School Gardens Revolutionize Education

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By Jeff Rogers

Masikren, Haiti – There was a time when teachers in this tiny, mountain-top village would have been ashamed to get their hands dirty. In Haiti, teachers are generally thought to be above agricultural work, and schools are supposed to prepare students to leave farming behind.

Then last year the teachers here visited the Matènwa Community Learning Center, an innovative model school founded 16 years ago. What they saw in Matènwa was a radically different way of doing education – an approach focused on critical thinking that used non-violent classroom management techniques.

“To hear and to see is to believe,” said Harry St. Vel, a teacher at the Baptist School of Masikren, one of 10 schools in the area now developing its own garden.

St. Vel and his colleagues saw agriculture being integrated into almost every aspect of the school curriculum. Each classroom had its own experimental garden that both produced food for a daily hot meal for students and prepared them to return home and share the improved farming practices they learned with their families.

“We’re working hard to change our approach to education in so many ways,” St. Vel said, “including instruction in our native language of Creole, using classroom discussions to develop leadership skills, employing means other than corporal punishment to manage our classrooms, and now, with the school gardens, tying our classroom learning to daily life.”

In a typical Haitian classroom, students memorize passages in French, a language they don’t use at home, and are beaten or humiliated if they give a wrong answer. Curiosity and critical thinking are discouraged.

“Few teachers have had any training to teach,” said David Diggs, executive director of Beyond Borders, “so they often replicate the same repressive approach they endured as students. This is why model schools like Matènwa are so important. Teachers and parents see how schools can bring dramatic improvements to their community rather than simply prepare students to search for a better life away from their community.”

Chris Low, an associate staff member of Beyond Borders, co-founded the model school in Matènwa.  “Our strategy is empowerment, rather than dependency,” Low said.  “When given the space and resources to implement new ideas, parents have confidence in their own capacities and personal experiences,” said Low, who added that parental and student ownership over the gardens is key.

The parents and children alike are “excited already” about the launch and initial success of the gardens, according to St. Vel. “To accomplish such huge changes it’s important that parents are on-board, and the school gardens pull the parents in.”

Parents regularly stop by the gardens to help till the ground and to see how the crops are doing, and the initial success has inspired confidence in parents who are now starting their own vegetable gardens at home.

“It’s already happening,” St. Vel said as he talked about starting his own garden. “I’m a school teacher, but I’m also a parent, and if you come to my house you will see that we have already put our hands to the earth to start our own vegetable garden. We’re learning together that we can produce enough food on a small piece of land to both supplement our own diets and to have left over to sell. A home vegetable garden could even provide enough income to pay for school tuition.”

This is especially critical in rural areas where few if any state-funded national schools operate. Instead, locally funded community schools and private schools are the only option for most families.

Anderson St. Vel, Harry’s cousin and a local pastor as well as the school administrator in Masikren, said the gardens have another unforeseen benefit – bringing children and adults together in ways not often seen.

“When you visit our school garden it will be difficult to tell who is a teacher, who is the principal, who is a pastor, who are parents, and even who are the students,” he said.

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