Teacher Cultivates Minds in Urban Garden

In the spring of 2000, Dianne Swanson turned over a shovelful of topsoil at Los Cerritos Elementary School and started an agricultural revolution. Today, the garden she began is a key feature of the school and a source of powerful learning. Los Cerritos teachers at all grade levels make use of the plot, bringing students by to find compelling writing topics, to learn how to use rulers and other measuring devices, to experience the difficulty of feeding a family on the American frontier or to witness the life cycle in action. In recognition of her skillful introduction of stimulating agricultural topics into the curriculum at Los Cerritos, Swanson was recently named 2007 Outstanding Teacher of the Year by the California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom. "Agriculture is a huge part of the California economy. It’s the No. 1 industry in the state," Swanson said. "And we are the most powerful agriculture state in the nation, by far. That alone should make it an important part of what we teach here." Her original garden has now grown to include a small barn and coops for chickens, ducks, rabbits and a guinea fowl. A group of dedicated parent volunteers, pleased with the results she is getting with her students, helps maintain the urban farmyard. Students in her second grade classes learn that any lesson in any subject may take them back to the garden. Her classroom also serves as a resource for other teachers, with material for lesson ideas or discussion with Swanson that connects the garden with the state framework. Students in primary grades throughout the school visit the garden approximately every week. "Our garden and the larger picture of agriculture is important in my classroom, school and in the community," Swanson said. "I use it as a springboard to teach others that agriculture is truly the basis for our society." Swanson’s work led to Los Cerritos’ selection as the site for last year’s AgDay LA, a county-level exhibition of presentations and demonstrations for students on agricultural topics. All Los Cerritos students participated in the event, impressing organizers and participants with their agricultural savvy. Exposure to the food grown in the garden may also help students to establish better eating habits that prevent childhood obesity. "They eat turnips, kale, green beans. They eat peas right out of the pod, like candy," Swanson said. "They want to know when they can cut and eat the broccoli. The garden contributes to their lives in so many ways."