Thomas Jefferson Elementary School science teacher Renee Heinrich was explaining a lesson on measurement and the metric system Wednesday morning.
She told the class of 18 third-graders that they would weigh 10 cherry tomatoes to determine their weight in grams. "Do we get to eat 'em?" asked one girl.
Heinrich smiled: "Yes. You can eat them."
"Yay!" the class yelled together.
That response was music to Heinrich's ears. She and other Jefferson educators have been using the garden to teach children more about healthy eating and how food is grown and produced, Daily Herald Media reported. They started last year by having students plant seeds, and then in the spring and summer, students and parents helped create and plant the plot. There is a wide variety of plants and vegetables, including beans, tomatoes, corn, kale, spinach, pumpkins and fennel.
As the garden developed, Heinrich noticed that planting seeds and watching them grow spurred the students' curiosity and drive to learn. So she started incorporating the garden into her regular lesson plans, and she found that it helped focus their minds. The measuring lesson, for example, could have been done inside, but out in the garden, the students enthusiastically measured beans, weighed tomatoes and watered plants with precisely measured doses of water.
Meanwhile, Heinrich also talked to them about the plants and encouraged them to try produce such as beans, ground cherries and fennel.
Heinrich, who never planted a garden before in her life, said she's astonished at the power it has to engage children.
"This garden is truly a place where magic happens," she said.
The idea for the garden originated with Theresa O'Brien, the parent partnership coordinator at Jefferson. She thought a garden would be a good way for the school to engage the parents of Hmong and Hispanic students. Through word of mouth and efforts of a variety of administrators, the Marathon County Health Department got involved, helping to organize and fund the project.
The garden is a key component to summer and after-school programs, O'Brien said, and the garden has been the conduit that connects the school to the community. Parents helped plant, neighbors often help maintain the garden, and the educators have distributed the veggies to families in the neighborhood.
Heinrich said she is energized by the garden's power, too, because she sees it making a difference in her students' lives.
"We can put them in a lunchroom and put the same vegetables in a lunchroom and they're not trying them," she said. "But we bring them out here and we say, 'Oh, these are so good and they're so healthy, and it kind of tastes like sugar to me.' And all of a sudden, they're tasting cherry tomatoes, and they don't taste so bad."