"A committee of teachers in our middle school had set a goal of meeting curriculum standards and bringing life and depth to our world geography studies," reports Gaston, SC, geography teacher Angie Rye.
Funding from a local foundation enabled the school to create an international garden to represent seven different world regions. Angie's students set out to discover what they could about the cultures, foods, and crops of Africa and the Middle East.
Their initial research revealed that a large proportion of people in those areas are dependent on farming for their subsistence. "They began to realize that many of the crops that are grown in our part of the South had historical connections to the regions we were studying," says Angie. For instance, when they explored slavery, students read stories about the people from the Gullah culture, which blends African and Southern traditions, and still survives on part of the South Carolina coast. "The students were fascinated to learn that ancestors of these people were recruited as slaves from the Gold Coast of Africa primarily because they knew how to grow rice," notes Angie. "This helped them make a concrete link to how food and agriculture has shaped our own state and culture," she adds.
Teachers helped students secure seeds and plants once they had researched significant plants in their selected regions. As they raised seedlings in the school greenhouse as part of science class, Angie's students further researched the meanings of plant names; growing requirements; and the economic, agricultural, and cultural roles the plants continue to play. The living result of their efforts is a garden swath that features cotton, wild tobacco, sunflowers, irises, hyacinth beans, and African blue basil.
As a culminating event, students shared individual garden portfolios, a class newsletter, and a computer presentation with parents and community members. This spring, all classes are geared up to prepare brochures and a visitors' guide to the entire garden.
"This long-term project made world geography much more meaningful for the students," Angie explains. "Initially, many of these teens thought that certain traditions seemed 'weird,' but began to recognize that all of humankind has similar basic needs for food resources for survival. They're starting to realize some of the ways in which we're all connected through this living chain," she adds.