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The Proven Theory -of-

Environmental Education

Kevin Chan 1

In memory of

Harriett Moore


Table of Contents Foreword




Chapter 1: Why Nature?


Chapter 2: Community Impact




Works Cited


Copyright Š 2013 Kevin Chan



Growing up, Oak Avenue Elementary School greatly shaped my interests and viewpoints, but so did my mother. As an involved parent and avid nature lover, my mom ended up passing on her appreciation of the environment to me. She would make me help her in our garden at home, and take me to volunteer days at the baylands. She would take our family hiking in the county parks, and focused our summer trips around national parks. At one point she made me hate vacations because all we would do was hiking. But by the time it came to write my research paper, I felt obliged to focus my paper on the program that she founded: the Living Classroom. The basis of my research was through interviews, but I also used several internet sources and the book Place Based Education by David Sorbel. To 4

complement the information, I added photographs I had taken of my interviewees as well pictures from Living Classroom lessons. I had largely ignored the program in its first few years, but as I regained interest in the environment, I began to take notice of just how amazing the program was. I never quite knew how my mother had conceived the idea of the Living Classroom, and I was surprised to learn that it was due to iPods and cellphones. I was also surprised to discover just how versatile and beneficial the program was. After all, what can you do with a garden besides maintain it..?

From left to right: Vicki Moore, Maureen Lane, and Kent Noble.





For many students, field trips are a staple of elementary school. They represent a fun, hands on learning experience where students are not bound by the usual rules of the classroom. Some may say that they are a waste of valuable time that would be better spent in the classroom, but David Sorbel, the author of Place Based Education, questions this thinking from a student’s perspective: “Aren’t you tired of [lessons] that have no connection to the real world?” (82). Luckily for the fourth grade class at Oak School in Los Altos, California, Vicki Moore realized the importance of hands-on learning that was not out of a textbook. Ms. Moore led the fourth graders on a field trip to the Monte Bello Open Space Preserve in the Santa Cruz Mountains to teach them about the native flora and fauna of the region. She “It was a wonderful trip... two hours of hiking on the trails and learning about the environment.” Once the trip was over the students returned to the 8

bus and Ms. Moore noticed that “Instead of paying attention to the beautiful views of the foothills and of the bay as they descended back to their school, they were focused on a screen in front of them.” She realized that the educational significance of the field trip had been diminished by the presence of the students’ personal electronic devices, and the question now was how to engage the students in the reality of nature rather than virtual reality. As Ms. Moore explained, “It dawned on me... that we needed to bring nature to the classroom.” A school garden turned out to be the perfect solution. According to the website, which provides school gar dening advice, resources, and grants, “School Gardens are living laboratories where interdisciplinary lessons are drawn from real life experiences, encouraging students to become active participants in the learning process.” However, installing gardens at all the schools

was not an easy task with the bureaucracy of the school district. As Maureen Lane, a former teacher at Santa Rita Elementary explained, “The cost was an issue...the administration didn’t want [the garden] to happen because they said the cost would be too much to maintain.” She also said “[the cost] was minimal and it improved the location greatly... And in this case, it just had tanbark.” In addition to surface-level costs, opponents of environmental education tend to focus on a very narrow historical perspective. “Educators are short on facts and long on cultivating unnecessary fear” (Sorbel 59). James Okiror, a university professor claims “Skeptics point to

past failures, noting that school gardens were often poorly managed, giving rather negative examples to communities”. In most cases, though, the benefits of an educational garden outweighed the price tag and inertia of the school administrators, as the gardens were eventually approved. The final step in the process was to create lessons and find volunteer docents who could deliver those lessons. That’s why in 2008, Vicki Moore founded the Living Classroom program to provide free lessons that coincided with grade specific studies. The goal was to have the program operational in numerous schools in the district and hopefully spread to other districts

The Oak School native plant garden was the first of many. Here you can see the ampitheater area.


as well, and by April of 2012, the district fully embraced the Living Classroom program, installing gardens at all of its elementary and middle schools. Lessons were also being taught in five of the nine schools in the Mountain View/Whisman District, with plans to expand the lessons further. With the program well underway, it was clear that garden-based education was not just an experiment. It was a reality.

Above: students who brought electronic devices on field trips like me convinced Vicki Moore that children needed to learn about reality instead of virtual reality. Left: Vicki Moore teaches a lesson at Blach Junior High School. Right: The Oak School native plant garden is highly popular to play in at lunch time, requiring parent supervision from the ‘yard duty’.



Chapter 1: Why Nature? 12

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In 2001, I started kindergarten at Oak School in Mrs. Wenks’ classroom. The kindergarten rooms were located away from the rest of the school, and we had a small play area to use. When I moved to first grade, I gained access to the big kids’ playground with slides, swings, and basketball courts. Surprisingly, I didn’t think much of the artificial play structures and found myself bored during recess and lunch. Relief came in fourth grade, when construction at the Oak School native plant garden was completed. The garden quickly became my new home, with its curving pathways and creek bed which filled with running water during lunchtime. Of course, I wasn’t the only one to find the garden a great play area. Soon many students used the garden to hide while playing tag, or cool off by the creek during the fall and spring. By the time I had graduated from Oak School, I found that along with using the garden, the kids were also caring for it. They would avoid trampling 14

Below: In fifth grade, I discovered a turnip the size of my head in the Oak School Edible Plant Garden. Sadly, it didn’t break the Guinness World Record of 39 lbs, 3 oz.

the plants on the hillside, and police kids who broke the rules. (Looking back, I would be considered the police chief of the garden.) I realized that in the span of two years, the kids had gained a huge appreciation for nature, which would not be the case had it still been a dry, grassy field. As it turns out, the Oak School native plant garden was not initially

associated with the Living Classroom, which was founded three years later in 2008. However, it did prove that gardens were not a waste of the district’s money, which was evident when an edible plant garden was also installed

at Oak. At the same time as the developments of the gardens were taking place, the district had implemented a technology-based approach to education. MacBooks and digital projectors

Above: Silicon Valley is well known for technology giants like Apple, Google, and Yahoo!, but is rarely appreciated for its natural 15 beauty. Here you can see the valley from the top of the Wildcat Loop trail at Rancho San Antonio.

replaced trips to the computer lab and overhead projectors within a year. Our teachers were incorporating more and more technology into our lessons, and my class was just the beginning. After I left the district, technology usage continued to proliferate, reaching nearly every grade level. The emphasis on technology in the classroom proved to be a success, which begs the question, what place does nature have in Silicon Valley schools? According to Ms. Moore, technology and nature are like Apple™ to apples. “We all emphasize the use of technology and appropriately so... but it doesn’t replace or even represent the real world, the natural world in which we all live.” Mrs. Lane found this to be the case as well. When asked how high-tech students reacted to low-tech lessons of the Living Classroom, she replied that “they look upon the experience outside as being very unique and wonderful. They can touch it, they can see it, they can smell it, they can feel it, 16

and I don’t even think there’s a comparison between the two things. They think of them as being two totally separate entities.” In addition to Mrs. Lane’s findings, a U.C. Davis article points out that “School gardens provide an atmosphere that incorporates hands-on activities and strengthens academic, personal, and social skills. School gardens [also] allow children to develop life skills in areas such as nutrition, leadership, and decision making.” With that question settled, another comes into view. While technology can be used to teach nearly every subject with iPads, e-books, and internet connections, the scope of lessons which can be taught through a school garden would seem limited to life science. If that were the case, it would compromise the cost-benefit ratio of the garden and make it highly impractical. Why focus on the environment when you could teach more subjects with a computer? How for example, could math be taught with a natural emphasis

We all emphasize the use of technology and appropriately so... but it doesn’t replace or even represent the real world, the natural world in which we all live. -Victoria Moore


better than in a textbook? As it turns out, not only can it be taught, but it can actually save time in the classroom. Mrs. Lane knew this from firsthand experience:

“ We did a lesson on symmetry… and the

children absolutely loved that math lesson... When it came time in our curriculum to do the symmetry lesson, I just said to the students... “do you remember back in October we did the symmetry lesson with the fruits and vegetables?” So we reviewed it quickly and we moved on. We didn’t have to repeat the math book lesson because they had that presentation already. ” Along with math lessons, the program also provides lessons in other subjects. Kent Noble, a volunteer docent of two years, noted that the scope of Living Classroom instruction also includes social studies and biology. For example, in fifth grade, Mr. Noble said, 18

Above: Vicki Moore teaches a lesson about fractions to students at Springer Elementary School.

“as they’re doing their block on that history, they’ll bring us into the classroom to talk about colonial uses of plants. We [also] talk about biology [and] photosynthesis.” The Living Classroom program is not alone when it comes to teaching multiple subjects with the help of a garden. According to the University of California article Garden

Based Learning, many schools in Los Angeles County use this technique. “School gardens can be integrated with school curricula in science, math, literature and social studies to help reinforce classroom learning with handson learning.” Also, the Whole Kids Foundation points out that “Teaching kids to garden helps them learn about complex topics like sustainability and conservation, food sys-

Above: students dress up to learn about colonial plant uses in a history lesson. Top right: springtime in the Springer Elementary School garden.

tems and community awareness.” (School Garden Grants Program) All of this sounded great, but I had to question the effectiveness of it all. Any decent teacher knows that when students aren’t focused, they don’t learn as well. Surely some students would find the lessons to be boring, or at least be a little preoccupied with the fact that they were touching ‘worm poo’ (compost). The perfect person to ask was Mrs. Lane, who had plenty of experience and lots to say. 19

“ Of course you’ve got some squeamish ones

who don’t get their hands dirty... But the interest level was super high, and it was so much fun to have a person come in who’s not your teacher, [to] have a person come in who lets you go outside. It’s interesting with the psyche of a student when they leave the classroom, it’s almost like they think this isn’t school anymore, it’s fun...Sometimes, [while] having fun, people think you’re not learning anything... but I really have to disagree. ” Mr. Noble seemed to have the exact same reason. “It’s because we’re different than the teacher that they normally have” he said, along with the additional reason that “the Living Classroom... has a curriculum that builds upon itself.” Mrs. Lane offered an explanation of this as well: “it’s probably about the right amount of lessons per grade level right now... it grows on itself because things are presented 20

at an early age, first grade, second grade, third grade, and they come up later in the lessons.”

Right: Maureen Lane works in a raised planter bed. Below: Vicki Moore cleans up the Santa Rita garden.


Chapter 2: Community Impact 22


It is apparent by now that the Living Classroom program is highly effective at engaging the students in the lessons it teaches, but it is not clear whether or not it has an impact on the local community. A program like this would only seem to serve the students, not the community as a whole. However, Ms. Moore knew just what to say about this as the founder of the Living Classroom.

Below and right: docents help out with lessons in the Springer School Garden.

“ The program itself draws from the local

community in terms of the volunteers [and] docents... We also have received support from eagle scouts who have predominantly been responsible for the new installation of gardens... And then also we’ve had some corporate support... we had about 30 employees from the Symantec Corporation come out [to help]. ” In addition, the program is expanding to involve more community members in its 24

efforts. Ms. Moore told me about these expansions: “We anticipate adding a grade each year in the future... We also have received support to begin a program in the Campbell School District.” Additionally, the program helps to educate the local community. “[It] raises the awareness to people of the importance of our environment” says Mrs. Lane, “they are understanding that it is more an actual teaching program, [and] not just to make the schools


Above: although they may be pretty, school gardens serve a purpose other than nice-looking schools. 26

look better�. As Ms. Moore added, the program gives opportunities for docents to help out, so of course, I had to ask Mr. Noble for his unique viewpoint. “[The Living Classroom program] engages parents and gives them a facility to get into classrooms and give back to society... as soon as you have role models.., that really brings out the best in children�.

Above: the crops students tend to in the Edible Plant Garden include lettuce, peas, swiss chard, and chives.


Conclusion By engaging students, parents, eagle scouts, corporations, docents, and teachers in its efforts to provide a garden-based education curriculum, the Living Classroom has clearly proven itself to be an important part of the community over the course of the last five years. Through my personal experience at Oak School, I knew firsthand that the basis of the lessons were effective and engaging. Hands-on education captured the students’ attention and inspired them to learn more. Looking back years later, I now understand the importance of this teaching method. I might not have realized it back then, but the garden instilled an understanding and appreciation of the natural world which would not have occurred through a traditional classroom setting. However, the garden-based


curriculum which forms the basis of the Living Classroom lessons is not widely accepted as a teaching method in many schools. Given the cost effectiveness and community support of the program, hopefully we will find it being adopted at a much larger scale to supplement conventional approaches to teaching. Right: the Living Classroom has expanded to cover the entire Los Altos School District and some of the Mountain View Whisman District, with plans to expand into Campbell.


Works Cited Sorbel, David. Place Based Education: Connecting Classrooms & Communities. Great Barrington: The Orion Society, 2004. Print. “School Gardening.” KidsGardening. National Gardening Association, n.d. Web. 12 Feb. 2013. Okiror, John. “Just how much can school pupils learn from school gardening? A study of two supervised agricultural experience approaches in Uganda.” 1 April. 2011. GREENR: Gale, Web. 1 Feb. 2013. “Garden Based Learning.” UC Davis Center for Nutrition in Schools. Department of Nutrition, University of California, n.d. Web. 12 Feb. 2013. “School Gardens - Los Angeles County.” University of California Cooperative Extension. Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of California, n.d. Web. 12 Feb. 2013. “School Garden Grants Program.” Whole Kids Foundation, n.d. Web. 12 Feb. 2013. Moore, Vicki. Personal Interview. 11 Mar. 2013. Lane, Maureen. Personal Interview. 14 Mar. 2013. Noble, Kent. Personal Interview. 18 Mar. 2013.


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