Core Principles Series: Build a Diverse Community

Co-written by Christie Wolf, Life Science Teacher at New Technology High School & Sarah Brown, Art Teacher at New Tech HS

Sometimes science can feel like a gated French garden: carefully pruned and tended, elite, and accessible only to a privileged few. The school garden provides a welcoming and forgiving context to disrupt this notion, and to open the gates to everyone. 

Students Maya and Case place a stepping stone in the school garden in partnership with Teens Connect Napa. Photo credit: TeensConnect Napa

Nathan Larson, author of Teaching in Nature’s Classroom: Core Principles of Garden-Based Education, states that “Educational gardens are exceptional environments to support diverse learning communities. They are magnetic, inclusive places that encourage mentorship, volunteerism, and community gatherings.” Winding trails, stems dripping down the sides of sturdy planters, insects hovering and whizzing, the dance of foliage with seasonal flows. The space is a welcoming patchwork of past, present and future. Alive and ripe with conversation starters.

So, come on over to our school garden for a moment! This is a garden where custodian Rosana gifted seeds for the students to grow, and Lourdes holds the keys to overcoming site challenges. This is a garden where compost is made in a partnership between students and worms, and accepted as an annual gift from Tim and Kendra at Napa Recycling. A garden with an original mosaic stepping stone placed by students Maya and Case – “Te Acepto / Accept You”.

This is a garden where native plants have been re-established with help from Henni at the Native Plant Society. A garden framed with bold student murals, and future murals coming to life. A garden framed with bold student murals (below), and future murals coming to life.

This is a garden where retired teacher Louann led a pruning workshop. A garden where a greenhouse stands tall and gorgeous, inspired by student design, constructed with donated art glass from artist Gordon and painted lavender by students. 

Students paint the greenhouse a color of their choosing after school.
A team of volunteer teachers, their families, and Eric and Danielle from the Napa Resource Conservation District help repair the greenhouse roof. 

This is a garden where Cooper, Itzel, Angel, Veronica and many more students lead a garden club alongside their art and science teachers. Sometimes Sarah’s Mom joins and shares her deep knowledge of growing things. A garden where The School Garden Doctor Carrie inspired elementary girls to be fearless and unapologetically inquisitive through the elementary STEM club, Dirt Girls. A garden where a memorial olive tree grows, planted by students in honor of Mr.Serene, a teacher we lost too soon to cancer. 

Students and staff plant an olive tree to remember teacher Tom Serene in our school garden.

This is our school garden, alive and ripe with people. Below we will share some of the mind frames that build diversity in our garden community:

1. Come As You Are

The school garden is a place for everyone, as they are. We like to wear our fancy teacher shoes and slacks or skirts, flip flops and jeans and a hoodie – whatever we are wearing for school – in the garden. Drying hands on pants “Trees die or pants dry”. We like to invite others to come as they are to the garden, any time. The garden is a place where we are all welcome, as we are.

A garden club member is waiting for club members to arrive during the school day.

2. Be Curious

In the garden students pose questions with ease. There are diverse questions and diverse strategies for seeking answers. A student who has set out to conduct research on biodiversity in our community asks “How can we measure biodiversity?” The Smithsonian Institute recommends building “Biocubes”. Students build and strategically place Biocubes for study. 

Smithsonian Institute inspired Biocube to measure biodiversity and a Biopyramid (Eli’s invention).

Controlled experiments with seedlings in the lab are measured and then set free in the garden. We test soil, water, and air. The connection between the classroom and the garden becomes comfortable and easy. A student asks “Why are the ants so attracted to the corn’s stem?” Great question! Let’s explore this together. What do you observe? What do you know? What do we need to find out more about? 

”Is that a pumpkin?” The Fuyu persimmon tree sparks questions about whether pumpkins normally grow on the ground or in trees.
Art teacher Sarah turns the pumpkin every so often in passing to prevent flat sides.

3. Actively Seek Diversity

Biodiversity plays a role in stabilizing ecosystem function, in particular in a changing climate (Nature). When students ask if they can plant something, the answer is “Yes, of course you can!…and is there anything else that we should consider?” We talk through where tree roots may wander under concrete or around hidden pipes in decades to come. What the plants are going to need to survive the next season. They share their own goals for this space – “We need more flowers”, “I just want to grow something”, “I want strawberries”, “these remind me of my old house.” The garden reflects the diversity of the individual students planning, planting and tending the garden.

Seeking diversity in a school garden setting is as much about seeking diverse ideas and partnerships as it is about seeking diverse plants and animals. Branch out into the community and actively involve others. Be open and actively invite people into this imperfect, incomplete space. Don’t wait until the garden is “done” to seek diverse partners.

4. Cherish Surprises

There’s no gate around the school garden so students cut through the garden as they rush to class, only to have a lizard sprint under their feet, a bluebird chirp at eyeline, or the heavy aroma of sage engulf them. Rosana saves cilantro seed heads for our students. Sometimes unanticipated plants pop up in the garden – cucumbers in winter or succulents in the tomato bed. “Who planted those?!?” No one knows, but someone knows. We share this space, and it is accessible to everyone.

“When stewarded properly, a school garden can take on the feel of a thriving outdoor community center— a diverse human community of all ages and backgrounds commingling amidst the flowers and vegetables sharing stories, tips, and food.”

Teaching in Nature’s Classroom

So, if you’re ever in downtown Napa, stop by! Come as you are, be curious, seek diversity, and cherish surprises with us in this space.

Students observe and sketch animals in the garden. They tally behavioral categories they observe for further analysis.

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