Califonia Bountiful

Kelli Wessman

Garden Coordinator
2009 CA School Garden Network Garden of the Year Winner
Louisiana Schnell Elementary School, Placerville, CA

This interview was originally published in the January 2010 issue of CFAITC's e-newsletter, "Cream of the Crop."

In addition to preparing students for further education and career paths down the road, classroom teachers play a dramatic role in helping shape the worldview of the children they teach every day. California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom (CFAITC) is pleased to spotlight some of California's finest educators, dedicated to connecting their students to food and fiber sources through agriculture education, and preparing future generations of aware and engaged Californians.

Kelli Wessman, right, received California School Garden Network Garden of the Year award from Hope Wilson, left.

1. How long have you been working with students?
I've been developing the Garden of Learning at Louisiana Schnell School for the last 18 years. We've come a long way!

2. Why did you choose to become an educator?
I think it chose me! Like so many parents, I struggled with my children heading off to school. I was lucky to find an opportunity to become involved in our school community. The path I chose was the school garden.

3. How do you integrate agriculture into the curriculum or activities you teach?
Students, regardless of age, skill level or ability, learn in the garden every week. They raise crops while learning lessons in science, math, reading and language arts, fine arts, nutrition, social studies, environmental studies and agriculture. Lessons in a garden give a rich, meaningful, and useful experience to the lessons learned in the classroom and provide the benefits of a real working garden.

4. Describe any innovative agriculture-based projects you have been involved in developing.
The Garden of Learning at Louisiana Schnell Elementary is much more than a garden! It is a school-wide garden program and curriculum for starting and sustaining elementary school garden programs.

The goal is to support and create school gardens as outdoor classrooms that can be sustained, year in and year out, to enrich the education of every child on campus. Check out the Web site for more information!

5. Give an example of how you use agriculture to teach in your classroom or in your program.
In the garden, students reinforce classroom lessons with hands-on applications. To exemplify math lessons, we use the seeds of sunflowers students grew themselves to practice counting, sorting, multiplying, dividing and estimating. Students practice their writing skills by keeping weekly garden journals, or by building a scarecrow and then writing a creative story about what would happen if the scarecrow came to life. They learn about the scientific method in class, and then put it to use in a garden exercise that introduces them to the concept of a food chain. Basic education provides the themes for lessons that take place in the garden.

6. Tell us about one person who has most influenced your own education and educational career.
The person that most influenced my career is Cathy Morgan, who was the principal at Louisiana Schnell when my children entered elementary school. Her quiet and kind leadership guided all who worked with her toward the common goal of creating a place that could educate the whole child. Her confidence in me gave me confidence, and it was Cathy who gave me the opportunity to create a school-wide garden program.

7. Tell us about a golden teaching moment.
Experiential learning offers so many moments. Whatever the subject, it comes to life in the hands-on environment of a school garden. Students come to see the relationship between effort and reward. The harder they work, the more beautiful is their garden. They also get to see that problems can be solved with perseverance; if a snowfall comes and destroys your lettuce, that's not a permanent failure; you rip it out, put it in the compost bin and plant again, perhaps with more mulch this time.

8. What is your favorite AITC program/resource/event and why?
AITC's curriculum, Web site, publications, programs and conferences are all very valuable resources. My personal favorite is the annual conference—a first-class experience! I very much enjoy the food, the location, field trips, and presenters. What I appreciate most about Ag in the Classroom though, is its impact on moving the garden-based learning and ag literacy movement forward by uniting colleagues with the same passion.

9. Why is it important for our students to be agriculturally literate and aware in today's society?
More and more educators are coming to understand just how wonderful—and important—a school garden can be. I believe with proper coordination and planning, outstanding school garden programs can be developed and sustained to become a long-term part of a school's culture.

In this age of fast-moving technology and virtual knowledge, kids need to get their hands in the dirt. They need to be grounded, you might say, and taught the ways of nature. Regular work in their own garden can provide a respite from the hubbub of busy school life, allowing children to focus on an ancient human task in a smaller, quieter setting. It provides children with a profound and lasting sense of the majesty of nature—and in understanding that, a reverence for the sanctity of life.

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