Teachable Moments at SEEDS
Published Thursday, Jan 8, 2015
So, what can you possibly learn when you are an 8th grader from the Trinity School who has to work with Dogwood Daniel (my garden nickname – we all get one) when your class goes to SEEDS in Durham to volunteer for a day?
My project, with which they were helping me, was to remove about 12 inches of clay from a a 20×20 plot in order to remove “devil grass” (a pernicious grass that takes over everything if there are even a few root threads) and till the ground so it was ready for a layer of compost.
So, what did I find opportunities to bring up? Tool use, permaculture, pacing, history and momentum when working. We also talked about hunting, stacking wood, going to a school where out of 40 eight graders, 30 are girls, and other things important in the life of an eight grade boy. The first thing I did was give them their garden nicknames: one whose name started with A was Apple and and the other, whose name started with D was Digger.
Tool Use and Care: All shovels are the same, right? No. You’ve got your sharp shovels, square shovels for edging, trenching and drain spades. And sharp shovels need to stay sharp – I worked with a group over the summer that would grind the tips every so often. And digging is a no brainer, right? Wrong. Digger, Apple and I were moving very dense material so the most efficient manner is to set the tip, then jump on the shovel to use your body weight (rather than your back and arms) to get a bite of dirt. And maintaining the shovels, meaning cleaning the shovels at the end of the project, is an important part of work.
Permaculture: Permaculture is a sophisticated agricultural approach, widely popularized by Michael Pollan. (The celebrity farmer Joel Salatin, Polyface farm, lives about 3 hours from here and I hope to go visit.) SEEDS practices permaculture in all its complexity, and I was able to introduce Digger and Apple to some of it.
Pacing: I asked them if they played sports, and Digger Dan said he was a basketball player. (Apple said he was a baseball player – I know next to nothing about professional sports, but I don’t imagine that any baseball player except the pitcher, needs to pace him or herself.) I asked if he sprinted for the first 10 minutes, which he did not of course – which opened a door for me to suggest that maybe if he took slightly lighter loads (clay dirt is as heavy as stone), he would be able to last longer.
History: I thought Apple was feeling self-conscious about his name not being as cool as “Digger.” So I brought up John Chapman aka Johny Appleseed, an early environmentalist, who planted orchards (not trees) that were economically important to pioneers because they provided the fruit to make applejack or hard cider. He was also a Christian missionary, and since they were from a community Christian School, I thought that would be interesting to them.
Momentum: Apple and Digger were only eighth graders, but strong. It took us 15 minutes to work out a routine with two shovels and two wheelbarrows, where one person would take a break while the other two shoveled. When we hit momentum, and got a good flow going, I didn’t say anything for a while but then pointed out to them how much faster they were working.
I’d like to think that at the end of the morning, they took away a lot more than muddy shoes.