Have you ever watched kids dig potatoes for the first time? It is like a treasure hunt. Or experienced the joy of pulling a beautiful, long orange carrot, washing it, and eating it right then and there? There is no substitute for these experiences.
I have been gardening with students for a long time. More recently, I have written a couple of successful grants to purchase wind turbines and solar panels, along with community educational materials on alternative energy. For years, I did all of this with sixth graders. When I got bumped to eighth grade, I began teaching a course called Sustainable Living. I believe that I am teaching important life skills, and preparing students for a new future that may be much different than our current way of living.
Sustainable Living is a semester-long, elective class designed to teach students about sustainability through the use of our extensive garden, our rooftop solar panels, and small wind turbines. We immerse students into the world of gardening and eating the good food that we grow. With our thirty raised beds, a greenhouse, extensive worm bins, and composting area as an outdoor classroom, we learn about everything from building good soil to seed germination to preserving our crops. We monitor our own solar and wind energy production, and cook and prepare food twice a week.
|Boys and their shovels.|
While some students may not take their learning to the level you would like them to, they do get something out of it that may reach out to them later in life. The other day some boys said they wanted to do more shoveling. They didn’t really care what the goal was, they just wanted to use a shovel! I told them the story of how I once got a very good construction job because I was able to demonstrate how well I could use a shovel.
What really works for me is my unbridled enthusiasm. The kids sense my own passion for the many topics we study, and this will always work for a teacher. I try to transfer this into keeping them as busy as possible and gradually give them more and more responsibility. If they don’t plant the seeds right, we may not have food to eat. If they don’t water the sprouts, they begin to stink. The students become dependent on each other to do their jobs well. It is experiential education at its best, and it can be very rewarding when we all work together toward a common goal.
|Dishing out today's salad, freshly harvested by that week's cooking crew.|
I want students to see and experience the joy of watching plants grow, to know what good soil is and how to build it, and to taste the delicious freshness of our harvests. I want them to appreciate the joy of preparing and eating food together. I want them to be able to look around on a sunny day and feel proud of the beautiful garden they have created with their hard work. I want them to be able to see clearly into the future of alternative energy and transportation. I want them to be able to live a life more connected to their surroundings and to know the stories of their food. I want them to be able to see themselves as members of their community, with an awareness of their connections to it and to the greater community of all life on Earth.
Joe Gillespie is a science teacher from Crescent Elk Middle School in Crescent City, Del Norte County, California, located on the Pacific Coast in the heart of the Redwood Forest. He lives with his wife and son on the wild and scenic Smith River, where they keep a large garden and orchard, and manage a vacation rental. Joe also chairs a local environmental organization, the Friends of Del Norte, through which he has been very active in conservation issues for over 35 years.