Earth School – Digging in the Dirt: No Doodling Allowed?


My intention with this blog has always been to present the alternatives, the bright side of what is possible, the genuine attempts that are being made to set things right in an educational system that I feel is out of balance in the United States. It was always my dream to effect change, one mind at a time, one backyard at a time, and no offense is ever meant. There are great teachers in every kind of school in the world, and there are not so great teachers. This blog is called “Digging in the Dirt,” because from time to time I think we need to expose the issues underlying the situation for education in America today, so that we can open up the discussion about how to improve that situation and make a better place for our children now, one that can also last into the future.

So I invite you to think about your first day of school…  


If you can remember, what did you do on your first day of school?
What did your classroom look like?
What did it smell like?
How did you feel inside of it?
What were you learning in those first few years?
Who were your favorite teachers?
Why were they your favorites?
Did you have art classes?
Where did they take place?
What kinds of materials were you using?

Every day for the past 18 years that I have been teaching Earth School for homeschoolers (part-time, farm-based education programs), I am in awe because of what these children have that I did not and always wished I had. “Lucky is the child who goes to Earth School,” intones one of the parents whose child has attended our programs for the past 7 years. One of my favorite quotes comes from just last week, from a 5-year-old girl who complained, “The only thing that I don’t like about Earth School is that I can’t come every day.”


My favorite memory of going to elementary school was the walk to school in the morning through the woods. I went to public school in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, and my walk to Hillside Elementary (I balked totally at taking the smelly school bus that was full of teasing and bullying) took me through suburban forest, where the early morning dew and mist consoled me, the rabbits, deer, and chipmunks enchanted me, the smells of the wet earth and the sound of songbirds cheered me. I remember every year how it felt on the last day of school (I remember almost nothing we learned whatsoever, and am not sure that I actually did learn anything in my first few years), when I would sit down in the grass on the way home, munching on wild onions, and singing to myself, “No more pencils, no more books!…” There was this feeling of freedom every time I pushed that door from the school out into the fresh air for the summer, and I was free, free to breathe, free to run, free from the smell of stale milk, free from the fear of dank toilets.


So I imagined for the whole of my life a school where children were in nature, instead of staring out the window of the classroom at nature. And I don’t mean setting up chairs and tables in nature. That’s not an outdoor classroom, that’s tables and chairs outdoors. An outdoor classroom means using the logs as walkways, the pond as science experiments, the rocks as blackboards, the grass as carpets. This is therapeutic horticulture, and even if one attends a public school, it can have a garden instead of a blacktop schoolyard or instead of an empty rooftop. Many schools already have gardens, but they often plunk down raised beds in squares to teach scientifically and mathematically about planting and the origins of food and healthy eating and soil composition, but tend to skip the integration of creative writing and journaling and social studies. As our art teacher once rejoiced about teaching environmental art outdoors at Earth School: “No more chalk and talk!”

One of my joys is reuniting with Earth School students in the years that pass after they have graduated from our farm-based and forest-centered classes and entered the public or private school system. I always ask them what is their favorite aspect about their new school, and what is their least favorite. What invariably erupts is an outpouring of distress over the lack of outdoor time, and the use of “detention” for minor infractions that just keep children indoors during recess, as a punishment.

How upside down this thinking is. And we know it! So why don’t we object more vociferously? Let me tell you the stories told to me yesterday during an apple picking trip, by an 8th grader at a Westchester County public school, and you tell me what you think…

Students are given 3 minutes to get from one class to the next, between bells. This is typical in middle schools. If a student is late by a minute or more, that equals detention. In 3 minutes, a child has to get from one end of the building to another, stopping at the locker to get books, with never enough time to use the bathroom or get a drink of water. This includes getting from gym class to an academic class. My former student, 13 years old, described how after gym she needs to change her clothes, wash off because she is sweaty (makes sense in adolescence to want to clean up after gym), get to her locker, and get all the way across the building, doesn’t have time for a drink of water, and cannot get to her next class within 3 minutes, so she repeatedly has been kept in from recess.


But the worst for me was when she told me that no doodling in your notebooks is allowed. What?! I am actually still in shock as I write this. How would I ever have survived the intoning of boring history teachers, year after year after year, had I not been allowed to doodle within the margins of my notebook? I was taking down all the notes from the blackboard, following what they said, but the doodling allowed my creative imagination to flow at the same time, and gave me the opportunity to develop my skills at drawing and calligraphy and symbology. What, I asked, is the reason that doodling is not allowed? Because, she explained with great exasperation, it means you are not paying attention. They check your book, she said, and if there is any doodling, they give you a lower grade for the year, because you are not participating. Discuss…

Finally, as I sat bumping along on a hayride, listening to my former student describe the things that make her unhappy (though she is very strong and a real fighter, so she is not broken by these things – others would be), younger children were also listening in. I was watching 6 year olds screaming with delight each time the hayride jolted them and they fell onto bales of hay with peals of laughter. They are not having enough fun, I told myself with a smile. One of the younger children who overheard the conversation and is in 4th grade in a local public school told me that she had also been kept in from recess twice, for forgetting to bring in her homework sheet signed by her parent. She told me with a shaking voice, a pale face, quivering hands, that she won’t forget to have it signed again. Gee, I thought, why don’t they just rap the children over the knuckles like they used to when you wrote your b’s and d’s backwards? At least you could still go play outside.

When did removing children from nature become a form of punishment? Or is it meant to make nature an incentive for obedience within a system whose requirements are unreasonable? What are children being trained for exactly?

It’s ok. You don’t have to answer that, but I do hope you’ll think about it. And if you’ve got thoughts to share, please leave a comment below.

The Unwritten Curriculum

“It is said that the teacher’s presence in the classroom is the unwritten curriculum.”
-Adele Caemmerer, from “Planting Seeds; Practicing Mindfulness with Children” by Thich Nhat Hanh

At this time of year, I can always feel the dread of “back-to- school” that used to haunt me as a child. I would get it in the pit of my stomach, the feeling of anxiety over the “first day of school.” Would I make friends? Would my teachers like me? Would I like them? Even though I don’t go back to school in the fall, and my weekly students are all homeschoolers who don’t go back to school, and the refugee and shelter teens I work with are also not going back to school, I still feel the frequency everywhere. It’s in the long lines at Staples and CVS for school supplies. It’s on the sidewalks, as children return from summer camps and vacations abroad. It’s in the shopping malls and catalogs, advertising fall clothing and back-to-school fashions.

overcoming fear of bees copy

Why is it “back” anyway? We aren’t back, we have moved on. Children grow up so much in the summer time, they aren’t the same as they were. So why isn’t it “forward?” I love to say to young children on the first day I see them in the fall, “Welcome forward!” It makes them smile, because it’s different and it makes sense.

On the first day, we always talk about the quality of “respect,” how the word could mean: “to look again” (re-spect). Because we are different, we greet each other on the first day as if we don’t know each other, and so we introduce ourselves to one another as if we were just meeting. It’s a ceremony that makes everyone giggle, and yet they feel really settled afterwards, knowing they have been recognized as different, not the same as they were in the spring, and it makes them stand just a little bit taller.

I’m interested in how some public school teachers manage their classrooms, unlike the nature-based settings that I lead educational programs in. The classroom becomes like a domain, and depending on the teacher, there can be an atmosphere in the room itself that children walk into and it conditions their behavior, by how comfortable (or uncomfortable) they feel there. One teacher that I know well, keeps the fluorescent lights off in her classroom all the time, and only uses a few lamps. It makes the light so much softer, and immediately, the students register a feeling of calm in her room, and so they are calmer.

XIIsS help in the garden copy

But I also notice sometimes that teachers in some situations seem to have lost their joy of teaching, their love of children, and have become managers of behavior. They seem almost afraid to allow children to be themselves, for fear of what might happen if they get too loud or too excited. In Middle School especially, I hear teachers clapping their hands repeatedly to get their students’ attention. Or worse, one 8th grade teacher in a parochial school classroom, used to bang on one of those bells on the table until the students stopped talking. She did it incessantly: bangbangbangbangbangbangbang. It didn’t really endear them to her, and it didn’t really get their attention either.

I have heard a teacher enter the classroom and say, “Good morning everyone!” in a threatening voice and when the students repeated in a feeble monotone, “Good morning Mrs. So-and- so,” she raised her voice to a more strident pitch and repeated, “GOOD MORNING EVERYONE!” They then realized what was required and said a little more loudly in unison, “Good morning Mrs. So-and- so!” I got that feeling in the pit of my stomach, that one that came with the first day of school. It is a feeling that smells of lunchboxes and milk, cafeteria tables and garbage cans overflowing with unwanted food, and the sound of shoes squeaking on linoleum floors. It goes with wet toilet paper wads stuck on the ceiling of the bathroom that might fall on you unexpectedly, and teasing messages scratched onto the back of the door of the toilet.

It’s the feeling of being caught not knowing the answer, or not paying attention. It’s the sound of the second hand ticking on the clock on the wall, or seeing it spinning silently as you wait for the bell that releases you to the next class. It’s the banging of lockers, the smell of school bus exhaust, the voices yelling in the playground.

Do most teachers realize that what children want from them more than anything is friendship? That they desperately need the warmth, support, and encouragement of the adult in the classroom?

smiling seesaw OCC

Last spring, when I was leading “Think out of Bounds” workshops twice a week in a public school classroom, it hit me that the children were so nervous about making a mistake because their training was to only get the answer right. So that prevented them from trying new things, experimenting with ideas, and thinking in new ways.

They were inhibited because if they looked silly or stupid in some one else’s eyes, they would be laughed at. And here I was, asking them to “think outside the box,” and all they’d been taught was to stay very firmly inside that box, and I was expecting them to freely express themselves in 40 minutes, between bells.

One day after class, I saw a teenage girl shaking in the hallway, almost whispering to the teacher in the classroom, “I think I forgot my homework folder inside the room,” she was stammering. I thought to myself, why doesn’t she just say, “I left my homework folder in the room, can I please go get it?” But she was, I realized, so frightened of having lost it, of having made a mistake, of leaving it behind, and what would the teacher say, and how would she say it?

It caused me to realize that whatever I taught the children from then on, what they really needed was my genuine love and support. They needed to feel that I was inspired by them (which I was) and that I thought they were fantastic, creative people (which they were), and the more I encouraged them and expressed my real awe at what they were capable of, the more they were actually able to think outside the box. They started to astound me with their ideas, and the more I put a warm hand on their shoulders, laughed at their jokes, smiled at their attempts, the happier they got. And they became more respectful, better listeners, quicker at our games and exercises, and better team players. It was so clear to me by the end of the year, that all they really needed was the presence of a teacher who believed in them.

“The transformation of our schools and our society begins with the transformation of ourselves through the practice of cultivating mindful awareness.”

-Adele Caemmerer

Digging in the Dirt – Small-Batch Earth School

here comes the sap copy

The saying that Earth School has grown by is “small is sustainable.” It’s an essential principle of Permaculture, and for Something Good in the World it’s always related to our motto: “Small steps towards a big difference.” The concept behind grassroots activism is changing one mind at a time, or one backyard at a time. In education, small groups are key, because the more one on one there is, the more learning there can be. Mass production in education is based on Industrial Revolution motives; it’s the most economical to do large batch production. But everyone knows that homemade and handcrafted have better quality, that small-batch cookies you baked in your oven taste better than packaged, store-bought cookies, and the same principle is true for teaching children.

Whenever a school sends me a bus packed with 50 children to the farm for a two-hour program, I know that the likelihood of me reaching more than a few children is very small. It’s more economical to pack 50 children into a bus designed for 50 children and most schools simply cannot afford to send 25 at a time so that we can divide that class in half and just work with 12 in each group. But when we small-batch Earth School, we can connect with each child and make a greater impact.

Walking with a group of 50 children through the farm, it’s like speaking into a void. It makes me feel desperate. One day I reached out to a teenage girl who looked bored and miserable, as we walked from the farm to the parking lot where the students would board the bus back to school. I simply asked, “Have you ever been to a farm before?” “Yes,” she sighed, and she explained that she had grown up on a farm in Peru. “Peru?!” I exclaimed, “I love Peru! Peru is amazing!” And for a whole minute we talked about how beautiful and powerful the land is there and how she feels when she is there, and she lit up like a 1,000-watt light bulb. This is the purpose of Earth School, in the words of Jean Vanier, these are “little lights of love.”

I recently watched the documentary, “Homestretch,” that follows three case histories through the entire film. Not 50, just three. I learned so much from these three young people about the situation for teens who have no safe home to go to at night, who don’t consider themselves homeless because they do have parents or grandparents, but they are unwanted or neglected. So where do they go? Where can they find a safe place to sleep and eat? How are they going to do their schoolwork or get a job without a place to live? The film is incredibly moving and important, and it taught me a great deal about the teens I work with from the shelter, who have in some cases been abused, but in many cases simply left behind.

hands with honey

There are shelters with 300 children in them, but the one I work with houses only 12. 300 is more economical, but a shelter with only 12 beds can house siblings who need to stay connected, or children who are ill, or teenage girls who are pregnant, or anyone who needs special care and attention. Today I was at the farm with three children from this small shelter. This was not economical, but it was essential. Each child is coming from a situation at home that requires they be sheltered away from their families, under a court order of protection, and this can last anywhere from 3-6 months to a year or more until they can be returned to a home environment or fostered safely elsewhere. The teens that I meet from the shelter every month arrive in a state of pain, and they wear this on their faces and in their postures.

So I expect when they arrive at the farm that they may be angry, depressed, hurt, have a chip on their shoulder, and I know that they will likely be reticent, often withdrawn. But I also know they are children, and that warmth means everything.

This morning when it was below freezing, they did not want to get out of the car. They did not want to be outdoors. They definitely did not want a hands-on, educational experience.

egginhands copyBut I have seen it every time, and this has been month after month, year after year, for the past 10 years of working with these children: they melt. They melt like crayons in the sun. And what causes this melting? It’s different things. Today it was a chicken egg. A girl named D. peeked in the chicken coop, not daring to venture inside, but when she was handed an egg that was just removed from underneath a hen, she smiled. It was the warmth of the egg, its fineness, its blue-green color, the fact that a hen had just laid it, and the knowledge that if the hen sat on it for 21 days, it would hatch into a chick. So D. decided to wrap the egg in her gloves, and for two hours she cradled that egg, she held it underneath her armpit, she insisted that she would hatch this egg. By the end of the two hours, I had given her and the teachers contact information for borrowing an incubator, so that she could scientifically hatch the egg, being that her underarm would not be sufficient, though she was determined to try.


During this same time, another girl named A. simply would not come out of the car.

When she entered the zero carbon footprint, solar powered, mobile classroom, nothing impressed her. She would not look up, would not respond. She took out her makeup and began doing her eyes in a hand held mirror. She was not going to melt.

She tasted the maple sap we had collected while she sat in the car. She was not moved by this. I gave her some boiled sap to taste, and a smile came over her face by accident, when the sweetness hit her tongue. She added more to her glass.

Within one hour, she had become the cook for the day. D. took over the kitchen and prepared gluten-free pancakes with fresh maple syrup for all the students and teachers. She stood as the chef calling out, “You want a pancake? No? Come on!”

A boy named A. would not look at me or speak. He insisted on not wearing a coat in the sub freezing temperature. A teacher had the idea to give him her phone to video the workshop. For the next two hours, he became a cameraman, lit up, smiling, getting good angles, interviewing me, laughing, totally engaged. How simple, how brilliant. “I’m on CNN!” I laughed with him as I gestured to the Sugar Maple tree.

Walking back to the car with the teens at the end, I asked them to go back to the shelter and please write to me about what they learned. They did not respond, just got in the cars and shut the doors, no goodbyes, no thank yous. A minute later, the girl named A. rolled down the window. “You want us to write you about what we learned today?” she asked, her eyes serious. “Yes,” I said, “I am very interested in what you learned.” “OK,” she agreed, nodding.

One of the shelter teachers handed me a packet of letters that the teens had written the previous month. It was a different group, but we’d had the same experience.

One girl in particular had not been willing to participate or speak until we got to the part of the workshop where we sat indoors in front of a warming fireplace in the farmhouse, doing needle felting with wool. I opened her letter and read:

Dear Ms. B. and Ms. H.,

I really appreciate you inviting us to your lovely farm with all your wonderful animals. My favorite things were the baby sheep and the creative felting. You were right it does help you relax and stay calm. It was a fantastic experience while visiting your farm. The food you have given us to taste was amazing, it was very unique, it’s always wonderful to try new things in life. I loved your leadership towards us and all the knowledge you have filled our brains with. Thank you guys for all of your support and being wonderful leaders towards us.

L. G.

The situation for at-risk youth has not changed in the past 12 years of my experience working with these teens. I can only quote a philanthropist who I heard interviewed once on PBS’ “Beyond the Color Line,” who said, “If you don’t consider disadvantaged youth, if you say you don’t care, that it’s not important, you are so wrong. That is like sitting in a rowboat and there’s water coming into the boat and you don’t bail it out because you say, ‘The hole isn’t under my seat.’”

In a small-batch version of that rowboat, we would all recognize that the water is coming in, and it’s our responsibility to bail it out, one bucket at a time.

Digging in the Dirt – Farm-Based Therapy

“What’s done to children, they will do to society.”
-Karl Menninger

My latest joke as a farm-based educator, which is not actually a joke, is that I tell everyone what I do is farm-based education, but that what I know inwardly is that it should be called farm-based healing. I have watched children from traumatized situations come into the farm in a completely shut down state, shields up, nerves raw, eyes downcast, hoods over heads, and within minutes, I see them transform. They laugh, they chat, and they smile, all while digging in the dirt, arranging the flowers, cradling worms in their palms. It’s nothing I do, all I do is lead them into the garden and show them what to do, the rest happens naturally, because I believe it is how we are meant to be.

Today I entered a shelter for abused teenagers who have been removed from their homes for their own safety, and refugee children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. We all introduced ourselves, and the refugees are practicing their English, saying their names, ages, and countries of origin. This is how I discover that the 7-year-old girl in the room made the journey to the US with her 11 year old brother, also in the room. We are about to plant flowers together.

HOH with flowers

When I come into a room where the children are being kept safe, I am used to a lack of response. I am all full of my cheerful enthusiasm for the work we are about to do, explaining today how it is that bulbs don’t need watering or weeding, just will appear like magic in the spring and bring inspiration to the students who will see them. I explain to them, this is a service, it’s not for them, it’s for those yet to come. These are teenagers mostly, so there’s a “Why should I have to do this?” feeling in the room, but I tell them there is only the fact that a garden is forever, that it is sometimes good to do things for other people. They accept this and follow me outdoors to plant.

I have often seen that children do not know how to dig in the dirt. I sometimes have to help them, take their hand and dig it like a shovel in the soil, so they get the idea. The shelter children especially want gloves and shovels when we start, and their hoods are over their heads. But I see how within the hour, they are intensively planting hundreds of bulbs, no longer caring that they will not be there to see the tulips when they emerge, only focused on making sure they dig down 4 inches so it will grow. Now they just care about the fact that the root side goes down and the pointy end goes up, otherwise the flower will not be able to grow.

glinda awareThese are children who really need services given to them; they probably don’t really need to be concerned about giving to others. Do they? Somehow the act of putting one’s hands in the soil and finding a worm and considering what to do with it, removing rocks that are in the way, making a bed for the flowers and tucking them in gently, something about this is analogous, and causes well-being. The same thing is true of harvesting, choosing flowers, putting them together in a bouquet just so, putting them in a jar of water. I see that the entire act of planting, weeding, watering, mulching, harvesting just makes humans feel good. Is that enough, just to feel better?

Recently, some one sent me a study called “Green Care: A Conceptual Framework” and I perused it very carefully, agreeing with every point:

■ Contact with nature is important to human beings.

■ The importance of this is often overlooked in modern living conditions.

■ People can find solace from being in natural places, being in contact with nature and from looking after plants and animals.

■ In addition to this solace, contact with nature has positive effects on well-being, with physical, psychological and spiritual benefits.

■ Existing or new therapeutic programmes could be improved by incorporating these ‘green’ elements.

■ The planning, commissioning and delivery of all health services would be enhanced by consideration of potential ‘green’ factors.

cutting flowers

After reading through the 120 pages of this detailed research, I hope that findings such as these will help more people realize the powerful effects of “green care,” so that more nature-based programs can be created and supported.

I consider myself incredibly fortunate and blessed to work with children outdoors every day, and especially to guide those from shelters into local farms or their own schoolyards to weed and plant and harvest. It is enough for me; small though it may be, and I think it is enough for them, to share that hour or two in the sunshine and open air, to feel free, and to make a difference to others who they may never meet.

bee with flower

Digging in the Dirt – Dandelions; Algo bueno en el mundo

blow2It’s a weekday morning and I am working with the refugee children from Central America. I always hesitate to call these “children,” because they are already young men and women, and they are so much more like adults than children their own age in the suburbs of Westchester. But sometimes, when they encounter something new, they are children again. This morning it is dandelions.

dandelionsIt’s really important to me that the children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala don’t lose their connection to the land and farming, even in a backyard sense. They mostly come from rural areas and many have been farming already, keeping chickens, eating local and seasonal as a natural process. Now that they are in North America, I see how they get immediately exposed to fast food and junk food and packaged, processed, unnatural and unhealthy foods – that’s what the government gives them for free.

But the refugee children are actually keenly interested in what grows here. So I take them foraging in backyards and wooded areas and meadows, because there are healthy edibles that are free. So, dandelions were ubiquitous on this one morning and they didn’t know what they were called or that they were edible, or most importantly, that once they go to seed, you can blow on them and make wishes.


The boys took those dandelions and blew the seeds with all their might, making their wishes that I could only imagine. I never saw such fervent wish making on dandelion fluff, but I felt it when they sent those seed pods soaring into the sky. As soon as they finished this part of the lesson, I saw them taking shovels and digging up dandelions from the backyard where we were studying, and I asked them what they were doing. They showed me, they were planting these in the garden.

I had come that morning to their shelter with a local farmer to help the children plant their own edible garden, one that would stay at the shelter, with perennial fruits and vegetables and flowers, and I saw such energy in the refugees for this project as they tended each plant with so much care. On another day, they came to our Children’s Peaceful Garden and helped us plant native trees, and they threw themselves into it with more vigor than I have ever seen a teenager put into working, and I asked them, have you done this before? They laughed and nodded and I could picture them at home, planting with such industry. They understood what it was for, what it meant to plant something that lasts.

So they were taking the dandelions and lovingly transplanting them into the edible perennial garden we’d just made together, because they wanted dandelions to be a part of that. Partly to eat them, but mostly I think, so they could ensure future wishes.


I am supposed to be teaching them English, but so often because the students are so endearing, I am tending to learn Spanish from them more than they are learning English from me. “Algo bueno en el mundo,” they tell me, smiling, and at first I think they are talking about the dandelions, but then I realize, they are translating the name of my work, “Something Good in the World.” And as is ever the case with these children, I am honored, moved, and feel incredibly grateful to them for sharing themselves with me and for becoming citizens of this land.

Earth as Homeschool


digging in the dirt

The concept of a mobile classroom has come up many times this year. It’s becoming a phenomenon around where I live, in Northern Westchester County. I have already encountered three successful arts-oriented programs that have given up their expensive rented spaces and are using vans or cars instead, focusing on traveling from place to place for educational activities and as wild as it sounds, it’s working. A year ago, our tiny educational nonprofit charity, Something Good in the World, lost its lease at the County-owned farm we’d been located at for the past nine years.

a new way to digThe next location we were looking to move into wasn’t ready yet; license
agreements and permits were not in place by the time we had to leave our previous home base. The idea of shutting down just wasn’t an option. No one wanted us to stop offering programs, but we also could not find any other local farm or landowner who wanted to take on our students on a daily basis.

At that point, I read an interview with an educator who said that her favorite kind of classroom was the kind without walls and the idea struck me of a nomadic Earth as School year. I had to remind myself that our Earth School programs meant that the earth was our school, and that the concept had always been to use nature as our classroom. I thought long and hard about it, and came to the conclusion that all the children really needed was a backpack containing their lunch and a water bottle and a change of clothes, and that we needed access to bathrooms and drinking water, but other than that, we could pretty much learn anywhere.

observing beesWe had a range of partnerships at local farms that meant we could continue planting, harvesting, mulching, weeding, and doing community service. We also had friends with arts centers, studios, and living rooms or kitchens that could be adapted for the small groups of homeschoolers who participate in our programs. Not only that, but there are plenty of parks and nature centers, museums and libraries, all of which are accessible to the public for free.

So back in September of 2014, we went mobile. Now at first I thought this was
absolutely nuts, and that the teachers and parents who were excited about
embarking on this adventure with me must be equally crazy. But it turned out to be the most fun educational experience I have ever had, even if at times it was also the most stressful. For the children, it was pure heaven. They were so happy every day to turn up in a parking lot, wherever we were, and they couldn’t wait to find out where we were going that day. It was like an endless field trip. And for a child who doesn’t like to sit still, well, you can just imagine how thrilling it was to never have to sit still, unless you were having a picnic or riding a train or doing something where you had to sit down in order to be able to do it. But what I mean is: imagine education with no desks and chairs.

free time at the hudson copy

For the teachers, it has meant improvising every minute, because if you don’t
happen to have what you need in your backpack or in your car, then you have to
make it up or change the plan. It means turning on a dime, all the time, because you never know what you would encounter in the midst of a learning experience. It means thinking on your feet, being live and at the point, every minute. It is tiring, but it is also exhilarating. Because it proves that you do not need a blackboard or chalk or paper or pencils or books or tables or chairs. It has liberated me as a teacher from the notion that I need any kind of regularity, which is harder to cope with physically, but wow is it a great mental exercise to have to keep changing and never have something to fall back on. You simply cannot get comfortable.

The one thing we have that is regular is what I call our little “gold alignments,” like touchstones, that are part of our Golden Education Template (GET) curriculum. These are set up so that each day begins and ends a certain way, which means that the children know this is Earth School. At the start of the day, wherever we find ourselves, we always have our hot towels, mindfulness practice, Brain Gym exercises, and GET class songs. This tunes us to the same note, gets us ready for learning fun, and reminds us why we are doing what we are doing. Because otherwise, we’re all on different frequencies, and having these regular alignments brings us together as a team. The end of the day is similar: we have a closing off process of collecting marbles for each new thing we learned, which is a great memory exercise, but also reminds us how much we encountered that day, and our mindfulness bell seals off the process, sends us off into the wider world with a sense of quiet knowing. So no matter where we found ourselves this year, whether in a farmyard or a cultural center, a museum or a living room, we made sure that each day began and ended the same way.

drew weedsThis year of being nomadic has proven to the children that without doubt learning happens everywhere and anywhere. It confirmed to me that place-based education is the way to go – that you can go to the place that supports what you want to learn about. Studying the planet’s geologic history and finding ourselves along the Hudson River meant that the beach became our timeline and the shells and rocks formed the points on a time “squiggle” drawn with driftwood. Learning about bees meant going to a backyard farm and working with a beekeeper to set up a hive, feed the bees, taste the honey, make beeswax crafts, and help establish bee-friendly gardens. Doing community service took us to area farms to them make sheet mulch, plant a sustainable “no-mow” meadow, or harvest vegetables to transform into a meal for the local soup kitchen. The possibilities were endless, and every week left us breathless, wondering where we would find ourselves next. The uncertainty was maddening, and for parents it was admittedly tough to manage the ride-sharing logistics, but the success of learning everywhere and anywhere was powerful.

So if you ever have to do a nomadic Earth School yourself, what does it take?

1. Courage. You have to really believe in it and know that you can do it,
because otherwise, why would anyone else want to join you in it?

2. Curriculum. This is not just about wandering around wondering what you
will do and where the day will take you. It takes an enormous amount of
planning from locations to supplies, and the backbone of the plan has to be
aligned to the purpose of what you are researching and studying.

3. Collaborators. You need lots of people and organizations that understand
what you are trying to do and want to help by hosting your programs and

4. Cars. It’s crucial to have reliable vehicles and drivers, not to mention liability
insurance and waiver forms. Carpooling was a huge part of the success of
this operation, because it relieved parents of the responsibility of too much
traveling all the time, and helped save on gas.

5. Communication. Planning as much as possible in advance and
communicating these ideas through email, texting, and phone calling is
essential. Everyone has to be on board and clear about locations, directions,
timings, and ride-sharing.

6. Creativity. Because locations are constantly changing, you have to be able to
create in the moment, where you are, with what you have, and not mind that
you don’t have anything that you are used to having in a classroom. It sounds
scary, but it was constantly inspiring and confirming of human capability.

7. Chutzpah. In order to see this through, it requires other people like you,
who share your vision and are just crazy enough not to mind dropping their
children off in a parking lot with a backpack and a lunchbox, because as
parents they know they are having the adventure of their lives.

Without all of the above, don’t even try it. It’s absolutely the most inspiring and out-of-the-box experience you can have as a teacher. It teaches students incredible adaptability and it allows the recognition of what simplicity there is in using the Earth as school. One parent referred to it as Life Camp. One teacher suggested we call it Earth as Home School.

At the same time, I can only recommend that at some point, you do try it. The whole experience is completely child-like. I remember in the first week of our nomadic situation, we were walking up a driveway looking for whatever we could find in nature that we thought was interesting and putting these treasures into a paper bag for creating a project with later. The children were ecstatic, just finding pinecones and special stones, acorn caps and mossy fragments. One little girl exclaimed, “I love this!” and the words spilled out of her mouth with laughter, and I will never forget the simplicity of that moment. It was like she was saying, “This is school?”

insect hotel

Proud to know you

HOH seesawAfter six months of working with refugee children from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, I have become aware of the power of what even one hour can do for a life. It is an honor to work with these children, because I cannot imagine surviving what they have, and what impresses me the most about them is their resilience. Maybe it is the force of childhood, but when a 14-year-old has experienced starvation, deprivation, oppression, and been faced with the very real possibility of dying, it is incredible to look into his shining eyes and see that he is able to process all of those experiences and still be able to smile and to trust.

boys in bootsAnd in working with these teenagers, what I witness over and over is the value of a day in the fresh air, of warmth and care and nurturing, of healthy food and laughter, of playtime and the recognition that these are, after all, children. I watched a boy skipping down the dirt road at a farm today, and knew that just a week ago, he had been swimming across a body of water to get to the United States. He had also explained that two others who crossed with him had drowned. I marveled at the strength of the human spirit, of the energy of the child, who could live through this experience and not be destroyed by it.

HOH_in_the_fieldsI gingerly suggested to the director of the shelter where the refugees are held for a week before they come to our farm-based programs, that the children seemed as if they were starving. Though they eat a meal before joining us, they are hungry when they arrive, and while we harvest in the fields, they are eating what they have in their hands, and when we prepare the vegetables in the workshop, they eat everything they have made. She confirmed they have been starving. When she interviews the children upon arrival, she asks them what they have been eating while held at the border. Cookies and juice, one group told her. No, she said, that was your snack, what were you eating for meals? Cookies and juice they affirmed. Four times a day, cookies and juice, for 10 – 20 days. Sometimes, a ham sandwich, at most once a day. There are no showers, no change of clothes., no way of taking care of their own hygiene.

HOH_prepares_kale_saladSo what is the value of care and comfort, if only for a week or a day? Does it make a difference if you feel welcomed, respected, appreciated, listened to, just for a short time? I believe there is such a thing as short-term impact. I received a thank you note from a young refugee child in one of our programs and her words express it best: “First I want to give you thanks for having treated us so well. You are beautiful people, I personally think. I also give you thanks for having given me such an unforgettable experience in visiting the farm. I think that I will never forget what I saw with you. The apple trees, having been able to eat an apple, even though it was very small was delicious! But the biggest impact was the tomatoes. They were exquisite. What was the most moving experience was being able to pick the vegetables and fruits and then make our own salad with my own hands. It was fresh and delicious.”

HOH tire swingI cannot get out of my mind today how the teenagers were discussing, in Spanish, the way they felt when they were arrested, surrounded by the police at the border. They were comparing their experiences, agreeing that they thought they were dead, that the police were taking them to their own funeral. The translator who came with them to our farm-based program asked them, how do you feel right now? Happy, one girl smiled. Free, said one boy. Peaceful, said another. It reminds me of home, said one and everyone murmured assent. They all came from farms, some with 12 chickens or 60 chickens, some with horses, many knew how to operate farm equipment, and all knew how to harvest.

bike blender HOH-2While they are with us, we teach them what can be foraged freely in the woods and fields, what can be grown in their own backyards, how to cook or prepare or preserve these new foods. They make roasted tomatillo salsa with us, kale salad, plates of raw veggies with dip – all ways of taking what is local, seasonal, fresh, organic, and turning it into a delicious treat. Bike blender smoothies continue to be a favorite, and fresh strawberries from our gardens, potatoes grown in our potato bags, sunchokes pulled from the ground, and of course riding the seesaw to pump water.

HOH_harvestI am grateful to know these children, to have this chance to make a short-term impact in their young lives. And contrary to how this issue is portrayed in the media, I am proud to have these amazing children become a part our nation. I tried my best to express this in a note I recently sent to a group of young men in the shelter for refugees: “I was so impressed with your warmth and kindness, your hardworking nature, your seriousness and your smiles. You are amazing young men, and you are adding something very important to the United States. North America is lucky to have you living here now, because your qualities are so valuable in the world, and you will make a big difference wherever you go. Thank you for helping me, and for helping your school gardens to look beautiful and continue to grow and flourish for all the children yet to come. Next spring, the children will not know who to thank, because they will not have met you. But I will know what you did for them, for me, for the school, and for the earth. You are exceptional people, and I am impressed by your energy, and I am proud to know you.”