My love of permaculture gardening began in 2001 when I volunteered to spend a week with Catholic Workers in Washington. It was an inspiring week spent in food banks and digging in several community gardens, including the large, lush permaculture garden behind the main house where they lived. I never considered myself a gardener and I despised weeding before I first met the Catholic workers, but their permaculture garden changed all that.
Permaculture gardening is simple: work with nature and not against it. This is achieved by knowing and emulating natural processes within the garden using trees, shrubs, herbs and root plants all growing together in way that promotes natural balance. The result is less a garden and more a food forest. The Catholic Workers permaculture garden looked more like a jungle than the typical rows of plants that I had previously seen. At first I was critical, but then I saw the food yield and found that we was able to weed a large garden in about a half hour. It was at that moment that I was sold in this way of gardening.
After that week of working in the permaculture garden and within the community, I began to wonder if the common way I often do and the assumptions I make about other things also works in opposition to natural processes. When I went back to college as an education student after my work in the garden, I found that I was looking more deeply at the way I was learning to teach and my understanding of how people learn. What I didn’t realize at that time was that many of the same ideas at work creating the productive garden were very much alive in the philosophy of John Dewey, the father of progressive education.
Progressive educators try to apply essentially the same principles I learned in the garden within my classroom. In the end, I aim to achieve the same in my classroom as the Catholic Workers did in their gardens– a well balanced environment with high yield. To both garden and teach this way takes a lot of knowledge and lots of trial an error, but the learning can be rich and abundant.
A permaculture gardener strives to always observe and interact while gardening. As a teacher I I try to be in tune with my class by being part of their process, but also see stand above it. During my first year teaching in Juneau, Alaska the most astonishing thing would happen about once a week in September and October. I would be teaching a small group of students when the principal’s voice would come over the intercom informing the school that we were about to have an unscheduled “sunshine recess.” I was already stressed as a new teacher so surprise recesses didn’t help my anxiety. I decided to follow my students outside and we played math and reading games on the playground. Once winter hit and I realized that we no longer had many recesses of any sort because of the cold and darkness sunshine recess began to make sense. But even more amazing, the learning we did on the playground had really been retained. In fact, the kids retained more from our games than they did from my classroom instruction.
Seeing children as whole individuals, I now see how interacting with one another, engaging on a deep level with projects and being excited while learning is in fact much richer than my early definition of classroom learning. I try to get to know children so I can understand their style of learning. Also, learning done while on trips or while having lots of fun has a deeper impact on the students and the retain the information better than classroom assignments.
A permaculture garden is designed to catch and store energy. As a progressive educator, my curriculum aims to be driven by interest and energy of my students. Students questions, ideas and interests are recorded and I do my best to bring that energy into our learning whenever possible. When children are reading books that they want to read, they read. The same goes for math, science, writing and social studies. Harnessing students energy doesn’t change the learning objectives (the goals) only the path one takes to get there.
Each year we make a list in my class of what we’d like to learn in our time together. One year I decided before school started that I would to try to explore every subject the students wanted to learn about. This was a kindergarten class and, for the most part, the list was what you might expect (trucks, princesses, colors, rocks) except for one young boy who wanted to learn about “holes.” I kept asking him “what kind of holes?” and he was just say that he was curious about holes. With some help from my director we engaged in a month long study on holes. We transformed our classroom door into a hole, ate doughnut holes, learned about local animals that live in holes, studied mining and wrote a song about holes. Capturing energy can sometimes be an odd process, but it can have dramatic results.