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Festina Lente: Reflections on Teaching and Gardening

By Heather Harwood, Classics Faculty

Festina Lente: Reflections on Teaching and Gardening

This past spring and summer, I was once again actively involved in the St. Mark’s Community Garden Project. With the help of five students last spring and with the committed labor of several St. Mark’s faculty during the summer, the garden continued to expand and flourish into its fourth season. It provided all of us who participated with an abundance of delicious and nutritious food and was a quiet, reflective refuge where I could escape any given sunny morning to harvest my thoughts about the past school year and think about the upcoming one.

Partially as a result of professional development I have been engaged in with the generous funding of a Patterson Grant for Innovation in Teaching and Learning, and partially as a result of the quiet hours I spent in the garden reflecting on my job this summer, I have started to think about my classes and about the work we are about collectively as teachers and learners at St. Mark’s in a new way.

Current thinking about the way brains work and the way humans learn has used the metaphor of the garden to help educators think about best practices in the classroom. The term “growth mindset” has become an almost clichéd way of discussing the 21st century quality of mind that can adapt to change, persevere through failure and construct knowledge in an organic and interdependent way. In a recent article in this fall’s Independent School Magazine, Zak Stein compares the brain to an ecosystem and warns against holding human thinking skills to the same standards of precision and efficiency we do computers. http://www.zakstein.org/your-mind-is-not-like-a-computer-its-like-an-ecosystem/

I would like to take Stein’s metaphor one step further and suggest that we begin to see not only our brains, but our classrooms and our schools as organic growing spaces, more specifically, that we view them as community gardens: spaces that share a common ground and are interconnected and so interdependent on all of our (students and faculty alike) attention and labor. What follows are three reflections on the connections between teaching and learning innovations and community gardening.

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#1.  You can’t force growth- authentic growth happens in its own time.

Plants, like people, take time to grow. While some crops come up quickly, sometimes seemingly overnight, other plants need more time to reach their full fruition. And sometimes there are plants that just don’t work in the growing season of a New England Garden.  No matter how much I love watermelon and want it to grow in my garden, unless I start it in another environment early, it will not have enough days to grow from bud to ripened fruit.

Teaching and learning works in much the same way. Some lessons may take a class period to cover, others may take a week or a month, and some even extend over the whole year or beyond. Then again, something I taught in one class period last year may take me two weeks this year. This variation is not only due to the complexity of the content being taught; often it has more to do with the diversity of student brains that are learning the material.  For some students a concept or connection may happen quickly, while for others it takes more time to develop. And for some students, no matter how much we try to impart a skill or an idea, there is not enough time even in the whole school year for them. Teaching and learning never fits neatly into a prescribed time slot.

This year our new schedule has provided longer learning blocks during the school day and more time for concentrated learning in the evenings. In my classes this has allowed me to slow down and create more relaxed and open learning experiences for students- what one of my colleagues refers to as “ slow-learning.” One great benefit of this is that it allows students more time in the day-to -day of their classroom experiences to slow down and grow. In their article “A New Rhythm for Responding,” Jackie Acree Walsh and Beth Dankert Sattes suggest a new way to think about time in the classroom. They encourage teachers to think about giving students more “ thinking time” to respond to problems and to purposefully construct more higher order questions that require deeper thinking.  http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept15/vol73/num01/A-New-Rhythm-for-Responding.aspx

I have been experimenting with this in all of my classes in different ways, especially with a classroom technique I call “ Socratic circles” where students come up with essential questions about what we are studying and spend time periodically discussing them amongst themselves. Without my rapid fire call and response prompting, the students often go down rabbit holes or find themselves more perplexed than when they started, but in the process they are learning valuable lessons about what makes a good question. In the end, the time they spend reflecting nourishes a deeper understanding of the material.

Another reason plants grow at different rates is that they grow in different ways. Peas grow fast but need scaffolding to cling onto and climb up, while potatoes grow more slowly, invisibly under the ground and need mounds of dirt piled over them regularly. Just so our students need different growing conditions to grow well. In edu-speak this is called differentiated instruction and again it is supported by our new, longer class meeting periods. Instead of offering one pathway to understanding, I can offer several, using station-based activities that allow for multiple learning styles. Alternatively, I might use a long block to conference one-on-one with students allowing time to give alternative instruction of clarification, or to give feedback on a paper or assessment. Recently I used a long block to have discussions with my Roman Religion students on the direction of their reflective journals and how these might evolve into a final project or portfolio. This kind of student directed learning that once felt constrained or constricted by a single class period can now unfold in an unhurried and purposeful way.

Something that I have been thinking about a lot recently is how we might have make it possible for more watermelons to grow in the garden of our curriculum at St. Mark’s. In other words, how can we better foster the growth of our students who need more time than our school affords them for success, those who may not have had the opportunity to study higher math at their previous schools for instance, but who want to pursue it to the highest level they can while here.  Some of our sister schools have begun to experiment with using blended modules for newly admitted students to use over the summer before coming to St. Mark’s so that, like the watermelon, they have sufficient growing time before they get here to grow to their fullest potential once they have arrived. Hint: I think this would be a great Patterson Grant proposal if anyone were interested.

#2 Weed a little everyday, only water as needed and trust the sun.

Once you have prepared the soil and planted a seed, most plants need only a few necessities to thrive: water, light and space to grow. If you are lucky, Mother Nature will give you a summer season with a balance of sun and rain. Space is a different matter altogether. In order to keep the space around the plants open and conducive to growth, a gardener must devise a way to weed out the other growth that would force its way into the plants growing space. Weeding is something that every gardener struggles to keep up with and some have come up with fancy methods to make self –weeding gardens. I have tried some of these and in general find them less organic and honest. Weeding is arduous, but as with anything difficult, if you break it into smaller, but more regular work it can be managed.

The equivalent of weeding in the classroom is anything we as teachers can do to make more space for student learning to happen on its own, but we don’t need to do this artificially or all at once. A better weeding technique is to find places where we as teachers used to crowd out student learning and absent ourselves from the space. In my introductory and intermediate language classes this might mean that I give my students pertinent information the night before and then when they come into the classroom allow them the space to construct and consolidate it on their own. Again this takes more time, but the learning that happens in this space is more authentic and has more staying power.

Like weeding, watering a garden requires a certain finesse. In the classroom I would compare watering to the times when I let my knowledge and enthusiasm about the subject matter just pour out of my brain and mouth onto the students. Sometimes this is necessary, when we are just starting a topic or when students have a question that goes beyond the scope of what we are focused on, but too often I can think of times when I just kept on watering past the point of saturation. This year I am practicing much more restraint, just as I have learned to do in the garden, I wait to see if my students actually need something from me to help them grow, careful not to drown out their ideas only pouring some of my knowledge in when a student seems lost or asks, or when it seems like the garden of the classroom is dry.

Finally, sun is not something over which a gardener has any control. Like a student’s interests and learning styles we don’t have much control over who they are as people, all we can do is trust our their innate curiosity, intelligence and creativity. I believe that each of our students comes to us shining with their own inner light that they can then use to nurture their own individual growth. It is our job to help them find ways to let their light shine and then try really hard not to be a cloud.

#3. You have to get your hands dirty. Gardening is hard work, but community gardening can be fun.

Over the summer, when I wasn’t in the garden, I did a lot of reading. One of the books I read, #Edjourney, was assigned to the whole St. Mark’s faculty and its author, Grant Lictman, came and ran one of our professional development days at the beginning of the school year. The book is a catalogue of innovative teaching and learning environments across America and provided a kind of road map for how we might create a school in the present that looks towards the future of education in America. In one of his later chapters, Lichtman uses the analogy of school as ecosystem where he makes an important distinction between viewing it as a metaphor rather than a reality.” In my view, great learning and education do not “act like an ecosystem,” he writes. “Great education is an ecosystem” . . . with the [t]eacher as farmer,”

[t]he resource that sets the boundary fence, breaks through some of the hard topsoil, ensures plenty of water and sunlight, helps keep weeds down and does some judicious pruning and training of her germinating seedlings.*                                            

I like Lichtman’s comparison, but I realized this summer that I prefer the metaphor of school as community garden, because for me it more accurately characterizes our school size and how we live and grow together over the school year. Ecosystems are big, complex and, as he himself defines them, “self-evolving,” and farmers are part of this system with the ultimate goal of production of each crop. Gardens on the other hand are small, diverse and can be planted to fulfill the specific needs of the community. In the garden model we are all planters and growers, teachers and students alike, with the ultimate goal of nourishing the whole community. In addition, because we are all responsible for its success or failure, by definition a community garden suggests a collective effort and outcome.

This year as I have been trying out more new technologies in my classes, on more than one occasion I have heard students say “oh so and so teacher uses that too, or “I know how to do this I did it in Bio, or History, or English. “  Like companion planting (the practice of planting some crops in proximity to others for the purpose of pollination or pest prevention), when we as teachers begin to normalize and utilize similar technologies or pedagogies and plant them in our curricula and next to each other’s, our students’ growth potential increases and they begin to experience the whole school as an innovative learning space.

But creating learning spaces that encourage deeper understanding, that inspire more interdisciplinary thinking, creating time for relevant and challenging questions and collaborative constructions of knowledge, for reflection and student –directed learning takes a lot of work. Just as in a community garden it helps to break up the workload and to keep each other company during certain jobs, so in our school lives it is helpful to view our work as teachers and leaners as a collaborative, community endeavor. Not only does this mean we do not have to do all of the work ourselves, that we can share the load with each other, it also means that we have colleagues and peers with whom we can share ideas and reflections on our work.

Meeting weekly as part of the Patterson Blended Learning Consortium and monthy with faculty evening discussions has given me the support and collegiality I need to feel comfortable trying new techniques and technologies and pedagogies. Similarly, asking students to construct their own learning pathways has allowed me to begin to view my job less as a farmer seeking some known outcome, and more as a community gardener, cultivating and creating knowledge along side my students and colleagues.

My wish for St. Mark’s is that it begins to take on some of the qualities of our community garden. Its not pretty, or perfect. Oftentimes, it is messy and feels out of control. Not everything we plant comes to fruition, but because it is a shared endeavor we all feel some ownership of, we feel a little less defeated by these failures. Each year the garden grows a little better and each year it bears something new that we didn’t know it could grow and each year it nourishes all of those who participate.  I hope that our classrooms can become spaces that support and encourage both teachers and students to be actively engaged in their learning, to take risks and get their hands dirty, to recognize what is needed for their own growth as students and as people.

There is a Latin saying that I often remind my students of when we get to a particular concept or skill that seems to demand more time and attention: festina lente, or make haste slowly. This is what working in the community garden continues to teach me and what I hope to continue to practice as a teacher and a gardener on the road to SM2020 and beyond.

Dr. Heather Harwood is a member of the Classics department. She received her B.A. in Classics from Bryn Mawr College and her Ph.D. from Yale University. Dr. Harwood advises the St. Marker, teaches Ashtanga Yoga, and lives in the north end of campus.

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