Stories from the garden: What it takes to be a garden teacher

In the first of a series of bios and stories about GROWINGGARDENS staff, volunteers, and partners, we hope to highlight the folks that make GROWINGGARDENS‘ work possible.  We start with a very special garden teacher at Vernon.  In the second year of our GROWINGGARDENS Youth Grow partnership, Sarah Canterberry has brought amazing knowledge and energy to the Vernon Garden Program, and is much of the reason Vernon has been so successful in establishing their school garden.  In the story below, Sarah reflects on her relationship with the Vernon Garden.

Sarah grew up in Ellensburg, WA, on a small farm. Sarah first got a taste of how food and gardening impacts how we experience the world from her family.  Sarah’s mother had a huge garden and taught her all about preserving and drying food. Her family also had a couple of farm animals. Sarah explains that as she grew up helping her mom in the garden was fun, but “it [also] really affected my work ethic (in a very positive way).  It also taught me to appreciate the flavors of food eaten right out of the garden, so it really affected my palate.”

As an adult, Sarah continued to think about gardens, the food system, and education. Sarah and her husband, Gage, a Vernon teacher, often had heated discussions about the inequity of the public schools in the Portland area.  Their cousins’ children attend an environmentally-focused  school in Southeast Portland and Sarah and her husband were often surprised by the number of different opportunities for learning students received at this school compared to the Vernon students.  When Gage was in graduate school, he decided to focus his final graduate project on building an edible and native plant garden at Vernon–figuring that a garden offered many different options for learning and would make Vernon a more interesting place to learn. Once the garden was in place, the Schools Uniting Neighborhoods (SUN) program was looking for someone to teach a class, and Sarah was offered the position.

During her first year as the garden teacher at Vernon, Sarah worked closely with the 2008/09 GROWINGGARDENS Youth Grow Educator, Emily, in growing the garden program, developing activities and lessons that best served Vernon students.  Sarah also showed her commitment to garden education through her participation in the pilot of our School Garden Coordinator Certificate Training. As she has continued her work in the 2009-2010 school year, Sarah has taken on a strong leadership role in the SUN School  garden classes and has planned highly successful work-parties that have further engaged families with the garden at Vernon.  Sarah and Gage have also worked together to establish regular meetings of the Vernon Garden Committee, which now includes a broad range of parents interested in helping with the garden program.

Sarah participating in the School Garden Coordinator Certificate Training

Sarah sees many values in having the school garden at Vernon. As she explains, “I think providing another opportunity for children to learn in an experiential way is so valuable, and in a neighborhood where hunger and obesity coexist, it is nice to provide a space that addresses both of those issues…. I feel that the garden also provides a space where people can meet, work together and build community.” As the garden program at Vernon has grown, Sarah has also seen many of her and Gage’s ideas come to fruition: “I feel that the garden has brought families together on a regular basis, and I also suspect that it has helped to bring more neighborhood children to Vernon….In this climate of school closures and public schools having to compete with well-funded charter schools popping up all over, every public school has to work hard to capture those neighborhood kids–and a garden is a great draw. “

Working in gardens is not without challenges, however, and Sarah notes that those range from engaging teachers and students during school hours, as well as finding enough time and support to manage the maintenance of the garden in the summer.  Yet, in Sarah’s experience, teaching garden club is full of daily reminders that the work is meaningful.  Sarah notes a memory from her first year teaching: “I love when kids are so blown away by eating a new vegetable.  I remember one time cutting a chiogga beet, and the kids all ooooing and ahhhing at once.”  The garden also provides a space where students are able to connect and receive support from other students and adults, beyond what happens during the regular school day.  Sarah says: “There have been some really intense moments of kids sharing feelings or sharing problems they are having.  One time, while pulling carrots, a boy told me that his mom had been missing for a week.  That’s all he said, and really all he wanted to say.  I gave him a hug and we kept pulling carrots. “

Sarah and her famous rainbow smoothie

Vernon K-8, and the whole surrounding community, has greatly benefited from the presence of Sarah in the garden.  And luckily, Sarah continues to enjoy working with students in the garden: “I like providing kids with time to be outside and play, breathe fresh air and just experience working in a garden… It really is a beautiful thing.”

Thanks to Sarah for all of her hard work.  It has not gone unnoticed.


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