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Learning to Teach and Teaching to Learn

By Olivia Olson, Community Fellow

“This is unrelated, but I want to tell you how I eat my cupcakes,” one of the middle schoolers announced from the back of the room.

This announcement came completely out of the blue in the middle of a conversation about food insecurity and food sovereignty during Garden Club at Kate Collins Middle School. In my work as school garden coordinator, the existence of these random middle school student comments no longer takes me by surprise. However, the content of the comments – and what students feel the need to say at a very particular moment - never fails to amaze me.

As a recent college grad, I am used to being in classes with people around my age who know how to (mostly) focus on the topic at hand and who give relevant feedback after a presentation. I’d almost forgotten how tangential and unpredictable the middle school mind and its priorities can be. There are so many stories and comments that just MUST be shared in the exact moment they’re thought of, as if they are the most important thing to add to the conversation at hand. Even though these comments are sometimes disorienting, and frequently, amusing, they also remind me to think differently as I re-learn how to teach.

As soon as we began lesson planning in January, preparing for each week of Garden Club and for summer's farm camp, I quickly realized that there were a couple prominent elements missing in the way my brain automatically approached and brainstormed lessons - namely, creativity and connecting with the individual. This is probably because as I grew older, classes became more and more about getting information crammed into our brains in order to regurgitate it on an exam or synthesize it in a paper, and less about providing spaces for feelings, thoughts, reactions, and tangents (the latter, most understandably). It was so easy to make a PowerPoint presentation, laying out all the main points and details of the lesson and I learned to distance myself from the topic at hand, keeping my personal opinions and experiences out, in favor of focusing on the topic and the “professional” experience and understandings. Most classes didn’t create the time or space for other forms of presentations, and professors did not venture far from their own slide decks and worksheets.

A student found this partial striped skunk skull as we roamed the woods by the school, looking for supplies to make faerie houses during Garden Club.

As such, it has been a process of re-learning how to teach and facilitate during these first two months of the Community Action Year, to challenge myself to move away from lecture style presentations as my knee-jerk teaching reaction, and to create space for myself and the students as individuals.

In our teaching, we want to prioritize hands-on work in our activities, most of which is done in spaces that don’t allow for computer presentations anyways. So far, we’ve been in the greenhouse, planting seeds and making herbal tea blends on one chilly day, getting our hands full of cold, damp soil to carefully tuck the seeds into. We have also been in the kitchen - cooking up peanut butter collard greens and kale chips, while exploring why these greens are among the few vegetables that can grow through our chilly winters. Later this month, and into April and May, a few classes of students and I will be following water runoff around the middle school and tracing its route to the creek. We’ll also be getting our hands in the ground to better understand the composition of the school’s soil, learning how to transplant little vegetable starts into the garden beds, and, eventually, harvesting and cooking with the bounty from the garden plots. I’m looking forward to sharing the awe and excitement that I have for plants during these upcoming activities with the students, and there’s no way a presentation indoors could convey the same experience or facilitate the same understanding as when students are actively participating in the process of planting, caring for, observing the vegetables growing right outside their school’s door.

A couple of Garden Club students start seeds and learn with farm manager Julia.

There are so many elements that go into lesson preparation that I had not considered before starting this work, and I’m grateful my work team for helping me learn more about teaching. We often bounce ideas off one another, and while I’m continually caught off guard by how presentation-based much of my initial planning is, they’re great at reminding me to add questions to create discussion, to check-in with students throughout a lesson, and to add ideas for activities that create more fun – and learning - around the topic. This teamwork helps us create a strong learning environment for students, and over time, we’ve already seen students grow more comfortable sharing their ideas, questions, and stories (no matter how random).

I also know that while I may be the teacher for the hour, each student has so much to teach me about the experience, knowledge, and hopes the have on the topic at hand. For me, part of revamping teaching is making space for these conversations, holding myself back from shoveling out information (even when I could keep talking about food systems for hours), and understanding that learning takes time. Each activity and conversation brings up memories and curiosities from our students, and I know (for better or worse) that these random comments and stories will continue as I work alongside and get to know students better this year. I also know that stories are a huge part of our lives, and I need to both value and allow them to be expressed in these spaces.

So, hit me with your favorite way to eat a cupcake. Tell me about your favorite grass-adjacent plant in the woods. Even when it’s unexpected and unrelated, we’re learning more about the things that each of us values and what makes us human - and that’s a beautiful thing.

The raised garden beds at Kate Collins Middle School with last-year's cover crop, waiting to be planted with this year’s veggies.

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