Garden Spotlight: Britt Tate and Columbia Elementary

Britt Tate is the art teacher at Columbia Elementary and Bryan Hill Elementary.  Columbia Elementary is one of Gateway Greening’s Seed to STEM sites, where GG educator Nick Speed teaches weekly garden classes with each grade. 

The second you step into Britt’s classroom, her passion for plants and social justice is immediately obvious.  She has a large collection of plants from various points in her life and is a proud plant mom to “the weirdest, coolest plants.” Her passion for teaching children about the living world inspired her to start recycling efforts at the school, which snowballed into starting a garden and growing vegetables for the school.  

Britt pulls inspiration from what Nick teaches and they often collaborate on what’s happening in the garden. On Mondays, Nick checks in with Britt to share his lesson plans for the week so Britt can connect what she’s teaching in her art classroom with the garden. She keeps a mini-fridge in her classroom to store extra harvested vegetables to use in a lesson or a spontaneous student taste test. 

Britt proudly takes a nonconventional, unique approach in her classroom. Her teaching style focuses on the therapeutic process of making art, why we make it and examines the experience, rather than the end result. Similarly, the garden provides a space for students to learn the journey of where their food comes from and the work that goes into it. The garden is not only inspiration for the art they create, but also allows Britt to teach cross-curricular subjects in a visual way – like a lesson she gave on bees pollinating in the garden.  Britt asked her students to illustrate the role a bee plays in the garden ecosystem, using various styles of art. The outcomes were adorable, but more importantly, they represented how each student learns and expresses themselves differently. 

Britt’s “living classroom” doesn’t just include plants, it is also home to the classroom pet bunny, Vanilla, and two chicks.  This past school year, Columbia participated in MU Extension’s chick hatching program and had three incubators at the school to raise chicks.  During a lesson with the chicks, one student was upset when they made the connection between chicken wings and their new fuzzy friends. Britt believes the students’ daily interactions with animals and animals encourages them to buy responsibly and hopefully makes them more conscious consumers in the future.  The students appreciate the garden for providing food for Vanilla while learning how to care for an animal.   

Britt enjoys finding the overlap between art, science, and sustainability in her classroom and encourages other teachers to not be afraid to fail or try new things.  She says, “life is a science fair project.”  

Written by Rachel Wilson, Education VISTA