Steve Tanguay: Hands are the Best Learning Tools
By Tanya Mitchell
The Republican Journal Reporter

BELFAST (Sep 2): For the nearly 30 years he's worked in education, Steve Tanguay has used his knowledge of gardening and agriculture to inspire and teach his students.

Now, after spending the last eight years building what the community has come to know as the Troy Howard Middle School Garden Project, Tanguay said it's time to pass the watering can on to a new group of educators and students. Last month, the THMS history, economics and agriculture teacher announced his retirement.

Farmer Ed helps assists a student to prepare a green  salad at a presentation about the garden project for a school group.

Steve Tanguay assists a student to prepare a green salad at a presentation about the garden project for a school group. Garden Project students visit the Common Ground Fair each year to interview vendors, attend workshops and compete in the Exhibition Hall for top organic vegetable awards.

"I thought it was really time to take a new direction, and that it was time for me to leave the space for someone else to create a new vision," said Tanguay Aug. 27.

Now, the garden will be known simply as the school garden, and Tanguay said the future of the program rests with the teachers and students at THMS. It's a nice opportunity, he said, for educators to move all types of instruction outside, where every subject from writing to math and science can be taught.

Tanguay leaves behind a remarkable legacy. Under the garden program, his students have grown between 6,000 and 8,000 pounds of produce per year. The Garden Project averaged 800 hours per year of volunteer assistance, and more than 800 students have visited the garden annually. Tanguay's students have also had active roles in teaching their peers and other educators how to develop green thumbs, having offered presentations to more than 100 schools across the state.

The project also grew to become a self-sustaining program, financially speaking, largely due to the marketing, accounting and record-keeping skills of the students involved in that end of the business.

Because THMS students can grow greens in the winter in the on-site greenhouse, Tanguay said, the program has allowed students to sell greens to the Belfast Co-op during the winter months, when other local growers may not be able to produce.

But, Tanguay said, that is the key to being a good business — not to mention, community — partner,work to help each other.

"We've worked with a lot of the local farmers, and we don't compete with any of them," said Tanguay. "We don't compete with any local businesses; we work with them."

From selling their heirloom seeds at the Belfast Co-op to holding a regular farmer's market on site during the growing season, Tanguay said the garden has sprouted countless ways to educate students about horticulture, math, science and more.

And it's earned Tanguay a fair amount of recognition from around the state and nation.

Tina Shute

Steve Tanguay prepares bean hole beans as part of his Maine history class. (Tina Shute)

Steve Tanguay is awarded Teacher of the Year at the Philadelphia Flower Show by Scott's because of his attention to economics, agriculture, sustainability.

Jon, Anna and Steve show off the "Youth Garden Award" from Home Depot for the most outstanding school garden in the US

In 2004, he and THMS Agriculture Coordinator Don White were the first teaching team east of the Mississippi to receive the United States Department of Agriculture's Excellence in Teaching award. In 2005, Tanguay won that honor on his own, making him the first teacher east of the Mississippi to earn that achievement. He also garnered the 2005 Making the Grade award from the State Board of Education for the State's best integrated curriculum and assesement program, and in 2006, was named the Scott's National Teacher of the Year. "I won $5,000 to do whatever I wanted with," said Tanguay. "but I ended up buying supplies [for the garden]."

In 2007, Tanguay was selected (the only public school teacher chosen) to participate in the Sustainable Agricultural Delegation Research trip to Cuba where he spent time working with community and school farming/ food issues.

The garden project has recently received national attention, too, having been featured at the Bioneers Conference in California, where Tanguay spoke and distributed student-produced seed packets to 400 of the 10,000 members of the audience. The garden has been highlighted in countless local news publications, and was also showcased in Down East magazine.

But for Tanguay, the use of a garden setting as a classroom has been a common thread throughout his teaching career. It began when he was finishing college in Vermont in 1980, when he worked with local farmers and Head Start programs to help establish what is now known as the Farm-to- School Connection. The project brought all fresh produce into the Head Start programs, and soon, Tanguay got the local jails involved, too.

"At the jails, the inmates were growing food for the kids," said Tanguay.

Tanguay also worked on a 500-acre farm at that time, where 100-plus severely handicapped adults lived and worked as part of a program that offered therapy through farming.

As his career progressed, Tanguay brought his skills to Ellsworth-area elementary schools, where he combined topics like composting and seed-starting with academic concepts like reading and science.

Throughout his career, Tanguay said, he has found that the key to getting kids to learn is giving each one of them a choice as far as how best to approach learning a particular topic, and giving them the responsibility for getting their own work done. With the garden, students are offered many different types of apprenticeships, from digging in the worms and dealing with garden pests to accounting and making presentations to school and community groups.

"I continually tell the kids to try as many things as they can. The worst thing you can do is prejudge somebody," said Tanguay.

Tanguay said he's always admired a famous quotation that states that all one needs is a library and a garden to teach, and said his work has shown there is truth to the saying.

"You can't fake it in a garden, if you don't do what you need to do, things will die," he said.

Steve Tanguay, far right, poses for a photo with students at the Belfast Co-op, where everything from seeds to garden greens is now being sold. The Earth Loom is one of the dozens of Art projects Tanguay brought to the middle school gardens.

For his history courses, Tanguay uses a personal approach to make information more interesting and memorable to students. Tanguay's students have created more than 450 recorded interviews with Waldo County's seniors, many of whom were relatives of the students.

"It gives the kids an idea of what life was like when their grandparents or great-grandparents, were 12 years old," he said.

From one of those recordings, the students learned some families during World War II gave away their food ration coupons because they didn't need them — they had gardens.

Tanguay's students have also made several videos about the types of businesses — like logging, forestry and textile industries — that have grown from Maine's natural resources.

"With that, we were able to tie it in with technology through the laptops," he said.

The best part about working in education, Tanguay said, is seeing a youth exceed his or her own expectations.

"It's great when a student follows through on a project and takes it way beyond where they thought they ever could, whether it's making a model of a greenhouse, or building an aquaculture tank," he said.

Tanya Mitchell
Steve Tanguay spends much of his time working at the family business, Searsport Shores Campground. (Photo by Tanya Mitchell)

These days, Tanguay spends his time helping to run the family business, Searsport Shores Campground. While he will no longer be a common sight in the halls and gardens at THMS, he said he expects to see former students, parents and community members throughout his daily travels. And, he said, he's looking forward to it.

When asked what he would say if he could address all of his former students, Tanguay responded with a message of pride, and a reminder.

"I'm proud of what you've accomplished for yourselves and your community, and you should never forget the power of creating things with your own two hands,"