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Since the garden’s founding in 1989 the Becker Green Classroom’s mission has been full of hope: to facilitate environmental stewardship, wellness, and equity for Becker Elementary students and their community, in an experiential outdoor learning space. Created by visionary educator Carla Marshall, and supported by the Becker administration and local community, the garden now hosts nearly 2000 AISD students each year – children from Becker as well as those from across the school district, who participate in the City of Austin Watershed Protection Department’s EARTH CAMP. Or it did until the abrupt closure in March due to the ongoing pandemic, which was of course abrupt and unsettling.

And in August the garden suffered another loss: 

I am sad to let you know that Becker Green Classroom founder Carla Marshall died on August 4. Carla started the Green Classroom at Becker in 1989. She was a determined advocate for hands-on outdoor education, and she built an award-winning program based on those ideals and her love for the students she taught. She was an accomplished designer/builder, artist, gardener, teacher, environmentalist, and traveler. Her legacies are far-reaching.

Kathleen McWhorter, Becker Green Classroom Volunteer Coordinator 

When she began Carla Marshall was, in a practical sense, on her own. There weren’t other school gardens like the one she wanted to create – while Becker principal Judy Taylor was very supportive, Marshall’s idea of using the garden space as classroom was without precedent. And she faced an unfriendly slate: a former backyard still overgrown with Bermuda grass. Through the summer she did all of the work to prepare for her first class herself, killing off the grass, filling 120 truck tires with soil. 

When each child in the incoming pre-kindergarten class arrived in the fall to their own little plot, in which Marshall had grown loofah plants from seed, the children had loofahs to harvest and take home in September. And from then on, Marshall was no longer alone in the garden. Under her leadership the garden and its students blossomed. She created lessons which integrated elements of the students’ academic curriculum into the garden setting, teaching them math, language arts, science, and social studies. And as the garden grew it evolved, featuring a pizza garden, an alphabet garden, a pond habitat, a world herb garden, and even a solar dome.  

When students from a functional skills class needed sidewalks in order to access the garden, Marshall laid them herself. When students tested the local groundwater and found it to be polluted, she helped them develop nontoxic cleaning solutions to sell at a low cost to their neighbors around Bouldin. When grants and donations dwindled in the late 1990s, Marshall approached different city departments for funding, including Watershed Protection, Solid Waste Services, and Austin Energy. And so she turned her focus to teaching students about the local watershed, recycling, and energy usage. 

The Becker Garden Classroom inspired Chez Panisse restauranteur Alice Waters and the national Edible Schoolyard Program, earned three Presidential Environmental Youth Awards, and sold their produce at Whole Foods. With local jazz musicians including Tina Marsh and Martin Banks the students wrote and performed songs and grew a “blues garden.” 

Most important to Marshall though was something relatively small in scale. In an interview she told the Texas Legacy project: 

To me, it comes down to planting the seed. That whole idea of putting a seed in the ground and having it turn into something. The first year I was here, we did all this—we had clowns, we had all this stuff going on. And then I surveyed the pre-K kids. And, you know, children will—at that age will often tell you the last thing that happened. Whatever it was, that was their favorite thing, because that’s what they remember. Ninety percent of the pre-K children, when I asked them of all the things we did this year, what was your favorite thing, planting the seed in the ground and having it turn into something. It’s powerful. I mean they don’t have—they don’t have that power any other way. They—they can’t make anything. They can’t create anything at that age. The magic to them of putting the seed in the ground and having something come up is truly magic to them. Really, really touches them in a deep place. So for me, that’s—I would say planting the seed is—is the key. Touching the earth. Being near it. Understanding what it does…

Carla Marshall, Texas Legacy Project

In preparation for our thirtieth anniversary celebration* this year we had the good fortune to correspond with Carla Marshall about how the Becker Green Classroom got its start thirty years ago. Our interview follows.

*now-deferred due to the pandemic

Becker Green Classroom: In the background research we have done so far it sounds a lot like your school garden at Becker was at the forefront of a wave of school gardens, which had seen periodic popularity since the 1890s (!) but were not at all common in the 1970s and 80s. As of today there at least 120 school gardens in Austin, and you even inspired Alice Waters’s successful Edible Schoolyard project! Could you tell us about what inspired you, in terms of similar projects? 

Carla Marshall: There was no specific school garden that I had ever heard of. The inspiration for the garden came from my own experience in school. I was always looking out the window wanting to be outside. Gardening has been a love of mine since childhood, working with my grandmother and her garden. I always wanted to be a teacher but did not think I could function well in the confines of a classroom. And from that came the idea of a school garden. I could combine two things that I loved. Once the Green Classroom was established I found that there were in fact other school garden across the country. What made us unique was incorporating the curriculum into the Garden activities.

BGC: Is there anything else you might want to share about the atmosphere in 1989, versus the situation when you began to work on new projects in the late 1990s? 

CM: In 1989 the physical job of turning a backyard into a garden for hundreds of children required a huge commitment and a strong back. I brought tons of leaves cardboard and organic matter to try to tame a Bermuda grass jungle. But it was a labor of love.

BGC: We have been so impressed by your resourcefulness and energy first in building the garden, and then in creating amazing learning experiences for Becker students. Could you share any favorite memories of your work with the garden? Any surprising challenges you had to overcome?

CM: Although they were many many challenges getting the Green Classroom started, there was also a lot of support, and Judy Taylor and the pre-K teachers that I worked with at the very beginning made it all worthwhile. I was also encouraged by the community of artists, musicians, chefs and neighbors willing to give their time and energy to the project.  The major challenges were mostly financial. I cleaned a toy store on Congress Avenue from 5:30 to 7:30 in the morning before spending eight or nine hours at the Green Classroom (doing) intense physical work. I could have never done this without the support of my husband who encouraged me every step of the way.

BGC: We have read about some special moments you shared with students in (newspaper clippings) but would love to hear (what) stood out to you…

CM: The first year of the program was only for pre-K students. We had treasure hunts with real life pirates. We had chefs make pizza from the Garden.  We had clowns, musicians, artists and many others who interacted with the children. At the end of the year I surveys the pre-K students one by one in personal interviews and asked them what’s your favorite thing was they had done all year and was surprised that 90% said planting the seed in the ground was their favorite thing.

BGC: (Apart from) Judy Taylor, the principal when you started the garden, are there any other people you would hope we’d speak to (about) the 30th anniversary celebration in May?

CM: I cannot say enough about the importance Judy Taylor played in making this all happen. I had shopped other schools but they showed no interest and had a very guarded and frankly uptight attitude about a “stranger” offering to set up a garden in their school.  Judy was just the opposite. Excited and encouraged by the idea she offered me the house across the street that had just become empty.  She encouraged me to start with pre-K and paved the way for my work with those teachers.

Without her support it would never have happened.  Tina Marsh introduced me to Judy because she was artist in residence at Becker. Tina was a master with children. She could take some small sticks, put children in the circle, create some beautiful music and it look like a Broadway production.  We worked very well together and made a great team and she had many connections to artists in the community. She was instrumental in creating the “blues garden” that showed the harmonic progression of the blues in flowers. completed with musician friends playing in the garden. I will always be grateful to both of these women for their encouragement and brilliance.

BGC: Is there anyone you’d like us to make sure we especially remember at that time? Is there any message you’d like to share with our students today, or any request you’d like to make?

CM: The fact that the garden continues today it’s very rewarding. I know that would not of been possible without Kathy and her work with volunteers. I would like to see her recognized for her efforts over the years. Also, Dora Lopez. I believe the only teacher still there from the beginning. She was always so positive about the garden.  Also, of course, the volunteers themselves are critical to the future of the garden.  Please thank them all for me.

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