Educators taking classes to the garden plot

Sophie Roth-Gordon, 6, a student at Davis Bilingual Magnet School looks at larvas on plants inside of the school's garden in Tucson, Arizona on Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015. Photographed by Noelle Haro-Gomez
Sophie Roth-Gordon, 6, a student at Davis Bilingual Magnet School looks at larvas on plants inside of the school’s garden in Tucson, Arizona on Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015. Photographed by Noelle Haro-Gomez/Arizona Sonora News Service

First-grader Cooper Goffeney peered through the magnifying glass to scan a tree branch for butterfly larva. His class at Davis Bilingual Magnet School in Tucson that day was learning about insect biology.

“I thought it was pretty cool to see other eggs,” Cooper said in the school garden.

Cooper’s teacher, Julian Barceló, said his students look forward every day to the 30-minute session in the garden. “They stay naive if they stay in the classroom because they do not have the opportunity to explore and observe,” Barceló said.

Teachers throughout Arizona are engaging students through new tools that go beyond the classroom: carrots, fish and dirt.

About 10 percent of Arizona schools have gardens, according to the Arizona Department of Education. Most of the gardens are used to reinforce concepts learned in the classroom, said Ashley Schimke, Farm To School Specialist for the Arizona Department of Education.

Gardening is effective for teaching because students experience what they are learning, said Constantinos Manoli, a staff member of the Cooper Center for Environmental Learning in Tucson, which fosters environmental education through the University of Arizona College of Education.

Gardening is an experiential learning method, allowing students to apply concepts, which is essential because students do not easily comprehend material they cannot contextualize, Manoli said.

“It is like trying to teach chemistry without a lab,” Manoli said.

Students who engage in gardening to reinforce classroom learning are more likely get higher scores in science, according to a study published in 2005 in the science journal Hort Technology. In the study, more than 600 elementary students were divided into two groups. One group integrated gardening with science education, the other received only classroom instruction. The study found that the students who had used gardening scored higher on science achievement tests.

Gardening can be used to teach a range of subjects, Manoli said.

At Desert Palm School in Glendale, kindergarteners practice math through measuring different types of plants that they grow in the garden, said teacher Cindy Smith. The students use the garden to discover what a plant needs to grow, she said.

Students increase their vocabulary through gardening at the Creation Preschool in Vail, just east of Tucson. They read instructions on seed packets to learn about the proper way to plant, said Jennifer Hook, a kindergarten teacher. They also research how to care for the plants and write signs on the vegetables and trees they have in the garden, said Hook.

As an extension to the garden, the Davis School’s library features an aquatic system – a fish tank with overhanging plants. The plants clean the water while the fish fertilize the soil. The tank allows students to learn about how ecological systems can be self-sustaining, Barceló said. In his classes, he emphasizes scientific observation, an important academic skill.

“I treat my students like they were in college,” Barceló said.

There are no public funds allocated specifically for school gardening programs, said Schimke. They are usually started by a teacher within a school who takes the initiative. The key to keeping the garden going is support from the school and community, she said.

“The largest problem with school gardens is that they tend to come and go due to the huge burden it can place on the main garden champion at the school,” Schimke said.

Some teachers have succeeded in generating community support. Davis School has designated a few weekends during the semester for parents to help in the garden. Additionally, funding for the school’s aquatic system came from the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona.

“The resources are there,” Barceló said. “You just have to go out and find them.”

Creation Preschool in Vail has integrated the garden into some of the ways they obtain financial support, Hook said. In fundraising events, the school sells seedlings that students grew.

Last year an Arizona Department of Education survey found that three-quarters of schools with gardens received some sort of donations to fund their programs.

Some schools figure out other ways to save money. For example, practicing sustainable gardening reduces the cost of maintenance, Hook said. Students use compost as fertilizer and harvest seeds for future plantings. Additionally, the students have converted old tires into planters.

“We are constantly recycling things,” Hook said.  

In the end, students say they feel a sense of accomplishment in caring for a garden when they harvest the vegetables and fruits they planted, Hook said.

“They get very excited to see the efforts of their work,” she said. “The fruits of their labor.”

Musherf Alamri a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at

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