Thursday, October 25, 2007

Chillin’ Out and Learning with Plants

The changing of the seasons is subtle in Hawai’i, but the cooler days are here. The nip in the morning air reminds me of when I worked as a garden teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area. That was when I first had the good fortune to experience the power of plants to bring joy and discovery into challenging educational environments. It’s a time I’ll never forget.

The school I worked at was next to a city housing project. Most of the students lived in high poverty households. There were African American families, recent immigrants from from Spanish-speaking countries, and refugees from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Southeast Asia. The school comprised many religions; students and teachers made up a diverse community of Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus, Jewish and various Christian faiths. Out of respect for all traditions, we did not have any activities related to any religious holidays. There were no Christmas cookies, no Easter or Halloween candies, no making of God’s Eyes, mandalas or menorahs. Instead we chose to observe the passing of the seasons in the school garden.

In the fall, the school had a harvest faire. Students saved seeds from hollyhocks that grew tall as the roof and dried out over the summer. First graders designed their own seed envelopes, drawing pictures of hollyhocks on them, writing descriptions of the plant and the contents of the envelope. As they wrestled with tape and scissors to complete the project, they got to practice their fine motor skills. We made up silly songs about hollyhocks, gophers that were munching everything in sight, and what we’d plant later that year.

And the magic that happened at the beginning of the school year was something I saw again and again throughout the year, and in every school garden I’ve been lucky enough to be in since, in the mainland and back home in Hawai’i. The magic is this: Students who can barely focus in a classroom can be fully engaged in learning, on task, optimistic and happy to be at school when they’re working in a garden.

It happens outdoors while digging up onions and earthworms, or when planting huli while ankle-deep in the mud of a lo’i. Young or old, the connection we have with plants restores our very core. Children have the advantage of being closer to the source. I hope you get a chance to chill out in a garden sometime soon.

No comments: