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How Does Your Garden Grow? By Cultivating Partners

Urban Students Learn About Composting, Plant Cycles, Spiders

Put a bunch of third-graders in a garden and the subject of spiders is bound to come up.

The crawly creatures were a hot topic among Renee Howard’s students at Congress Elementary School, when they ventured with “Farmer Mike” into the community garden on school grounds. Mike Miller is employed by Brewery Vivant, a nearby business that partners with Congress to teach students about organic gardening, composting and, yes, spiders.

Miguel Rodriguez shows no fear of holding a spider, while Lokk Bumstead (center) and Shaniya Andrews keep their distance

“That’s a big spider,” Miller said on a recent morning, pointing one out to a few students. “Spiders are good, though, because they actually eat all the bugs in the garden.” He showed the big spider in his palm to a girl, who squeaked and jumped back.

“I hate spiders!” exclaimed another girl when a classmate proudly held one in his hand. But yet another girl held one in hers, apparently sold on their useful role in gardening.

Beyond the spider drama, students are also learning about plants, how worms renew the soil and healthy eating through the Congress-Vivant partnership. Miller has helped them start a compost bin and grow hydroponic lettuce in their classroom, and led them in pulling weeds and dead plants from the garden and hauling them to a bin behind Brewery Vivant for composting.

“My hope is, with a little bit of instruction over time, to repair the disconnect that I see between the foods consumed and kids’ knowledge of them,” said Miller, who grows greens served at Brewery Vivant. “It’s easier to grab a bag of Cheez-Its than it is to wash an apple.”

Mariska Thompson looks surprised to learn that sunflower seeds are edible

Learning Through Digging

Howard ties her lessons on the life cycle of plants to students’ work in the Cornelius Kos Community/School Garden, a joint urban-farming venture between Congress and the East Hills neighborhood.

“They’re learning from their experiences rather than learning from just a textbook,” Howard said. “It’s broadening their horizons as well … involving them a little bit more in the community.”

Brewery Vivant’s partnership is about being involved in the community too. Since its founding nearly five years ago, the craft brewery at 925 Cherry St. SE has helped out the school directly across Lake Drive SE as part of a larger East Hills support initiative. From funding soccer nets and planting trees to coaching Girls on the Run and supporting Kids’ Food Basket, the business aims to be a “good neighbor” to Congress, said co-owner Kris Spaulding.

“If there are ways we can create a better learning environment for the kids who go to school and live in our neighborhood, we want to help out as much as we can,” Spaulding said.

In the recent unit on plant cycles and composting, students helped Miller create a compost bin of shredded newspaper, food scraps and red wriggler worms. Over time it will produce black dirt to put in the garden. The plants grown there eventually will be composted. Said Miller, “They’ll be able to see a complete cycle, from seed to soil to growing and then back.”

The garden is the students’ living laboratory, where they harvest tomatoes, basil and peppers. Said Howard, the Congress teacher, “Seeing all my quiet little girls digging in the dirt is really awesome.”

On a recent morning, students got their hands dirty as they cradled worms and cleared out weeds. “Just start grabbin’ the weeds and rippin’ ‘em out,” Miller invited them.

Several did so with gusto while Iyanna Morris collected the debris in a garbage bag for composting. “We go to Farmer Mike and make it into soil,” she said.

“What have you seen that’s cool so far?” Miller asked as they carried the weeds to Brewery Vivant.

“The spider, the black spider!” one boy piped up.

“I hate spiders,” a girl protested.


Congress Elementary School

Brewery Vivant community involvement

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.


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