A Farm, The Farm School, a Farming Revolution

I’ve come back to the farm in Maine where I started writing this blog last summer. I’m sitting in the open back doorway of the barn, listening to red-winged blackbirds and the sound of wind whistling around giant ancient posts and beams.

And I’m following a trail.

Farm School horses and kidsReturning to the fields that surround this barn, wide green space and wide blue sky, I think of The Farm School, in Athol, Massachusetts, where I spent so much happy time with Touchstone classes. (At The Farm School, the smells of the dairy barn took me to my other grandparents’ farm, across the river from where I sit now. Smell is like that, and memory is like that, circular.)

Jane Farm School with calfThe Farm School’s programs for children are designed to give an experience of farm work (and wide sky, and kindness, and awareness of competence) to all kinds of kids. City kids, suburban kids, country kids. Kids who think with their hands; kids who make more sense in contact with animals; kids who figure anything connected with food is a good idea. Kids looking for adult role models who work outdoors; kids who just like working together with tangible results. All kinds of kids.

There’s so  much to say about the Farm School, but right now I’m thinking especially of kids who became more vividly themselves in that place. True for almost every one of us; especially true for some.

Farm School Dean with camera croppedThat leads me to think about kids focusing a video camera, or a still camera, on hillsides and haylofts and goats and seedling Swiss chard.

Whenever I asked, “Do you want to make a video to share what’s wonderful about Farm School?” kids hollered YES!  So that happened more than once.

The first video we made about The Farm School has never been put online, because of parental concerns about online exposure. Still, the DVD became a wonderful way to preview The Farm School, for kids new to the opportunity–in effect, a gift from the class who made it, to future classes.

Farm School Moosey basketballThe second Farm School video dodged the issue of online exposure for kids by starring a stuffed animal named Moosey, who worked and learned and played on the kids’ behalf. (He even played basketball, very memorably.)

In Moosey Goes to Farm School, the kids show up as a continually changing Moosey voice, which is all their kid voices, speaking lines they had written, over shots they had planned and staged.

Farm School blue jeans and MooseyMaking each of those videos about The Farm School taught us a lot about the place and our experience there. We paid special attention, and thought really carefully about what we wanted to record and communicate. We all lived through the ridiculously long process of editing, watching shots again and again, deciding exactly what we wanted to say and show, exactly how to use tiny pieces of time, fractions of a second.

Farm School 2012 Jane girl and cowWe were like cows re-digesting our meadow (well, sort of), taking what we’d learned and learning how to give it away. (I recommend that you just accept this metaphor loosely.) When you’re editing, you figure out, again and again, what your reader or watcher needs to know, and what he or she can be given to savor and consider. You do that by paying attention to what you need to know yourself, imagining the needs of someone who knows less to start with, and doing your own savoring and considering.

Gradually, you come to own the experience more and more. And In that mutual, slow process of our own savoring and considering–as in other aspects of the Farm School experience–we learned a lot about ourselves and each other.

That phrase, “ourselves and each other,” brings another thought. At The Farm School, I was a student along with my students–to a surprising degree, considering my background.

My mother’s parents bought this farm from which I’m now writing, as part of a mostly-forgotten back-to-the-land movement in the 1930’s, which was partly a reaction to the suffering, insecurity and instability of the Great Depression and partly anticipating the onset of World War II. Through the last of the depression, and through the war, they raised and harvested and canned enough vegetables for four families, every year.

On the other side, my father’s folks have been farmers, right here in this town, for many generations back–eventually leading to the kind of farmer with a PhD in horticulture, and influence on agricultural practice all over the world.

Farm School 2012 with cowsBut I am the black sheep, the non-green thumb, the least capable gardener or grower in sight. I’m a little alarmed by cows, to tell the truth, and terrified of electric fences. Would I let that show? No way. At least I tried not to let it show. One way or another, my students were teaching me, if only by saying, “Come look at this!”  Nothing could do more good for a student-teacher relationship.

world farmingBut that process of learning together wasn’t just at the Farm School. Each year, the pre-Farm-School warm-up reached out into a new and different way of looking at agriculture. For example, an Usborne book about global agriculture helped us take a world view of ways of getting food. One group used the book to learn about rice cultivation, and made a model of a rice paddy.

In the spring of 2012, when Seth Mansur spent some time as an aide in my classroom, we took advantage of what he knew about new approaches to sustainable agriculture. Members of small groups who worked with Seth became knowledgeable about permaculture, about edible forests, about a method of field cultiFarm School farm standvation called chicken tractors. We became a sort of business incubator for new ideas about agriculture, young-adolescent-style, with the prototypes made in sculpey and found materials, for displays to teach the rest of the class.

Finally, in the spring of 2013, we bit off as much as we could possibly chew, possibly more, and we decided to make a video about the whole subject of Humans and Food. As usual, we brainstormed ideas, identified affinities, and separated into small groups to consider different topics:

  •  How did people get food before farming?
  • How did people preserve food before refrigeration?
  • What is intensive agriculture, and what are its consequences?
  • How can small scale farms survive and thrive?
  • How can non-farm families grow some of their own food?

Farm School rooster and duckThe small groups taught each other by way of all the work involved in creating the video. For ground-breaking food philosophy as written by an 11 year old and spoken by a small cloth rooster, this is the video.

Farm School dried tomatoesEach small group chose which of the classroom stuffed animals would be their spokesanimals. We had huge fun doing all this, but we were also pretty serious in our mission. This is all important to think about, we were saying in one way after another.

Sometimes I imagine a Touchstone think tank, where past and present students of every age (including the students who were officially teachers or administrators) get together to solve real problems facing our region, our country and our world. (Pause for a nod to David Sobel, who’s been advocating and encouraging this sort of thing for years, as a part of place-based education.)

We might begin by experimenting with some of the answers to these questions: How can we grow enough food for everyone, without poisoning our land and air and water? How can we reduce agriculture’s share of our fossil fuel gluttony? How can we take back our food supply from the giant corporations that now control it?

Why stop there? How can we all, as citizens, belong to ourselves, in dignity and responsibility and joy, in the way that Touchstone students belong to themselves?

This isn’t entirely imaginary. We aren’t all in the same place, but there’s a sort of virtual think tank gradually forming. I’ve already written about Marian Hazzard, and her efforts on behalf of Touchstone’s gardening program, including the chickens my class cared for. This year, a new batch of chicks matured to chickens at Touchstone, cared for by a new batch of students, with the encouragement of David Canter, the new Environmental Educator.

farming Addie and sheep 2Meanwhile, several past students are enrolled in college level programs focused on sustainable agriculture, and others have gone through the Farm School’s farmer training program for adults. Several others are involved directly, this very moment, in helping small scale farms thrive.  Here’s Addie Candib (whom I taught at Touchstone in about 1994) at Second Spring Farm in Rochester, Washington, where she’s also engaged in networking and advocacy for the farming revolution.

chicken booksOne alum wrote a book about keeping chickens, and at last report runs an organic feed store for people raising chickens in their backyards in Portland, Oregon. An alum parent wrote a widely popular book about keeping chickens in Massachusetts.

An untold number of current families and alums buy from Community Supported Agriculture programs, or from farmers’ markets.

Every one of these actions counts, and involves its own kind of learning.

So here’s the end of my thought trail: This isn’t just about farms or farming, or my own students and colleagues, or The Farm School, or Touchstone Community School. In a world full of ways to be discouraged, I remain hopeful about what can happen when people ask questions together, learn together, and plant seeds–of many kinds, literal and figurative–together.

Even the one with the non-green-thumb can wind up with something good to chew.

Farm School rooster and tool

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Place

We’re sitting in the meeting area–not in the circle we use for meetings in which we all talk with each other, but in the arc facing my corner, that works better for read-aloud books with illustrations. For a larger class I would need to make a Power Point. The intimacy of leaning forward, leaning together into the world of the book, can work here.

In this memory, I’My Place Nadia Wheatleym reading My Place, a book created by Nadia Wheatley and Donna Rawlins, originally published in Australia in time for the bicentennial of their European settlement. One of my early class parents discovered the first U.S. edition, and donated a copy. (Most of the copies I’ve bought over the years have been from the later U.S. edition, from Kane Miller, who bring books from other countries to the States.)

After that first reading, one crop of kids have linked to the next, and students spending a second year in my mixed-age class have said almost every year, “You should read My Place again.”

As I begin to read aloud, puzzled faces remind me that the book can be confusing. Each year, reading My Place refreshes my appreciation for the full, rich range of interests and attention styles represented among my students. I’ve learned to trust them: they’ll get it, together.

My Place 1968 editThere’s the kid who always notices numbers of any kind, including dates. She figures out, already on the second two-page spread, that we’re going backwards in time. “Before it was 1988, now 1978. The next one will be 1968.” It is, and that year’s child narrator, Sofia, has posters of the Beatles on her bedroom wall. She writes about an older brother who’s a soldier in Vietnam.

That step to the side–to a history both different from our own country’s, and similar to it–lets us notice things we may have been programmed not to notice. Kids say, “So they were involved in the Vietnam War, too?” “Both countries were settled by waves of immigrants?” Eventually, “This stuff about how the Aborigines were treated–it makes me think about our own Indians.”

Always, at least one kid is especially interested in maps–visual records of things that stay in one place. He looks at the progression of child narrators’ maps, a new (older) one for each jump back in time, and he begins to imagine a similar map of his own neighborhood: how far from his house he would include in each direction; what scale he would use; what he would put in and what he’d leave out; what he would label, and what colors he would use for different kinds of buildings–all the decisions we’re meant to imagine the book’s child narrators making. (The map below is from 1938, which was a hard time in Australia, too.)

My Place map 1938 edit

Other kids make sure I read all the labeling on each map–partly because they’ve figured out that important clues are often embedded there.

Another kid is crazy about geography as lists and facts. She quickly picks up on the clues that we’re in Australia, something I try not to give away. Some years, we take this further: we use the detailed clues to convince ourselves that we’ve found the bay and canal near Sidney. (The map below is from 1838.)

My Place map 1838 edited

My Place 1898 railings and Miss Miller detail

Some kids are particularly able to pick up on detail in illustrations, and they’re the ones who say, “Wait! This is all the same house! Look at those railings!” Then we go back and compare, page by page: yes, yes, yes, yes.

My Place 1988 railings detail

My Place 1828 hillside cropped And for much of the book it is the same house–each child narrator is the right-aged child living in that place–until the house hasn’t been built yet, and we’re with the sheep and pigs, on that hillside, below the big tree, above the bay and creek.

In every class, some kids will have unerring radar for family relationships, They’re the ones who first point out that Sofia in 1968 is the unwelcome baby sister in 1958; or that the Miss Miller who is almost 90 in 1948 is the zippy aunt with the bicycle in 1898, and also the nine-year-old Minna who makes friends with a Chinese immigrant vegetable farmer in 1868.

My Place Minna and Leck recroppedBy 1798, almost the end of the book, everyone has learned to follow these connections through the book’s strangely inverted time. When 11-year-old Sam, indentured convict laborer, climbs up into the big tree and pretends that he can see all the way to Shoreditch and his mother and sisters and brother, the class grows even quieter. They know that he will become the Sam remembered in 1838 by one of his children, the father who has fallen off the rich landowner’s roof, and died.My Place last map detail

I don’t want to tell about the actual ending of the book; I want you to go find it and read it, and join all of us in the complicated feelings it generates.

My Place and Place Based Education

There’s a new name for something I’ve always tried to do as a teacher: place based education, arising out of the resources of a place, helping students develop a sense of place, helping students feel responsibility to their place and empowered to make a difference there. (If this sounds good to you, you should go find the wonderful books David Sobel has written to explore place based education and document its effectiveness.)

Nadia Wheatley and Donna Rawlins were also doing place-based education before it was named that. Clearly, they created My Place to help Australian kids know more about their country, and to encourage those kids to know their own local and particular places, their personal equivalents of the big tree that is a landmark for every one of the child narrators, or the canal that was once a creek, or the ridge where the main street was once a footpath. Because there are so many narrators, the place itself assumes unusual importance.

I’ve always been fascinated that their book’s strategy works for American kids, too. Immersion in this other place encourages kids to notice their own places, and I’ll write more about that in a future post.

It seems to me that Wheatley and Rawlins must have wanted something else, too: they wanted to show their narrators experiencing the local versions of big picture history: the pros and cons of the immigration experience; the hurt of economic injustice and waves of joblessness; the recurrent mercilessness of war, and the injuries and losses and dislocations left in wars’ wake; the environmental impacts of economic development, as we travel back to a time when it was actually safe to swim in the creek. But also kids’ perennial delight at new technologies: streetlights! personal automobiles! television!

Within all that big picture stuff glimpsed small and made real, Wheatley and Rawlins have shown us each child narrator’s way of assembling and creating his or her own experience out of what is available. We see all the different reasons for perching or hiding in the big tree. We see the comfort children find in animals, and the things that can be learned about each child’s adults from the parties they throw.

Always, in each new older time opened out for us, something has been lost; always, something has been gained. Each child narrator exists within the river of time, which gives and takes away. The book itself, its spirit, becomes that river, revealed to us in a special way by the authors’ device of making it flow backwards.

For just a minute, I want to address directly all those years’ worth of kids sitting in a series of meeting areas together, taking up the book’s back-cover challenge: THIS BOOK IS A TIME MACHINE! Again and again, you showed me details and connections I would have missed by myself. But also, in the deep and brave way you experienced the book and its place and world, you helped me feel what it all meant, and for that especially I thank you.

My Place Sam in the tree detailThere’s more to this story: the book’s wonderful success in Australia, and its transformation into a video series, brilliantly updated to the present; one class’s decision to make a spin-off book called Our Places. For various reasons, I’m saving those things for another time.