Is Alice Waters "Cultivating Failure" with Edible Schoolyard Program?

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I believe that gardens are good things; I believe that exposing kids to gardening and other outdoor activities are good things--I believe this with every fiber of my being. Yet, I think the article Cultivating Failure by Caitlin Flanagan for The Atlantic is a thing of genius. If you're a fan of Alice Waters you probably won't feel the same. Similarly, some gardeners are not feeling the love because they see the article as an indictment on gardening-they're internalizing Ms. Flanagan's writing-instead of asking themselves if she has a point.

Strip away the scathing and hilarious takedowns of Alice Waters and Ms. Flanagan actually poses a couple of great questions. Why are the students at the Edible Schoolyard program performing lower on tests than their peers at schools that don't have school gardens?  As someone who believes in the benefits of adding school gardens and including them in the curriculum, this is what I want to know the most. How is it that exposing kids to something that brings them closer to nature and the food they eat not improving their test scores? 
Corby Kummer, food writer for The Atlantic, took to his blog to pen School Gardeners Strike Back, a lengthy rebuttal of Ms. Flanagan's article that ultimately admits:
"Guerrero had no test scores to refute Flanagan; that's never been a focus of the Edible Schoolyard. But nor has the program ever relied on the public funds Flanagan says can't be wasted in what is demonstrably one of the lowest-performing state school systems in the country."
As good as the idea of kids and gardens make us feel, that's not going to get them into college and into good paying jobs. When I leave the house at night I'm not worried about getting mugged or shot by out of work doctors, lawyers and teachers. 
When I was a kid I couldn't name anything more boring than math and science. I was certain that I would never have a need for math and science when I grew up, now I see that math and science is all around me every time I step into the garden. It is in the planning of the garden and spacing of seeds and in my efforts to propagate plants. If only I had known then what I know now.
Maybe these kids are performing lowers on tests than their peers in schools without gardens because of issues at home. Or maybe the issue is that people have been swept up in the cult of personality that is Alice Waters, a restaurateur and activist for locally grown food. As good a job as George Clooney did on ER and as hard as he works to raise awareness on various issues; I would not want him meddling in the curriculums of the medical schools that will graduate the people who will someday be performing open heart surgery. Call me crazy. 
The second question that Ms. Flanagan raises is if having the children of immigrants picking lettuce during school instead of concentrating on teaching English, math and science is a good idea. It seems like a cruel twist of fate. The comparison she makes is jarring and makes you think. I'm of the belief that gardening, like charity, should begin in the home. Let's build gardens in schools where the kids are encourage to play and learn, but leave teaching to the teachers. I like the work being done in California by La Mesa Verde in conjunction with the University of California Extension. They build organic vegetable gardens in the backyards of low-income families and provide organic gardening and nutrition courses with UCE's Master Gardening Program. Teach the parents, teach the kids. 
I'm sorry Alice Waters groupies and fellow gardeners, but Caitlin Flanagan is right. Unless the purpose of the Edible Schoolyard program is to create a generation of under-educated, under-paid and voiceless migrant farm workers, it is indeed cultivating failure and that's not a good thing.
  

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  • The Flanagan article says that only 1 out of 5 Cali high school students drop out before graduating. Wow... don't tell anyone that 1 out of 2 Chicago students drops out, and we don't have as many school gardens here. In all seriousness, I think the original article makes some leaps of faith when it comes to its logic and its assumptions. I'd be interested to see the actual before and after testing numbers for schools with gardens and those without gardens. Are low test scores actually caused by the gardens or were those schools testing low to begin with? I just think that blaming the gardens on lowering test scores is barking up the wrong tree.

  • In reply to snappyjdog:

    Snappy,

    First, thanks for signing up for an account to comment. I don't think Ms. Flanagan is blaming the gardens on lowering test scores, how I see it is; she's "blaming" this one particular program that doesn't seem to be working. I believe that gardens are good teaching tools and that using them in schools will help improve a student's ability to learn. Yet, we have an example of a program that seems to demonstrate the opposite of what I and others believe.

    Think of it like this: We all know diet and exercise are good ways to lose weight. Say you spent the same number of years as the garden has been used in this school dieting and exercising. You look around you and see that people around you who are not following diets and exercising are all losing weight and yet you aren't. We know that diet and exercise work, so why aren't you losing weight?

    I don't see where she's saying test scores are being lowered by the garden. She does, however, point out that the kids in this program aren't improving like the students around them who don't have a school garden program. The school garden people can't refute what Flanagan said in her piece about their test scores.

    Ms. Flanagan seems to have an axe to grind, and as a fan of snark, I think her shots at Alice Waters are hilarious and genius. Anthony Bourdain has got nothing on Ms. Flanagan, but I think if they had been left out then people would be more receptive to what she is saying about how this program by Alice waters is not working, as evident by the test scores of the kids the edible schoolyard program that continue to remain low.

  • In reply to MrBrownThumb:

    I don't think snark is appropriate regarding this subject. One aspect of the gardens that I love is that they are in fact small islands of civility, where youngsters, teens, elders and other volunteers join together in an actiivity they enjoy. I like to hear the conversations.

    Fans of snark might be bored, but hey, just go home and turn on the t.v.....

  • In reply to snappyjdog:

    First I'd like to say thank you for raising the issue of school gardening in your column. I think it is a worthwhile issue to examine.

    I work within the California school systems and have worked with the garden programs. Although I cannot speak for school gardens in Northern California where Ms. Alice Waters works, I can speak for my observations in Southern California.

    The gardens that I have seen do not have students going out and harvesting lettuce for an hour or two a week. The curriculum I am exposed to has a volunteer retired teacher, parent(s), and other volunteers that do most of the maintenance work to keep the garden alive. I've seen students pick a carrot or two, for example, wash it, and then sit at a table to learn the science of plants, how they grow, etc. They also eat the carrot and if the produce requires preparation, someone else prepares it for consumption.

    For some of the produce in the garden... let's say chard or spinach... it may be the first time a student sees the produce in the ground or even tasted it. This exposure impacts food choices for life.

    Here are my observations:

    1. I think Ms. Flannigan's article raises our awareness of gardens in schools; but rather than isolating a program such as gardening, what should be examined is why scores are low. The purpose of a garden, in my opinion, is not to simply raise a test score but provide students with a slice of what is needed for them to succeed. In the case of gardens, it becomes one way to raise awareness of consuming fruits and vegetables; and getting them to eat fruits and vegetables impacts health for a lifetime. Eating healthy also indirectly impacts test scores.

    2. Although Ms Flanagan found a wonderful produce supermarket in Compton and a Ralph's supermarket, some of the students and their families still do not have access to fresh produce. Many of the parents that I have met will tell you finding affordable fresh produce is a challenge. School gardens provide an opportunity to expose students to the origin of produce. You'd be surprised to learn that people believe "baby carrots" are grown and picked in the garden. They are not.

    3. To improve test scores takes good old fashion teaching but there are other components too. It would be interesting to see if a garden program, along with other strategies designed to help students succeed, would be successful.

    Here are a few questions that should be answered before we drag Ms. Waters' program through the mud: What were their test scores before they started gardening and how do they compare now -- have the scores gone up or down? If we are going to compare them to other students now, how did they compare before they started gardening? There are other questions too but I hope this is enough to say that we need more information before we say that gardening contributes to failure.

    The business of educating students is complex and we do need more research to understand what works and what doesn't. Rather than picking on gardens, it would be nice to examine the education system itself and weed out what doesn

  • In reply to Pavonne:

    Hi Pavonne,

    Thanks for signing up for an account so you can comment.

    The purpose of a garden, in my opinion, is not to simply raise a test score but provide students with a slice of what is needed for them to succeed.

    Personally, I agree with this. Unfortunately, in our society we judge the student and school on standardized test scores. If a teaching tool isn't helping them achieve the requirements to go onto the next grade, high school or college, then it is failing the student. That's not to say that we can't reform the educational school system to evaluate kids on something different than standardized tests.

    You'd be surprised to learn that people believe "baby carrots" are grown and picked in the garden. They are not.

    That's not too shocking to read. The confusion probably comes from the fact that there are some very short varieties of carrots, so one could assume that "baby carrots" are just a short variety too. :0)

    To improve test scores takes good old fashion teaching but there are other components too. It would be interesting to see if a garden program, along with other strategies designed to help students succeed, would be successful.

    No argument from me here.

    What were their test scores before they started gardening and how do they compare now -- have the scores gone up or down? If we are going to compare them to other students now, how did they compare before they started gardening? There are other questions too but I hope this is enough to say that we need more information before we say that gardening contributes to failure.

    Neither the article nor the rebuttal linked above give those stats. The only thing we know for sure from reading those two pieces is that the kids continue to test lower than their peers at a school where there is no edible schoolyard program. I don't think the article is saying that gardening is contributing to failure, what it is saying that this particular program is "cultivating failure" because it isn't preparing kids for how they will be judged- standardized tests and scores.

    The business of educating students is complex and we do need more research to understand what works and what doesn't. Rather than picking on gardens, it would be nice to examine the education system itself and weed out what doesn

  • In reply to Pavonne:

    While I am indifferent to Ms. Waters and Chez Panisse, I have serious issues with two aspects of Caitlin Flanagan's article:

    1. For an article about the questionable educational value of school gardens, the author spends too much time, in my opinion, describing Alice Water's personality and trying to place her in the lunatic fringe. Whatever comic value they have, I found Flanagan's attacks to be immaterial when considering the educational value of the garden at King school. I found the author's commentary on grocery stores and diabetes to also be somewhat distracting from the purpose of the article.

    2. The author exaggerates the extent to which time* in the garden deprives students at King with the opportunity to learn other things and does not acknowledge the potential benefits of time in the garden. *As the author suggests, children at King school should not be spending all day laboring in the garden -- and they DON'T. As the author notes, "students spend 1.5 hours in the garden and kitchen each week." (See page 4 of the original article for this admission.) Consider these facts: 1. there are probably 35 hours in the school week at King school 2. many middle school students across the United States already spend some class time each day (at least part of the year) in a home economics classroom. Is it wrong for 6th graders at King to spend a little time in a kitchen learning how to prepare food safely? Isn't this a life skill? 1.5 hours in the garden or the kitchen EACH WEEK is hardly criminal. As previous commenters have noted, Flanagan is barking up the wrong tree.

    Maybe Flanagan can use her experience in the classroom to answer these questions:
    a. Does she expect 6th graders to spend their entire school day/week in class, reading Shakespeare, doing math problems, writing paragraphs about Crucible, and other things that will help them pass standardized tests?
    b. Don't children learn from hands-on learning activities? From moving around?
    c. Doesn't making and tending a garden provide students with meaningful opportunities to apply what they are learning in math and science? Doesn't the garden (and kitchen) provide an opportunity for meaningful interdisciplinary learning?
    d. Don't children get antsy if they have to sit all day doing math problems, reading Shakespeare, etc.? Don't most children want to be outside, at least a little bit, each day? Isn't that healthy?
    e. Is it more meaningful to learn about the soil and plant growth by reading about it or seeing it in person?

    Conclusion: Flanagan's article is loaded with the emotional arguments and claims of pseudo-expertise that I would expect in a letter to the editor of a newspaper; a tirade like this has no business in the Atlantic. I wonder if the Atlantic only ran the article to stir up controversy and garner publicity.

    The big idea: As the author suggests, we need to equip our students - esp. low-income students - with the skills they need to ultimately obtain higher paying jobs. Spending all day in the garden is not an appropriate activity for 6th graders. It should be, however, a component of a diverse curriculum. In the case of King School in Berkley, it is just that: a component of a curriculum that teaches gardening, cooking -- as well as math, language arts, and science.

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