Teacher Appreciation Week Spotlight: Andrea Tomlin, A Homegrown Hero

Big Green has rolled out a variety of online learning resources for kids, teachers, and schools with our Big Green at Home program. These resources are available to everyone, so for the first time Big Green has been working with teachers across the country, and not just those with one of our Learning Gardens. We’re excited to share the story of a very special teacher in Atlanta that is sharing these new resources with her students.

Andrea Tomlin, Library Media Specialist at Wesley International Academy in Atlanta, Georgia, has combined her love of growing real food and devotion to her students to integrate gardening in her school community. During these uncertain times she has continued to support health and nutrition efforts virtually in various ways including sharing our new Homegrown resources with her students. We caught up with Tomlin to learn more about her school, gardening initiatives, and unwavering support for her students during the pandemic. 

Tell us about yourself and your integration of gardening at Wesley International Academy.

My husband and I started gardening 15 years ago. We started with one big pot of tomatoes and have expanded to growing enough food at home for half the produce we eat all year. The gardening bug bit me hard so I had to find a way to bring it into our school.

Wesley International Academy is a Title I, public charter school in the heart of downtown Atlanta. This will be my ninth year with the school and every year since I’ve taught there has been some element of gardening. With the help of my media assistant and “garden guru” Kelly Maxwell we now sustain a flourishing gardening program. Our program ranges from kindergarteners planting seeds, to the creation of a fruit tree orchard, to growing seedlings to send home to kids to start their own garden.

Tomlin and her 2nd grade class after a gardening activity in February 2020.

How have school closures affected the kids you serve?

For most of my students, the social-emotional and relationship aspects have been the hardest. We are a small school so the kids have strong relationships with counselors and staff so they are really missing that connection. Some of the students I am closest to have reached out describing the emotional toll of the closures, with one of them asking for a virtual “hug through the computer”. 

Our school’s virtual learning platform is very strong and I’d say 60% of the kids are actively involved in learning but there are also some we have not heard from at all. There are going to be some kids that come out just fine and others who are going to be more than half a year behind.

How are you connecting kids to the garden outside school?

We posted and pushed out Big Green’s Homegrown curriculum on our school’s resources page. My media assistant Kelly has been sending your resources directly to teachers. I also do my daily morning announcements for the school from my home garden. I am planning to do a K-3rd grade and 4th-6th grade garden tour for the students in the next few weeks.

Why do you think virtual learning programs, like Homegrown, are important for kids right now?

I know there are a large number of parents who want to start gardening with their kids but have no idea how to get started. If you give parents the ready made steps and resources like Homegrown they will be motivated to start growing. Also virtual programs that take them off their screens and get them vitamin D, fresh air and their blood pumping is so beneficial. 

I also think our parents sometimes feel a little overwhelmed with the amount of resources we share but Homegrown gives them unique structured activities that keep them feeling supported. Even as an adult if you are a novice or seasoned gardener Big Green’s resources can be helpful in expanding gardening skills. 

What is your favorite story of your kids using the garden at your school?

One of my school “daughters” is a 6th grader named Ayanna. She has a troubled home life, parents who are ill, and has struggled academically. We have a very strong connection and people ask me, “how did you create that bond?” I answer, “because she has become the number one gardener at our school.”

Working in our garden has brought something out of her that teachers have never seen before. She takes kindergarteners out to the garden and teachers them to water, she pulls out carrots and cleans them, and even distributes lettuce to teachers to take home and eat. The garden calms her, bringing out her sweet, loving gentler side. She even won an award from Cee Lo Green’s non-profit Greenhouse Foundation for her gardening advocacy a few years ago.

The garden really changed her life as well as the way teachers perceive her. When teachers have known a student for multiple years and they continue to have the same behaviors, it’s really hard to give them a fresh start. The garden gave Ayanna her fresh start.

I reached out to Ayanna after a few weeks of being out of school to see how she was doing. She confided, “I miss watering the garden so much”. I replied “we’ll have you back there soon enough, I promise.”