In school gardens, lessons are ripe for learning

Local nonprofit Living Classroom brings the outdoor world to students

"Our babies are turning gold!" a second-grader at Landels Elementary School in Mountain View exclaimed as he ran his hand through a planter box full of towering wheat stalks, some turning golden, some still green.

He and about six other very excited second-graders proceeded to use classroom scissors to "harvest" the wheat, cutting off stalks to take home. As they milled around an edible garden just steps from their classroom, they learned more about how the wheat stalks transform from the seeds students planted months before into food they eat every day (and specifically, pretzels they would be making during the next lesson).

The students were participating in a lesson created by Living Classroom, an 8-year-old nonprofit that aims to bring students closer to the natural world through the building and maintaining of school gardens and through curriculum on everything from the life cycle of a plant to the genetics of heirloom tomatoes. Living Classroom will be officially launching in the Palo Alto Unified School District this fall with pilot programs for kindergarteners through third-graders at five elementary schools: Fairmeadow, El Carmelo, Barron Park, Duveneck and Walter Hays.

"The whole premise behind Living Classroom is we're trying to inspire children to love and understand the natural world through garden-based education," founder Vicki Moore said. "So obviously everything we do relates to living things and the real world."

Living Classroom helps participating schools build out their own gardens with a focus on edible and native plants. A new garden built this year at Fairmeadow, for example, is now home to several vegetable beds (peppers, tomatoes, kale, cucumbers, eggplant, sweet peas and more are starting to sprout up). An area next to the beds is dedicated to a micro-version of California's native-plant communities: a woodlands area shaded by several large redwood trees that were already there and a grasslands environment full of drought-resistant succulents soaking up the spring sun. The vegetables also feed off some of the flowering natives, which attract bees and, thus, pollination. The 4,000-square-foot area (which had previously been covered in water-wasting grass and was transformed into a garden through a city water rebate) is ripe for learning.

Fairmeadow's second-graders next year, for example, might get a three-part lesson on heirloom tomatoes, from seed to mouth.

"It's a life-cycle lesson, it's a nutrition lesson, it's a genetics lesson and it's a lesson on fungus and decomposition all in one," Moore said. The students will harvest ripe tomatoes, taste them, learn how to save the seeds from the tomato pulp by allowing fungus to come and decompose the area around the seed and then will plant said seeds in the spring. (An added bonus: They might learn to actually like the taste of tomatoes, Moore said.)

The Landels Elementary students harvesting wheat were in the second part of a Living Classroom lesson titled "Seed to pretzel," similarly learning about the life cycle of wheat and its nutritional value. Students also ground wheat seeds with a mortar and pestle and learned how to "thresh" the wheat, separating the wheat from the chaff, the casings surrounding the seeds.

All the lessons are taught by trained Living Classroom volunteers, who are often parents. Teachers are required to be present but aren't leading the lesson.

Living Classroom doesn't necessarily cover topics that students wouldn't learn within the four walls of a classroom, but getting to do it in the real world on a regular basis -- rather than through textbooks -- on iPads or during infrequent field trips, makes a huge difference, Moore said.

The nonprofit is also equipped with the structure, resources and dedication necessary to maintain a school garden.

"(Schools) have a transient population, both students, parents and, many times, teachers and principals. They come and they go," Moore said. "That is the No. 1 downfall of any garden program -- they don't have the continuity of program, funding and staffing. That's what we're providing."

Moore founded Living Classroom in 2008, wanting to accomplish four main goals: Grow the next generation of environmental stewards, connect children to the sources of their food, boost STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education and provide access to gardens to those who wouldn't otherwise get it. She launched in the Los Altos School District with five schools (also kindergarten through third grade) and has since expanded to 16 schools in both Los Altos and the Mountain View Whisman School District. The growing organization serves 5,000 students through 32 edible and native-habitat school gardens, more than 60 Common Core State Standard-aligned lessons and 3,200 total volunteer hours.

After seeing how the pilot programs go in Palo Alto, Moore hopes to launch in two additional elementary schools that she said were very interested in the program, provided there's enough funding. (Further in the future would be an expansion into middle schools, if the sites express interest, Moore said.) The pilot programs in Palo Alto are funded primarily through a $35,000 grant from fundraising group Palo Alto Partners in Education (PiE) and the rest with funds committed by the individual school sites.

The program can also be tailored to each school. For a school like Ohlone that already has a robust school garden (dubbed the "Ohlone Farm"), Living Classroom might help make upgrades like adding more native-plant species representative of the local climate. Others might want to create a lunchtime garden club for students and staff or run a small farmers market with leftover produce. Fairmeadow parent Beth Morris said there are also numerous unintended benefits, like providing the space for students with different kinds of learning styles or showing parents that a drought-friendly garden can, actually, be beautiful.

Back at Landels one sunny April afternoon, parent volunteer Karen Garth pointed out lavender and rosemary plants, California poppies and a rollie pollie as students snacked on fresh celery, observing attentively. They waved their wheat stalks proudly, clearly excited to be so knowledgeable about the source of the pretzels they would bake and eat in the next few weeks.

"We're going through the entire life cycle of the plant, which you can't do on a field trip," Moore said. "But if you bring nature to the schoolyard, you can see the whole thing because it's right here."

Palo Alto parents who want to get involved in the program can email Moore at

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1 person likes this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 15, 2015 at 7:56 am

I hope that as schools finish at the end of May, the students will still be allowed, encouraged and desire, to be able to come and reap their harvests.

I remember many elementary gardens just left by the wayside all summer and on return to school in fall the neglected gardens with their spoiled produce rotting in the planters, were one of the first things that volunteer parents were asked to clear so that the new batch of kindergartners had fresh places to start planting. School gardens are not always a good idea as the kids never get to see the full extent of their labor due to summer break.

1 person likes this
Posted by Ohlone Parent
a resident of Midtown
on May 17, 2015 at 10:02 am

Ohlone Elementary School has been teaching with their outdoor learning center for years. It is an excellent example of how kids can benefit with an integrated curriculum with hands on experience vs. reading in a book.

This is great to see this type of program come to other schools in PAUSD.

1 person likes this
Posted by former Sunnyvale parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 17, 2015 at 12:12 pm

I was a parent at a Sunnyvale elementary school years ago - they had an extensive school gardening program and I was a volunteer. There are a lot of resources/ideas easily to be found in case anyone wants to install more programs like this. I never heard of crops going to waste. There was more of an emphasis on learning about and growing native California plants - quite interesting. It was focused on first grade there.

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