Organic Opportunities/Life Learning Academy: Getting Dirty to Build a Cleaner Planet
Gardens are often used as hands-on learning tools to teach students about topics as diverse as math, biology, art, and mathematics. Educators at the Life Learning Academy have developed a new take on this approach with a series of classes known as Organic Opportunities. At this San Francisco charter school, students learn how the decisions they make about what to eat are connected to every other aspect of their lives, as well as to the future health of our planet.
Organic Opportunities student showing off
the greenhouse production
The Life Learning Academy (LLA) is a unique school. It is located on a flat strip of land in San Francisco Bay, on a former U.S. naval base named Treasure Island. Life Learning Academy is a public charter school, and also a second-chance school. This means that most of the approximately 60 students have faced challenges in regular public schools, and some have come to the Academy after passing through the San Francisco juvenile justice system. But each one of them has passed the series of interviews that are required for admission, and has come to the Academy for the unique project-based learning experience offered here. Teachers at the Life Learning Academy believe that learning is not only about reading and writing, but about thinking and doing. The Organic Opportunities classes are an example of this, where students spend time in an outdoor garden classroom and lessons include field trips to San Francisco area farms, orchards, grocery stores, and community gardens. Courses are designed around "high value, high interest activities designed to give the classes meaning" says former science teacher and program developer Park Guthrie. Through this format, says Guthrie, "students are able to be positive agents of change."
The Outdoor Classroom
Working in a "Living Classroom"
Because Treasure Island was only recently a U.S. Naval base, the island is sparsely populated, and there is much vacant land and also vacant buildings. The island is virtually treeless, and the sunny San Francisco climate allows for almost year-round cultivation of fruits, vegetables, and flowers. The garden plot in which Life Learning Academy students meet for classes covers about 8,000 square feet, and is a mixture of ornamental beds and food production beds. One portion of the garden is devoted to California natives, and contains a pergola which acts as a "living classroom" when school is in session. The garden is cared for by Academy students during the school year, and over the summers it is tended by science teacher Zachary O'Donnell and two student employees. The garden also features a greenhouse, which was designed and built by math teacher Jamie Pillers and his students, as well as a solar panel which helps supply a portion of the school's electrical power.
This outdoor classroom also allows Life Learning Academy to share their efforts with the local community. Sometimes a local childcare center brings children there for afternoon farm tours which are lead by Academy Students. Guthrie believes that these tours are valuable because they give the LLA students "the chance to become a role model" and to share their knowledge with the younger children.
A series of classes use the Academy garden, including math, science, economics, art, and culinary arts classes. Culinary arts students, for example, study under local chef Clell Hoffman and meet twice a week and to create fresh meals for the school's cafeteria, and use garden produce when it is in abundance. The Culinary Arts classes cook every meal for the school's cafeteria. Occasionally, they use fresh produce from the garden for school meals and about twice a week they prepare garden-snacks for the afternoon Culinary Arts and gardening classes. For students who want to spend more time in the garden and learn more about how healthy foods help support healthy communities, there is also the elective gardening class known as Organic Opportunities. The class meets twice a week and has two primary components - a service learning component and a food systems component.
Constructing the Organic
Designed by local activist and former science teacher Park Guthrie, this "whole systems" class is modeled in part after an ecological horticulture apprenticeship offered at UC Santa Cruz, and includes garden work as well as multiple field trips to food-related destinations in the San Francisco Bay area. In the past, Organic Opportunities students have visited The Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, as well as local farms, grocery stores, farmers markets, and urban community gardens. The goal of the curriculum is to teach students about the interrelatedness of food systems, to emphasize that fruits and vegetables don't come only from the grocery store, but from a complex linkage of farmers, distributors, producers, consumers, and multiple natural processes. Current Organic Opportunities teacher, Zachary O'Donnell, plans to teach his students about the differences between organic farms and conventional ones through a series of field trips to both types of farms. The hands-on experience gained by visiting the farms will then be applied to lessons about the impacts each type of food production system has on human and ecological health. In the coming school year students will also be able to tend their own private plot in the school's garden, making their own decisions about what to plant, when to plant it, and how to care for it. O'Donnell believes that having a personal plot will motivate students, and allow them to have pride in their efforts.
Organic Opportunities in the Treasure Island Community
Organic Opportunities students also take their knowledge and experience into the Treasure Island community, and use gardening and food production as a way to improve the quality of life for island residents. Treasure Island is a small community of about 3,000 residents, many of them low income. There are few jobs on the island, no supermarkets, and only one small café (which is managed and staffed by the culinary arts students of Life Learning Academy). While a few students do live in Treasure Island, most commute from San Francisco, so the school is continually trying to build linkages with the local residents. Organic Opportunities and the school garden have provided excellent avenues through which to make these connections.
Organic Opportunities students with
science teacher Zachary O'Donnell
in the garden
Organic Opportunities currently manages a small CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program, which was developed in order to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to the Treasure Island Community. The students also make regular deliveries to the local food pantry of fresh fruits and vegetables grown in the garden, and also manage a farm stand at the annual Treasure Island community festival where they sell produce and provide information about nutrition and food systems. It is projects such as these - projects that "give the class meaning" - which allow students to view the real-life application of the theories they have learned in the classroom.
For more information about Organic Opportunities and the Life Learning Academy, contact Organic Opportunities developer Park Guthrie; 510.233.4253; email@example.com or current Organic Opportunities teacher Zachary O'Donnell; 415.397.8957; firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit http://lifelearningacademysf.org.