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Making language come alive with food

Julio and Rand on a visit to Down Home Farm in Truro
Elspeth Hay
Julio and Rand on a visit to Down Home Farm in Truro

Shortly after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, Julio Cruz and his family moved to the Outer Cape. With Spanish as his first language, Julio enrolled in an English as a second language class at Nauset Regional High School. Surprisingly his ESL class focused on building a garden of all things. The teacher Rand Burkert connected the students to each other, and English, by growing crops they remembered from home.

Julio started the garden with Rand when he was a freshman.

“We grew sweet potato slips from potatoes on the windowsill. All of their cultures, they were from, well Julio is from Puerto Rico, two other students were from Jamaica and one student from the Philippines, and sweet potato is a crop that turns up in all of their cuisines,” Rand said.

Even though the students spoke different languages, the sweet potato was something they could share.

“In Spanish the sweet potato, we called it a yucca and batata dulce and my mom use it a lot when she’s doing soup or empanadilla,” Julio said.

Sweet potato slips growing in the classroom
Elspeth Hay
Sweet potato slips growing in the classroom

An empanadilla is almost like a small calzone but shaped like a semi-circle and made with a corn-based dough called masa.

“It’s really good it’s literally like what you do, you take masa and think like you’re making a pizza but then you do like a half-circle, so you take that half-circle and you can put things like cheese, peppers, and guacamole in there but it's depending on how you like empanadilla,” Julio said.

Julio’s mom often fills hers with mashed sweet potato.

“And then you put it in like oil and let it cook for 5 minutes one side and flip it the other one, and you wait so both sides are really cooked, then you take it out and let it cool down, it’s a great plate it’s one of my favorite things.”

It’s amazing to hear how animated even a foreign language can sound when people are talking about good food. And there’s actually research to back this up—students who learn English in a garden connect more deeply and create a new sense of place faster than they do in a classroom. Rand and Julio both saw this firsthand.

Julio in the classroom
Credit Rand Burkert
Julio Cruz at the blackboard brainstorming crops for the garden during ESL class.

“It was great because you could see how it galvanized their interaction with each other in English,” Rand said. He added, “and instead of just sitting down at their desks they would go to the window and see how the sweet potato slips were growing.

“I remember how like, how crazy it was when they started like spreading roots because there were so many roots in that bowl, huge, long roots there and it was so awesome to see them final grown,” Julio added.

The garden had a big impact on Julio. His favorite memories from that year were spent building the garden and growing food with the other students. And he even won an English language award that spring.

“Gardening or planting plants and like seeing them grow, in a way is therapy. You know that is alive and that grew because of your work. It relaxes you, centers your mind,” Julio said.

In the years since Julio and his classmates helped Rand build the garden in 2019, it’s taken root to serve different teachers and students across a range of subjects and even schools. The space is now officially called the Nauset Food and Research Garden, and the crops growing there reflect not just our sandy peninsula, but also the diversity of places Nauset students have called home.

An avid locavore, Elspeth lives in Wellfleet and writes a blog about food. Elspeth is constantly exploring the Cape, Islands, and South Coast and all our farmer's markets to find out what's good, what's growing and what to do with it. Her Local Food Report airs Thursdays at 8:30 on Morning Edition and 5:45pm on All Things Considered, as well as Saturday mornings at 9:30.