Growing Bridges

By Eve Pranis

"We knew from years of watching kids bloom with our GrowLab, greenhouse, and outdoor program that gardens can provide common ground and a chance for all kids to succeed," says Newark, NJ, teacher Phyllis D'Amico.

"So when our school for students with multiple handicaps wanted to address 'inclusion' by seeking opportunities to integrate our students with the mainstream students, gardens became the natural link," she adds. Her students, in fact, have become valued gardening mentors to peers in other schools.

Each year, Phyllis visits classrooms in local schools where teachers have expressed interest in forming partnerships with her classroom garden 'experts." She asks students to draw pictures depicting gardens so she can assess what they already know. "Because it's an urban setting, many kids have had few garden experiences, and their images reflect this," explains Phyllis. "Next, I share with them that my students, with whom they'll be working in the garden, have special needs," she reports. She then conducts an attitude survey to identify students' preconceptions and feelings about people with disabilities and has the students share some of their thoughts and concerns.

Last year, a sixth grade group from a neighborhood school came once a week for ten weeks to work with Phyllis's class on growing a square-foot garden. "Since my kids had developed some gardening expertise, they were able to shine as they taught other students the names of different tools and demonstrated how to use them," explains Phyllis. "Before other students come here or we travel to another school (particularly to work with younger kids), we review different garden terms and safety lessons, then role play situations that might arise so the kids can practice being mentors," she adds.

Two of Phyllis's students were paired with two visiting students and an adult volunteer in each three-by-three-foot garden plot. "I gave everyone a sheet of paper with vegetable, herb, and flower images, then had them circle what they'd like to grow. Each small group compared preferences and compromised to decide which nine items they'd grow in their plot. "I made square-foot diagrams for each type of plant, with dots showing how many to plant and where to place them in a square-foot area," notes Phyllis. For instance, students might plant one broccoli seedling, five lettuce plants, or sixteen carrot seeds in one square foot.

Although visiting students often don't know what to expect from her kids, says Phyllis, they develop comfort over time as they work together. "When students ask about my kids' behavioral quirks, I help them understand that it's simply a part of the disability," she explains. "I've noticed that the students observe how I work with my students and begin to mimic my relaxed style of interaction," she adds.

That gardening partnership blossomed into a first-ever experience for Phyllis's students. They decided to jointly enter the district math fair by developing a mini-garden exhibit, complete with scaled drawings, photos, and an actual square-foot garden display. Although not all students had measuring and other math skills, some contributed by cutting wood or raising GrowLab plants for the display, so everyone could shine.

"As a result of these partnerships, the visiting students certainly seemed to shift their perceptions about the capacities of 'special needs' kids," says Phyllis. "And equally as important, my proud students became less fearful of being with children from the outside, and better prepared to move into more inclusive situations," she adds.

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