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My First Day as a Garden Educator

by Camia Lowman

I am walking through the halls of Gregory-Lincoln Middle School, led by an 8th grade office aide wearing a bright purple backpack.

“Have you taken Mrs. Karavias’s class?” I asked her as she guides me past rows of lockers.

“Yes, I took it last year."

“What was your favorite dish you made?”

“Bok choy salad, it was really good.”

She leads me to a classroom, where Kellie Karavias is busy setting up for the day. When I walk in, Kellie enthusiastically greets me and says,

“Welcome to my Cultivated Classroom!”

Behind the rows of desks in her classroom are shelves full of colorful mixing bowls, spoons, and other kitchen utensils. All the walls are decorated with garden-and-kitchen-themed artwork, and the whiteboard is covered in hand-drawn pictures and learning objectives for the day. Kellie has an electric charge of positive energy, and I can immediately tell her students must adore her. Her striking black hair even looks spiked with energy, and I can’t help but think she looks like Storm from the X-men movies.

“Come on, let me show you our fruit tree orchard," she says.

As Kellie leads me back outside, she greets students in the hall. She seems to know students all by name and they all smile when they see her. I reminisce about my own awkward middle school days and remember the dynamic teachers I loved. We finally reach a set of doors and emerge at the back of the school where there is a playground next to a row of various fruit trees. Kellie describes each tree and says,

“The apple tree produces little bitter crabapples, but the students love them. You know how they love those sour candies like WarHeads.”

We walk around the corner and come up to an enclosed grassy area in a nook of the school building. Inside the enclosure, 10 chickens excitedly run up when they see Kellie.

“Good morning, ladies. I’ll be back to feed you in a bit," she says. The hens cluck eagerly in response.

Kellie’s students collect the hens’ eggs to use in recipes. In return, the students collect scraps from the cafeteria, such as beans and rice, to feed the chickens. Students also feed them grubs from the garden. Speaking of, Kellie has led me to our final stop  the edible garden.

At first glance I see beds full of basil and okra, trellises covered in beans, melons, and cucumbers, and tall groups of sunflowers surrounded by clouds of buzzing bees. The skyscrapers in downtown Houston are visible over the vine-covered fence. Gregory-Lincoln Middle School is located in Fourth Ward about two miles from downtown Houston.

Kellie is telling me about how she is duplicating her Cultivated Classroom program at Hogg Middle School, about 

a 10-minute drive north.

“My Cultivated Classroom is officially a chain!” she says happily.

I marvel at the energy she must have to teach at two schools. One of her former students, now a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, will help split teaching duties at each school. It still sounds like an awful lot of work.

We meet Carol Burton, Director of Youth Education at Urban Harvest, who is prepping for the first day of lessons in the garden. Carol holds up a passionfruit she just picked in the garden and says,

"I recently learned the best way to eat these! You cut a small hole and suck the juice out like a juicebox."

carol with student

Together, Kellie and Carol come up with today’s objectives: Explain the outdoor classroom rules, introduce instructors and learn student names, do a quick ice-breaker activity, then split into groups to harvest bean pods, pick and taste moonbeam watermelon (being careful to save the seeds), weed and prep garden beds that had been “put to sleep” for the summer, and begin planting seeds for the Fall. I am thankful Kellie, Carol, and Priya, an experienced Garden Educator, will be there to lead the activities.

The first class is 3rd-5th grade students. We introduce our names with a fruit or vegetable mnemonic. Carol is Miss Burton-broccoli. I am Miss Lowman-loquat. We explain the outdoor classroom rules, such as being respectful of animals in the garden. Kellie uses laminated pictures to show students the difference between beneficial garden insects and pests.

“Who can name some beneficial insects, the good bugs?" she asks the group. I am impressed that the students correctly name butterflies, bees, ladybugs, and spiders. Kellie adds earthworms and wasps.

We play a rock, paper, scissors game where students model the life stages of plants as they win each round: First crouching as seeds, standing up ‘sprouting’ as seedlings, putting hands out ‘forming leaves’, holding their fingers by their face like ‘blooming flowers’, and finally holding hands in a circle as ‘developing fruit’. The students excitedly play the game. I smile when I notice a few students skipping life stages in order to win.

Next, we divide into groups. Priya and I take 6 students to a trellis covered in green bean vines. Priya describes each type of bean and explains which seed pods are ready to be picked. Picking one, she breaks off pieces for students to taste. Most of the students say they like it, one student doesn’t like it. I thank the student for trying it, and tell her maybe there will be something else in the garden she likes. Students enthusiastically begin picking the beans and quickly fill a bucket with dried, brown pods.

Camia Lowman in the garden

Before long, the class is over and students file back inside. Priya tells me she recently learned at a meeting that 40% of the students at this school are homeless. My heart aches as I remember each of the sweet, excited children I just met and wonder how many of them don’t have their own beds to sleep in and feel safe at night.

The next two classes are middle school students in 6th-8th grade. Many of these students took Kellie’s class last year and are excited to be back. After introductions and ice-breakers, I take a group to plant green bean seeds in 4-inch pots. Students will harvest these beans next month and cook a Fall harvest meal. They will set aside some plants to give to volunteers that help maintain the garden as thank you presents.

Nearby, Kellie is cutting a moonbeam watermelon picked from the garden and giving each student a slice.

“Isn’t it delicious? I just love these. How would you describe it?” she asks students. The students describe it with words like “sweet” and “refreshing” and “soft”. She tells them to carefully collect the watermelon seeds so they can have more next summer, and to throw the rinds in a bucket to be composted.

All over the garden, groups of students weed beds and plant seeds for Fall vegetables. They compost weeds and collect grubs in a bucket to feed the chickens. Other students stack trays of newly potted seeds on pallets and water them. Students talk in different languages as they work, and everyone is engaged and working hard despite the Texas heat. I catch a 6th grade student trying to sneak a second slice of watermelon. Trying not to laugh, I tell her to eat it. Mouth full of the juicy, yellow fruit, she tells me how she and her mom are trying to eat all organic fruits and vegetables and to not eat as much fast food. I think about what a great experience this class is for her. Learning to cook with the food she grows in the garden and eggs she collects from the chickens.

After class ends and students leave, Kellie asks me what I thought. I think what these kids are doing and what she’s doing is awesome!

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