Kingfield Elementary School student Amelia Prince adds whipped cream to a serving of apple crisp during the school’s annual Growing Gardeners Harvest Meal on Oct. 24, 2019, in Kingfield. Franklin Journal file

KINGFIELD — Selina Warren, kindergarten teacher and school garden coordinator at Kingfield Elementary School, was recently awarded the 2023 Maine Agriculture in the Classroom Teacher of the Year.

Warren began her journey into school gardening over a decade ago, driven by her belief in its ability to enrich learning experiences and promote holistic growth among students.

“I have been involved with school gardening efforts for about 14 years now,” Warren said. “It’s something I am truly passionate about.”

To highlight the benefits of school gardening, Kingfield Elementary School is celebrating Maine School Garden Day 2024 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. The theme is “Harvesting Knowledge: Nourishing Minds Through School Gardens.” The event will feature workshops and networking opportunities highlighting the benefits of green spaces in education.

Warren described her journey began with school gardening in Skowhegan.

“I embarked on my school garden journey in 2011 at Bloomfield Elementary School in Skowhegan,” Warren said. “At the time I was working on my graduate degree and decided to conduct research on the benefits and impact outdoor learning has on academic progress and student growth.” She established a school garden program that still runs as an afterschool garden club at Bloomfield Elementary School.

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In 2012, Warren co-authored the original version of the Growing Gardeners curriculum, which was a spiral bound resource published by the Greater Somerset Public Health Collaborative. Warren said two years ago the Greater Franklin Food Council decided that providing teachers with a school garden resource would be a great way to get more teachers outside gardening with students.

Selina Warren, Kingfield Elementary School kindergarten teacher, won 2023 Maine Agriculture in the Classroom Teacher of the Year. Courtesy Photo/Selina Warren

As a result, she said the council decided to support the Growing Gardeners Curriculum Revision project. The curriculum resource is divided into 20 topics, eight for spring, eight for fall and four for winter. Each topic includes three grade span lessons, one for grades kindergarten to grade two, one for grades three to five, and one for grades six to eight.

Warren emphasized the comprehensive nature of the lessons, aligning with Next Generation Science Standards, Maine Learning Results and Common Core Standards. The resource follows Maine’s growing season and was enhanced digitally in collaboration with University of Maine at Farmington graphic design students.

Warren said when she transferred to Kingfield Elementary School, she decided to start over by constructing the garden classroom and coordinating an even more robust school garden program in 2014 using her experience and knowledge gained at Bloomfield Elementary School.

“The Growing Gardeners Program at KES has not only had a positive impact on student academic progress and growth, but it has also become part of our school culture. Furthermore, it is the joy that keeps me in the teaching profession,” Warren noted.

The garden program runs eight weeks in the fall and eight weeks in the spring. Warren mentioned that beyond those 16 weeks, they engaged extensively in outdoor education, linking lessons from the garden to topics such as the forest and vernal pool ecosystems.

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“This outdoor space has become a haven for exploration and discovery,” Warren elaborated.

Warren’s vision extends far beyond the confines of the garden classroom. There are many outdoor learning areas at Kingfield Elementary School. “In addition to the garden classroom, we have our forest school classroom and the classroom on the hill,” Warren explained.

The garden classroom has continued to grow and expand in the past decade. Warren said this classroom consists of eight raised beds, a pumpkin patch, a greenhouse, a garden shed, a meeting area, a classroom space complete with a chalkboard and stumps, and a large outdoor learning pavilion.

“Our forest school classroom is located in the forest between the playground and our ball fields,” Warren said. It consists of benches, stumps, a chalkboard, and plenty of fallen trees that are used for balance and imaginative play.

She said there is a mud kitchen in the forest school adjacent to a stream that runs from the vernal pool through the playground. There is a vernal pool in forest school used to engage kindergarten students in their yearly study of ecosystems.

Warren said the classroom on the hill is an outdoor learning area in the forested slopes above the playground. Nearby, the biodiversity field is next to the garden classroom, which has native plants to bring in pollinators.

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“Our curriculum resource is meticulously crafted to integrate gardening activities with academic content aligned to educational standards,” Warren said. “Each lesson is designed to foster holistic growth, nurturing not only intellectual curiosity but also a deep appreciation for the natural world.”

Warren said they go out to the garden a lot, to use the garden classroom as the platform for journaling, especially right now. This time of year the students in writing workshop work on nonfiction writing.

This is a view of the Summer Garden at Kingfield Elementary School. Photo courtesy of Selina Warren

“The garden is a wonderful platform to practice nonfiction writing,” Warren said. Their approach combines subjects, like teaching the life cycle of a plant: “Last week it was a life cycle of a plant, and so the students will draw a picture and write something they have learned,” she said.

This blend encompasses science, writing and literacy, Warren said. “Integrating science, writing, a read aloud to go with that literacy connection, all the while working on speaking and listening standards.”

Additionally, garden activities include math: “When we are measuring plant growth we are using mathematics, lots of ways to integrate the content areas into what we are doing in the garden,” she said.

Warren said a culture of outdoor learning has been cultivated at Kingfield Elementary School.

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“Erica Luce, second grade teacher, and I actually collaborated with each other on a place-based curriculum called Place Time which is personal learning and community engagement,” Warren said. “And so, I think that any time our students get the opportunity to take their learning outside, it is a real positive and exciting experience.”

“It was an honor to receive the 2023 Maine Agriculture in the Classroom Teacher of the Year,” Warren said when asked about her reaction to winning the award. She also received the Franklin County Teacher of the Year in 2016 and said that was really wonderful.

“But, you know, the school gardening thing is something that I do above and beyond my regular duties that are outlined in my teacher contract because it is something I am passionate about,” Warren explained. “The recognition of the agriculture teacher of the year was definitely a special one.”

One result of the recognition is networking and professional development, she said.

“I was able to travel to Florida for the National Agriculture in the Classroom conference last June,” Warren said. “I will be traveling to Salt Lake City this June with Maine Agriculture in the Classroom, for the national conference that is being held in Salt Lake City this year, where I will be recognized as 2024 National Excellence in Teaching Agriculture award. I’m super excited about this trip.”

At Kingfield Elementary School, the collaboration with the Greater Franklin Food Council and the Healthy Community Coalition is vital, according to Warren.

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“Our local SNAP educators visit our school weekly during our Growing Gardeners’ program in both fall and spring,” Warren noted. “They conduct cooking lessons with our students using the produce from our garden. This approach serves as a platform for educating about nutrition and healthy eating, aligning with one of our core values: health and wellness.”

Warren emphasized the significance of this collaboration, especially in managing large groups of children during cooking sessions.

“The professional nutritionists from SNAP-Ed play a crucial role in this partnership,” she added. “They provide invaluable support by bringing additional ingredients, finding suitable recipes, and facilitating the cooking process using our homegrown crops.”

“This fall, the parent volunteer group and the local Masons and Lions Club are actually buying our school a mobile cooking cart and outfitting that cart with all of the appliances and materials that we need to do that cooking on our own,” Warren said. They will continue to have SNAP educators come and provide nutrition education.

Warren said they do their cooking outside. They have a very large outside learning pavilion with electricity. They have been cooking outside for several years since the pavilion was built around 2021 as a result of COVID.

Warren’s efforts have not gone unnoticed.

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“Selina has been in charge of our garden program for 10 garden seasons,” Luce said. “It truly is her passion. She is often found saying, ‘Let’s plant seeds and sing songs.’”

Warren said the family harvest meal is the highlight of every year.

“One of the most joyful experiences or highlights of every season in our school garden,” Warren said. “Here at KES we are celebrating a decade of gardening. We are a pretty small community, we usually get about 150-plus people in our school garden for our family harvest meal in the fall. Part of the Growing Gardeners’ curriculum is that in the fall students plan and prepare a meal for their family.”

The annual dinner event serves as a platform for community engagement and celebration of local agriculture, Warren explained. Last year they featured a spaghetti dinner, and the year before that they had a pizza event. Warren emphasized community involvement, noting an agricultural fair where families showcased practices like cattle raising and beekeeping.

“It’s a real celebration of not just gardening but local agriculture,” Warren said. She said the harvest meal also offers students opportunities for learning and pride in preparing meals for their families and neighbors.

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