An Interview with Kalesha Dolan, 1-2 Teacher at Eagle River Elementary School
By Emma Haas
My family doesn’t garden. We just don’t have time. Because of this, I haven’t had the opportunity to experience gardening at all.
Some schools offer a gardening program so that students that don’t have a chance to garden at home can still have the experience. There aren’t that many schools that offer gardening because it seems hard to start a gardening program.
I was able to ask Mrs. Kalesha Dolan, the 1-2 teacher for the Optional Program at Eagle River Elementary School how they are able to make their gardening program work. After learning what Mrs. Dolan had to say, I think all students should be able to have gardening as a learning experience at school.
E: What do the kids learn by gardening?
Mrs. Dolan: Students learn the importance of working together for the success of all, as well as reaping what they sew. They get to connect science with math as they plant seeds and record and graph heights of plants as they grow. We read about plant life-cycles and how climates around the world support different plant growth. We read about different types of plants and the animal lives that depend on them. We write about our garden, practice sequencing with the plant life-cycle, and do critical thinking about how we can improve our garden or make changes for the following year.
A student tells us what they learn by gardening: “Different plants and how they grow, responsibility for not only our class materials but for living plants and stuff, if our Earth didn’t have any plants, we wouldn’t have any oxygen. Plants are at the bottom of the food chain, so if we didn’t have plants, we wouldn’t survive. Vegetable plants only grow outside at certain times in our area of Alaska and some other places. Some plants that people grow in Alaska in the summertime can be grown in Texas in the wintertime. Worms are good for the garden so the roots can go through the ground easier, the organic material in soil is composed, the nutrients can go back into the plants, and water can drain deep into the soil through their tunnels. Slugs like our garden.”
How do you fit gardening into the school day?
Parent volunteers sign-up to help on our gardening days. Sometimes it is a full 30-minute lesson or worm exploration; other times we prep a garden bed; in the fall the time may be harvesting as a class or in small groups. Some gardening mornings, students rotate to work with parent volunteers for 5-15 minutes in small groups, while the rest of the class continues learning in the classroom. With a regular schedule that encourages flexibility, group work, and hands-on learning, adding gardening into our learning rotation is not as difficult as in a highly-structured learning environment. By connecting our gardening to math, reading, writing, and science, we are also able to work on our academic standards through these learning experiences.
How do you pay for your gardens?
We have parent coordinators who applied for grants to purchase gardening supplies and make the beds outside our classrooms. Parents also purchase leftover vegetables after our Fall Soup Potluck on a donation basis. These donations go to purchasing garden supplies.
How big is the garden?
We have four garden beds (one for each classroom), plus potato tire towers, a square strawberry bed, and some planter boxes with edible flowers.
What do you grow?
We grow rainbow carrots, strawberries, purple potatoes, chives, broccoli, kale, peas, sugar snap peas, radishes, cucumbers, nasturtiums, cabbage, a variety of lettuces, onions, sunflowers, kohlrabi, and artichokes.
How many kids and parents participate?
All four Open Optional classes participate. It is about 90-100 students each year. We have had more parent volunteers over the years than could be counted. Each week, we have anywhere from 2-6 parent volunteers helping our students learn. Our garden could not be run without the consistent support of our weekly parent volunteers and our amazing garden coordinators.
Why do you think it is important to offer gardening to students?
Taking the time to grow a vegetable garden teaches students of today what goes into producing the food they buy at the store. It helps support healthy food choices as they enjoy eating what they grow, and they are more willing to try foods they may have disliked in the past or things they have never tried. I had never eaten kohlrabi prior to growing it in our garden, and I found that I love it! It helps solidify our learning environment where students learn from each other as well as from different adults. By offering the opportunity to learn through gardening, students have a hands-on learning experience with nature also.
A student tells us why they think the garden is important: “So kids can learn how to grow a garden and be aware of ways to fix it if your garden isn’t growing well at home. Because we can know how the food chain works. So we can learn about pollen and the life cycle of plants. So we can learn about which plants are large enough to harvest and which need more time to grow before eating. So we will know how to grow our own food as we get older and save money by growing our own food instead of always buying it. This helps us learn which plants are good to eat and which are not edible and could make us sick. Our learning helps us know how to grow food for if we need it in a survival situation. So we know how to grow food for our family when we are grown-ups. So we know about plants for biology class when we get older.”
Thank you to Mrs. Dolan for taking the time to answer these questions.