On the Impact of SPEC’s School Gardens Program

By Janey Lee, Teacher at Thunderbird Elementary, SPEC Fundraiser and Celebration Speech, 

Good evening everyone. My name is Janey Lee and for the past 19 years I have been proudly teaching at Thunderbird Elementary. Thunderbird is a Tier 1 inner city, east side school in Vancouver. Thunderbird is located across the street from the largest social housing project in the province which is where many of our students live. In our school, we have a lot of students from working poor families, single parent households, and immigrant and refugee families. Each year, I usually have 8 to 12 different languages represented in my classroom and it is beautifully diverse. We have many vulnerable students who in spite of the challenges that their families face, are resilient and amazing.

In February of 2012, our school formed a wonderful community partnership with SPEC after Russ Evan, the tech teacher from Tupper, worked with all the students at our school to help build 4 beautiful planters and a compost bin so that we can start a community garden at Thunderbird.

School gardens are so important as it engages learners on how to grow food and provide food systems that are sustainable. Today, I would like to share with you what I have seen as some the benefits of having SPEC deliver “school garden education” at Thunderbird over the past 5 years.

There are few, if any, opportunities for many of our students to be exposed to gardens and gardening as many of them do not have a yard. This is where SPEC comes in. The biggest benefit I see is that the SPEC “garden education program” compensates for this missed opportunity by connecting our students to food, to nature and to their environment by introducing the power of gardening. The Thunderbird school garden is an empowering way to engage our students in real life experiences, where they learn about food security and how to grow their own organic fruits and veggies.

The children are always highly engaged in all the fun and hands-on lessons and activities, which SPEC provides. It just ignites their curiosity and passion. It warms my heart to see the sheer joy and excitement exuding from our students as they learn about soil, worm composting, how seeds travel, flowers and pollinators and especially insects in the garden. Each year, Nikoo, the amazing SPEC coordinator, who runs the lessons, even spends the day at our school dressed up in a bee costume when she is teaching the children about flowers and pollinators. They just adore her and she has a great rapport with our students.

In addition to the fabulous SPEC lessons that Nikoo provides throughout the school year, we also use the Thunderbird school garden as an “outdoor classroom”. Throughout the year, our students will bring out magnifying glasses, string and meter sticks to observe, measure, compare and discuss about the different types of plants that are growing. You will often see our Thunderbird students outdoors with clip boards and pens making observational drawings of leaves, plants, flowers and even insects they see in the garden. It is easy to see the students’ overriding sense of pride and ownership of the school garden they so fondly care for.

One of the highlights brought about by the SPEC “garden education program” is the “year end harvest and celebration” in June. It is difficult to get parent volunteers into our school as many are working multiple minimum wage jobs or they may be intimidated to come in because of language barriers. However, when it comes to harvest time, we have many parents who are eager to help harvest the wide range of vegetables and plants from the planters with their children. The school garden has helped to transcend some of these language barriers and has helped to bring our community closer together.

Another fabulous partnership that came out of the gardening program was that Murray, the youth worker at Van Tech, who helps to transition at-risk grade 7s to highschool collaborated with Nikoo from SPEC. They worked together to support Thunderbird’s grade 7 leadership group. In the Spring, these students helped to maintain our school garden with jobs such as building trellises for the peas and also composting. The “Leadership and Resiliency Program” that Murray runs has a large outdoor propane oven. The Thunderbird leadership students came up with the brilliant idea of using some of the vegetables that were harvested to make pizzas in this outdoor oven for the year end harvest celebration. These students had the opportunity to proudly prepare, cook and serve the garden pizzas to over 200 students at our school during our afternoon harvest celebration. The garden pizzas were a huge hit and the kids were keen for 2nd and 3rd helpings. What an empowering learning opportunity these grade 7 students had to be able to display their leadership skills in such a positive way. They also gained valuable life experiences in helping to give back to their own school and community.

To conclude, the benefits and impact of the SPEC “garden education program” can not be underestimated. We would love for you to come join us at our school for a lesson and to watch the children in action to truly experience the joy and excitement the school garden program brings to our students. On behalf of the Thunderbird community, I would like to thank the generous donors and other community partners for your continued support of SPEC. Please know that you are making a lasting and positive difference by providing our appreciative students the opportunity to participate in the SPEC “garden education program” and for that we are most grateful. Thank you.

Janey Lee

Teacher at Thunderbird Elementary