Cultivating History Lessons

By Eve Pranis

"Our third and fourth grade team is studying the history of this region and the immigrants who settled it," reports Kathy Farrington from South Burlington, VT. With an eye toward making the investigation more meaningful for her pupils, Kathy asked them to interview parents, grandparents, and other elders to find out where they had emigrated from and what types of items they had valued enough to bring with them.

"The kids were amazed to discover what a wide range of ethnic backgrounds were represented and how frequently the interviewees reminisced about recipes that were among the valued items they had brought to this country," says Kathy. Since the class was also steeped in indoor and outdoor garden ventures, the students became curious about what types of plant- or garden-related memories they could glean from their elders. "A boy whose parents came from Peru brought in a variety of little purple potatoes that they had grown in their homeland," says Kathy. "The students were intrigued as they cut them open and compared them with familiar types of potatoes," she adds. Other historical sleuths regaled their classmates with relatives' memories of eating edible wild plants, raising special garden flowers, or enjoying sumptuous garden feasts.

Students were next challenged to choose a plant representing one of their family's countries of origin, then use their findings to write their own revealing plant stories. "In the next stage of the project, the students are experimenting to figure out which plants they can grow at school," says Kathy. Plans are already afoot for raising Peruvian blue potatoes, Italian garlic, rice, and a host of herbs in the classroom GrowLab and outdoor garden.

"Most of my students had never really thought about how important foods and plants are to different cultures," explains Kathy. "This focus on local heritage has helped give them a tangible connection to their own past and to their elders, and an appreciation for the foods and traditions of other cultures," she adds.

Humankind and plants have been inextricably linked throughout history. Our reliance on plants -- for food, shelter, spices, medicine, cosmetics, fuel, clothing, and more -- has played a key role in shaping cultures and the unfolding of world events. This dependency has even triggered wars and waves of migration, and prompted social and technological shifts such as the Industrial Revolution.

Consider the opportunities for using plants and gardens as a lens for learning about world geography and historical eras. For instance, imagine how a colonial herb garden project might help illuminate what life was like during those times; or what students might learn about world geography and cultures by researching and raising food and fiber plants from different regions.

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