Over the years, as I have facilitated the sixth-grade English Language Arts curriculum, I have always wanted to incorporate Paul Fleischman’s book, “Seedfolks.” An intriguing quote from the author himself is what piqued my interest in wanting to teach this novel. Fleischman said, “Community gardens were oases in the urban landscape of fear, places where people could safely offer trust, helpfulness, charity, without the need for an earthquake or hurricane... Community gardens are places where people rediscover not only generosity but also the pleasure of coming together. I salute all those who give their time and talents to rebuilding that sense of belonging.” (Paul Fleischman, 2019, ‘Goodreads’) Now that I am transitioning to the eighth-grade teaching position, I can still incorporate this book because its themes relate to the eighth-grade curriculum as well.
“Seedfolks” describes the creation of a community garden in Cleveland, Ohio. The book tells the story of how a community garden helps solidify a community, bringing together people of various ages, cultures, and ethnicities for a common purpose: bettering themselves and their neighborhood. Each chapter of the book tells a different individual’s story and background. It describes their relationship to the United States and the varied reasons that brought them here. Through their stories, we discern their relationship with the land and the fulfillment of seeing something grow under inhospitable conditions.
In the English Language Arts (ELA) eighth-grade curriculum for the New Haven Public Schools (NHPS), the first unit focuses on self-identity and community. We work with Nikki Grime’s novel, “Between the Lines.” Grime’s novel describes a class full of students from all walks of life, each with personal struggles and challenges unknown to their peers. Every student in the class has something important to say, and they do so through the sharing of poetry. Like the garden in “Seedfolks,” poetry in “Between the Lines” binds the multitude together, creating a shared experience that might not otherwise occur. As the characters get to know each other, they bond over shared experiences and truths that emerge as they work on their poetry. “Seedfolks” aligns well with these topics and themes we typically cover and serves as a valuable complement to “Between the Lines.” Additionally, “Seedfolks” supports cross-curricular activities in Social Studies, as students will learn to identify where they fit within their community. In our ELA classes, we often make inferences and predictions about individual characters, but seldom as a collective community. This is where “Seedfolks” can introduce the concept of communal unity and shared experience.
According to the periodical “Soil Science Society of America,” community gardens are community-managed open spaces designed to revitalize areas that might be seen as abandoned. These gardens serve multiple purposes: they combat food insecurity, promote community health through improved nutrition and exercise, and help fight climate change by reducing the distance food travels, thus minimizing carbon footprints (2023). While many of these benefits seem environmental, we recognize that community gardens play a broader role. As stated by Unidos US (2015), “Community gardens bring people together where they work side by side…” This collaborative spirit extends beyond the gardens and permeates the wider community.
Over fifty community gardens exist in the greater New Haven area as of 2023 (GatherNewHaven.org, 2023). For our students, this is new information. To help them understand the role community gardens play in the city, it's essential to delve into the history of gardens in New Haven.
In 1982, the New Haven Land Trust was established. From 1982 to around 1990, the Land Trust's primary objective was to generate interest and community investment in open spaces within neighborhoods. The primary goal was to assist communities in using open spaces productively. By 1991, community members began to view these open spaces as opportunities to establish gardens. This enthusiasm persisted into the 2000s, with a focus on education and structured organization, thereby contributing to the rise in gardens and attention to the associated health and wellness benefits.
Many students recognize New Haven as a city dotted with parks and green spaces. As defined by the periodical Science Direct in 2017, a green space is an “open-space area reserved for parks and other 'green spaces', which can include plant life, water features (also known as blue spaces), and other natural environments.” Such spaces are primarily recreational and differ from community gardens. Often, these parks are not within walking distance, restricting students' access to them for special outings or field trips.
According to an EPA community summary fact sheet by EnviroAtlas in March 2018, an estimated 33% of New Haven residents live within walking distance (500 meters) of a park, while approximately 40% reside beyond a walkable range (2 kilometers) from any park or recreational area. This data suggests that few students have easy access to these green spaces, even though they are present within their community. Many students perceive supermarkets and “bodegas” as their sole food sources, seldom contemplating the origins of their fruits and vegetables. The urban environment of New Haven, characterized by buildings, sidewalks, roadways, highways, and persistent vehicular traffic, leaves students feeling disconnected from nature. With limited or inaccessible green spaces, students often associate greenery and gardening with suburban lifestyles. Like many in their generation, the scarcity of outdoor experiences leaves them engrossed in technology, social media, and gaming.
Students often associate history with subjects like American and European History, rarely considering urban history or their city's past. The term “history” is understood as a study of past events, preventing students from recognizing that urban history isn't an ancient or distant tale but encompasses events closely tied to their lives. In this unit, students will journey through New Haven's past, exploring the relatively recent decline of urban farming and the genesis of community gardens. They will see the evolution of the landscape as modern advancements became widespread. Through photographs, paintings, and historical accounts, students will observe a time when much of New Haven was rural compared to today.
My objective is to help students grasp the significance of nature and community connection, with community gardening serving as a practical approach. This topic will offer them a glimpse into the hard work that many endured, relying on the land for sustenance for themselves and their families. I hope to challenge students to feel connected to their forebears and the history of their current community. As an educator, I aspire for my students to perceive history as a tool to reshape their present circumstances. This perspective shift is vital, especially considering that many parts of the city are identified as food deserts. As defined by Webster's dictionary, a food desert is “an urban area where it's challenging to purchase affordable or high-quality fresh food.” One solution to this problem is establishing or engaging in community gardens, informed by historical insight, and driven by a commitment to transforming the present.