The Learning Through Gardening Teacher of the Year Award is presented to a teacher who goes above and beyond to use their school garden to incorporate agriculture and nutrition into their standard curricula. This award is presented at the Society’s Annual Dinner Gala, held each spring.
2020 Learning Through Gardening Teacher of the Year
Geraldyn O. Foster Early Childhood Center, Bridgeton
Geraldyn O. Foster Early Childhood Center, Bridgeton
The Geraldyn O. Foster Early Childhood Center is filled with tiny gardeners, who often can be seen planting lettuce, watering plants, picking strawberries, and drawing pictures in the school garden. Students at the public preschool in Bridgeton, NJ harvest and eat fruits and vegetables they grow themselves. The garden-teaching program at the Geraldyn O. Foster Early Childhood Center (GOFECC) is remarkable because the school serves 325 students, and every one of the 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds works in the garden. This blooming garden is the result of the inspiration and leadership of GOFECC teacher Denise Riley.
Denise has been gardening since she was a child. She grew up running barefoot through the fields of a small family vegetable farm in Buena Vista, NJ. She decided to start a garden at GOFECC because “I wanted to show the kids how much fun it is and teach them where their food comes from.”
Denise applied for a Learning Through Gardening grant and took on the role of garden committee chairperson, managing the layout of the garden, organizing garden tasks, and scheduling classes to plant and take care of the vegetables. Her enthusiasm spread through the school, and now every teacher weaves the garden into lessons in science, language arts, and math. Using the Learning Through Gardening curriculum and their own creativity, teachers integrate the garden into a myriad of hands-on lessons.
The students count and sort seeds, conduct taste tests of apples and graph the results, and compare and measure pumpkins. They plant radishes and carrots to see how roots grow, make mini-greenhouses from water bottles, and read books about gardening, and fruits and vegetables. The students learn about healthy eating, and everyone samples the vegetables and fruits harvested from the garden.
“Many of the students call the plants in the classroom ‘their babies,’ showing their ownership and caring for their plants,” Denise said. “The Learning Through Gardening program has been a way for students and staff to work together in a beautiful environment for an exceptional learning experience.”
The garden at GOFECC has attracted the wider school community. Students from the K-8 Buckshutem Road School next door share in the garden activities. The preschool principal and vice-principal can be found planting and picking fruits and vegetables with the students, and the district superintendent delivered straw to mulch the strawberry bed. Teachers and students in the district’s summer programs tend the garden when school is not in session.
Denise and her colleagues have been working to make the garden an inclusive educational experience by modifying garden lessons to meet the special needs of all students. “The garden has proven to be very therapeutic to our students, especially those who have experienced trauma,” Denise said.
Currently, Denise is a preschool special education teacher supporting students in general education inclusive classrooms. She has worked in the Bridgeton public school district for 17 years. Previously, Denise taught special education in a K-8 school in Bridgeton for seven years and worked for the New Jersey Center for Autism for 13 years. She has completed all doctorate courses in administrative leadership through Walden University. She holds master’s degrees in special education and school counseling and a bachelor’s degree in elementary education with a psychology coordinate and music minor. In addition, Denise recently finished a program through NJEXCEL to receive a principal’s certificate and supervisory certificate.
Outside of school, Denise has worked part-time for 12 years as a crisis community therapist for children. She serves as secretary for the Greater Bridgeton Family Success Center’s Parent Advisory Committee, which plans and implements programs for the Bridgeton community such as gang prevention activities for local youth, parenting support, nutrition and physical fitness, and teaching financial skills. Denise is an active member of the Union Baptist Temple in Bridgeton, where she is very involved in the youth, new members, and music ministry.
For her passion and dedication in bringing gardening to all the preschoolers at the Geraldyn O. Foster Early Childhood Center, the New Jersey Agricultural Society is proud to name Denise Riley the 2020 Teacher of the Year.
Past Teacher of the Year Award Recipients
Dr. Anne Marie K. Pai, Broad Street School, Bridgeton
Sonya Harris, Dorothy L. Bullock Elementary School, Glassboro
Keeko de la Pena, Terrence C. Reilly School, Elizabeth
Christine Doucette. Barclay Brook Elementary School, Monroe Township
Iveth Mollinedo, Cliffside Park School #3
Cynthia Terranova, Delaware Township School, Sergeantsville
Frank Fuzy, Tamaques Elementary School, Westfield