“We have the compost!” a chorus of voices declares as kids pile bags of the week’s frozen food scraps into our rickety wheelbarrow. “Can I carry the rakes?” asks another, shuffling through a pile of tools next to the classroom bookshelves. Soon, a dozen middle schoolers from Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, and Engineering in New York City’s south Harlem toting handfuls of garden equipment squeeze into the elevator, excitedly debating who will push the wheelbarrow up each block.
Outside, the kids giggle as passersby raise an eyebrow or give us a wave; a team of students carrying shovels and plant starts is not the most expected sight on the streets of Manhattan. During our five-block uphill trek to the garden, conversations range from seventh-grade social dynamics, the new songs on their iPods, and last night’s English homework to where we’ll plant the next round of spinach, who will turn the compost, and whether there will be tomatoes to harvest for tomorrow’s lunch. Upon reaching our destination, the kids need few directions from me: Students who frequent the garden rally newcomers and give lessons on everything from how to prune basil to how to concoct an organic aphid treatment for kale.
Although gardening may not seem typical of an urban teenager’s education, it has become a central experience for many students across the country. Around the time I started teaching at Columbia Secondary in 2007, there was a push in education trends to get our ever-connected, technology-laden youth unplugged and outdoors. I didn’t fully understand the necessity of this movement until I took my sixth-grade class outside for an activity in nearby Morningside Park. As I plopped myself down on the grass, I received disapproving looks from my 10- and 11-year-old students that I had not anticipated. “We can’t sit on the floor!” one told me. “We’ll get dirty!” said another. “And there are bugs!” It took some coaxing and convincing that day, and many more to come, to assure my students that nature was not out to get them. How, I wondered, can we raise these students to be future leaders of a world thirsting for advances in environmental sustainability when they’d choose their iPods over fresh air any day?
A small start-up garden project on the school rooftop quickly unearthed an enthusiasm for the natural world that was buried under my students’ city “cool.” Intrigued by the ability to grow plants of their own, they tended our small garden with care and curiosity. I recall one of my students watching wide-eyed as I pulled a plant out of its plastic pot. “Can you teach me to do that?” she asked in awe, as if I were performing a magic trick.
Photos by Michael Harlan Turkell