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Growing Minds

A middle school in Belfast uses its garden to teach a lot more than agriculture.

By Kathleen Fleury

At 9:30 in the morning, the kids in Steve Tanguay’s seventh grade history, economics, and agriculture classroom at the Troy A. Howard Middle School in Belfast can’t contain their enthusiasm. Hands are flying up, and eager voices are rising. “I’m the stand manager.” “I’m the seed manager.” “I’m the manure guy.” “I’m the worm girl.”

One by one, the students declare their responsibilities with a tone more befitting a proud parent than the typically reticent adolescents that they are.
Then, in the middle of the period, Tanguay instructs the class to head outside to their real classroom. Happily the kids saunter out under the overcast May sky and get to work.

There are no walls, desks, or chairs in sight. Instead, this other classroom consists of a greenhouse, two wire hoop houses, a vegetable stand, and a half-acre of farm land — all planted by the kids themselves. There are no textbooks, no calculators, no multiple-choice questions. Rather there is swiss chard to be cut, rows to be weeded, and delivery orders to be weighed and tabulated (by hand, of course).

Welcome to the Garden Project — a hands-on, integrated learning program that has blossomed since it began eight years ago. In 2001 a former agricultural coordinator for MSAD 34 named Don White — who had previously started a successful small garden at the Edna Drinkwater School in nearby Northport — developed a comprehensive garden program at the district’s middle school. Tanguay, who has the aura of an ageless Boy Scout, helped White come up with a completely integrated curriculum that serves as the educational basis for half of Troy Howard’s seventh-grade students.

Ninety kids participate in a garden boot camp in the fall, after which they interview for individual positions — complete with detailed job descriptions. Each student is then assigned a particular role for the rest of the year. The garden and its maintenance provide the raw materials for almost all of the students’ “traditional” academic study, from math and history to health and language arts. In lieu of textbooks and worksheets, the teaching is done mainly through projects such as creating a business plan for a pizza company or selling heirloom seeds online or researching the agricultural history of their home towns. On the side, the kids are also responsible for leading tours, presentations, and lessons for visiting students. Last spring alone, more than seven hundred Maine students came to Troy Howard to learn about the garden project — a statistic Tanguay hopes will cultivate interest in school gardens across the state.

“It’s beyond hands on,” insists Tanguay, who envisions a school-wide environmental studies program incorporating the garden in the future. “We need a new term. People think that we’re just playing in the dirt. But [in the garden] the kids’ higher-order thinking skills are so much more challenged.” The students respond to the challenges by excelling — and behaving. “It’s their project, and their garden,” explains Tanguay. “Every action has a consequence, and you can’t hide from it. We’ve never had a major discipline issue in eight years.”

Avary Lamont, a former student of Tanguay’s who is still actively involved in the garden, describes her experience with enthusiasm. “I really liked it in the middle of the year, when you know your stuff,” she says. “I did some of the financial work, I helped with composting, and I did photography. I kind of did everything.”

Experiential learning is the goal of this award-winning program. “If you integrate something from real life with learning, the kids will be engaged,” explains White’s successor, current agricultural coordinator Jon Thurston. A tall, gray-bearded man who has been teaching for more than twenty years, Thurston exudes the same childlike enthusiasm for the garden as his students. “How do you learn to cook?” he questions, “From a book? No way!”

A waft of soft garlic billows out the door of a classroom outfitted with a small kitchen. Inside, a group of about twelve children, ages ten to fourteen, are gathered, their hands covered in flour. They are making pizzas with toppings they picked themselves: garlic scapes, basil, and tomatoes (from the patch of more than eighty varieties just outside the door).

Emma Sturdevant, eleven, makes a calzone with tomato, basil, garlic, and cheese. She says she started liking tomatoes when she was nine. “I like to eat them like apples,” she announces.

These children are gathered for a summer camp run by Tanguay and Thurston to maintain the expanding garden. More than one hundred vegetable varieties are now grown on the property. This fall nearly three tons of food were harvested, with a substantial amount going directly to the school lunch program. That relationship helps the garden be financially self-sufficient, except for personnel costs. Part of the program’s revenue is also generated by selling vegetables and flowers at their on-site farm stand and to the Belfast Co-op.

“Their vegetables are great,” says Chris Grigsby, the produce buyer at the co-op. “They bring the stuff in and we sell out of it in a matter of hours. People in the community come in specifically on the delivery days just looking for their products.”

In the garden, the students learn first-hand the value and rewards of hard work and responsibility. They also learn how to grow, harvest, and cook food — no small feat in this era of fast food and frozen convenience. “I had children say they had never eaten a tomato or carrot,” recalls program founder White. “They had no clue how you produce those things. That’s part of our history that is lost. Now the kids get to see that.” The experience can be even more basic for some. “We had kids who would come to school with no breakfast, no food, no nothing,” says White. “I would always send them home with food.I’d just put it in their backpacks.” From the emotion in White’s voice it is obvious that the students aren’t the only ones who have been inspired by the garden. “We’re meeting some of their basic needs,” continues White, “and they are being introduced to vegetables and crops and flowers and having some beauty in their lives.”

To buy seeds and view more images and videos of the Belfast students, click here.