It would certainly be understandable to associate the term “random sampling” with a Sunday afternoon stroll through the grocery section of Costco. Making a meal out of the treats served in those little paper cups is now part of our cultural norm. What happened with our fourth graders last week, however, was more statistical in nature. After a disheartening attempt to grow cucumbers, these students decided to try planting carrots. Much to their delight, nearly every tiny seed they sprinkled into soil sprouted. So many, that it became obvious some thinning would be necessary. In fact, it appeared that at least half of the seedlings would have to go. While discussing this task at hand, we became curious as to how many seedlings each student would have to pull. (assuming each student would pull the same number) If you have ever thinned seedlings with young fingers you will understand that restraint is a significant factor, so clarity is always a good idea. We quickly concluded that if we were going to calculate how many sprouts would be pulled by each student, we would first need to know how many sprouts we had all together. This would be our “population”. We decided that rather than counting each individual carrot plant we would look at one small patch of the bed, see how many carrots were in that patch, and then determine how many of those patches would fit in our bed. We would then multiply that number by the number of carrots counted in that one patch. It was determined that a six inch square would be a good size and this would be our “sample”. After calculating our total population of carrots, we would divide that number in half since half of the carrots needed to be pulled. We would then divide that number by the number of students to determine how many each student would take out.
If at this point you are starting to lose interest, you would have lots of company from fourth graders in classrooms everywhere who are limited to reading mathematic word problems from a page in a textbook. Try reading aloud some of the above paragraph to a fourth grader and watch as their eyes glaze over. I cannot tell you how different it was to actually do this math problem in the garden. (I could try, but in a few pages your eyes would be the ones glazing over) I can, however, tell you with absolute honesty that this class was having a good time. The best kind of good time. A challenging good time.
I generally consider myself a nature enthusiast. This enthusiasm occasionally borders on obsession, as I am truly fascinated by the natural world and all its complexity. I tend to watch plants and insects the way people used to watch television. Sometimes I go outside just to see what’s “on”. I consider myself enthusiastic, that is, until I stand next to a certain fourth grade boy who has discovered that our garden is nearly overrun with millipedes. In that context I am nothing more than an indifferent casual observer. Millipedes tend to have a strong effect on most kids. Squeals of delight and disgust (they sound suspiciously similar) are often elicited by these lowly creatures. Occasionally however, you come across a kid who responds to finding a millipede under a piece of mulch the way that you or I would respond if we stumbled upon a unicorn in the middle of the Black Forest. Standing next to that kid I am a boring, jaded, old man who is bent on planting beets when clearly there are more interesting things going on out here. “BEETS?” This boy tries to express his complete exasperation but his eyes don’t roll that far. How can he be expected to fumble with beet transplants when there are dozens of millipedes right where he’s standing who obviously are without decent housing. “MILLIPEDES!” – as if they were rare and precious jewels scattered among the Kale. The intensity of this kind of passion is nearly palpable.
I know children have breaking points. Forcing this student to stay with the group and participate begins to look sketchy and honestly, a little heartless, so I bargain. “You plant one beet seedling and you get to build millipede houses for the rest of the time.” One seedling is recklessly thrown into a hole and the boy bolts to the millipede convention. I honestly don’t have much time to think about it. It’s only later when I check out the tiny homes that I’m happy I caved. At first they didn’t look like much, until I realized what they really meant. One boy, along with a couple of his buddies that he pulled along, spent quality time outside on a beautiful fall day, imagining a city out of a handful of little bugs. Crawling around in the mulch, these kids were able to enjoy nature the way that every kid should be encouraged to enjoy nature: eye to eye. Developing an understanding and appreciation for the natural world requires moments like this, preferably during childhood. I doubt this specific activity is required in the fourth grade curriculum standards. It certainly wasn’t on my agenda (maybe next time it will be). There are times, however, when it’s good to let go of a good plan when a better one comes along. Planting beets is a good idea. Falling in love with nature… that is THE idea.
Representing fruits and vegetables in “still life” is a rich and ancient artistic tradition. Countless artists, throughout history and throughout the world, have celebrated the beauty of food by arranging it thoughtfully on a table and capturing its image on canvas. Recently, students at OJA had an opportunity to experience this tradition in their art class. Using produce straight from the garden, they combined scientific, botanical observation with artistic expression. As with many of their projects, they first saw how other artists had approached this subject and used that observation to inspire their own work. Seeing work from historical seed catalogs and even a few contemporary artists rounded out their appreciation for this genre. Our art teacher is gifted at integrating other curriculums into her art program and this day was a good example. By elevating fruits and vegetables (in this case okra, pink-eyed peas, eggplant and watermelon) to subjects of art she sent a subtle but significant message to her young artists. Fresh and healthy food has value beyond nutrition. Sometimes this piece gets lost in the conversation. In our efforts to get kids to eat better we sometimes forget to emphasize the aesthetic experience of food. It is said in the restaurant business that the customer eats first with his eyes. Kids are no exception. Never is it more true that presentation is everything. The road to healthy and pleasurable eating is a journey of a thousand baby steps. This day our students took more than a few as they “ate” with their eyes. Introducing unfamiliar foods (along with some that are already known and loved) in this way gives kids a positive experience that will more than likely affect their perceptions of that food when they encounter it on a plate.
You might think that having kids draw a watermelon isn’t really necessary in getting them to value it. Granted, it’s kind of a low bar for watermelon. Even so we can’t forget that we are living in a world where the industrial food system is trying to convince parents that having a child suck pureed watermelon (along with some other unfortunate concentrated fruits) out of a plasticized foil pouch counts as healthy eating. “Eating” watermelon this way will never compare to the sticky mess of putting your face into a juicy slice of heaven and seeing how far you can spit a seed from the back porch. That is beautiful.
“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see” – Edgar Degas
The beginning of every academic year is a bit like a stumbling sprint. Parents, students and teachers alike find getting back into the groove of school a bit of a challenge. There is a lot to do and there isn’t much time to ramp up. You’ll sharpen your pencil twice and it’s Christmas. A school garden is no exception. If your garden is like ours, you may find August pretty daunting. In Florida, summer heat and rains usually give us an overgrown tangle of vines and weeds as a back to school present. Even with attention over summer break there are some plants that just aren’t ready to be yanked out to make room for the fall and winter crops. If you planted crowder peas, watermelon or sweet potatoes just before school let out in May, these varieties are still going strong when students return. Couple this with the fact that August is the most brutal month to be outside in Florida and you can see why it’s tempting to just look the other way. Fortunately there is something that can be done (even indoors) to get some cool weather plants off to a healthy and timely start. Seeds in pots. At OJA we try to plant the bulk of our winter crops in small pots during the first few weeks of school. This allows us to make a start on the new garden while we let the old garden wind down. We have found that many seeds in the Brassica family (kale, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower etc.) do well when started this way. It might seem premature to start thinking about winter crops now when a trip to the mailbox requires sunscreen, but like I said: “Christmas is coming”. Planting seeds in pots, rather than directly in the ground, offers other advantages as well.
A tray of of potted seedlings is much easier to manage than a twenty-foot row.
It’s much easier to avoid accidentally stepping on a baby cabbage if it’s in a pot.
For some reason slugs and cut worms seem to be deterred by the three inch climb.
Most importantly, planting our first seeds in pots, indoors, buys us time. By mid September the seedlings will need to be transplanted into the ground and the more challenging work of gardening will begin. The garden has already started but we still have time. We still have time to pull out weeds and decide where the beds will be laid out. We still have time to discuss garden protocol and outdoor learning expectations. We still have time to plan, time to imagine. We still have time to get back into the groove of school.
Horizons are often difficult to judge. Sometimes things that seem far away turn out to be just over the next hill while other things that seem to be right at hand wind up being miles away. So it is with time. A deadline that seemed an eternity away is suddenly tomorrow and an idea that appeared so far away, surprisingly pops up into view. The Edible Schoolyard at OJA is experiencing just such: an exciting, long awaited, sudden development. Our team has long believed that our student’s cooking experience could be greatly improved by providing them with a true kitchen classroom. We have felt that the surrounding community might also enjoy this “seed to table” experience. We had faith that there were others who share our belief in edible education and would partner with us to create a vision of something new. This vision is quickly coming into focus in the form of a “kitchen house” and “give back garden”. An idea that once seemed “miles away” is suddenly on our doorstep. Through generous partnerships with Florida Hospital for Children and the Emeril Lagasse Foundation, we are creating an innovative space where students will be given the opportunity to learn about the source of their food. These students will also have a hand in growing and preparing that food, which we believe will inspire a healthier and more delicious lifestyle. Here are some architectural renderings provided by our design team partners, Midtown Architecture Studio and Hunton Brady Architects. Since this project lies on a plot of land across the street from the school our students will not be the only ones able to utilize this facility. Other schools will be invited to enjoy this space as a field trip destination without any compromise to our own campus routine.
This week some of our third graders were able to taste a garden fresh, Brandywine, heirloom tomato for the first time. This particular fruit was the first to ripen from their tomato patch. More are on the way. Brandywines have a long history of being known for their “true tomato” flavor, meaty flesh and unusual shape. This one lived up to that reputation. Whenever we enjoy something from the garden we try to link it to something in the classroom. Once you realize that everything is or can be connected, this isn’t really hard to do. It was decided that when we brought this tomato into the classroom we would also introduce the students to a metric scale. This particular model was a triple beam balance scale, so finding the weight of this trophy was fun and a bit challenging for them. We weighed a couple of other objects first (a big bottle of glue and an apple) and then tried to estimate the weight of the brandywine.
Of course a scale like this is interesting by itself, but when you put a big, red, juicy tomato on it; it is arguably more so. Not surprisingly, when you put a tomato on a novel piece of scientific equipment that tomato becomes more interesting as well. By the time we pulled out the knife and cut into it, kids were literally on the edge of their seats. There was enough for everyone to get a taste. Of course the first bite was free, but the second bite had to be earned by writing a couple of really good sentences in their garden journals. No problem.
Mrs. Webster’s Pre-K class recently enjoyed their day in the dirt. Tables were placed just outside the classroom with a wheelbarrow full of soil and some buckets of water standing by. One student, before the festivities, was overheard telling Mrs. Webster that he didn’t like getting dirty. Mrs. Webster just smiled. Behold the power of mud. It was no time before little hands and big imaginations dug in to create oatmeal and chocolate milk, cookie dough and pizza pies. Chocolate seemed to be a theme on the menu and it turns out everything tastes better with a garnish of grass clippings.
It may seem that these children are only having fun, but there is an underlying lesson. It’s a subtle message but one that is fundamental. Soil is the source of all that we eat. The sooner we can introduce this to children (even through play) the more likely they will value healthy real food and respect the process that brings it from that source to their table. In the mean time, bon appetit!
Time runs from us. It usually takes off in a sprint while we’re looking the other way. Moments quickly pass through our fumbling fingers and we rarely take notice. We’re drawn to details that seem permanent and ageless because they help distract us from the uncomfortable ticking clock. In reality though, building our lives around this distraction is a trap of denial. You can’t stop that clock, no more than you can stop that beautiful sunset. Ironically, part of what makes that sunset so great is that it runs away and doesn’t last. It’s unfortunate that we sometimes associate the temporal with the disposable. We question the value of things that don’t last. In our disposable culture that’s usually a reasonable question, but a sunset is not a paper plate. A melting snowflake is not a plastic fork. The natural world is full of the temporal that calls our attention to time not away from it. For some, the seasons are a drastic reminder of how nature seems to celebrate time. Floridians, however, have to look a little closer. So much of our landscapes here have been designed to appear unchanging. While pursuing the holy grail of the “maintenance-free yard”, we have wound up with an environment that looks pretty much the same in January as it does in July. What a shame. The passage of time should be celebrated. Poppies can help. They don’t last. Look the other way and you’ll miss the party.
The teachings of Jesus are full of references to the natural world. Much of the spiritual and abstract truths he shared were explained by comparing them to simple, physical experiences that were part of daily life. One example of this kind of teaching is found in the Gospel of John. Jesus points to a vine. Jesus was trying to give his disciples an understanding of their relationship to him and his heavenly father. No doubt, the disciples were confounded by much of what Jesus had to say about this relationship, but surely this illustration gave them comfort. Through this metaphor they could see that they were part of something greater than themselves and that there was one who cared for them, one who challenged and disciplined them for their own fruitful benefit. Pointing to a vine doesn’t answer all the questions. It doesn’t fill in all the blanks, but it does give an understanding. It opens a window. It encourages discovery. Thousands (maybe millions) of sermons have been inspired by this text, not because it is definitive or conclusive but because it allows the inconceivable to be recognizable and even a little familiar. Jesus is a vine. How unsacred. We are its branches. How comforting.
This week, our eighth grade students learned how and why our grape vines are pruned. They also learned about a divine relationship. After scripture was read to the sound of clippers, the conversation alternated between botanical and spiritual. It wasn’t definitive about either. We have a lot to learn about grapes and even more to learn about our relationship to God, but by comparing them we got to know each of them a little better.