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A Rich Harvest : Biology Teacher Makes Sure Her Students Get Their Hands Dirty While They Learn

October 16, 1994|JAY B. DAVIS | After the 1992 riots, Crenshaw High biology teacher Tammy Bird, her students and volunteers turned a small vegetable patch on campus into Food From the 'Hood, a student-run garden and salad dressing business. With the help of a $50,000 grant from Rebuild L.A. and other funding, the project now provides 22 students business experience and college scholarships. The project puts into practice Bird's philosophy that hands-on teaching is the best way to learn. She was interviewed by Joy B. Davis. and

The garden is my way of teaching hands-on botany, to get the kids outside, taking them out close to nature.

My classes were out there every Friday for six or seven years. But I didn't have any help from the community and as a teacher I didn't know how to ask. I was a little shy about it. After the riots we had a lot of what I call white flight into the inner city to lend a helping hand. So we channeled that energy into the garden.

I genuinely love to teach and I see what I do making a difference. I'm in the teacher-training magnet here and one of my jobs is to teach kids to be teachers. There are so few minority teachers and so few minority role models at the high school level, especially male ones, that if I can trigger some of these kids into going into teaching, great.

Teaching's got to change. Kids have to learn real-life situations, they have to be technical, they have to be able to go out and survive in the world. Food From the 'Hood will help some of these kids go into business, and some will be able to go into teaching.

I wanted to be a veterinarian when I was in school. I had my sights on pre-med, but I didn't like the people in the pre-med classes so I turned to marine biology. I was out working on a marine research vessel and that's where I learned my hands-on teaching. I learned that I loved being out there, loved show and tell, loved my subject field.

When I graduated from Occidental College, the Los Angeles Unified School District had these applications: "We need science teachers, we want you! We'll pay you and give you a credential." I thought: This could be a nice steppingstone before I go to graduate school. I came to Crenshaw and fell in love and haven't left since. I'm a song and dance person; I have a high energy level. If I don't, I don't feel like I'm a good teacher.

At Crenshaw I have a whole zoo now; we have chickens out there, a cat, a little goat that runs around. Why do I need to be a veterinarian? I have at least 10 to 15 puppies that wander in here each year.

I'm hoping that English teachers and math teachers and history teachers will look at the garden and realize that integrating subject matter is a must, just as science studies integrate chemistry, physics and biology. I'm hoping that all classes will teach kids practical experience, and I hope there's more businesses that kids run like Food From the 'Hood.

I don't like it when kids are just handed stuff: "Here, we feel sorry for you." These kids are earning their scholarships now, they're going to really appreciate their education because they're paying for it. They earned it.

(All profits from salad dressing sales go to a scholarship fund, and student owners receive shares after graduation based on academic performance, college preparation work and the amount of work they put into the business. They do not receive salaries.)

I'm hoping they'll learn more of a sense of value, more of a work ethic and have the practical experience where they can go out and survive.

When we're out in the garden or talking about nutrition, they say: "That's why you taught us that in class!" They pick it up. Students hate math and yet they're learning accounting, counting their money and figuring out deposits. That's what math is all about. This isn't fictitious--this is real.

There's always hitches but what do you do? Do you stop and say, "Oh, we can't go any farther?" You come against a wall, you step back and you figure out how to get around it. That's what we did.

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