Friday, June 18, 2010

The Point

Unbridled excitement. It’s the reason they sprint in a garden where running is not allowed. It’s the reason that, as I lead a group of third graders on a garden scavenger hunt, sharing juicy educational tidbits about lettuce and asparagus, their fingers are tapping, eyes darting and hearts pounding. The delight in which they revel at this moment in the Washington Youth Garden is the fruit of the seeds which were sown in classrooms this winter/spring throughout our Garden Science program.

Since we last spoke, the in-class segment of the program finished up with a grand finale of cooking a vegetable stirfy in the classroom (which was covered by NPR reporter Rebecca Sheir). Several weeks later, the Youth Garden staff was joined by a crew of UDC Master Gardener alums to construct raised bed gardens at our schools, into which our students planted their very own vegetable gardens. Finally, each class had the opportunity to come out to the Youth Garden for their very own day of fun in the sun, learning hands-on what we had been discussing all spring.

To recap, Garden Science is eight weeks of classroom lessons, on-site garden installations, and a final class trip to the Youth Garden at the Arboretum. Accordingly, and expectedly, after being constrained by classroom walls for 8 weeks, the students have energy and enthusiasm to let out.

The visit begins with a septi-stop scavenger hunt, visiting all of the garden hot spots - sorrel, compost, butterfly garden. It’s great. Along the way we stop and taste things and talk about concepts from the classroom component, sneaking in questions at every turn.

Next, there is the weeding portion, where we split the classes up into groups and get them jazzed up about gettin’ weeds. Each group goes to a separate part of the garden to remove weeds, during which the students quickly discover two things: first, there are many worms in the earth, second; worms are the coolest thing since beanie babies. We pick some weeds, run around with fistfuls of worm. There is some shrieking and a whole lot of smiles. Everybody wins.

Finally, we adjourn to the conference room – a collection of purple picnic tables under a monster oak tree – to cook a meal with vegetables from the garden. Often, the cooking demo will be led by a local chef, and among the repertoire from this past session were: sautéed spinach and garlic, mint tea, and asparagus. Lots of asparagus.

More often than not, the kids will eat the vegetables. More often than not, the kids will like the vegetables. More often than not, the kids will ask for more vegetables. More often than not, the kids will be smiling.

The cooking portion generally concludes the trip to the garden, and, sadly, finishes our Garden Science program. The nice thing, though, is that throughout the program, and particularly the trip to the garden, the students are energized. Enthusiastic. To see them get excited about vegetables after weeks of questionably lukewarm involvement is, in turn, exciting. Rewarding.

While the childrens’ enthusiasm is uplifting, I think it should not go unsaid that there were ample frustrations. There are the kids who are not paying attention during the lessons not because they are interested, but rather, the opposite. In these moments, when you are speaking to blank stares and backs of heads, the owners of which are clearly thinking about those animal-shaped bracelets that are all the rage these days, I found it easy to slip into a state of irritated questioning.

Why aren’t they engaged? Why am I not more interesting? Why isn’t every single one of them flabbergasted at the wonder and mystery of the compost bin? Is this worth it? Is it effective? Making an impact? Changing anything? Helping anyone?

Luckily, the story doesn’t end here. My spirits were lifted, qualms soothed and faith in humanity restored as a result of a conversation with one of our regular volunteers, Andy Clark. In expressing my concerns that I was a failure as an educator (in my extensive several weeks assuming such a role), he said to me, “…well, I think it is an integral aspect of education. Not every kid that comes through the garden is going to dream of becoming a farmer, just like not every kid is inspired to become a mathematicians from doing their times tables. But there will be a few... and if you can inspire just a few students, then I think you’ve done your job. Y’know……it’s all about passing the torch.”

It’s all about passing the torch. Profound words. True words, and, I think, a suitable way to describe the goals of the Garden Science program. After all, the program is aimed towards increasing or instigating exposure of our students to new ideas and ideals pertaining to food, nutrition and environmental stewardship. In other words, the goal of Garden Science, the goal of the Youth Garden, the goal of education is to inspire.

If inspiration is the name of the game, all we have to do to produce a subsequent generation of enlightened geniuses is to inspire. Simple…right?

Well then what does it take to inspire a group of third graders to be foodie locavorist fanatics, you ask? I’ll let you know when I figure that one out. But, I think it can be said that an unequivocal instigator is passion. One who is passionate is one who is likely to inspire. Take a look at two of the most prominent faces of the local/sustainable food movement: Joel Salatin and Will Allen. Both have strong voices, a magnificently lush trail of action in the wake of their work, and clearly love what they do. Why? Because they get excited. And I’d have to say this was my biggest lesson learned over the course of the Garden Science program – when you get excited they get excited.

It’s not just a one-way road, mind you, but rather a feedback loop. Not only does an educators’ excitement inspire the student, but a students’ excitement, in turn, inspires the educator. I have come to realize that this is why I am here, why the entire WYG staff is here – to inspire and be inspired. Our student’s are very likely not acutely aware of our effect on them, nor of theirs on us, but the seeds are there. Planted beneath the soft impressionable topsoil of their youthful existence.

This summer, hundreds, if not thousands of young people will come through the Washington Youth Garden for a variety of programming. We will work with them, play with them, teach them, and be taught by them. They will come and they will leave. We may not know immediately, perhaps not even for years to come, but a few out of those thousands, after a day of fun in the sun, will get on that school bus holding a torch.

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