By. Paul Hudak, Director of the Seed to Table Program at MUSE School (Calabasas, California)
Nestled in the San Fernando Valley surrounded by the Santa Monica Mountains, MUSE is a K-12 passion-based learning school that teaches “garden class” a bit different than most other schools. At MUSE School, located in Calabasas, California, our Seed to Table program provides students with a garden education that is deeply embedded across the curriculum. Although students have a class in the garden at least once a week, their garden education is part of their daily school experience. When walking to other classes or just to the lunch line it is not uncommon to see students grazing on the seasonal bounty or pausing at the compost bins to toss in their apple core or orange peels. The gardens are prominently located on the property so that students have easy access and exposure to these outdoor classrooms.
The gardens at MUSE cover nearly an acre. The students grow close to 300 varieties of herbs, vegetables, and flowers. Each year over 4000 pounds of food is harvested for use in the cafeteria, for sale at local markets, or for use in cooking classes with students. Students are involved in every step of the process including seeding, planting, and harvesting. An inherent part of this learning process is the interdisciplinary curriculum framework that supports deeper learning. Students are failing forward by observing the inherent challenges in maintaining gardens such as drought, pests, and the occasional stray ball from the kickball field.
We put the student at the center of their education experience at MUSE, nurturing each student’s individual interests and passions in and out of the classroom. A more personally relevant education is attained by supporting students in reaching academic benchmarks through their interests. In the garden setting, we have utilized many students’ individual passions to create a dynamic program for all. Of course, there are certain lessons that are taught each year to give students a foundation of knowledge around sustainability, organic gardening, health, and nutrition. However, by allowing individual student voice to blossom we have been able to grow the program in unique ways that are ultimately relevant to students and their peers.
The “Table” portion of Seed to Table always gets students engaged in the garden. With our outdoor kitchen, students have the space to learn how to harvest food they have grown and convert it into healthy dishes. We often embrace the “Master Chef” style of cooking in class, dividing students into two teams and mixing personality types to encourage cooperation and collaboration. Students are given an array of “secret” ingredients and must create a dish using these ingredients. They also have access to everything else growing in the garden to encourage creativity. The teams are assessed on creativity, presentation, taste, and texture. A guest judge is always brought in to help assess them. This judge could be a staff member or someone from the community, such as a local chef. We have witnessed that students are always engaged in this activity and rise to the occasion to work together and apply the knowledge they have learned in the garden.
An example of a cross-curricular project is our popping grain unit, where we teach students to grow five different varieties of popping corns and grains. Students learn about the geographical area from which these grains originated and what historical significance they had. Then they are taught how to grow the plant to maturity. Math and science are incorporated into this process through soil preparation and bed planning. When the grains are harvested, students pop them all and do a blind taste test to assess the flavor of these ambien to buy plants. We also bring in multiple varieties of store bought popcorn. Students compare the flavor, size, and shape of each variety and find that ancient heirloom varieties often have a more desirable flavor, but a significantly smaller size than their store-bought counterparts. This leads to a discussion about food politics as we talk about GMOs and the marketability of produce that is uniform in appearance.
Our focus on gardening curriculum at MUSE School has led to some incredible student directed projects, such as sixth grader Emma’s Native American natural medicine project. Emma is of Native American descent and decided she wanted to study the natural medicine that her family’s tribe traditionally used. Through extensive research she was able to identify five herbs that were commonly used for medicine by this tribe, among them white sage, mint, and calendula. Next, she sourced the plants and nurtured them to the point of being ready to plant out. Then it was on to studying soil science and composition. Once the soil was prepared she studied the spatial needs of each plant and measured out the bed, placing each plant in an ideal location that would lead to the optimal growth conditions. After about a month the plants were at the point where they could be harvested. Through historical research and communication with her uncle she learned the traditional process for harvesting white sage which, after harvesting, was dehydrated and burned in a ceremonial bowl. The mint was also dehydrated and turned into a tea that was used for curing stomach ailments. In particular, Emma wanted to make a healing salve with the calendula flowers. A salve is a cream that can be infused with medicinal herbs (like calendula) and is used topically for healing burns, cuts, scrapes, and mild skin conditions. Emma soaked dried calendula flowers in olive oil for 3 weeks to draw out the medicinal properties of the flowers. After 3 weeks, the flowers were strained out of the oil. Next a predetermined amount of beeswax was melted and mixed in with the infused olive oil. Once allowed to cool it converted into a semi-solid state that was perfect for spreading as a cream. Finally, Emma presented what she had learned over the last several months to her peers, teaching them about the history of the tribe, herbs, and how to make salve.
There are many examples of garden and cooking projects that have been inspired by our students’ passions. MUSE teachers facilitate deeper student learning because the curriculum is built around student interests and passions. We believe that critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication skills are nurtured when students play a central role in leading their learning experience. Whether a student passionate about graphic design, gaming, music, skateboarding, human rights, or fashion, we find ways to infuse garden education into every passion and academic content area. This approach prepares students for college, career, and life. With a little creativity and cooperation between student and teacher the sky is the limit for what garden education in the 21st century can look like.
About the Author
Paul Hudak works at MUSE School as the Director of the Seed to Table program. He gains daily inspiration teaching students about health, cooking, and organic gardening. In the classroom setting, Paul enjoys sharing his passion for sustainability with students of all ages. In a previous life, Paul spent over 10 years managing large-scale and boutique certified organic farms in Oregon. He is thrilled to live his passion daily at MUSE School. Paul has given presentations at various conferences across the country, including most recently at SXSW.