Core Principles Series: Utilize an Integrated Curriculum

In the spring of 2016, I attended the National Farm-to-Cafeteria Conference in Madison, WI. After attending the 7th biennial event in Austin two years prior, I was eager to reengage with the diverse audience of stakeholders active in food education and local agriculture. While at the conference, I connected with familiar and friendly folks like Nathan Larson, a leader in the Wisconsin School Garden Network and author of Teaching in Nature’s Classroom: Core Principles of Garden-Based Education.

The WI School Garden Network offers copies of Teaching in Nature’s Classroom in both English and Spanish, free of charge! 

This publication was such a refreshing find! I had just recently filed my dissertation, having spent the better part of five years scouring the empirical evidence for school gardens. Unlike the research articles I had been reading, Teaching in Nature’s Classroom was full of everyday stories and colorful illustrations–it was truly meant for a wide readership. I have no doubt it in some way inspired me to start this blog.

Several years later, I find myself no longer directly engaged in a school garden. Although I’m still firmly rooted in the mission of The School Garden Doctor to empower teachers, schools, and community to grow, I no longer get to witness the power of school gardens firsthand. Therefore, I’m reaching back in time to post not-yet-told stories from the last decade.

Throughout 2022, I’ll be sharing Nathan Larson’s 15 principles, using them as an organizing frame for reflecting on the school garden movement in Napa County. Featuring one or two principles each month, I’ll highlight the key pieces of evidence that back it up and ground the principle in local stories of school garden educators. Finally, I’ll link each post to other resources or organizations in the community. I hope you enjoy this yearlong series of evidence-based stories!

January’s Principle: Utilize an Integrated Curriculum

I honestly cannot recall a time when I didn’t teach in an interdisciplinary way. This approach was most powerful when supported by outside organizations. One example is when my third-grade students learned the history of Milwaukee through literacy and art with SHARP Literacy. When I moved to California in 2008, it was my experience with integrated science and literacy instruction that land me a job at the Lawrence Hall of Science developing the Seeds of Science/Roots of Reading curriculum. To our team, science and literacy were not only ‘better together,’ they also led to increased learning.

This is exactly what Nathan Larson cites as evidence: several studies document the relationship between integrated, project-based curriculum that is so accessible in a garden classroom and “substantial and meaningful learning gains” (p. 37) for students. Most notable is that Larson includes research spanning over 100 years. You might not know that school gardens have been around as long!

When I started teaching in a school garden in 2010, I was a little stuck by not having strong curricular tie-ins. Because I wasn’t a classroom teacher at the school, I didn’t have access to the curriculum. Students always enjoyed time in the garden and I’m sure learned some things, but I always felt like my lessons were not as impactful as they could be. Perhaps this is why, I took a position at an environmental science magnet school with a well-developed garden. For six years, I coached teachers how to integrate garden-based lessons into their curriculum. In that time, we aligned more than 25 units to the Next Generation Science Standards while connecting language arts, literacy, science, and food education.

One of my all-time favorite units was about weather and climate for third grade. To build conceptual understanding, students were guided to make observations of a map showing average winter temperatures across the globe. They noticed the pattern that temperatures are warmest closer to the equator. We took this lesson to the kitchen where we conducted a “progressive tasting” of tropical fruit (in contrast to local fruits in season in winter). Finally, we harvested winter greens and root vegetables from the garden, noting that our northern California temperatures are not warm enough to ripen large, juicy tropical fruits like papaya and pineapple. Certainly, this was more memorable than simply tracking daily temperatures in our area.

Slow Food USA (2014)

If you’re looking to integrate gardening and cooking into your existing curriculum, I invite you to contact us! Local retired educator, Louann Talbert, told me recently, “I truly believe every subject can be taught in the garden.” I couldn’t agree more! I’ve even been integrating garden-based education into science methods courses for aspiring since I started teaching them in 2014. Check out the resources below for more ideas about using an integrated curriculum.

A group of preservice educators shares literacy lessons in the UC Davis Children’s Ecological Garden during a science methods course I taught in 2014.

The School Garden Doctor has distributed 25 copies of Teaching in Nature’s Classroom to Napa County educators.

Please reach out to receive your copy today!


Life Lab: Leaders in garden-based learning for more than 40 years!

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