Suzanne Jaszczult '13 and alumna Lucy Gregoire '92 team up to develop a community garden at Walla Walla's Green Park Elementary School.
Adults might loath spending the weekend weeding, but second-graders at Walla Walla’s Green Park Elementary School volunteer to do it.
“They love to get their hands dirty,” said Suzanne Jaszczult ’13, a politics major from Portland, Ore.
“The teacher gave the class the option of weeding or sitting outside and reading, because she thought some kids might be squeamish about getting dirty. Nobody could sit still. They were ridiculously excited to dig around in the dirt.”
"Nobody could sit still. They were ridiculously excited to dig around in the dirt," said Suzanne Jaszczult '13.
Jaszczult has visited Green Park Elementary on a regular basis this past semester, working with second-grade teacher Lucy Gregoire ’92. The two met through America Reads, a national program where college students help tutor at-risk students in the community. Jaszczult has participated in this program at Green Park since her first year at Whitman.
Now, the two are converting a small pitch of dirt – 15 feet by 40 feet – on the school playground into a community garden. The project is part of an internship Jaszczult developed. She conducts it in conjunction with a soil science class that Gregoire teaches. Jaszczult weaves her weeding and composting sessions into the second-graders’ science lessons.
“Suzanne approached me with her gardening internship idea,” Gregoire said. “She coordinates with the second-graders, the teachers, Whitman students, the community and the second-grade curriculum to help us get our garden cleaned up, healthy and growing.”
The soil in the community garden is currently becoming enriched, thanks to the composting project Jaszczult, and the Green Park second-graders, participated in over fall semester. The project has been a major success.
“When we have brought the gardening gloves out to recess, students in second and third grades flock over to help,” Gregoire said. The kids are eager for spring to arrive, so they can begin planting.”
Transforming what used to be a sandpit into a garden takes numerous steps, including weeding out the invasive Bermuda grass, mulching and composting. Because Whitman has its own composting bin full of worms, Jaszczult organized field trips to show second-graders how worms can recycle food waste to enhance the soil.
These field trips led Gregoire and her students to develop their own worm bin at Green Park as part of their soil science class.
“We investigate sand, clay and local soil,” Gregoire said. “Making a worm bin is a highlight of the unit. There is very little second-graders like more than getting dirty and playing with worms.”
Of course kids like the creepy crawly worms, but it comes as a big surprise for the second-graders to learn what worms eat.
“Worms really like watermelon rinds,” Jaszczult said. “They don’t like citrus, though, because it burns their skin. They eat most fruits and vegetables, coffee grounds, bread, pasta, rice, tea bags.
“Working in a garden is one way to get kids to be hands-on with nature. It’s what many kids don’t get. And it beats playing video games or with dolls,” Jaszczult said.
“And paper. This amazed one second-grade girl. She said, ‘It’s crazy that worms can eat paper.’”
The kids inspire Jaszczult each time she comes to Green Park. Her internship has also confirmed what she knew all along: kids learn best when doing, rather than just sitting in a classroom.
“Teachers like Lucy do an amazing job with kids in a classroom setting, but what draws me to the gardening project is students are learning outside. They learn more about soils by holding a worm than they do in a classroom.”
She points to a project where, to help make a base for the garden, she needed to spread hay throughout the soil. A hay bail was delivered, and the kids had a blast tearing into it.
Outdoor school is where it all started for Jaszczult. The program that sends sixth-graders into the woods for one week of sleeping in cabins and studying nature hooked her on the outdoors. She took advantage of Whitman’s semester abroad program, and studied in Jaipur, located in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan, which piqued her interest in the use of sustainable agriculture. But it’s been the time spent at Whitman, especially her politics courses, which steered her towards the politics of food.
“The politics department has a feeling of community,” Jaszczult said. “I love reading and thinking about ideas, and even outside of class, regularly having thoughtful conversations with my friends and professors.
“Discussing, arguing and learning to think on my feet suits me. I leave my politics classes beaming and revitalized.”
In her courses, Jaszczult said there are discussions about the problems facing the world, such as environmental degradation, destructive corporate farming practices and the need for sustainable development. She says she and her fellow students become frustrated, because these problems are not solvable by neatly packaged solutions.
“What we always come back to in class is that to solve problems, we must educate. It’s about showing kids they can become part of the solution. It’s not about telling second-graders what to think. It’s about getting them excited about important issues. Showing them how to make healthy soil.”
In churning the weeds and sand into healthy soil, the second-graders learned about what garbage is recyclable for composting. The kids now possess the knowledge to work as cafeteria recyclers in their school, helping to not only reduce the waste produced at Green Park, but also to strengthen their garden by utilizing tossed greens, veggies, and, of course, watermelon rinds.
“Most kids bring food to school in little plastic containers and don’t actually know where food comes from,” Jaszczult said.
These second-graders were shocked to see Jaszczult pluck a green bean and eat it. The public garden will teach kids that if they plant a seed in the ground, they can eat what grows from that seed.
“In the spring, we’re going to plant peas, carrots – things the kids can snack on,” Jaszczult said. “It’s going to be their garden. They are deciding what’s going to be planted. Then they can share their produce with the rest of the school.”
—By Edward Weinman