LA CROSSE, Wis.  — When University of Wisconsin-La Crosse education major Alex Keller started working at GROW for the semester, it was already a bit unorthodox.

Most education majors fulfill a graduation requirement of student teaching in the classroom. But Keller noticed it wasn’t working best for him.

“I was working in the classrooms and I felt very restricted,” Keller told the La Crosse Tribune.

So he decided to join the team at GROW, a nonprofit group in La Crosse that aims to connect children with nature and healthy food — which was right up Keller’s alley.

The group usually has five to six interns working in the gardens, but Keller is its first student teacher.

“He is our first student teacher with our organization, which is very exciting,” said Bonnie Martin, GROW’s outreach coordinator. “He started off the semester with big plans to develop middle school curriculum.”

But unique education took on a different meaning when COVID-19 shut schools down and sent kids home.

“It’s been crazy. I’m already on an alternative path with my education,” Keller said. “It’s an interesting situation, because my education is outdoor focused and nature focused.”

“Which, with the quarantine, is kind of an interesting dynamic,” he said.

Keller spends several hours every day in the Washburn Community Garden, planting and gardening to complete his hours, and using it to connect with kids at home.

“Once schools were closed, it really changed what he was able to do,” Martin said.

“So he has been spending a lot of time working in our hoop house growing produce and developing activities and videos to share with students online so that they can still be connected with healthy food and nature,” she said.

Keller has now been creating things like videos about how to celebrate Earth Day during a pandemic, and worksheets on how to compost or use natural resources.

Nature has always been a part of Keller’s life.

“It’s kind of always been a family thing to be gardening,” he said. His family grew up sharing a large backyard garden with his grandparents, who lived next door.

“My focus has always been being outdoors and I love making connections with kids, so combining those is something I like to do,” Keller said.

He plans to soon use his work in the community garden to make videos, too, but the produce he grows in it will reach the students in other ways.

The fresh veggies and foods Keller produces in the Washburn hoop house will be going to his students’ homes during COVID-19, while food insecurities may mount.

“He brings a fresh perspective and energy, and just a great resource helping us develop,” Martin said of Keller’s work.

“It’s been an interesting process. It’s been a learning process, even,” Keller said. “You have to figure out how to expose kids to nature without actually being in front of them.”

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