her read things like recipes when we cook.

These are all things I remember learning in school, but you almost need to see them to really understand them. And it's much more fun to do your learning in a hands-on way than at a desk.

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Caitlin Flanagan (4.00 / 4)
I think I've diagnosed Flanagan's main problem. Her shoes probably are about two sizes two small. That would make anyone cranky.

shoes or heart (4.00 / 4)
like the Grinch?

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
she is horrible (4.00 / 5)
Everything I've read by her in the past six years has been terrible. Why she still gets to write features for major magazines I'll never understand.

[ Parent ]
I haven't read anything (4.00 / 4)
by her that I know of. But a friend added to me that he felt this piece was rather racist with its imagery of a Mexican farm worker.  

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
Consider the magazine (4.00 / 4)
The Atlantic has been leaning, and sometimes just completely falling, rightward for years. This is the magazine that publishes Andrew Sullivan and has given over way too many copy inches to the likes of David Brooks and P.J. O'Rourke.

It is not surprising, unfortunate, but not surprising that they would take a swing at school gardens. I mean, kids cooperating for the common good?To say nothing of teaching our innocent children that giant corporations are not the source of all that is good and right in the world. Isn't that a precursor to socialism? or communism? or one of those?

And Flanagan, wow, she is just terrible.


[ Parent ]
obviously (4.00 / 5)
Kids derive huge benefits from working in gardens and being exposed to gardens. That's so clear from the research and anyone who's spent time with a child in a garden.

Heh, I grew tomato plants (4.00 / 5)
in water in my science class and studied nutrients etc {grin}

Yup, those stinkin' gardens are going to ruin the next generation. How can they even publish that crap? Great break out you did there :)


Jill, I didn't want to get into this (4.00 / 4)
at Orange (great job provoking an excellent discussion there, btw) but really:

You want a few herbs?  Except for rosemary, don't buy starts unless you have to.  If you have a friend who has a plant you want (thyme, oregano, basil, etc.) just take a few tip cuttings, stick them in moist (not wet) potting soil, cover the whole thing with an open baggie (to retain humidity) and let 'em root.  About once a week, you will need to add moisture to the soil, and they should be placed in a sunny window, but other than that, it's pretty easy.  Hell, where you live, you can probably root them directly in your garden: but that's an iffier proposition than starting them inside.

I used to cut holes in the bottom of Dannon yogurt containers to do this: but the plants I was rooting were larger.  For something tiny like thyme, I'd use a much smaller container, or even buy a small rooting tray from your greenhouse guy.

Rosemary is its own difficulty.  It doesn't root easily & tends to get leaf rot if there's too much humidity: let the professionals do it & buy the start (also for lavender, which is even worse than rosemary).  But almost all other herbs are easy to propagate at home.  And I bet the girls would love it!

The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for thirty years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found. -- Calvin Trillin


oh wow (4.00 / 3)
that's amazing. who knew?

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
Youffraita knew! nt (4.00 / 2)


[ Parent ]
I have to wonder... (4.00 / 3)
...what kind of background Ms. Flanagan comes from?  Her patronizing account of "traveling to Compton" (she lives "just" 20 miles from there!  Whoop de fucking do, she's a certified expert on poverty in America!), provides a major clue.  Ah, but like others of her ilk, she probably believes she's totally and completely "self-made".

Her elitism shines through quite clear, in so many ways -

Why not make them build the buses that will take them to and from school, or rotate in shifts through the boiler room?

Oh, so people who work with their hands are uneducated goons wasting their lives?  The people who build her vehicles (limousines?) have obviously done quite a good job, since she's still around to this very day and able to puke her nonsense onto the pages of national magazines.  Why doesn't Ms. Flanagan try to take a job at an airplane painting contractor tomorrow, or become a pipefitter?  Let's see how "brilliant" she actually is.  My hunch is that she couldn't tell a phillips head from Phyllis Diller's hairdo, though.

She's made it clear throughout the article that she's a charter school hack.  I could get started on those fucking things, but then I'd never finish typing this comment...

I can't believe I read the whole article.  I believe I've had my daily recommended Arrogance and Stupid Doses for the next three weeks, in just one sitting by reading Caitlin Flanagan.  Maybe she can market a vitamin along those lines?


Arrogance, pure and simple (4.00 / 4)
I agree with Jay in that so many people think that working with your brain is better than working with your hands.

The truth is that neither is better, they're just different and there is value in both. Where would Caitlin be if not for all the people around her who work with their hands?

It's a shame that twaddle like this gets published, but it's a free world....

Normal people scare me. But not as much as I scare them.....


Fantastic reply... (4.00 / 3)
...from John Lippmann on the Comfood list, specifically stating many of the points I would have made about inner city schools if only I had the patience.  Especially considering that Ms. Flanagan betrays the fact that she obviously has zero actual experience with same.

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