Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Trimester 2 Update

Late Winter Update

“It tastes better because we picked it."

A few weeks ago a fifth grade scholar said this to me as we were making omelets. After finishing a unit on animal husbandry our scholars applied what they learned about our goats and chickens to make garden fresh goat cheese omelets – with freshly picked greens! Cooking has become a mainstay of both our middle school classes and each Friday our scholars look forward to showing off their developing culinary skills. Over the rhythmic chopping of newly harvested bok choi, we learn as much from our scholars as they do from us.
1st grade scholars peeling and planting garlic
In other middle school news, our 7th and 8th grade class has made its long awaited return to the farmers market. They’ve worked long and hard this trimester to get to market, and last night marked their first venture to the Crescent City Farmers Market, held every Thursday from 3 to 7 PM at the corner of Orleans Ave and Bayou St. John, in the parking lot of the American Can Company. With smiles abound scholars interacted with customers and vendors alike. They set their own prices, learned how to log what they sell, and different market skills to make a pretty impressive debut. As the weeks move on we look forward to see the connections that form when scholars are placed in such a unique environments.
Our farmers market all-stars
Connecting fresh food to families at our school has always been a priority of the Dreamkeeper garden, and this week we launched our FSA program. Families sign up for a share of our garden. This means that each week we’ll send home a bag of produce with a scholar to take home. In that bag will be whatever our garden can produce at that time, along with recipes to help turn those veggies into something delicious (not that they aren’t already!). For March those bags will be filled with greens like bok choi, kale, cabbage, chard, arugula, and root veggies like carrots and turnips.

5th grade scholars showing off their greenhouse skills
As we wind down this trimester and into a new one, we’re looking forward more and more to our middle school classes. Both of them this trimester will be an advanced gardening course, with scholars who have already been in garden once this year. We’ll get to go more in depth and explore different topics with those scholars, and hopefully inspire some young minds and hands to start their own gardens.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Dreamkeeper Garden: The Autumn Update

Is it really fall break already?

It seems like these first few months of the school year have flown right past us! Since August our garden and scholars have grown so much, and we have plenty of stories to share as the weather cools down into Autumn:

The biggest addition to the Dreamkeeper garden has been our new goats! Through a lot of hard work by administrators and garden staff our garden is now home to a full grown female Nigerian Dwarf (we call her Mama Goat), her yet-to-be-named kid (who we birthed at school!), and an African Pygmy kid from a farm across Lake Pontchartrain. As the year moves on we have some big plans for our new four legged friends, but for now they’ve been a welcome addition for scholars and dreamkeepers alike.

Mama goat and her baby

New friends enjoying some pallet play-time
We also celebrated our annual Watermelon Day. All 700+ scholars at Langston Hughes Academy got to try fresh watermelon from a farm in Mississippi. With sticky hands and juicy smiles our scholars and dreamkeepers devoured fruit after fruit, bringing to life the immortal words of Mark Twain – “When one has tasted watermelon, he knows what the angels eat.”

"I bet I can eat more watermelon than you, Mr. Durham!"
Our classes have covered a lot of material in these three short months. Our kindergarteners have learned all about their senses and cherish every moment they get to spend outside. First and second graders have learned all about the different plants and animals in our garden, even getting to design their own insects! The budding scientists in third and fourth grade have used the garden as their lab, where we’ve observed and recorded plant growth and designed and built our own solar ovens.
Who dat say dey gonna water dem plants!
In middle school, our scholars elect to take garden. 5th and 6th graders have taken on a lot over the past few months. We’ve conquered our fear of bees and hot peppers (we even learned about capsaicin, the fiery chemical in peppers), renewed our partnership with Dillard University, and bolstered our cooking skills on a weekly basis. 7th and 8th graders have truly become stewards of our outdoor space. They’ve learned about human impact on the environment, and are gearing up for their long awaited return to the farmer’s market.

Curried okra and tomatoes taste even better when eaten off a banana leaf

We’re moving into fall now, and most mornings there’s a noticeable chill in the air. But with that chill comes the excitement of what’s to come: the thriving of our new goat family, brassica (kale, broccoli, cabbage) coming back to our garden, and, most importantly, the  prospect of pumpkins!
1st grade scholars putting together a bouquet for their teacher

Friday, April 5, 2013

Broadening our Reach

In November, we flipped the switch.  Moments later, a soft hiss.  Then, a hundred tiny sparkles of fresh water.  Finally our drip irrigation system was finished, bringing water to the production rows.  It was time to plant.

In the four months since that day, the rows have enjoyed a hugely successful first season.  All winter long we've had loads of cabbages, collards, mustards, kale, dill, and onions to harvest; more than we knew what to do with.

Production rows, thriving mid-season
We sautéed mustard greens in class, gave cabbages away to LHA staff, and let scholars harvest after school.  Still, the greens just kept coming.

Fortunately we had a plan.  Since the start of the school year, we've wanted to create a Family Supported Agriculture (FSA) program.  In this program, families would periodically receive a fresh bag of produce from our garden, grown and harvested by LHA scholars.

Scholars prepare bags for the FSA
The FSA has been an opportunity for our middle schoolers to take more ownership over the garden.  Our morning class got to custom-design the bags, and each Friday they harvest part of what goes home.  Our afternoon class harvests the rest, places it in the bags, then delivers it to scholars to take home.

Middle school scholars celebrate another great harvest!
Even with the FSA, we still had more than enough produce to go around.  So we contacted the Marketplace at Armstrong Park and set up a partnership to sell our produce at their weekly farmer's market.  Now, our afternoon class has become a market-based course where scholars learn business ethics and logistics and take food to market every Thursday afternoon.  In our first two weeks, we made a combined $137 in sales!

Scholars practice the art of the marketing
The market and FSA programs have helped our scholars understand how gardening can have a positive impact on our school community and beyond.  Each of us has the power to grow and share foods that contribute to healthy lifestyles for ourselves, our families, and the broader community.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Young Scientists

"I found a clue!" said Chelsea, holding up a thumb-sized white seashell.  "I wonder if this soil came from the ocean."

This week Chelsea and her classmates are developing their skills as scientists.  Over the past few weeks they've learned the nitty-gritty about soil composition.  First we made soil smoothies where each ingredient represented a different soil component: Oranges for sand, strawberries for silt, blueberries for clay, and bananas for organic matter.  Next we explored different soils in the garden to determine the primary components of several samples.  Scholars learned that darker soils have more organic matter, smoother soils have more clay, and grittier soils have more sand.

Soil scientists hard at work
This week we're exploring soil's origins.  We learned that 10,000 years ago Southern Louisiana was all open water, with no land in sight.  Over several millennia soil eroded into the Mississippi River, traveling down its length before being deposited right here.  In other words, all of the soil around us is from somewhere else!

That's especially true of our garden, where most of our soil has only been around since LHA's renovation.  Our clay foundation was shipped in, while the soil we use for growing was either delivered or created right here through composting or lasagna layering.

Using a trowel and their senses of sight, smell and touch, third grade scholars searched for evidence and made inferences about our soil's origins.  Other than the shells, scholars also noticed horse manure, inferring that some of our soil comes from a farm or stables.

Scholars share observations and inferences
This year all of our K-3 classes parallel each grade's science and social studies curriculum.  Our goal is for scholars to make relevant and meaningful connections with classroom content during their time in the garden.

1st grade scholars searching for red wiggler worms
Scholars typically learn something in the classroom and then experience it hands-on in the garden the following week.  Other lessons have included using magnifying glasses to see the world from an ant's perspective, running a simple machines relay race as an experiment, and melting s'mores in a pizza-box solar oven to learn about heat absorption.  Yum!

Solar Oven S'mores!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Citrus Field Trip

Winter in the garden is a leafy-green time in the Dreamkeeper garden.  Our production rows are finally in use and they're filled with all sorts of brassicas (cabbage, mustards, collards broccoli, brussel sprouts) and root vegetables (carrots, beets, radishes), almost all of which produce large, edible greens and no fruit.

Luckily, winter in Louisiana is like a giant citrus party.  Markets fill with bright-colored mesh bags of local oranges and satsumas as farmers truck in their crops from all around the southern part of the state.

Our scholars take citrus season a step further.  For the second year in a row, LHA's 4th grade scholars got to take a field trip to a local citrus farm.

We arrived at Isabelle's Citrus Farm, located just along the levee in Belle Chase, on the West Bank in Plaquemines Parish.  Farmer Isabelle, who owns and manages the farm, greeted us warmly and began the grand citrus tour.

Farmer Isabelle, giving scholars a tour
The first thing scholars noticed was the moat around her house, a ring of water covered with a thin layer of a strange green material.

"Algae!"  Farmer Isabelle explained.  "We harvest the algae and use it as an organic fertilizer for our citrus trees."

Algae! (left)
"Organic?" Wondered some scholars, "What do you mean by that?"

"Organic means I don't use any toxic or dangerous chemicals on my farm.  Our fruit is so safe that you can even eat the skin."

Next we wandered through her groves of grapefruits, satsumas, oranges, and tangelos.  Tangelos!  We'd never seen such a big citruses!

Finally, we got a taste for ourselves.  Each scholar got to eat a satsuma, a navel orange, or a grapefruit.  Scholars peeled them by hand, made compost piles out of the skins, and shared so that everyone got to try each variety.

The tastiest part of our field trip.
We thanked Farmer Isabelle and loaded over 100 pounds of citrus onto the buses to share with the rest of LHA scholars.  That Friday everybody at school got a taste, too!

~100 pounds of citrus, ~70 pound scholar
Farmer Isabelle counts herself lucky among citrus farmers.  Back in September, the storm surge from Hurricane Isaac topped the levee system in Plaquemines Parish, causing catastrophic damage to this year's citrus crop.  Many farmers lost 75% or more of their crop, and the season is expected to end prematurely.

Aspiring citrus farmers?
Some farms may take years to fully recover, while others may be forced to close.  But there's hope.  If our scholars are any indication, it doesn't look like Louisiana citrus will lose its appeal anytime soon!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

From Seed to Table with Dillard University Community Development Corporation

As the bus full of 4th and 5th grade Langston Hughes scholars drove up Gentilly Boulevard, a group of white stone buildings came into view, bordered by manicured lawns and mature live oaks.  The bus approached a traffic light, swung a left and entered the campus of Dillard University.

For some of our scholars, this visit was the first time they had stepped foot on a college campus.  All of them were impressed by the architecture, the landscaping, and finally, the reason why they were here: Dillard's state-of-the-art greenhouse.

Last spring, Louisiana Blue Cross Blue Shield awarded a generous Impact Grant to fund a partnership between the Dreamkeeper Garden and the Dillard University Community Development Corporation.  The goals of the partnership are to provide hands-on experience growing food from seed-to-table, expand the size and capacity of the Dreamkeeper Garden, develop a mentoring program between Dillard and LHA students, and increase food access and awareness to the Gentilly neighborhood.  This initial class visit was the first step in that direction.

As LHA scholars entered the greenhouse for the first time, they met to their "Botany Buddies" - Dillard botany students who would act as mentors, teachers, and partners.  After some get-to-know-you time, scholars and Botany Buddies worked together to propagate some seeds that would germinate and grow in the greenhouse, in preparation for their final destination in the Dreamkeeper Garden.

Over the next few weeks, scholars and Botany Buddies shared what they had learned about seeds, photosynthesis, and different ways to grow plants.  Together, they've been maintaining the greenhouse and taking care of their seedlings, watching patiently as the growth process unfolds.

Many of our scholars share the dream of attending college, and some would be the first person in their families to enroll.  Spending time with their Botany Buddies on a college campus has provided them with role models who've held similar dreams and made them into reality.  Scholars at LHA hear the message over and over again, and with our Dillard partnership they see it firsthand: with effort and dedication, dreams of attending college can come true.

After weeks of care we saw our seedlings mature into outdoor-ready plants.  On a chilly Thursday morning the Botany Buddies arrived at LHA to transplant cabbage, kale, broccoli, and other fall vegetables into the production rows.

These plantings marked a special moment in the history of the Dreamkeeper garden.  Our dream of a full seed-to-table educational experience came one step closer to reality, as did our dream of expanding access to fresh, healthy food for LHA families and the Gentilly community.  In a few months these vegetables will go directly to families as part of our Family Supported Agriculture (FSA) initiative, a program in which LHA families help grow and maintain the garden in exchange for a box of fresh, organic produce.

Every new idea beings like a seed: small but with great potential.  In the coming months and years, we're hoping to foster a shift in the community that brings people together, broadens access to good food, and supports people in living healthier lifestyles.  With nurturing, persistence, and the support of our partners, we'll help that seed grow.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Garden Class for Everyone? No problem!

After weeks of experimenting, a 4th grade scholar found a way
to get monarch butterflies to climb on his fingers!
This year for the first time the Dreamkeeper Garden is able to offer classes to every single scholar at Langston Hughes Academy.  You read that right, every single one!  Because of scheduling changes this year and expanded specials offerings, the garden team has been able to offer garden classes to Middle School scholars with three daily electives.

The next few posts will offer a glimpse into each of our classes, all the way from Kindergarten to 8th grade.  Today we'll begin with our 4th and 5th grade daily elective class.

The scholars in this class chose garden as their elective at the beginning of the first trimester, and we see them every day except Wednesdays.  This elective gives students the opportunity to get in-depth knowledge of the skills and science of organic gardening.

Chopping compost is more fun with a friend.
On Mondays and Tuesdays we might learn about different types of seeds, or perhaps how best to propagate different vegetables and ornamental plants.  Every Thursday we travel to Dillard University to work with botany students in their campus greenhouse (more on that later!) and every Friday we harvest vegetables, chop discarded fruit for compost, and prepare a healthy garden snack.

By the end of the trimester, scholars will know how to start their own garden from scratch, and have a few neat tricks for preparing the food they've grown.  For the first time, we're able to offer the kind of seed-to-table experience that we've been dreaming about for years!

At the end of a hard week's work, scholars enjoy some guacamole!