Teacher Spotlight: Katina Makris

To celebrate National Teacher Day, we sat down with Katina Makris, Garden Team Lead and 3rd Grade teacher at Laura Ward Elementary in Chicago.

Big Green: Tell us a little bit about your school.
Katina Makris: I’ve been a teacher at Laura Ward for about 9 years. Laura Ward is located on Chicago’s west side in the Garfield Park-Humboldt Neighborhood. It’s a high poverty neighborhood area. It’s a typical food desert where there’s more liquor stores and fast food restaurants than fresh, healthy foods.

BG: How did you become the Garden Team Leader at Ward?
KM: I took on the role of facilitator for our garden last year because the teacher prior to me went to another school to teach. And I was so nervous because I knew nothing about gardening. Nothing. But with the support of Big Green staff, they walked me through the process, and I feel like I have a green thumb now!

BG: How does your Garden Committee work?
KM: We have grade level band leaders. So from Pre-K to 1st grade there’s a teacher and from 2nd-5th there’s a teacher, and then 6th-8th there’s a teacher who is the lead. And within that we use technology, so we have a Google Doc that has a schedule and we just make sure all classes are able to get out there. Every student in our school, about 375 students, has been out in that garden. Multiple times. Not just once, many times.

BG: What are some creative ways that you work to integrate the things you’re doing out in the garden within the daily expectations you have as a teacher?
KM: I know a lot of the teachers, including myself, use lesson plans that are provided from Big Green. We have a schedule for kids to go out [to the garden] and they may not be talking about the garden but they might go out there to read aloud, or just to relax. Having it open to everyone at any time for any reason really helps the teachers buy in.

BG: What are some strategies to invite people into this work and see the importance of it?
KM: The first time I put the Garden Committee out there and I asked teachers to just volunteer if you want to. You don’t have to know anything–we’re going to learn together! And so that pressure was let up. I was actually really surprised when 6 teachers signed up. But I think the most important thing is that we had administrative support. We had the support of our principal and she promoted it and she made sure it happened and she went down and ate a salad with the kids and came out and harvested with them. So showing that she cares trickles down to teachers and then that trickles down to students.

BG: How have you seen your efforts and the Garden Committee’s efforts at the school impact the culture of the school?
KM: What we’ve done, last year and this year, is we are serving what we grow in the garden at lunchtime. There was a lot of resistance from the lunchroom staff and even adults trying the salad from our garden. So having it there provided an opportunity for kids to be exposed to different types of foods. They’d never tried chard or kale. The thing is, they liked it, they just had never been exposed to it.

BG: What is some of the feedback from students when they eat food from the garden that they played a part in growing?
KM: They are excited. They’re super excited. They’re so surprised that they liked it and they’re so surprised that they could do this. This makes me think of a former student I had. Her name was Star. She was exposed to the garden and now she’s gardening at home. And that is truly the goal, right? That they’re not just doing it at school, that she’s wanting to do that in her ‘real life.’

Thanks so much to Katina for sharing her leadership strategies and to all the wonderful teachers we have the pleasure of working with!

*Interview edited for length and clarity