‘Sheet Caking’ Nature

I am moved to write these blog posts when something really irks me.  It takes a while sometimes for the irritation to bother me enough to break the barrier of behaving politely, and to actually say what I think about a situation.  Think of this as my “sheet caking” (thanks to Tina Fey).

One of my Earth School students, who is now in college studying environmental science, recently recommended a book to me, “The Nature Fix,” by Florence Williams. I spent the past few days fuming every time I read a few pages.  I’d have to yell at the book and throw it down for a while before I could get the courage to pick it up again and read some more.  It is an important book.  The gist of it is, that nature causes well-being in humans.  The scientific studies that the book is filled with and the statistics that it uses as proof are all very impressive and fascinating.  But I cannot get past wondering why we need a book or medical scientific research to tell us what we already instinctively know?

The fact seems to be, at least in our current age, that we don’t all know, and some of us won’t believe it unless there is scientific proof through clinical studies to show without doubt that humans benefit from time spent in nature.  But please indulge me for a few minutes, while I dig into this sheet cake.

Whole sets of studies involve volunteers or prisoners or business people who are exposed in the lab to stressful prompts (like public speaking or mental math problems) with electrodes stuck to their bodies to prove they are experiencing stress.  Then they are shown either a blank wall, or a photo of nature, or an open window, and the studies show that the window that looks out onto nature causes the most relaxation.  Ok, that’s great, but here is where it goes next.  Because the image of nature is almost as relaxing as real nature itself (not quite, but it’s better than a blank wall), there are people working on creating virtual reality experiences to take the place of real nature, where you can sit in a cinder block and concrete room and experience nature in order to de-stress.

Why would anyone want to do this?  Because explains one Ph.D., “This way, you can enjoy your own living room and it’s relatively cheap.  You can go to Hawaii without the bugs and the jet lag.”  That’s when I threw the book down again.

For those who have ever been to the extraordinary and magical and powerful land of Hawaii, you know of the awe and wonder caused by the Hawaiian landscape, which can only really be experienced by being immersed in it.  Hawaii is a place where once-in-a-lifetime experiences happen every minute, from the ocean vistas that include whales breaching, to the giant curls of the turquoise waves on the beaches, to the intensity of the glow of a lava flow, to the appearance of double rainbows arching over volcanic mountains – the last thing that you are thinking about is bugs or jet lag.  All you are thinking about is how well you feel, how joyful, how inspired, and how incredibly lucky you are to be there.

My work with children from urban environments teaches me that children need to immerse themselves in nature in order to feel the benefits, as well as to confront their fears.  One of the Central Harlem schools I work with has no windows at all in the building.  There is no natural light or fresh air, and children are bused to and from the school building.  The first graders in this school are able to spell words aloud in their classroom that I never imagined a 6 year old could spell.  They can read and write and do math at very advanced levels.  But when they come to the farm to work with me in nature, if they encounter so much as a ladybug, many of them shriek with terror, and I have held and comforted children who are sobbing and shaking at the sight of these tiny, harmless, (and actually kind of cute) little insects.  But after the children have spent a day with their entire bodies in nature, all of their senses engaged, they describe to me how happy they feel, and I can see their confidence glow, as they tell me, “I faced my fears.”

These children from Central Harlem always tell me that their favorite activity each time they visit the farm is to roll down the grassy hillside.  We do this near the end of every trip, because afterwards, many of them are coughing and wheezing and itching, and they tell me, “I am allergic to grass.”  Is it because they haven’t encountered actual grass with their bodies before?  Should these children be exposed only to virtual grass?  Allow me to take another huge bite of the sheet cake.

Woody Allen is quoted as saying, “I love nature, I just don’t want to get any of it on me.” It’s a funny line, and very appropriate for a neurotic New York comedian, but there is some truth in it for a lot of people.  Teenagers from the suburbs, who have access every day to nearby nature, simply don’t go out into the woods.  I work with local students who don’t want to get their sneakers dirty, never mind their hands.  They put plastic bags over their shoes to work with me at the farm, and they will even put plastic gloves over their hands before planting seeds, and they totally refuse to sit down on the grass.

“The Nature Fix” suggests that if there is enough scientific proof that nature is beneficial to humans, then perhaps doctors will be able to prescribe walks in the woods to stressed out patients (according to the research, it’s not enough to just go to a city park – to really relax, one has to get deeper into nature).  In countries like Japan and South Korea, this has already begun and there are schools of Forest Medicine, and people pay money to be taken into the woods for “Forest Therapy.”  City dwellers take the essential oil from the trees and put these into infusers so they can inhale this while they sleep.  I take a huge piece of sheet cake and shove it into my mouth.

Are we really so disconnected as all this?  It seems so.  To her credit though, the author of “The Nature Fix” is actually made nauseous by the virtual reality nature experience she tries.  Even with all the technology being developed to try to help people feel closer to nature indoors, she makes the point that allows me to breathe, and gently place the book down for now: “There’s a better solution: go outside.”

Exactly.

This week I worked with kindergarten age children who are from impoverished circumstances in a suburban environment.  I asked them, “Where does water come from?”  They looked at me blankly at first, then one boy said, “From pipes.”  That was a reasonable answer, and so I asked, “Where does the water come from before it goes into the pipes?”  No one responded, then the same boy said, “From the sewer.”  That was a pretty cool perception for such a young age.  But did they know where water came from in the first place?  They didn’t.  I gently suggested, “Everything comes from nature,” and I hinted my eyes upwards.  They looked up in the air and said, “Ohhh, the sky!”  It took a while to get to clouds, but fair enough.

We went into the woods to follow the water cycle from clouds to gutters to wetland ponds to streams to reservoirs, and for two hours, the children were completely immersed in nature.  I coaxed them to jump from rock to rock, to balance on logs and tree roots, to put their hands in the water we were following.  “The stream disappeared!” The same boy exclaimed.  “It became the lake!” he shouted with excitement.  On the way back out of the forest, I asked the teachers if they ever take the children into the woods?  No, they had never done so before.

I don’t need the scientific research to tell me what’s needed for a child’s well-being, I see it every day.  My dedication to immerse children in nature and use all of their senses to experience it is now redoubled, thanks to “The Nature Fix.”  I definitely recommend reading the book, just have a huge piece of sheet cake with you while you do.

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The ‘Other’ Refugees

I have the honor of working with the ‘other’ refugees – the ones we haven’t been hearing about in the news recently.

The children in my programs are unaccompanied minors from Central America. They were detained at the border after fleeing gang warfare and human trafficking in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. They are ages 6 and up, boys and girls, sometimes siblings, sometimes a cousin looking after little ones, crossing the border on foot. They are seeking asylum in the United States.

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This kind of journey has been going on for many years, but I’ve had the privilege of working with these children for the past three years. That is, until today.

On February 1, 2017, the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, a federal agency, cut the funding for these children to be housed in the shelter where they have been temporarily kept safe until they could be legally resettled with family members or sponsors in the US. The ORR called the shelter at 5:30 p.m., technically after hours on a Wednesday, and gave the director 2 hours to remove the children from the safe house.

What will happen to the children, who were midway through the process of being resettled here? They will be transported back to the border, most likely to a detention center in an airplane hangar, which is neither safe nor appropriate for children.

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Three years ago, the shelter approached me to ask if I would please help teach the refugee children from Central America about our food system and how to live sustainably here. I had already been leading farm-based education programs for several years for at-risk teens removed from their homes by the Dept. of Social Services for reasons of abuse. The shelter felt that if I were to guide the refugees, it would help make the program a successful one.

The Central American refugees were only supposed to be kept for 21 days in the airplane hangar that served as a detention center. They would sleep on a concrete floor with nothing but an emergency blanket. There were no showers, no changes of clothing, and very little food. The shelter director told me she asked the children what they had eaten there, and they said, “Juice and cookies.” That was a snack, she’d said. What did they eat for meals? “Juice and cookies.” Three times a day. For 21 days, sometimes longer.

The children needed the name and contact information for a sponsor. But sometimes the sponsor would turn out not to be safe — yet another human trafficking operation. Sometimes a sponsor didn’t have a phone or computer, so it could take months to settle the paperwork by mail. Sometimes the girls were pregnant when they arrived. The shelter focused on caring for the neediest cases, the youngest children traveling alone, the sickest, the siblings who needed to be kept together, the teenage mothers who required extra care.

After the refugees had received 7 days of medical care and been given clearance, they could come to the farms where I work, and we would focus on learning English names for the foods and animals, and discovering the differences between organic agriculture here and in their home countries. We compared the ways we keep domesticated animals, and what grows in the Northeast that doesn’t in Central America. The children were always hungry, and they loved apples that grow here. “Manzanas!” they would cry out! They loved the cherry tomatoes too.

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These children were kind, sweet, hardworking, generous, dedicated, committed, and excited to go to school. They were desperate to learn English, and to become citizens here. Each time they left the farm, they hugged me tight and thanked me deeply. They were the warmest children I have ever encountered, so polite and decent, and so eager to participate. These children have witnessed atrocities no human should ever have to witness, and they are — or were — safe here.

Sometimes they talked about swimming across a river to get to the border, and seeing people around them swept away and drowned. They whispered about how it felt when they were caught, how they thought they were going to their own funeral. People around them sometimes died of thirst. And yet, despite all they had seen, they were resilient, as children are. They could still smile, their eyes still sparkled, they could laugh and be silly. The shelter director told me that always their first request upon arrival was to go to church; they were always so conscious of giving thanks for what they had received.

During the three years they attended my programs, I watched them transform. At first fearful and uncertain, they soon knew they were loved and welcomed. When we entered the barns, a boy would sniff the air and smile and say, “Ah! I missed the smell of cows!” A girl would light up as she entered the chicken coop to gather the eggs. I would ask them how they were feeling as we hiked up a hillside to the farm fields and they would tell me, “Free, I feel free. And happy.” They would have a whole new life here, one they deserve, as all children do.

Often I wondered how their mothers were able to let them go. I knew they could only have done it if they knew it was their child’s only chance to survive, to be educated, to be safe, to be free.

A few weeks ago, these children were here at the shelter. Now, because of the federal government’s decision to cut their funding, they are gone. They sobbed before leaving the shelter, full-grown boys were shaking with fear. They know what they are going back to, just as they were about to achieve legal status here. Of course it would be much better for these children to live safely in their home countries and have a life of their own choosing. What child would choose to leave their families and their homes if they didn’t have to? They were here because they couldn’t stay there.

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This past September, I had the luck to bring three refugee children to the United Nations for the International Day of Peace. My students had been invited to present our Children’s Peaceful Garden project, as representatives of the Jane Goodall Institute’s Roots & Shoots project, to a gathering of dignitaries and 700 students, in the General Assembly. The refugees had received a special invitation to be a part of this gathering. They proudly carried the flags of their nations in the ceremony, with tears in their eyes. Always have I seen in their art projects and letters, how they would include the colors of their flag, and in writing proudly refer to themselves as 100% Chapin (Guatemalan) or Catracho (Honduran) or Guanaco (El Salvadoran). These refugee children have been resettled now, legally in this country, and they know where they are from.

One day I took the children to meet a man from El Salvador who opened his own coffee shop. A local teenage girl living in the shelter asked the coffee shop owner from El Salvador, “Is it really as bad there as these kids say it is?” He looked at her solemnly. “Yes,” he said, “yes it is.” She nodded. And only a few days later, this teenager watched as the refugees were removed from the shelter, a victim of a policy that is put into place by a distant bureaucrat who has likely never been to El Salvador, isn’t aware of the situation, and doesn’t care to be. “I know how they feel,” the girl said as the shelter children wept, holding onto each other. “I know what it’s like to be taken from your home in the middle of the night.”

What can we do now for the children who will not have the chance for resettlement? Perhaps it is not about what we do, but what we don’t do. We must not give in to the sense of helplessness. We must not give up on our beliefs. And we must continue to educate children for the future, to teach them to use their voices, to speak up for love and tolerance, to protest against greed and hatred, to use their power to vote and petition. We must teach them to remember what really matters, and do everything they can to help make this world a better place for all human beings.

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

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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…  

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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

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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.

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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.

Sincerely,
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.

gardening

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.

watering

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.