Mike Johnston grew a classroom garden with his middle school science students as part of a study on food stewardship. Students deepened their knowledge of the impact of food consumption through a video call with a National Geographic Explorer.
What is a 28-day garden?
Often gardening is viewed as something that is arduous and time consuming. Planting a 28-day garden is a challenge to grow food from seed to consumption in 28 days. For our 28-day garden we spent the month of February growing a variety of lettuces indoors. We made a goal to grow enough lettuce to feed our class pet, a tortoise.
I wasn’t a green-thumb person before. I am now, though, because of the success of this project. This year in my classroom we’re growing tomatoes and plants, like tobacco and white sage, considered sacred medicines to indigenous peoples in Canada. Some of my students became so passionate about gardening they planted indoor and outdoor gardens at home.
How did you involve experts in your study on food stewardship?
Worldview is extremely important. A lot of times I think students—through no fault of their own—have a narrow scope of the world. We connected with experts, like an agriculture scientist and local conservationists, and we talked about what food stewardship looks like in Manitoba specifically. Food stewardship involves understanding where our food comes from and how we impact that as consumers and producers. In Manitoba, we have a lot of wheat and honey. Most of our fruit and vegetables are grown in warmer climates.
Connecting with scientists before planting our 28-day garden helped students gain a broader perspective. We had a video call with National Geographic Explorer M Jackson, who researches glaciers in the Arctic. She shared her perspective on doing research in a place where there is limited access to food. We were learning about carbon footprints based solely on food consumption, so M Jackson explained how the northern ice-covered part of the world is being impacted by food production in the southern part.
What is the best, and the most challenging, aspect of having a classroom pet?
I’ve had my classroom tortoise, Mumford, for several years. The best part about having a classroom pet is that it creates infinite questions and opportunities for empathy. My students often take him into consideration in odd and wonderful ways.
The biggest drawback can be dealing with difficult questions. Mumford used to have a companion, another tortoise named Darwin. Darwin got sick and died from a cold that was going around the classroom; some students felt guilty. Having a classroom pet means taking responsibility when things go wrong and being willing to have difficult conversations with your students.
What advice do you have for educators looking to tap into their students’ curiosity, especially in middle school?
My biggest advice is to be fearless in the face of possible failure. A lot of educators shy away from projects they think might not be successful. To that, I would say, “Of course it might not be successful, but it also might be a huge success.” With my project, I had to take seeds and hope they would germinate. I had to ignore the little voice inside me that was doubting. Do things that are a little bit scary because your students will come along with you for the ride.
On my classroom door there is a big sign that says “yet.” It’s my favorite word in the English language because it turns a negation into a commitment. Before we started the garden, I told my students this was an opportunity for me to use my favorite word. I said, “I’ve never grown a garden in 28 days . . . yet.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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