Monday, October 12, 2009

A Garden of Your Own

What a mess my gardens are! The seed heads need to go. The fall weeds need pulling. The climbing rose and that reddish shrub that goes haywire every year need to be reminded of their roots.

And yet I see coneflowers, berries, parsley, monkshood, and delicate unnamed pink, yellow and purple blooms. The witch hazel is about to drop its leaves, revealing the sculpture of its stems. Chickadees, nuthatches and jays still come to the feeders for sunflower seeds while brown sparrows hunt for the droppings. This garden is still alive, and it will be alive all winter. It is alive in spite of my neglect.

I don't think it a garden like mine that David Warlick had in mine when he wrote of A Gardener's Approach to Learning. He imagines an organic vegetable garden, a tightly interwoven community that feeds its caregivers well. I don't do vegetables (too many deer, too much rain), but I can relate to organic. A few weeks ago I stayed in Sonoma for a wedding and visited the Benzinger winery. It is hyper-organic. The claim is that nothing "outside" enters the winery. Fertilizer is provided by cows that live on the grounds, eating the crops grown on the slopes. Good bugs that eat the bad bugs are attracted to the yarrow gardens interspersed with the vines. The grapes are sprayed with an emulsion made from ground quartz that is mined from the volcanic rock in the hills. Sheep are driven through the terraces to aerate the soil. It is a fabulous, circular operation, even if you don't believe that burying manure in a cow's horn will give it special nutritional properties (I wonder if the charm requires a virgin).

Warlick wonders - isn't this the way learning should happen? What if we view learning as a closed system in which each individual student is a part of a growing, productive community - just a part, not a controller or a creator. Does such an organic learning community exist? Times millions of students? Is it possible for a student to learn simply by being herself integral to the learning process?

It strikes me that for this vision to be reality, some criteria would have to be met. Foremost, it seems to me, is the criteria that every part of the productive community has to do its job. Yarrow has to grow, bud and bloom to attract the good bugs. Soil has to absorb and use the nutrients provided by the cow waste (with or without the cow horn), which requires that a multitude of microbes and worms (I am guessing here) also have to do their work. And Benzinger's workers have to do their jobs. If one job is not done, bye bye hyper-organic Benzinger.

I used to tell my daughter, and now I tell my students, that being a student is the most important job to do. But what if the student doesn't want to do the job? It is hard work being part of a 24/7 community. My students are asked to be students less than five hours a day. Why would a student buy in to something more?

Perhaps because she chose the garden to grow in. At least that is the theory of choice and self-direction. It works for me. But I am no longer in middle school. Sometimes I wonder how I would go about learning if I were 14 today. But on reflection, that is a worthless path to follow. So then I wonder what can I do better to lead my students into a learning garden. And this is where I have to think that this country is all wrong about standards and testing.

Remember Peter Rabbit? He kept going back to that garden and getting nowhere - no food, no tail, no coat, certainly no relationship with Mr. McGregor, and a punishment besides. But all he knew was getting those carrots... His sisters, on the other hand, were gatherers. They lead neat and boring lives, devoid of extension. Nothing pushed them because they were fearful of the garden. If the Rabbits had know how to grow their own garden, they would have had time to learn about sustainability, crop rotation, and good bugs. They would have networked with their peers. And Peter might have taught Mr. McGregor a thing or two.

The Rabbit standard should not be "a carrot before every bedtime." It should be "a carrot patch of your own."

How does this work for education and real kid people? Take my least favorite standard, grammar. There is not a single student who would choose to do grammar worksheets during an LA class period. But in order to write full-credit answers on the mandated reading tests, students do need to understand the applications of correct grammar and usage. In order to communicate effectively, they must apply grammar correctly - in fact, they need to apply it intelligently and inventively. Teachers spend endless hours dialoguing about grammar and usage, editing student work, finding online and print worksheets - students spend endless hours doing this work (their "job").

If the grammar standard thread were removed from the Maine Learning Results, students would still learn this grammar. Why? Because grammar lives in the garden called "writing." Focus on the garden as an organism, not on every little bug and carrot sprout. Students who enter the garden (by whim, by requirement, by choice) grow with it.

Peter Rabbit gives us pleasure because he continues to have a terrible time - and we can root for him to someday get out of that flower pot on his own. We are involved with him because he endlessly chases a standard he will not meet. Peter is all about picking and taking - and not at all about learning. This is what too much education has come to - because of our standards.

We need to rethink standards and their assessment entirely - what is it really that we want our students to learn about learning? And how can we help them to plant or find the gardens they need in order to learn?

The more we focus on our "standards" the further we push our students from their education. I wonder what would happen if we asked them to design their own gardens? A lot of messes, I guess. But what a lot of flowers! I am all about flowers.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the reminder about the essence of educating and the gardens that we dream about.