August School Garden of the Month: Walker Memorial Elementary, Liberty

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SCHOOL GARDEN OF THE MONTH

Welcome to the MSGN’s School Garden of the Month. This project is made possible by Maine Ag in the Classroom’s 2016 Grant program. We will be highlighting a unique school garden each month and making visits to connect with the fantastic garden leaders in this state, talk about the awesome work they’re doing, and share models and activities with the Maine School Garden Network. To learn more or nominate a school garden of the month, contact us at info@msgn.org.

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The school garden is no new venture for Walker Elementary School – it was started in 2000 by an inspired teacher, and then fell fallow for a few years once that teacher was no longer involved. The garden was resurrected when Glen Widmer, now principal of Walker and Troy Elementary Schools, came on board. After using the garden as a math teacher, he found his interest in gardening to be an asset in the hiring process for the administrative role. Glen has continued to be a strong advocate and leader for the garden, expanding the program to bring FoodCorps service members to the site, including the dazzling Carolyn Wason. These two make a fantastic team – they’ve made huge strides in the last year, engaging nearly all of the classrooms at the four schools Carolyn works using the garden to enhance learning across subject matter. And, in other good news, Carolyn is ready to continue the ride for a second year in Liberty! It’s full steam ahead with a re-focused, re-invigorated set of next steps that they established with their Farm to School Institute team at the recent training in Vermont. Did we mention they were selected to attend the Farm to School Leadership Institute at Shelburne Farms? More on that later.

Visiting the Walker School Garden

EDITWalker3When I arrived at the garden, the free summer camp that Carolyn coordinates was finishing up for the day and three little girls lingered waiting for their parents. “Are you feeling outgoing today?” Carolyn asked them. “Do you want to give a tour of the garden?” Reagan, Paige, and Violet eagerly jumped on the opportunity and led me around their hoop house, identifying the tomatoes and basil that they had crafted a summery lunch with yesterday at camp. They guided me around the raised beds and introduced me to the scarecrows – I only remember the names of Jack and Denise, the two they are pictured with – and shared a snow pea snack, plucked right off the trellis. When I asked what they liked most about the garden, they even let me video a mini interview of them talking about how much they love harvesting and eating the veggies they grew, and why others should garden too. It was clear that their roots ran deep among the plants they had nurtured.

Success in engaging the community and turning over ownership

Both Glen and Carolyn agree that the greatest success and most rewarding part of their work in this program is seeing the community grab hold of the garden and truly feel a sense of pride and ownership. Teachers, students, and parents have all had the space to express their appreciation and love of the garden, not only in conversations with Glen and Carolyn, but also through classroom writing activities, community dinners organized by students, and appeals to the school board. The students involved are often those that are not eager to jump into sports but have found a team they can be a part of in the garden, which their parents deeply appreciate. There’s a student-run Garden Committee (or “Community” as they call it, without realizing how apt that word replacement is) set up to imitate the Student Leadership Team, which involves students in the school’s administrative decision making. The Garden Committee involves 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders, and nearly half of those grades opt to spend their lunch serving in garden governance. The students own this program, and it shows in their engagement, their excitement to share their work, and their incredible initiative.

These garden leaders also recognize the critical need for a school garden coordinator – as Glen put it, “You can’t have an effective EDITWalker6program unless you have teachers that are totally into it, and generally that’s not the case," for a number of reasons: uncertainty about gardening or how to use the garden for learning, too much on their plates already, too little time to plan. FoodCorps has addressed this need for the past five years, and their program will actually be the first to “graduate” from FoodCorps as a successful model, leaving space for other schools to enjoy the presence of an active full-time FoodCorps service member. Carolyn is among 12 service members in Maine, working to increase food literacy and engage students in growing, harvesting, and preparing their own food, while learning about nutrition and healthy habits. (Learn more about FoodCorps and how to become a service site) We at MSGN are working to address this need as well through the School Garden Coach program – Click here to learn more!

“You can’t have an effective program unless you have teachers that are totally into it, and generally that’s not the case."

        - Glen Widmer

Northeast Farm to School Leadership

As mentioned earlier, the Walker School was selected to partake in the Northeast Farm to School Institute at Shelburne Farms in Vermont. A team of this dynamic duo plus Jon Thurston (previous garden coordinator extraordinaire of Troy Howard Middle School and current MSGN Board member), Vina Lindley (Maine FoodCorps director, MSGN Board Chair, and Cooperative Extension Professional), Sharon Clark (teacher/ed tech at Walker), and Casey Holmes (head of the wellness team, health teacher, and athletic coordinator in the district) spent several days discussing progress and future goals, honing in on top priorities and learning how to achieve them.Walker1

“This three day adventure allowed us to learn what other schools are doing in terms of growing their own food, sourcing food locally, and connecting gardening and farming with their curriculum,” said Glen. “We also spent a lot of time developing an action plan for the next year, which was facilitated by our newly assigned garden coach, Jon Thurston…. He will help us stick to our plan in the work that we do over the course of the next year.” Again, Walker is becoming a model for others to follow and will surely take full advantage of having been a part of the Farm to School Institute – we’ll try to keep up with their progress as they continue to grow!

 

To stay in touch with the Walker School, check out their page on the Maine Food Atlas, follow them on Facebook, or contact them at carolyn.wason@foodcorps.org or gwidmer@rsu3.org.

 

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