outdoor classrooms - ups and downs

I do a lot of work in the garden at my kids' school, and a few months ago I even landed a paid gig doing it. It's a very low-wage very part time job, but it's better than doing the same work for free, and I enjoy it. Thanks to this position, I had the opportunity to attend four days of workshops (put on by Community Groundworks) for garden educators. (I guess this means I'm a "garden educator", which is a rather unglamorous but cool thing to add to my list of professional qualifications.)

Flowers at Troy Gardens on the north side of Madison

The workshop was wonderful. There were a dozen or so participants, most of them public school teachers, but some from other professional backgrounds (like me). We shared our stories and learned a lot of practical knowledge about gardening and outdoor classrooms. There were hands-on demonstrations and lively discussions about things like soil analysis. We ate delicious snacks prepared for us using vegetables growing right in the gardens where the workshops were held. Everyone, it seemed, brought mason jar salads for lunch. It was inspiring and invigorating to spend many hours every day this week with like-minded people who share a passion for something we think is so important. That something is outdoor education, or more specifically, garden-based education.

There were even a few moments that got emotionally intense. None of us really expected it. But as it turns out, gardening can be an activity that fulfills creative and therapeutic needs, and just talking about how to share that with children pulls a lot of feelings to the surface, even among strangers. It was a good thing.

There are a million reasons that kids should be learning outside. I think it's self-evident that spending time outside in natural spaces and gardens is good for kids. If necessary, I could dig up studies and papers that tell you kids who spend time in nature have better test scores and fewer behavior problems and that school garden programs encourage healthy eating habits and reduce obesity, that kids who engage in project-based garden/outdoor learning have higher self-esteem and fewer symptoms of ADD/ADHD. Would you click on the links? Would you believe me?

You'd believe me if you saw it. I'm not an expert in teaching, far far from it, but I enjoy working with groups of kids and I know how rewarding it is to work with them outside. I've seen kids who are a nightmare in the classroom dig up a garden bed with more focus and enthusiasm than anyone else. I've seen kids who never planted a seed before have their minds blown by the idea that this little shriveled thing you put in the dirt will be a giant plant that bears tomatoes by the end of the summer. I've seen kids gobble up the weirdest vegetables like kale and turnip greens just because they grew it themselves.

In other words, the effort is worth it. At least, this week I thought so, because I got to spend it with creative, energetic people who think the same way about these things.

But then.

I got home today and almost immediately turned around to run a workday at our school garden. I spend a few hours a week maintaining the vegetable plots, but weeds have a way of getting away from you, so once a month we have community workdays to get more done. The idea is that families and volunteers can meet each other and take home some of the midsummer harvest and get a lot of the maintenance out of the way in one fell swoop. Unfortunately, turnout has not been particularly good this summer, so I've done a lot of the work myself.

Last night was no different. Despite multiple reminders via email and Facebook and beautiful weather, the only people who showed up were one other parent and one teacher with her family. Stuart and the kids came later and helped, too.

On top of that, I had a rather discouraging conversation with said teacher who is concerned about the way things are being run in our district now. There is a lot of top-level micromanaging and teachers feel demoralized, restricted, and, worst of all, like they aren't being trusted to do their jobs. How can we expect the general public to treat teachers with dignity and respect when they're not even getting that treatment from their own district? It makes me so sad and frustrated.

So those were my highs and lows of the week. Inspiration, frustration.


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