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Inside Teaching : August 2010
www.atra.edu.au | email@example.com MY BEST TEACHER 19 working. Luckily for me, changes to higher education introduced by the Whitlam Government in the early 1970s meant I was able to do a Diploma of Education. I eventually tutored in librarianship at what was then Melbourne State College at the University of Melbourne.’ Two landmarks for Alexander were the opening of Stephanie’s Restaurant in 1976 – she left Princes Hill HS in 1974 – and the publication of her hugely successful The Cook’s Companion in 1996. Perhaps coincidentally, she closed Stephanie’s in 1997. ‘Giving up restaurants,’ she says, ‘is to do with age. It’s a physically demanding job where you work 12- to 14-hour days. I don’t love restaurants any the less, but I have absolutely no desire to run one.’ What drives Alexander today is the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation program, which she began in 2001. ‘For 10 years before that I kept hearing and reading about childhood obesity and health problems to do with diet, and it left me feeling frustrated and then angry. The message was always what children shouldn’t eat, what a healthy food pyramid looked like, but never about the enjoyment of food. I knew this approach just wouldn’t work. ‘I wanted to see what would happen in at least one school where we could grow, harvest, prepare and share fresh, yummy food. Luckily, I met the then principal at Collingwood College, in Melbourne’s inner north, who was very supportive and innovative, and most of all committed.’ Commitment, Alexander explains, is essential for the success of what she calls a deep intervention. To become involved in the program, a school has to have a garden, but it also needs a space for a permanent teaching kitchen and a dining space for every student – and that, she says, takes money. ‘Nibbling a leaf of silverbeet in the kitchen garden is of absolutely no beneft to a child,’ Alexander says. ‘The benefts come when children grow the silverbeet, harvest it, use it in, say, a cannelloni stuffng and then share it with others.’ The benefts, mind you, go beyond food. ‘We’ve developed curriculum links, units and activities that address the new national curriculum, and we have lots of examples of ways schools integrate the program with literacy and numeracy units.’ According to the fndings of an evaluation led by Lisa Gibbs and colleagues from the McCaughey Centre at the University of Melbourne, the program also leads to increased child engagement in learning, an improved school social environment and increased school-community connections. The research also found evidence that the program appears to be of greatest beneft to the most disadvantaged students. The research fndings, says Alexander, confrm what she’s long known. ‘It’s in your face,’ she says. ‘You can see the growth in the self-esteem of students with learning diffculties or special needs. You can see how they love the program. You see people in the community who otherwise have no connection to a school become involved because, they say, they’re learning a lot. You especially see the amazing power of the program in the infrastructure development stage. You see tradies in the community who come to help; you see donors; you see a grandfather who single-handedly builds a deck. It brings out all this connectedness in spades – that’s quite good actually, because spades are one of the most common things people donate. ‘I knew what the fndings of the evaluation would be,’ Alexander says, ‘but I also knew we needed the evidence in order to make sure governments stay committed.’ Alexander’s goal is to have the program assisting with teaching and learning in every school. ‘If we really want to infuence whole generations of children,’ she says, ‘we need governments to see beyond the short-term electoral cycle. They have to commit to things that won’t necessarily bear fruit instantly.’ ■ Photo by Simon Griffths.