Podcast: Grow Your Own Hydroponic Learning Lab with Melissa Tracy

23 Min Read
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Welcome back to Teachers in America, where we celebrate teachers and their lasting impact on students' learning journeys and lives.

Our guest today is Melissa Tracy, high school teacher at Odyssey Charter School, a Dual-Language Greek School in Wilmington, Delaware. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, a Certified National Geographic Educator, and a National Alliance Public Charter Schools' 2022 Changemaker Award honoree. You can follow her story on Twitter.

A full transcript of the episode appears below; it has been edited for clarity.

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Noelle Morris: Welcome to Teachers in America, a production of HMH, where we celebrate teachers and recognize their triumphs, challenges, sacrifices, and dedication to students. We see you. We want our listeners to feel not only inspired by the practice, but to also have a renewed sense of community.

I am the Senior Director of Community Engagement, Noelle Morris. Each episode, I meet a new teacher friend and learn about the latest lessons and innovations from the classroom.

Today I spoke with the Melissa Tracy, a high school teacher at Odyssey Charter School, a Dual-Language Greek School in Wilmington, Delaware. Melissa currently teaches A.P. Human Geography, African American Studies, History of Rock & Roll, U.S. History, and a Food Studies Pathway.

Melissa has earned degrees from Tulane University, the University of Delaware, and Villanova University. Prior to teaching in Delaware, she taught in India, Poland, and Thailand. As a National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellow, Melissa also participated in an expedition to the Galapagos in 2019.

Melissa is a passionate advocate for food justice and is a garden coordinator and co-leader of the Odyssey Green Team. Melissa and her students grow about 3,400 leafy greens each month in their school garden and hydroponic learning lab and donate the food to their local community in need. Under her leadership, Odyssey earned an Eco-Schools Green Flag and a National Green Ribbon.

There is no doubt that Melissa has accomplished much in her 15 years as an educator. She is a 2021 recipient of a Delaware STEM award, a 2020 NEA Global Learning Fellow, a 2019 Gilder-Lehrman History Teacher of the Year, and the 2021 Delaware Charter School Teacher of the Year. Along with food justice, Melissa’s interests include global studies and student voice, and I learned so much from our conversation today.

Now, let’s get to the episode.

Hello, Melissa Tracy. Welcome to Teachers in America. I'm so excited to have this conversation with you. And let's just jump right in and tell us your teacher story. How did you become a teacher?

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Melissa Tracy: I first discovered that I wanted to teach after spending a summer as a high school student in Thailand. I received a scholarship to teach English in a village in the province called Nakhon Ratchasima, and it was the first time I'd ever spent time abroad. While I was there, I just discovered that I really enjoyed teaching. And then, that same summer, I went on an archeological dig in a place called Chankillo in Peru, and that also helped to spark an interest in history. But it really wasn't until I moved to New Orleans and started teaching in the city that it really cemented my interest.

While at Tulane as a sophomore, the university decided to bring back the Teacher Certification Program, and I was one of the first students to pilot the program. It's ironic that Tulane University did not have a Teacher Certification at the time, and this is during pre-Katrina, considering the immense need for high-quality educators that existed in the city. I was just fortunate to be a part of that inaugural cohort and eventually earned my Teacher Certification. I spent some time abroad in India, and then I started teaching in Delaware.

Noelle: Wow, so Thailand to New Orleans to India and now to Delaware. As you think about that path and what you're currently teaching, describe your class. What are your classes, and I don't want to put you on the spot, but do you have a favorite?

Melissa: I pride myself on being a cross-disciplinary teacher, although I am formally trained as a history teacher. I teach a little bit of everything, and I infuse STEM into a lot of my courses. I currently teach a Food Studies pathway that is unique to our state and probably one of the only career pathways of its kind offered in the country. And I teach History of Rock and Roll. I teach African American Studies, A.P. Human Geography, and a dual enrollment U.S. History course, but I'm most proud of the coursework associated with Food Studies. When you walk into my classroom, I love the fact that people don't know what I teach. They're like, "Are you a science teacher? Are you a history teacher?" And I think that's the whole point. I'm a firm advocate of just muddling different content areas because I think students derive so much more meaning when it is, in fact, cross-disciplinary.

I actually have two classrooms. In one of my classrooms, I transformed a classroom of about 800 square feet into a hydroponic learning lab, so students are able to learn about different hydroponic systems. And on a monthly basis, we grow about 3,400 leafy greens, and we donate 100% of it to our community in need. Our school is located in close proximity to a few food deserts, and we know, of course, with COVID that there's a huge pressing need with hunger, so my students are playing an active role, on a daily basis, with trying a combat food insecurity.

We also take some of those greens and put together meal kits as well, and that's my first classroom. And then, my second classroom, lots of flex seeding, plants everywhere. I think that plants offer such a therapeutic learning space for students. Then it's also really important to me that when my students look at posters in my classroom that they feel like they are seen in the classroom and that they feel safe in my classroom as well.

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Noelle: What are your students are learning from the food pathway course? I would love if you would describe a little bit more about what that is, and defining it, and how you put together that scope and sequence, or overall syllabus, for a high school student. And I know our listeners would appreciate hearing what your students think about, what drives their curiosity, and what questions they're asking to solve some of our food insecurity problems in the country.

Melissa: I teach food through the lens of history, culture and environment, and power. We've actually broken up the Food Studies coursework into two separate sections, so in theory, the first-year students study food through the lens of culture and environment, and the environment component has a heavy focus on climate change and agriculture as a whole and rethinking the different possibilities that exist within our food system. This is something that I stress with my students because we know that with our ever-growing global population, we are going to have to creatively grow more food to meet that particular need.

And then, in the second phase of the course, students study food through the lens of history, so we look at the history of the consumption and production of food in America. So we start with, essentially, colonial America, and in fact, we push it back beyond that. We look at Indigenous foodways, and then we essentially end with the Impossible Burger, and kind of cover everything in between.

And then, we also study foods through the lens of power. I use food as a lens to talk about racism, to talk about the inequities that currently exist in our local, national, and global community. It's a really powerful lens for students because we all have a connection to food, and there are so many stories that happen to be attached to food as well.

Talking about food is another entry point for just an assortment of careers. I want my kids to think holistically about the possibilities that exist. I want them to recognize that the future workforce needs students, young adults, who have a strong skill set in both the humanities and STEM. But ultimately, at the end of the day, I want my students to be good human beings because I think that is something that we need now more than ever. And so, I use food, I use plants as a lens to teach empathy and to teach concepts around justice.

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Noelle: Wow. I want to be in your classroom. I want to see it. I want to talk to these amazing students. I would love to hear how you might have gone about getting sponsors or bringing this out to the community for more awareness than what is happening in the classroom with you.

Melissa: Sure. I've been at my current school five years, and prior to that, I taught at a wonderful, more or less traditional school for 10 years. And I had a tremendous experience. I helped to develop their high school. But there definitely were times where leadership said no to me. And over the course of my career, I've developed 20 different courses. I'm very creative. I like to innovate, and I felt like in that space, I wasn't able to do that. And that was one of the reasons why I decided to switch to my current school. It's a charter school. And they have just afforded me the flexibility and the physical space to innovate, and the leadership's philosophy has always been, yes, we'll let you try it, as long as it is something that benefits students. If it's going to benefit the overall academic experience of students, we are going to support it. And that has been particularly powerful for me because there definitely was a point where I had reconsidered teaching. I thought maybe I want to do something else because I just felt like I was in a very static position.

When I came to my school, I envisioned teaching some traditional history courses. I never in my wildest imagination thought that I would be assisting with a garden program, an urban farm program with goats and chickens. That's outside my comfort zone. I grew up as a city kid. So just the sheer fact that leadership trusted me, and said yes to me, over and over again, was huge because all too often, teachers are micromanaged and not encouraged to think outside the box. So that was the first piece. And then the second piece is, I aggressively pursued funding. So, my school has been a great supporter of me, but ultimately, everything that has been added to the campus, that's part of the sustainability umbrella, has, more or less, been paid for by a grant by DonorsChoose or by a school fundraising effort. And it's a lot of work.

Noelle: Yeah.

Melissa: But I think when you see the magic of students in that space, and seeing students fall in love with cooking or with gardening or being around animals, it makes it all worth it.

Noelle: I appreciate your authenticity of the conversation and your vulnerability to talk about [how] you may not have always been supported. It is really hard to be a creative and be in the right spot, and figuring out your advocacy, the trust, so I appreciate that part of our conversation, and the drive that you need to get donations, you need to get awareness. You mentioned chickens and goats, so how do you even teach yourself or learn how to prepare to manage a course that's going to have livestock?

Melissa: That's a great question. The first thing you have to do is you have to find another colleague, another thought partner, or somebody who is willing to participate in this learning journey, so that was the first thing for me. I work with a wonderful colleague, Miss Roni Gates. And early on, once we had decided we felt like this is something that the school needed, it took some convincing because we have a nontraditional campus. Our charter school building is located on the site of a former office complex. It is literally the last place you'd expect to find chickens and goats, but that's also the point. And it's this idea that agriculture should be available to all students, regardless of zip code, because I just think there are tremendous opportunities associated with it, especially for social and emotional.

So, I found a thought partner, and what we did is we reached out to neighboring schools and were fortunate to meet with other colleagues who have more traditional Ag programs, but they could go over all sorts of things with us, like what kind of sheers should you use to trim the goat's feet? Right. It's funny to see me doing it now when they're bucking and yelling at me. Again, not something I thought that I would be doing with my students, but I think what's really important early on in the journey is that you are humble, and you just find other examples of excellence. And there have been times where I have been able to find those examples within my small state. And then there have been other times where I've actually had to drive elsewhere.

For example, when I decided that I wanted to have a hydroponic learning lab and get beyond just having a couple systems and really scale our production, there wasn't another school in my state that had a program. And consequently, I drove to the Bronx and visited a school there that had a phenomenal program that helped to serve as the spark, but it did mean that I had to drive three hours to go visit the school. And I was fortunate to have the support of leadership to take the day off to actually go and do the site visit.

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Noelle: Great. Did you have to do anything to get students excited about this class? Or did you have, the moment it's out there, and it's an option, did you have students who were signing up raising their hand? They wanted to be in this course.

Melissa: Absolutely. I haven't struggled to find students to take our courses in the Food Studies pathway, including the hydroponic learning lab. Kids think it's really cool. Most students really enjoy hands-on learning experiences, and students have commented in the past that there is just this sheer satisfaction associated with growing something from seed. Sometimes they call the plants their babies. They get really attached to them. And then on top of it, the students assist with making the meal kits, with packaging everything, and there's a beautiful feedback loop, so periodically, we'll get letters or text messages from our recipients or our clients, and I think that helps to affirm the work that my students are doing as well.

Noelle: I know one of the courses that you do, I believe, falls into AP. You are working with a variety of students who have different paths and things that they're looking at for their future. How do you go from a Food Pathways class to an AP, and help manage and support students who tend to sometimes be in the most overachieving category, and keep them grounded but also self-regulating and nurturing themselves and enjoying high school?

Melissa: So, two things, the first thing is I believe that our Food Studies curriculum is for all students, and the content has been developed to be very inclusive. I believe that, regardless of future career aspirations, all students benefit from learning about food. So that's the first thing.

And then, I also have a personal mentality, as it relates to AP, that any student should be able to take an AP course. In AP Human Geography, I teach mostly freshmen, and so it's sometimes the very first time that they're being exposed to college-level work, and I'm very intentional about scaffolding all of the content, teaching them how to study, and I would say, at least twice a month, we do coaching sessions. And that's where that social and emotional piece comes in. I think you spoke to that, the fact that they oftentimes are high-achieving students and they put a lot of pressure on themselves. I just feel like that has been made to be so much bigger because of COVID as well.

And so, I remind the students often that we are all human, we're going to make mistakes, taking this course is part of a learning process, and it's okay to make mistakes. And it's one of the reasons why I permit students to do test corrections and to resubmit work, because I just have this mindset that it is, in fact, a process, and ultimately, I want students to experience success.

Noelle: One of the things when I looked over your bio, some of the awards that I got to see that you've earned. Can you tell me about two? You did receive the History Teacher of the Year for Delaware and it also seems that you've been awarded the Delaware STEM award. Can you talk about getting these accolades and how that keeps you motivated but also grounded?

Melissa: I believe it's really important for me to model to my students the importance of being a lifelong learner. I love learning, and I have multiple degrees. I am constantly signing up for professional development. For example, this past summer, I participated at an NEH Summer Institute, and I learned about one of the last slave ships to be discovered outside of Alabama. And I was able to be exposed to some amazing scholars. And interact with teachers from all throughout the country.

I definitely have a passion for history. It is my first love, and I think that's really evident in my Food Studies pathway course. So, for example, this week, I was working on a lesson about our founding fathers. The title of the lesson is "The Founding Father Foodies," so the students are able to learn about the contributions of our founding fathers. For example, the fact that Benjamin Franklin was obsessed with corn and wanted it to be more formally adopted by farmers and by consumers in America.

But then, I also use it as an opportunity to highlight the stories of marginalized individuals. For example, in that lesson, I talk about the incredible contributions of James Hemings, who is widely considered to be the first trained French chef, but again, because of the color of his skin and the context of the times, he did not receive appropriate credit for his contributions, including helping to popularize macaroni and cheese, and that's something that all of my students can connect with. In fact, we're making a vegan-friendly macaroni and cheese tomorrow in our cooking lab and then connecting it back to the primary sources that we're analyzing.

I love history, but I've also developed a passion for STEM-related content, particularly as it relates to Environmental Science. And I believe it's so important to weed that into all of the curriculum because I want the next generation of change agents, including scientists, to be good human beings and to feel compelled to pursue discoveries, inventions, et cetera, that will benefit mankind.

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Noelle: So you talked about STEM and how you bring that throughout all of your courses. Can you give us an example of how you plan or intentionally think about those moments, or building it into your projects?

Melissa: Sure. For example, in the hydroponic learning lab, the students were investigating a project with NASA in space to grow food. My students this year are participating in a Citizen Science Project. They're experimenting with different types of radishes or cultivars, and then they are collecting that data. They're performing a few different experiments and then sharing that back with NASA to potentially inform what they grow on Earth before it goes up into space. It's part of a youth-led program called Growing Beyond Earth. It started in Florida, and it is a program that is managed through the Fairchild Botanical Garden. And I found out about the opportunity on social media and basically just signed up for a workshop and said, "I want to bring this to my students, and I want them to participate."

And my students are growing three very specific types of radishes. They're pulling all of that data, and then they're, throughout the year, making modifications. They're changing certain variables to try to determine things like, "How does humidity impact the rate of growth for a particular variety of radish?" And then they are sharing that information with NASA, and then throughout the year, there are opportunities for them to attend like Q&A sessions, et cetera. Just about anyone can get involved in this amazing Citizen Science Project. Again, it's something that I stumbled upon. It's not something that I would've normally sought out if I just stuck to my traditional content and things that I had taught in the past.

Noelle: This is totally random, but I'm very curious because I have a high schooler myself, and she's very conscientious, but where do your students stand? Is this new that you're seeing them adapt as far as vegan or gluten-free or a meatless night?

Melissa: Full disclosure, I am not a vegan. I'm not a vegetarian. I do eat meat. I try to be conscious about the types of meat I consume and the frequency because we know from statistics and research that's been conducted that one of the greatest ways that you can impact your carbon footprint is consuming less dairy and ultimately consuming less meat, especially red meat.

And then, separate from my own personal philosophy, my husband has a startup biotech company called Superbrewed Food, and he is, essentially, genetically modifying a bacterium to create an alternate protein that will go into milk products. And so he's my person who really sparked this interest. I personally do not preach any particular philosophy to students because it is very personal. I don't tell them that they have to be vegan or vegetarian, but what I compel them to think about is this idea that what you consume, it should be good for your body and for the planet. And the fact that it is so important for them to be informed consumers.

And I also want my students to recognize that food can taste good without meat, even dishes that are traditionally very meat heavy, that you can seek out alternatives, or you can simply just omit the meat, and it can still be really tasty.

Which is, again, the conversations in our home. She also will bring things up like, "Mom, I only see these types of products in certain grocery stores or chains. So how easy is it for everyone to realistically have all these options?"

We grow a really high-quality product, and I'll tell the kids, "Okay, look at these collards, this type of lettuce that we're growing. Now, I want you to go to the grocery store and a, see if you can find it, and b, report back how much it costs." And that can be a really powerful moment for students because it completely flips the script, this idea that what we're growing is going to benefit people who are of the highest need and this idea that everyone deserves access to really healthy food. And it fights the narrative that just because you are poor does not mean you do not want to eat healthy.

Noelle: Exactly.

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Melissa: That also goes back to this idea of getting feedback from our clients and finding out the types of greens, for example, that they prefer to cook with. We're very intentional about creating culturally responsive meal kits and also putting together meal kits that are not pretentious, so we might pair ramen, something that's a comfort food, with bok choy, something that our clients maybe have never had before. And then, we include instructions for how to prepare it, and oftentimes, we'll also include actual cooking demos. And this, hopefully, will help to encourage people to try things that maybe they haven't had before.

Sometimes we don't know whether or not someone really likes a meal kit. But one big indicator for us is when we put something in a community fridge—if it's not there the next day. And that is a way for us to receive feedback on what it is that we're making.

The community fridge is operated by a wonderful nonprofit in the city of Wilmington called Planting to Feed. And they operate three different community fridges and an underserved community. They have volunteers that frequently check the fridge, and they dispose of anything that is wasted. But again, it's not uncommon for something to be put into the fridge and for it to be gone by the next day.

And what is wonderful about the community fridge program is that you don't have to have an ID. You could be undocumented and you can access the food. No questions asked, 24/7. There are a lot of people who are experiencing food insecurity, and there's shame attached to it, or they're embarrassed by it. The philosophy of this particular organization is to remove all barriers and to make sure that people feel comfortable getting the help that they need.

Noelle: I love everything "teacher," but this conversation has really helped bring me back to a teacher can bring about change. A teacher can be creative, think about a course, ask for permission to get it started, and build a student-driven curriculum that also aligns back to your passion. As we wrap up, I always ask teachers, "Do you have a walk-up song?" What is the first song on your playlist? What do you listen to, to get yourself motivated for the day?

Melissa: I love music. I listen to all different types of music. It's one of the reasons I have a course completely dedicated to teaching about music. I'm not ashamed to admit this, but lately, I've been going through an eighties and nineties female power ballad phase. I've been listening to a lot of Whitney Houston and I really love this song. It's just so joyful. It just puts me in a good mood.

It's "I Wanna Dance with Somebody" by Whitney Houston, and every time I hear it, it just puts me in a good mood. I just feel so fortunate that I am in a career where every day I go to work and I'm actually excited to be there. I'm just in a good mood. That's probably the reason why I would pick that song. I do listen to everything. I always have a song of the day in all of my courses. I infuse music into everything that I do. But, right now, it's all about Whitney Houston.

Noelle: All right, definitely. Right? When you think about a female power ballad, of course. I'm so grateful for this conversation. I'm grateful for you being in the profession and continuing to forge ahead. What an amazing teacher story you have. And now I'm actually going to find a recipe with ramen and bok choy because bok choy is not something that we've tried in the house yet, but we will in the next week.

Melissa: Awesome.

Noelle: Thanks so much.

If you or someone you know would like to be a guest on the Teachers in America podcast, please email us at shaped@hmhco.com. Be the first to hear new episodes of Teachers in America, by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you enjoy today's show, please rate, review, and share it with your network. You can find the transcript of this episode on our Shaped blog by visiting hmhco.com/shaped. The link is in the show notes. Teachers in America is produced by HMH. Thanks again for listening.


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