Moment of Discovery: Cultivating Reciprocity and Stewardship in the Garden Classroom

Moment of Discovery: Cultivating Reciprocity and Stewardship in the Garden Classroom

Welcome to the third installment of Moment of Discovery, a new blog series in which graduate students, alums, educators, and other community members share a moment that sparked curiosity, formed new connections, and fostered growth — both for themselves and for the students they teach. We encourage you to enjoy this and upcoming posts, and to share your own #MomentOfDiscovery with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!



Author: Benay O’Connell



Allow me to introduce you to my new favorite plant — a small, bright pink, nutritious, grooved tuber from the Andes called oca. When Jen and Mónica, Islandwood’s garden educators, first told me about the opportunity to teach with this plant, I was instantly intrigued.


My first day teaching with oca was a cold Wednesday morning in November. The group I was leading in the School Overnight Program was as eager as I was to spend the day in the garden. That morning, my announcement that we would get a chance to harvest, cook, plant, and eat was met with cheers from the 5th graders. We headed out to the garden, chatting excitedly.


We began our day in the garden by sharing our experiences with food and cooking. Students smiled as they recalled making dumplings with their grandfather, baking potatoes with their dad, watching their older sister make pancakes, teaching themselves to make spaghetti.

A student plants oca in the Garden Classroom.

A student plants oca in the Garden Classroom.


After everyone shared, I introduced them to oca and told them that I was also new to learning about this plant. We discussed how oca nourished the Inca and continues to be a staple vegetable in the Andes. Then we talked about how to harvest the oca — similar to potatoes, you need to go on a botanical treasure hunt through the soil to find it.


I pulled out the big bucket of oca, and we dove in and began to harvest! At first, some students were hesitant, hoping to avoid getting their hands cold and dirty. Eventually, though, even the most reluctant students joined in the harvesting after seeing the plump pink treasures their teammates had discovered with glee.


Afterwards, we sorted the oca. Some of the oca tubers were already growing tiny roots, making them perfect for replanting. Others were nice and plump, prime for eating. And some had already begun to be enjoyed by insects and worms, fit for the compost.


A student plants oca in the Garden Classroom.

A student plants oca in the Garden Classroom.

While some students sorted, others began chopping the ready-for-oven oca. We slathered the oca in olive oil, then popped it into the garden’s pizza oven.


While the oca cooked, we began to plant oca for next year’s students. We talked about stewardship and reciprocity — who takes care of the garden, and who plants everything we see? Some students were surprised when I told them that students from last year had planted the oca for us, and that we could pay it forward by planting more oca for next year’s students.


The students proudly made a stewardship sign with their names and school name, complete with drawings of the oca plants. Each student proudly planted an oca plant, and carefully covered them with just enough dirt.


Finally, the oca was ready to come out of the oven, sizzling and fragrant, and we enjoyed an herby, delicious treat. We couldn’t get enough!


At the end of the day, as we often do in the School Overnight Program, we sat in a “Yes Circle.” In the circle, each group member shared their favorite part of the day, and the rest of the group replied with an enthusiastic “YES!”


The “Yes Circle” has a few purposes — to allow students to reflect on their day and express enthusiasm about something that happened that day, to let me as an educator know what students are connecting with, and for our group’s community to grow stronger by affirming each other.


That day, many of my students shared that the oca lesson was their favorite part of the day, and it was mine too.



Benay O’Connell is a student in the IslandWood Graduate Program in Education for Environment and Community. Learn more about the program here.


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