Island Grown Schools replicates Thomas Jefferson garden contest

Vineyard school kids participated in an Island-wide, crosscurricular competition to be the first to fill a cup with shelled peas.

Students celebrated their harvest at the West Tisbury School last month. — Island Grown Schools

Students from the Island’s seven elementary schools competed in a contest that had its roots in a similar contest founding father Thomas Jefferson led with his neighbors at Monticello called First Peas to the Table. The goal was to be the first to grow a full cup of shelling peas in their school’s garden.

On June 22, Island Grown Schools (IGS), a nonprofit that works to empower children through garden-based learning, held an awards ceremony at Morning Glory Farm and crowned the Martha’s Vineyard Charter School the winner of the competition.

“It was amazing to hear the quotes from the students,” IGS curriculum and staff coordinator Kaila Allen-Posin said.

“This is the sweetest thing I’ve ever tasted … I’ve never eaten a pea before,” one girl said. “I can’t believe that we did this from one seed. We grew all these peas!”

Ms. Allen-Posin noted, “All these big learning moments and opening their minds, in the sense of having a bigger audience and having a bigger purpose in our work in the garden.”

From the middle of March to the end of June, students from third through fifth grade worked together with IGS coordinators and their teachers in a crosscurricular program that spanned history, math, science, and writing. Students studied the original garden journals of the nation’s third president, and learned about the historical context of his contest.

“It makes history so real for the kids,” Rebecca Haag, executive director of IGS, said of the First Peas to the Table project.

Students chose which varieties they would grow, researching which kinds of peas would yield a cup the fastest. They decided how and when to plant the seeds in the gardens, learning about different growing techniques and designs. The children kept track of their crop’s growth by measuring the peas, charting the progress with graphs, and inputting the results in Excel spreadsheets.

Volkert Kleeman, 9, from the Charter School, spoke with The Times about his experience with the contest. He said his favorite part was collecting the peas and shelling them.

“We got to our garden where the peas were and it was just filled with pea pods — skinny ones, long ones, short ones — just so many peas. That’s why it was fun,” Volkert said.

The students also wrote letters to one another across the Island through “Pea Pals,” sharing their experiences with one another.

“This particular project felt like it really brought everyone together because everyone was doing the same unit at the same time and communicating with each other about it,” IGS program leader Noli Taylor said. “It was this nice bridge across schools.”

The event at Morning Glory Farm brought 50 children, teachers, and parents together to celebrate the student’s harvest and instill a strong sense of community building between the schools. Morning Glory Farm has held an Island-wide First Peas to the Table competition for the past three years. Tom Hodgson of West Tisbury was this year’s winner, so he presented the awards to each of the schools. Mr. Hodgson spoke to the children about lifelong gardening and what gardening can give them in terms of wellbeing.

“He gave this beautiful talk about how great it was that they were learning to garden so young and it’s something that could stay with them for a long time,” Ms. Taylor said.

According to Ms. Allen-Posin, at the end of Mr. Hodgson’s remarks, he called for “more peas on Earth.”

The Charter School took first place. Oak Bluffs School peas came in second place, and received the Most Peas to the Table award for the biggest yield. West Tisbury took third place and received the Tallest Peas award. Edgartown won Most Variety of Peas, and Tisbury was awarded Best Engineered Peas. Chilmark got Best Recovery From Bunny Rabbits, while the Montessori School won the Best Watering Brigade.

“I learned that growing peas and taking care of them can be so fun,” Volkert said of the contest.

According to Ms. Taylor and Ms. Allen-Posin, the project deepened each school’s engagement to their gardens, their teachers, and also with one another. IGS aims to strengthen students’ connection to growing food, which they believe is a necessary step for the future of our food system.

“Our program is fortunate because we are able to work with basically every child in the community from 2 to 18 years old and help them build these skills over time,” Ms. Taylor said. “I think this unit is just a great example of that.”