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Garden of Possibilities

01 Sep 2016

Lyvenne Phoon_students_PAT 2016

Lyvenne uses the school’s Edible Learning Garden to engage, motivate and cultivate values in her students.

While her students are excitedly nurturing radish, spinach and lettuce on the school’s rooftop garden, Phoon Lyvenne is more excited about nurturing these young minds and teaching them skills and values through gardening.

Phoon Lyvenne, Spectra Secondary School, President’s Award for Teachers 2016 recipient

The rooftop garden at Spectra Secondary School – brimming with ripe fruit and crisp leafy vegetables – is flourishing, but Lyvenne, who masterminded this project, is prouder still of her flourishing student-gardeners.

“My intention is not just to get the kids to grow vegetables. My goal is to get more students involved in experiential hands-on learning activities,” says Lyvenne about her Garden-Based Service Learning (GBSL) programme, an idea she came across while reading educational research literature on GBSL and visiting schools in the US using this approach. “The plants along my HDB corridor are dying. Why? Because I don’t see the need to farm in my corridor. But here, I see a lot of reason and purpose.”

For Lyvenne, this purpose is to engage, motivate and cultivate values in her students. It goes way beyond gardening skills. She knows too well that some of her students learn better through hands-on activities. She used to be like them once, preferring Science and Home Economics in school as they allowed her to do things with her hands and experiment. “It worked for me and I want my students to benefit from this as well.” GBSL is now part of the school’s Character and Citizenship Education curriculum and all Secondary One students spend one term working in the garden.

The garden teaches many lessons: Students learn about composting and the environment (Science); they harvest rain water and talk about the need for water conservation in Singapore (Social Studies); they discuss their day’s experience and write down their reflections using the right terminology (literacy and communication skills); they learn resilience as they persevere through the vagaries of nature; and, teamwork as groups of students are put in charge of different plots of land.

And that’s not all. As Lyvenne says, “This is not so much a garden as a social endeavour.” The harvest is sold at the school’s Farmers’ Markets with the proceeds going to support students who are on financial assistance. So, here’s another big lesson the garden brings: empowering students to care for the community.

In fact, the garden has drawn a community of enthusiasts – parents, teachers, farmers, a group of engineers, bankers and teachers from other schools who love to farm but don’t have the space – who come in to help over weekends and whenever they’re free. “If I have a major harvest to prepare for, I’ve got 30-40 people – it’s a happy problem,” says Lyvenne with a smile.

“Saturdays are happy days and Farmers’ Market is even better,” she adds. Parents will come in as volunteers to help sell, pour drinks, make ice lollies to sell… and as customers. “It really brings up the vision of it taking a whole village to raise a child. I see it happening in the garden and it reminds me of my childhood days in my kampong.”

No giving up

Not all memories of her growing up days are happy ones though. Lyvenne came from a troubled family. She faced more than her fair share of challenges – poverty, stressful home environment, falling grades, aimlessness – overcoming all these to become a successful entrepreneur and then a much-loved and respected teacher after the age of 37.

She shares her stories with her students to make them “sit up and reflect on their own behaviour”. Her turning point came in “Standard 6” when she discovered her interest in Science and hands-on learning. The rest was won through sheer hard work and resilience, a message she is keen to drive home to her students. She had to walk for 45 minutes through rubbish dumps to get to school but she was never late, she tells her students.

Lyvenne asks her students to never give up, and she doesn’t give up on them either. She kept track of a particular student, who had to drop out of school after being arrested, for over 10 years, helping him re-start his education, calling him and encouraging him repeatedly over the years. It was a happy day for Lyvenne when this ex-student, now successful, took her out for dinner and said, “You believed in me. Every time I start my sales training, I start with ‘Believe in Yourself’ because there’s this teacher who believed in me and that’s why I’m successful.”

On another occasion, when one of her students kept missing school, Lyvenne tracked down the hard-to-reach parents who were none too happy to see her, liaised with the Ministry of Social and Family Development to help the family, got the children into a shelter home, and, on occasion, even got the child out of bed… so that he wouldn’t drop out of school. She says, “I come from a very disadvantaged home. I’m seasoned to hardship… but when I see some of the situations these kids are in, I feel really sad.”

Entrepreneurial spirit

With her business background, Lyvenne brings a whole lot of enterprising ideas to the classroom. Once she gets an idea, she pursues it wholeheartedly, roping in the right people to make her project a success.

While at a previous school, she decided to start a Scrabble project to make the library club more exciting. She got other teachers involved and they not only taught students how to play Scrabble, the students started representing the school in Scrabble competitions. She also got a company’s sponsorship, worked with the Scrabble association, and after five years, they set the Guinness World Record for the most number of Scrabble games played simultaneously in one location.

Another time, she got her students to start a hamper business, which raised funds for the National Kidney Foundation. “I owe it to my students to enrich their lives beyond just studies,” she says.

Lyvenne has brought that same enthusiasm and doggedness to the garden, even tapping on farmers at Lim Chu Kang and Kranji for their expertise, who have not only offered advice, but visited her rooftop garden to offer solutions.

Her students love the garden. Some wait for her to open the door in the morning while others head out with her to farms to tackle the latest problem – be it wilting crops, pests or building shelters.

“I’m very happy to be doing this,” she says. “My passion is making a difference to their lives. The more I learn, the more I want to do. The more I do, the more I see the fruits of success. And the more satisfied I am. This is so beautiful.”