By Jeff Manuel, PhD candidate in History at the University of Minnesota. IHRC Affiliated Faculty
As Donna Gabaccia recently pointed out on this site, much of the concern over immigrant education in the U.S. is aimed at teenage high school and college students (e.g. the Dream Act) and ignores the many thousands of younger immigrant children attending mandatory k-12 education. How and what should these younger students be taught? Teachers of younger children—including young immigrants and the children of immigrants—face daunting challenges as they navigate both the educational and social needs of these children and mandatory public education’s historical imperative to Americanize immigrants. Yet in spite of these challenges the elementary classroom is also fertile terrain, where instructors are crafting innovative approaches to teaching young people about their world, no matter where they or their parents were born. In honor of Mother’s Day, I’d like to share one such story about, well, my mom.
For several years, my mom and several other volunteers have worked to create an elementary curriculum that uses gardening to teach students about diversity: of plants and people. The idea is fairly simple. Take a suburban school with a diverse student population, an open plot of land, and some active kids. Add seeds from plants grown around the world, water, and sunshine—and, presto, you have a global garden. Students work with teachers and volunteer master gardeners to grow the plants and the lesson carries over into the classroom as the children learn about plant biology. But the program also has a unique method of teaching about the diversity of people as well. The garden features plants used by different cultures around the globe and as students learn about Asian bittermelon or peppers from Central America, they are also learning about the cultures that grow and use these plants. The curriculum also allows parents to join in the cultivation. (News coverage of the program from 2006)
From the perspective of immigration scholars and historians, the global garden program is interesting because it offers one possibility—there clearly are many more—for balancing an active and informative elementary curriculum with a sensitivity to the complicated role that mandatory state-run education often plays in the lives of immigrants to the U.S. and their families. For the non-English speaking parents of elementary age youth, their child’s school can be an unwelcoming institution despite the best intentions of educators and school officials. Yet a curriculum based on gardening allows such parents to share their own expertise in a context that is not language specific. The language of gardening, it turns out, is surprisingly universal.