At the Mundo Verde Bilingual Charter School, the school garden also serves as a classroom. The students get to know much more than plants.
WASHINGTON – Every school should have a garden. This is the philosophy of Carissa Tirado-Marks, which she lives by as a Sustainability Manager at the Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School in DC.
Nestled on P Street in Northwest DC, plants and children grow together in this garden. Radishes sprout from the ground, a herb bed, a cluster of fig trees, a tongue-numbing plant (a favorite of the students), and mint (a favorite of the neighbors).
The garden doubles as a classroom, a space of growth and transformation for the elementary school students, whose educational centers are located around the world. Tirado-Marks helps create what will hopefully be a lifelong relationship between her students and the planet.
Pre-K students learn about trees. Kindergarten children study vegetables. Third graders discover the complexities of water use, a curriculum shaped by Mundo Verde’s 25,000-gallon water system that fires the building’s faucets, flushes its toilets, and feeds its garden hoses. Fifth graders rotate to sell produce at a weekly market.
Teaching children about the planet is no easy feat. The fresh vegetables these students grow are hard to come by in parts of their own city. The frequency and intensity of severe weather events shows that climate change is already affecting their homes.
Every day, Tirado-Marks faces a challenge that many parents find difficult to address: how to empower students not only to care for the earth, but to save it? Tirado-Marks says this form of education should be positive.
“We want to give [students] Information so they can make good decisions,” said Tirado-Marks. “But we don’t want to make it so they don’t work or they’re so scared they can’t act, because that’s the next generation of environmental activists.”
Tirado-Marks manages Mundo Verde’s school gardens on the 8th St. and P St. campuses, as well as the school’s compost program, waste initiatives, cooking and gardening classes, and learning experiences.
A weekly highlight: the bustling garden market, where fifth graders sell local produce to family, friends and neighbors. Colin Waters, a fifth grader, says the market has been a blast.
“Working there just makes me feel really good,” Waters said. “It makes me feel important, like I’m helping a lot.”
In the garden, Waters likes to look for bugs and munch on bok choy. He thinks we should all pick up more trash.
“Sustainability keeps the world intact,” said Waters. “Without sustainability, it would collapse.”
Mandolyn Brown, a student at Mundo Verde, patiently explains why it’s so important to buy food that’s grown locally.
“If it’s shipped from far, far away it can usually use a lot of fuel, but if it’s local it won’t use as much fuel. Also, it’s better to eat things in season because that usually requires fewer pesticides and things,” Brown said.
The garden is a place for all kinds of classes, not just climate-related topics. The garden center teaches fifth graders about money management and customer service. Behind the table covered with goods, Tirado-Marks watches as her students transform.
“It’s really exciting because sometimes they come here and they’re very nervous or insecure and by the end they’re usually really proud that they made it,” said Tirado-Marks.
One of the most important lessons Tirado-Marks teaches is one that many students are familiar with: sharing.
This mission is obvious as soon as you enter the house. The garden gate is never locked and the neighbors know that they can help themselves – many do.
Mundo Verde products can extend a few blocks beyond the school walls. Tirado-Marks hopes that her students’ knowledge will take them much further. She teaches her students how to share the information they learn: be friendly, be welcoming. Welcome people, don’t scare them away.
“Seeing the kids being so energetic and excited about being part of the solution gives me a lot of hope,” said Tirado-Marks.
When we ask about the garden, third-grader Eva Zongo beams.
“Plants don’t just help us breathe, not just help us eat,” Zongo said. “It’s not just plants, it’s a way to connect. It’s a way of having a community.”
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