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REAL School Gardens Allow Hands-on Learning

A kid will crouch in the lush grass, smell the freshly turned soil, watch a lizard scurry by, and write and write. For the first time. Or a kid who didn’t fare well chained to a desk discovers a sudden ability to focus, and to be engaged in learning, all because the classroom is outside in a well-crafted school garden.

One fifth-grader wrote that she “felt like a chicken in a chicken coop” before the garden came to school. But absorbing lessons in science, math and even writing in the outdoors shifted her outlook on everything – especially learning.

The feedback for REAL School Gardens, a Fort Worth-based nonprofit that funds, plants and supports school gardens at high-poverty elementary schools throughout the area, sounds almost too good to be true. But there’s the proof, in raw survey data from teachers who’ve become part of the program: “This is my favorite way to teach, and I can’t wait to start up again!” one teacher wrote in February.

Ellen Robinson trains teachers to use their REAL School Gardens, which vary in design but always include perennials, vegetables, composting and rainwater catchment. The former fourth-grade teacher found that school gardens help instructors teach the way they were taught to teach. “It does for them in a very simple and natural way everything they’re trying to create in the classroom,” she says. “It’s just good teaching – integrated, hands-on, authentic, engaging, real-world, higher-level thinking, asking questions. And all of that stuff happens naturally outside.”

Jeanne McCarty, executive director of REAL School Gardens, says, “When kids learn in hands-on ways and with real things, they really do understand the concepts more, because they’re real. The strength of our program is that it started with the voice of teachers and what they thought they needed.”

REAL School Gardens has grown rapidly since it became a nonprofit in 2007. The organization supports 81 gardens in the Dallas, Fort Worth, Arlington, Grand Prairie and Birdville school districts. RSG built many of these gardens from the ground up, while expanding some existing gardens. Along the way, they’ve continually refined their approach, adapting to teachers’ successes and challenges.

One thing they’ve found is that the more input the school and community have in the earliest stages, the more likely the garden will thrive. Typically, RSG – along with corporate partners – will fund the garden, which costs about $50,000 to design and install and another $25,000 spread over two years for support and teacher training. Schools are asked to raise a much smaller sum annually as their contribution. All of the schools RSG serves are “high-poverty,” meaning at least 70 percent of the students receive reduced or free school lunches.

Students are invited to submit designs for the garden – which are then incorporated into a final design by an RSG garden designer. Then as many as 200 teachers, students, parents and volunteers descend on the bare ground to raise up a garden in a single day.

Each school uses its garden differently, but RSG devises 45-minute lesson plans for teachers using their own curriculum. Robinson travels to school gardens and models the lessons herself, in front of a class. “Science is outside,” she says. “If we want to learn about soil, dig a hole in the ground. See where erosion really exists in their world – so they have context for bigger-concept things, like erosion in the Grand Canyon.”

The garden’s application isn’t limited to science. While watching an anole change from green to brown before your very eyes hits home the concept of camouflage and adaptation to habitat, writing and social studies also come alive outside. Teachers often use the garden for real-world math lessons – such as applying the right amount of organic fertilizer to a certain space. Would that be perimeter or area? How do you calculate the square footage? And how do you convert the inches on your measuring tape to feet?

“Teachers are either disappointed or pleasantly surprised to see what their students do or don’t know in the real world,” Robinson says.

Jolee Healey, principal of Victor H. Hexter Elementary School in Dallas, credits her RSG-supported garden for vaulting her students’ standardized science scores to new levels. “Students love the garden,” she says. “It is a favorite learning place.” Through “highly engaging” garden lessons, she’s seen improvement not only in science scores but in student conduct as well. Simple exercises in measuring rainfall and plant growth and recording daily temperatures have led to “rich discussions” and further projects.

The benefits don’t end there. Okra, peppers, tomatoes, green beans, squash, turnips, potatoes, cabbage and many more edible items are grown in REAL School Gardens, and Healey actually observed students eating more vegetables. Now that is too good to be true.