As the wheels of the school bus start turning again this month, school gardening programs seem to be cropping up in curriculums all over Birmingham. Offering students hands-on lessons in farming and nutrition, several local campuses have instituted student-groomed plots.
The Alabama Waldorf School, currently located in Crestwood, is one example of a local school attempting to cultivate an attention to the earth in its students that runs deep. “What I love about this [kind of education] is that the students are encouraged to have an interconnection to everything they learn,” says Michelle Lucas, third grade teacher at the Waldorf School. “It’s not shallow memorizing. It’s experiencing what they learn and really taking it into themselves and finding out that they can do something with it. I think it will create active, intelligent, involved human beings.”
The school’s unique learning philosophy permits teachers to tailor their curriculums to their own interests, to some extent. “I’ve always been one of those people who’ve had tons of different interests,” says fourth grade teacher, Melissa Downs. “I enjoy nature and being outside, and that was just part of what we did when I was a kid: going hiking and camping and gardening. [Teaching at the Waldorf School] just really fits who I am. We don’t have textbooks. Teachers are the ones that bring the information to the children and do the research first. It’s such a rich curriculum.”
The theme of a third grade year at any Waldorf School involves fostering practical skills, and here gardening and cooking are emphasized. In addition to classroom time, students and teachers spend some school hours, in addition to after-school time, working their garden beds. Through the process of preparing soil, planting seeds, harvesting crops and using fresh ingredients in recipes, students gain more than just a holistic understanding of the farming system. Teachers also use the activities to ingrain other lessons like mathematical principles or story writing. Last year, Downs used a grain-to-bread illustration to frame a unit on creative writing. “We walked around the garden and noticed how much the grass looked like grain. We imagined going through the process of grinding the grain, and wrote it down.”
As a result of this hands-on approach to learning, students feel personally invested in what they experience at school. “It’s good for them to realize that they can make something really magical happen in the world by making something grow,” says Lucas.
Of course, it’s also hard work. Not all of the students are enthusiastic about getting dirty and putting in hours of labor. But, many of them are captivated by the whole process of planting seeds. “Some of my kids were so ecstatic once [our seeds] started to grow that they would come out and talk to their plants,” Downs says.
The children are not the only ones enjoying the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor. With the support of some parents in the school, teachers hope to be able to join together with students to create what Downs refers to as a “Pasta Sauce Garden.” The idea is for each year’s third grade class to take ownership of the project by growing tomatoes and herbs. Not only would the students plant and harvest the fresh ingredients, the hope is that they would be able to use their goods to create and jar their very own blend of “Waldorf School Pasta Sauce” to help raise money for the school.
The school is currently working a capitol campaign to raise the funds necessary to help them make a move from their present location to new school grounds located in Roebuck. While that move may be several years down the road, Downs and Lucas both have grander visions for the gardening space that the new campus will afford. In addition to that, they are already putting down roots in the surrounding area with ideas for a community garden. Allowing local residents to have plots on their grounds, according to Downs, would be “a neat way to connect with the neighborhood.”
The concept fits right in with the school’s belief system. For third grade students, the Waldorf School education, “is very much about learning about the world that they live in, about how community lives and how to develop a connection to the world around them,” says Lucas.
“The whole curriculum is just weaving things together,” says Downs. “It just feels so alive.”
For more information about the Alabama Waldorf School, visit www.alabamawaldorf.org.
Cory Bordonaro writes about food and other topics for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to email@example.com.