My research has been focused on narrowing the literacy gap of diverse students at economically disadvantaged urban schools. As a Fulbright visiting scholar at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) during the past academic year, I had a great opportunity to work with urban students in Boston Public Schools (BPS). However, I was initially concerned about the challenge of building rapport with students and teachers quickly, as this is one of the most challenging aspects of working with urban schools. Our garden project, sponsored by the Fulbright Canada-RBC Eco-Leadership program at Rogers Middle School where 81% of students receive free or reduced-price lunches, has been instrumental in strengthening our collaborative relationship between BPS, HGSE and SERP.
Now, nine months have passed since I began my time at HGSE. I am happy to report that my team, which consisted of seven graduate students from HGSE and Boston College, has made great progress. We have:
1) conducted surveys and focus groups with students and teachers, investigating urban students’ access to emerging technologies and interest in using such technologies for the purposes of language and literacy education,
2) developed a multimedia-based literacy coaching model,
3) designed and built a fruit tree garden at Rogers Middle School, BPS,
4) developed three curriculum units to enhance students’ eco-literacy awareness, academic vocabulary and subject-specific content knowledge, and
5) shared and reported the research findings and the garden project in three conferences and a conference proceeding.
Increasing evidence has revealed that persistent underachievement and high dropout rates among urban students from lower socioeconomic neighbourhoods are correlated with many factors. These include not only ineffective literacy instruction, but also a lack of awareness among young students that eating nutritious foods can enhance their energy and concentration throughout the day.
Students, teachers and school administration at Roger Middle School enthusiastically responded to the project, actively working with our team in designing and planting the garden. On May 30th, the school principal, Mr. Corbett Coutts and Professor Catherine Snow from HGSE led the ground-breaking ceremony for the garden’s construction. Twenty-five students in Grade 8, their teachers, and five graduate student volunteers from HGSE and Boston College also participated in the event. We planted fruit trees, perennial herbs and flower bushes in the garden, which is located in front of the school. Students and teachers were excited to see the improvement of the school’s environment. Afterwards, they were so motivated that they started to clean up the flowerbeds against the school building, which had been ignored and overgrown with weeds for a long time. This is one of the most valuable things that the project has nurtured – a strong sense of pride and ownership of the school community.
During the project, two officers from the Boston Police Department also came to visit the site and invited me to join their program that assists youths in developing inner beliefs and academic skills, and guides them in becoming effective and productive members of society. This urban garden along with the curriculum materials we developed has created an experience-based eco-literacy learning program that teachers and students can utilize both during and after the project.
Through a sustainable garden project that reflects urban students’ basic need for better food, and a greener and more liveable environment, my team was able to engage students and teachers in a more personalized context than may have otherwise been possible. These activities have significantly strengthened our mutual understanding of the complexity of the challenges that diverse urban students encounter in both Canada and US, thus enabling us to explore the intervention and form a joint effort between educators in the two countries to reverse the trend of academic underachievement among such students. Ultimately this project has provided my team with a great opportunity to interact with students and teachers not just as education researchers, but even more importantly as individuals who care deeply about the holistic wellbeing of their local communities.
2011-2012 Eco-Leader, and Fulbright Scholar
 SERP: Strategic Education Research Partnership, a US national organization and initiative that conduct a program of “use-inspired” research and development, with a goal of developing, testing, and mobilizing effective programs and practices in education.