Farm school: One Southwest Philly after-school program teaching grassroots literacy – literally

In his three years as a literacy instructor at Tilden Middle School, Cole Jadrosich, 26, has been looking for ways to teach literacy outside of the classroom. He knew a fellow teacher who maintained a few small planter beds in the far corner of the school’s blacktop. After Jadrosich planted his first vegetable there last year, he started thinking of ways to turn this space into an extension of the classroom.

Since then, that idea has blossomed into an unofficial after-school gardening program. The schoolyard orchard, which has yet to be named, now has 30 planter beds that yield a range of crops, from okrah to amaranth to strawberries. School’s out for the summer, but the grow season is far from over. PW stopped to chat with Jadrosich while he and some students tended to their plants.

It’s been less than a year now. How much progress have you and the students made with the garden?

We have around 20 students between fifth and eighth grade who help tend the garden, but about eight are deeply involved. This is the first year we created an agricultural pipeline program between Tilden, Bartram High School [next door] and Sankofa Community Farm at Bartram’s Gardens [which is in the area]. So when they complete eighth grade, they have a chance to get employment over at the farm.

You’re new to agriculture. In a way, you’re learning alongside the students as you build these planters. What sparked your interest in bridging urban farming and literacy education?

I’ve always known about the lack of resources in the Philadelphia School District. I knew it was going to be really tough. I especially knew the adequate spiritual and emotional services were not going to be provided for the students. As a graduate student in education at UPenn, I’ve also been thinking about what skills educators are learning to be better able to help students liberate themselves, tools to make their communities more sustainable and more autonomous.

While you have the support of the school, this work isn’t part of the student’s classroom curriculum. Do you have an argument that it should be?

I’m hoping to get out of the classroom and try to establish this into a full-time afterschool agricultural program. Since the summer started, I got a grant through a local church to cover me for a couple months, and I’m out here three or four days a week. During the school year it’s hard.

When we tell them ‘junk food is bad,’ it doesn’t seem like a realistic problem. But when we give them a smaller task to do, like growing tomatoes, then solving that mega complication seems a little more feasible.

– Tilden Middle School teacher Cole Jadrosich

But what I’m hoping to is show that the hands-on [gardening] activity gives us a tremendous amount of raw material to develop literacy skills. When we go through our beds, we find certain insects. We take pictures of them, and then the students take those pictures back into library and we research them. It exposes students to a whole new vocabulary.

Do you find that the students connect better with this type of approach?

Engaging in literacy in this way is so different than, say, just giving kids some random essay. So many kids are disconnected from that strategy because they can’t connect it directly with their context and the environment they’re living in. The material isn’t connected to their lives. But if we take the experiences from out here, we find literacy that directly connects it.

Give some examples of ways that you’ve discovered the garden as a platform for education.

A lot of my students and their parents are immigrants from Africa. Mali, the Ivory Coast, Liberia. There’s a very big Liberian population here in the Southwest. In those countries where there’s not as much urbanization and industrialism, it might be a different experience for them. But some students, kids who have grown up in Southwest, there’s not a lot of green space. For the most part, it’s a sea of concrete.

So the garden gives us a chance to explore literacy through heritage, too. So for example, for our African American students, we can reconnect them to their African heritage by growing certain plants. By growing okra. By growing callaloo. The garden can connect students with cultural practices that they may have been disconnected from through colonization. That’s not just for the African students. We also grow plants from the Southeast Asian diaspora, because Southwest and South Philly have a very large Cambodian and Vietnamese communities. There’s a tremendous amount of reading that can be done through it.

Are you able to teach some of the more systemic issues around food justice through the garden? What are the challenges of that?

Lack of fresh food access leads to dependencies on companies and people that we can’t hold accountable and that we’ll never meet. Like potato chips. [Jadrosich points at the planter where students have grown two types of potatoes.] So we don’t know where this stuff is coming from and every time we consume it, we’re producing trash. Students really connect with that when we talk about it. We talk a lot about how everything we buy from the supermarket is wrapped in plastic. I’m still working on how to talk about every single angle with the students. It’s hard because some of them are 10 years old. It’s difficult to give 10-year-olds these complex societal problems.

When we tell them “junk food is bad,” it doesn’t seem like a realistic problem. But when we give them a smaller task to do, like growing tomatoes, then solving that mega complication seems a little more feasible. It’s like “Oh, I don’t have to stop the junk food industry, but I can grow my own food,” which then can in effect counter that system while also empowering themselves.

Has the program helped you build better relationships with students?

I wish you came a little earlier, because we were playing games together. The kids actually taught me a game. So yeah, not being in the classroom, having all this free space, it allows us to laugh and connect about something that we can share together in a different way. It creates stronger relationships between educator and student.


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