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Youth Grow's Indigenous Seeds Program: Connecting Kids to Culture

in our own words youth grow

Indigenous Seeds

Scott, Lent, and Rigler Elementary Schools are all dual-language immersion schools, teaching in both English and Spanish. At these schools, Youth Grow has developed a curriculum, “Indigenous Seeds,” for grades K-5 taught in Spanish, focused on exploring the Three Sisters crops: corn, beans, and squash. These crops have been cultivated by indigenous people in the Americas for centuries, and remain culturally and nutritionally important to communities today.

Youth Grow believes that school communities and classroom environments are at their strongest when students and educators are given spaces to bring in their lived experiences and cultural backgrounds. Along with bringing in expertise in areas such as environmental science, nutrition, and mindfulness, educators draw on traditional recipes, growing methods, and philosophies they have learned from their families and communities. Honoring this kind of knowledge in the classroom encourages students to do the same in their own lives.

Indigenous Seeds began from this foundation over the COVID-19 pandemic, when school was online, with Youth Grow Coordinator and Bilingual Educator Angeles Martinez, who is from Puebla Mexico but has lived in the United States for the past 19 years. “I didn’t realize how much I knew, that I learned as a child from my family, that could be a part of my teaching,” she said. 


Lessons From the Plants

These three plants offer an abundance of lessons, activities, and nourishment for all age levels. For students in kindergarten through second grade, Angeles uses props like puppet shows and grounds her lessons in storytelling. Most of her time with the younger students is spent on hands-on activities with developmental benefits, such as taking seeds from a corn cob to help with fine motor skills or sorting beans by color.

With the older students, in grades three to five, Angeles teaches about the crops in more detail. Students learn how to know when corn is ready for harvest, how to distinguish between the male and female parts of a flower, and what parts of a squash are edible. In the garden, students learn about building healthy soil and preparing cover crops for the winter. They plant corn, beans, and squash, learning how deep to place the seeds and how far apart to space plants. 

While these lessons help students develop practical gardening skills that they can someday use to grow their own food, they also encourage mindfulness and caring for the environment. “Sometimes we don’t realize how important one seed is,” Angeles said. “It’s a treasure.”

By working with students in the organic school garden, Angeles teaches them to grow healthy plants without commercial fertilizers or pesticides. She also shows them how to naturally save seeds for the next year by storing them in containers underground, and talks about how people can use their bodies and animals to farm instead of machinery. 

While these sustainable practices are good for the environment, they teach students the value of patience. Angeles tells her students that although growing things naturally may take longer, it is worth the wait, as it results in healthier food and a healthier planet. She compares it to teaching students waiting to harvest corn so they can make popcorn — often, students want to harvest corn as soon as it is ready, but if they wait longer, they are rewarded with a delicious cooking project.

Additionally, the Three Sisters offer students lessons in teamwork. Angeles calls squash the “protecting plant,” for the way it grows to protect beans and corn from weeds. She teaches students about how beans fix nitrogen, providing vitamins to the other plants’ roots, and how beans can climb and grow up the corn stalk. The three plants grow together better than they do on their own, just like students can work together in the garden.


Cooking Classes

One of the most popular parts of the garden programming is cooking classes. Angeles emphasizes the importance of seeing where food comes from. “There is no way to get a tortilla or chips without corn,” she said. “And beans are important for all meals.”

Past cooking projects have included popcorn with saved corn seeds, and quesadillas with students, using homemade tortillas from corn they grind themselves. They garnish the quesadillas with cilantro and radish from the garden, showing how growing your own food can add flavor and fun to meals. Angeles often leads the students through a game where they pretend they are on a cooking show to ensure everyone has a role and is excited to participate. Often, she has observed that students are more willing to try new foods when they see it comes from the garden.

Angeles has also helped organize take-home kits with masa flour, templates, a recipe, and a video tutorial for students to make tortillas at home with their families, along with a yearly green salsa take-home kit. 

Cooking with students also offers an opportunity for them to share about their own cultures and food traditions. “They like to share which plants they know, and how they eat them,” Angeles said.

Sometimes, when it is cold and rainy, the students are reluctant to go outside, but once they are out in the garden they always enjoy their time. “If I was a kid, I would want a teacher who invites me to do something fun and creative, with less stress and pressure,” Angeles said. “They have to enjoy it, to find things they like, for their dreams for the future.”

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