NSights Blog

The lesson of Urban Roots: Not all classrooms have four walls

Urban Roots virtual event on June 27 to highlight the unique way organization is making a difference

They were rare, but those balmy September days when my English teachers held class on the quad or in Manzanita Bowl are some of my favorite memories from my undergraduate career. I learned just as well without four walls and a roof. Whether in a conventional classroom or in outdoor learning, my time at the University of Nevada, Reno, developed my teaching, communication and organization skills.

Jim Webber’s Writing for Non-Profits class taught me, among other things, that I wanted to work for a non-profit in some capacity in the future. The class gave me real-world writing experience. In fact, my class team worked closely with The Eddy House, designing materials for their organization. In a somewhat different area of study, the required classes for my minor in developmental disabilities showed me the necessity of flexible teaching tailored to learners’ needs and opened my eyes to a diversity of learning and teaching pedagogies. My experience at the University shaped my understanding of how learning can happen in many different ways and taught me practical skills to serve others’ diverse learning needs.

My dream to work at a non-profit came true in the summer of 2019, when I was hired as a summer educator for Urban Roots’ Farm Camp. I was not the first University alum to work for Urban Roots. Many students and alumnae from the University have stayed in Reno to work with Urban Roots, to help change the way kids eat and learn in Northern Nevada. Urban Roots holds a unique place in the Truckee Meadows community, as it provides garden-based education to a wide range of K-8 students.

At the teaching farm, recently, I noticed a co-worker was wearing a dark green shirt to work depicting outdoor imagery—mountains, binoculars, trees, animals and so on. Bold letters on the shirt read, “Not all classrooms have four walls.” I remembered those sunny class-days on the grass in the Quad. These words sum up a key element of the Urban Roots mission: using a hands-on, practical approach, we teach kids about gardening, sustainability and nutrition in school gardens and on the teaching farm. It’s amazing to see kids’ excitement as they enter the teaching farm for a field trip or run from the school building to their on-site school garden for classes. Kids are involved in every step of the garden lifecycle, and the great part is that they are learning and having fun at the same time.

Our educational efforts focus on Title I schools in our area by providing them with funding for building  school gardens, then offering garden education support in the years following. We are always working to diversify our curriculum and student body, partnering with more schools and organizations to give students a wide range of relevant educational experiences. We work to help grow healthy minds and bodies; in these turbulent times, this ethos is more important than ever. So, we are developing new ways to remotely support students’ and parents’ adventures in at-home learning.

Months have passed since I've dug in the dirt of a school garden or stood at the gate of the teaching farm, welcoming students to our little patch of nature. Nevertheless, we continue to educate students for healthy growth, both through online modalities, as well as through our engagement kits, which are full of lessons and activities for kids to complete at home (for example, we’re offering a free digital festival to share gardening tips for students and parents alike). Like so many area businesses and non-profits, we have to work creatively to stay afloat. But my studies at the University taught me that places like Urban Roots can make a difference in our community – and that this difference-making is worth fighting for. I look forward to a time when we can plant, grow and harvest with kids again!

(Note: Elsa De Jong (BA ‘13, MA ‘16) is the School Garden & Volunteer Manager at Urban Roots. Since graduating with a master’s of arts degree in English, she has taught English classes at the University of Nevada, Reno. Urban Roots brings garden-based education to local students, and will be holding a virtual event Art, Food, and Roots on June 27.)

Elsa De Jong
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