Count a tiller, a hoe and a composter among the tools of teaching.
Where there was once a bland courtyard of mud, grass or snow at Oppenheim-Ephratah Central School, Fulton County, now there is a verdant, productive garden.
Sturdy stalks of sunflowers tower over squash, peppers, herbs and broccoli here in the "Three Sisters Garden," named for Iroquois staples — beans, corn and squash.
Seventh-graders studying Native American culture are able to use the garden as part of their curriculum. Pre-K students helped with a "pizza garden" of tomatoes, garlic, onion and basil to help them learn where their food comes from. A special-needs student was able to focus on the singular experience of growing flowers and vegetables.
School gardens provide hands-on experiences that allow students to see cause-and-effect relationships, and can be used to teach multiple disciplines and create connections across the curriculum.
Several recent studies even suggest that students involved in school gardens actually score better on state standardized tests.
"It's a teachable moment each time," said garden founder Judith Dopp, special education teaching assistant and member of the Oppenheim-Ephratah Teachers Association, led by Pat Stock.
When a hummingbird feeder was placed in the garden, students had a lesson about the quick-winged birds.
"If we see honeybees pollinating we'll do a lesson on that. Last year we got hit with a tomato blight and had a lesson on airborne fungus," she said.
Dopp's mojo got the after-school program going, with teachers, teaching assistants, retirees and a school nurse helping cultivate the environmental learning experience.
The Mohawk Valley Teacher Center provided grants to purchase a tiller, garden tools, seeds, hoses and compost bins.
Head custodian Bruce Carpenter helped till, and technology teacher Kristy Rhodes provided plants from the school's greenhouse. Retired teacher Mary Ann Charon donated sunflowers.
"A lot of kids may not be in band or chorus or sports, but they may like to grow something," said new teacher Hannah Rutkowski, who joined other volunteers on Mondays during the summer.
"The whole garden is pretty much a social experience and a learning tool," said student Ryan Becker.
School nurse Cheryl Brown, who is part of the Healthy Schools Committee, said, "We let kids know: Look at the vegetables out there you can grow."
The composting grant provided buckets for the school cafeteria to collect fruits and vegetables, which are lugged daily to composting bins for recycling and eventual use in the garden.