Recently, while gardening together, my 5-year-old asked a lot of questions about the needs of different plants. She asked why we didn’t need to water the sunflowers as often as we needed to water the basil and was curious as to why our lettuce did better in the shade. As I explained the answers, I realized that we were talking about how to walk through the garden—and the world—with awareness of identities and needs.
As an educator, the proverbial light bulb went off above my head: There were parallels between cultivating a garden and cultivating consciousness of the differences between equity and equality... and the traditional science activity of gardening would work as a catalyst for a discussion about similarities and differences among people.
I have often wondered why teaching about equity is delayed in many schools, and why the subject is perceived as complicated. Conversations about equity do not have to be complicated—they can start with simple metaphors. As my daughter highlighted for me, equity exists in even the simple tasks of watering a garden.
Frame the Activity
As you introduce the science lesson and gardening activity to your students, take the opportunity to compare and contrast the established garden plants, as I did with my daughter: The basil needs more water, the sunflowers need less. Guide the conversation by asking your students, “What do the tomato plant and the sunflower have in common? What differences do you see?” Expand the conversation about what the plants provide. Ask, “What does the sunflower provide us? What do we do with tomatoes?” Note that there are differences not only in the plants themselves, but also in what they provide us when they mature (e.g., nourishment or flavor).
Once the students establish the similarities and differences of each garden plant, provide context: Yes, they are all plants, but they all look different, and they all have distinct qualities and needs. Ask your students to apply that idea to people—for example, ask, “What similarities and differences do we see when we look at each other?” Consider creating a compare and contrast thinking map to refer to and/or build upon later in the activity.
As you introduce what particular plants need, explain how their needs are different. Using the back of the seed packets or this online resource, highlight the variation of sunlight, water, shade, and soil depth that each of the plants needs in order to grow.
Have your students graph each plant’s varied needs, and refer to the differences as you continue to guide the conversation. Ask your students, “Do our plants need the same amount of sunlight and water, or do they need different amounts?”
Lead the students to the conclusion that the plants need different amounts of sunlight, water, and soil depths to grow, and from there explain how the term equality (“everyone gets the same thing”) compares with the term equity (“everyone gets what they need”).
Once you have terminology established, tell your students, “If we treat all of the plants equally, it will mean that we will give them the same amount of sunlight and water, even if they need different amounts.” Then ask them, “Does this approach to taking care of the plants make sense?” to prompt discussion. Leave the conversation open to your students’ interpretation.
Provide concrete examples with your selected plants—for example, tomatoes need six to eight hours of sunlight every day, and too much water can drown them; basil needs hot weather and deep watering; once it’s established, sage needs very little aside from sunlight; kale will grow with very little attention; and violas thrive in cool temperatures with very little water. Then ask them what will happen if each plant is treated equally.
Then introduce the comparison: “That’s if we treat all of the plants equally. If we treat them with equity, then we give them the amount of sunlight and water that they need.” Ask your students what makes the most sense in tending to plants: equality or equity?
Expand the Conversation
Using the gardening example, expand the conversation to the classroom. Ask, “If it makes more sense to treat our plants with equity, does it also make sense to do the same in our classroom?” or “Do we all need the same things in order to learn and grow?” Contextualize that concept by asking your students, “If you are good at math but need help in reading, does it make sense that I help you in math because I helped someone else?”
Provide a concrete example, such as, “If you forget your pencil box at home and I lend you one of mine, should I give a pencil box to everyone else too?” Ask your students to provide other examples of equity in the classroom. Hopefully they will arrive at the understanding that just like plants, we all need more of some things and less of others, but the most important thing is that we give each other what we need in order to grow.
Fairness is a tricky concept to navigate, but again, it doesn’t need to be complicated. Gardening can provide a good metaphor for the fact that equity is simultaneously simple and complex.