Teacher Spotlight: Cheryleta Cooney, Chicago

“They’re getting their hands dirty, they’re planting, they’re understanding.”

When Cheryleta Cooney took over the Earle Stem Elementary Learning Garden, she set her sights on making it truly great, expanding the program to multiple grades and giving more students the opportunity to love and experience the garden. With her hard work, the Learning Garden has become a thriving space for community building and problem based learning – last year, students designed a plan to use their Learning Garden to give the community’s elderly population access to fresh local produce.

This school year, Ms. Cooney is teaching at John J. Pershing Magnet School.  With 145 Learning Garden schools in Chicago Public Schools, it may come as little surprise to learn that Pershing has a Learning Garden as well and Ms. Cooney has already taken on the role of co-leader.

The Big Green Team recently sat down with Ms. Cooney to talk about what she’s seen and accomplished in the Learning Garden.

After inheriting her Learning Garden from another teacher at Earle several years ago, she found that no matter the age or grade level, all her students love working in the garden.

“The amazement is always the same.  Once they’re able to get their hands dirty it’s the same with kindergarteners [as with 7th graders], that same enthusiasm… They’re out there eating the peppers, eating the lettuce, just eating everything…  I don’t think they had a chance to bring anything in they ate up everything!”

That amazement results in a transformation in her student’s everyday food choices, with kids opting more and more for real food in their cafeteria over typical school lunches. “Since the garden has been here, honestly I have seen more students eating the salad… that’s their preference now. They don’t want the school lunch.”

Real food, Ms. Cooney explains, is food that has special personal value.  Real food represents much more than the produce you buy at the grocery store; rather it is rooted in a community’s history preparing, engaging, and coming together around that produce. Real food can mean very different things to different people and it’s for this reason that she’s chosen to plant crops her community can get excited about.

“Real food, in my opinion, is what people use on a regular basis. We [planted] the Japanese lettuce … and for a lot of people in the community that was not their type of food… So they didn’t have that interest. When I did plant things that they would eat on a regular basis, in their regular diet every day, that constituted real food for them. That’s what I mean by real food. So, okra, snap peas, string beans, bell peppers, collard – all spectrum of greens will get eaten… Stuff they would cook on a regular basis or know how to cook… if I was in a different area, real food would be a different type of food.”

She describes feeling “elated” to see neighbors and parents coming to the Learning Garden to try the produce, especially since the school is located in a food desert.   She says she wants her students to understand that eating fresh, healthy food doesn’t have to be costly or inaccessible.  “Organic doesn’t mean you have to go to the store and spend $1,000. What is in the store, you can grow right in your own yard and make in your garden and have that same luxury.”

For Ms. Cooney’s students, real food is just the tip of the iceberg.  She’s seen students come alive in their Learning Garden. When asked to recount her favorite Learning Garden memory, she told us, “When [a local high school] came over with their special needs students to help us harvest… and they played with the kindergarteners. They really both got involved with each other, they were talking, they were asking each other questions … I was just in awe. Normally special needs students are isolated. It was a moment where everybody could just be themselves, be who they are without the ridicule. That’s my favorite memory.”

Big Green team is thrilled to know that Ms. Cooney is bringing her experience and passion to the Learning Garden and students at Pershing.  They’re lucky to have this excellent educator in their garden and we feel lucky to continue working and growing with her.