Learning from my garden

Learning from my garden

I grow a garden in my backyard every year, and every year I am taught new things from it. In observing my vegetables and fruit trees this year, I’ve witnessed several truisms of life in general that can be applied to pedagogy, which best amplify the unschooling approach. Please read on . . .

All life wants to grow and keep on growing
.    My husband and I start our garden from seed, indoors in March. I am always amazed by the simple yet complex “technology” of a tiny seed, that once it is planted and watered, its life force engineering takes over and produces its stem, leaves, flowers, and eventually fruit. Its programming is predetermined, though it is forever susceptible to environmental stimulus. Within its programming is a powerful will to survive and thrive, despite the challenges that it may face. Our bean plants, for example, suffered after being transplanted in late May without having had a proper chance at hardening off. We staked them with the only poles we had lying around: 12 foot off-cuts from our newly built deck. Two months later, our beanstalks (unbelievably) are approaching the apex of their poles. So it is as well with people: We come into the world with genetic coding and predispositions and with an inner directive to mature physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, et cetera. We begin to grow and learn from the first day we are born (not the first day we go to school), and we often face hurdles that may interfere with our learning or with our innate drive to learn the way we are inclined. Like beans, people often grow according to the expectations and limitations created for them; and like beans, we have the capacity to realize our potential, usually with a little help along the way.

1 beans raising creativity

Life grows better when it’s given space
.    I am always tempted to plant small seedlings together in an effort to conserve space in the garden, or in disbelief of their actual growth potential. The beans taught me that one little seed will grow as large as you let it, but in addition to that, I’ve also learned that plants grow better (i.e., more efficiently and healthier) when they are given space around them. Like fish in a tank, a plant grows to size in relation to the other plants around it. The more cramped it is, the less it can flourish. It’s the same in a classroom; learning (i.e., growth) is unquestionably better facilitated with a lower students-to-teacher ratio, and learners (i.e., all humans) do better when they are given space . . . space to breathe, space to make their own choices and decisions, space to have a voice, space to stop, space to be. Instead of planting several herbs in the large planter on my deck like usual, this year I chose to plant just one parsley seed, and I’ve watched it grow tall and strong ever since, filling the whole space and yielding its healthiest crop yet.

2 parsley raising creativity

Some living conditions are better than others
 .   On the topic of planters, I must add that my parsley is thriving in its planter because, as a herb, its roots go only so deep. Had I planted any variety of vegetable in the planter, I would have most definitely wound up with viable yet stunted results. As living organisms, we depend on the conditions we find ourselves in to determine how well we can thrive; in effect, we are our environment. For example, last year I taught grade 7 math (in the mainstream system) for the first time and found, as one might imagine, there are many methods of teaching and learning mathematics, each with varying degrees of efficacy. Since I was a novice math teacher, I tried different approaches to try to find what might work best for most. It didn’t take long for me to realize the traditional textbook desk work that I had been brought up with wasn’t the best choice. My students were busy people who liked to move, so I developed a series of outdoor math games that addressed math concepts while requiring a lot of running and jumping on the side. This was an improvement, but still did not provide the authenticity of real-life mathematics that I believe was the missing link between their understanding and not understanding. Mainstream schooling is full of abstractions; virtually everything students learn in school is divorced from its context in everyday life. Alas, I wish we could have boycotted our classroom and gone on daily field trips to the grocery store, the gas station, a construction site, et cetera, to offer the in situ opportunities that are conducive to true learning and growth. After teaching math last year, my anecdotal professional analysis is that students have difficulty understanding math due to the way questions and concepts are framed—not with the math itself. These are not one and the same! Learners whose understanding arrives from relevant, authentic contexts have the advantage of their learning being inextricably linked to their lived experience, thus eliminating abstraction and necessity for complicated conceptualization.

3 squash raising creativity

 Life is more prolific with a little help
.    I’ve gotten to know my garden well enough in the past few years to know that many plants need help to grow to their max. In addition to staking the beans, we weave the cucumber vines along and through mesh, build extra hoops above the tops of the tomato cages (because they’re never tall enough as-is), string up the peach tree branches so they don’t snap under the weight of their own fruit, and prune and weed as necessary. Our support is constant but limited, so as to remain nurturing. When I go too far with my well-intentioned help (like when I pin vines too taut to their stakes, or pick off fruit blossoms too soon, etc.), the plant responds by withering under my “care.” Comparing this to pedagogy, I see that my duty as a teacher is to facilitate learning, which oftentimes means leaving students alone.

4 peaches raising creativity

Life prefers naturalness
.    While installing our deck this year, we also erected a 10 foot high water tower which holds our rain barrel. Rain water collects in the barrel from the eavestrough and runs down a pipe to a faucet on the fence for when we’re ready to use it. We haven’t watered the garden from the hose once this year, and the result is a healthier yield. Plants prefer the unchlorinated warm water that they’re used to in nature. Wherever possible (which is almost 100% of the time), I’ve learned that it’s best to let nature be nature, to let it run its course, because it knows what its doing. Two more examples: There’s nothing richer than compost for fertilizer, nothing more effective than ladybugs if you’ve got an aphid problem. Nature knows best. Why do we doubt this in education? Children grow up naturally learning from day one, yet for some reason by the time they get to be school age, we believe this process needs servicing. If my garden is any example, the suggestion is to let nature be nature (i.e., allow children to learn according to their natural inquisitiveness) and watch it (them) thrive.

5 watertower raising creativity

“Trowel and error” is the best method
.    In observation of how a plant grows, it is obvious that a plant puts all its energy into growing itself. It grows without hesitation and corrects for error wherever necessary. It is resilient and persists with growth despite any damage it may have suffered. The result is its best effort, a plant that’s grown to its maximum potential. When my cherry tree was cut back substantially earlier this year due to disease, the little tree tried, tried again and sprouted new leaves, though it was already midseason. I was proud of it. Similarly, the best method for any gardener (no matter his or her experience or expertise) is to jump in and work the garden as best he or she can, given that conditions change in any garden from year to year and the growing season is limited. Trial and error, or “trowel and error” in this case, is so productive in every life scenario. At school, my students’ learning is stunted for systemic reasons: They believe they need explicit instruction so as to execute perfectly (or as close to it as possible) with their first shot; and they are afraid to try because their effort is typically evaluated. If these conditions were removed from them, they would be freer, they would be more open, and they would reap the benefits of a trial and error approach to learning.

6 cherrys raising creativity

Peace is precious and productive
.    Is there a more peaceful place than the garden? In my opinion, there isn’t. In a typical Ontario summer, the weather is warm and adequately wet. The garden thrives, and so do I as its tender. We take care of each other in a beautifully simple symbiosis. The peace I reap from my garden cannot be underestimated; it calms my mind and energizes my spirit, revitalizing me for whatever other activities I have planned. And that’s before I’ve eaten from it! When I consider what cultivates my own mental preparedness, it’s being unstressed and having a feeling of wellbeing that comes from being connected to nature. I must try to recreate such conditions for my students as best as possible, though the mainstream system promotes stress through such things as testing, standardized curriculum, and strict scheduling.

8 pretty garden 2 raising creativity

In conclusion . . .
.     These reflections on nature and life learned from my garden describe a gentle paradigm. Gentle is not a word I typically associate with pedagogy, but I wish it were. Why shouldn’t pedagogy be soft and supportive, peaceful and productive all at once? It should.

7 pretty garden 1 raising creativity

Posted by Rebecca Zak

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