Four years ago, Keeko de la Pena was on a bus in full of singing eighth graders from Terence C. Reilly School #7 in Elizabeth, driving through Pennsylvania on a field trip. All of a sudden, the kids fell silent, mesmerized by the rural scenery. The students were amazed by the space between the houses. “These 13-year-olds couldn’t believe there were so many farms,” Keeko said. For them, agriculture was a foreign concept.
Keeko, a science teacher, and her colleagues decided their 1,000 second through eighth grade students at their urban school needed a school garden. Terence C. Reilly School was awarded a Learning Through Gardening grant, which Keeko said “transformed our school community and challenged me to bring my classroom outdoors.”
As the lead teacher for the garden, Keeko has made it her mission to involve teachers from all grade levels and subjects. Elementary math teachers use the garden for measuring lessons, and language arts teachers read garden books aloud. In art, students created rock markers for each crop planted.
The school garden is especially important in an urban area like Elizabeth, Keeko said, where children seldom have the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors, let alone plant seeds and watch them grow into vegetables they can eat. Terence C. Reilly’s vegetable garden brings agriculture to children in the city.
Using her background in animal science, Keeko created what she believes are some of her most exciting garden lessons. While teaching about decomposition and compost, Keeko added some live ‘decomposers’ to her classroom. “We have welcomed bess beetles to learn about social insects responsible for wood decomposition, millepedes, super worms, and roaches, “ Keeko said. Her students learned about their role in breaking down organic matter, and even used vegetables from the garden to experiment with the types of matter they decompose.
2017 Teacher of the Year