Paul Magnuson, Director of Educational Research, Leysin American School.
I just stopped in our school garden, built on a hill as everything is when you live in a ski village, and climbed up to a newly installed bench to test it out.
It’s a simple pleasure sitting on a bench, in a garden, taking in the view. Disconnected for a while, just lots of green growth and a pond with fish, clay pots of seedlings everywhere, a few shovels and a pitchfork leaning against the fence, white and brown chickens a couple levels down, two picnic areas and a swing set further down still. Behind and above me is a new fenced-off section of grass left to grow as it might, for the next few years, and nestled among the wildflowers are three wooden beehives literally humming with literally busy bees. Higher still are tomatoes, fruit trees, rock paths, compost, and more flower beds.
And a lot of work.
But there’s a human ecosystem supporting this biological ecosystem that is perhaps an interesting example of how we might like to work across the school, on many of our short and long term projects, not just this one.
The ecosystem I’m thinking about is composed of the faculty that have made and continue to maintain this garden. When I arrived here, a number of years ago now, this expanse was a hill of grass, weed-whacked a few times a year for some inexplicable reason. Old cracked stairs led nowhere in particular, and if you kicked the dirt around on the one flat strip (where the pond is now), you could tell that there used to be a bit of a walk and a terrace, or maybe a place to play boules, back in the days when the student dormitory at the garden’s edge was a sanatorium for patients with tuberculosis.
One long term employee, Tony, took care of the grass and planted a few flowers at the bottom of the stairs. Alone he couldn’t do too much. (But now as one of many he has been a gardening force to be reckoned with.) Once during the summer program, we tried to sit on the hill for a presentation, but it was too steep. Sometimes the students used to cut through this space to cross the train tracks and disappear beyond the school limits.
Then along came Hugh. Hugh taught Spanish, comparative government, and economics. He was passionate about the environment. And he decided to turn a corner of the former terrace into a garden. Soon he had some student volunteers with pickaxes breaking out the cracked cement. Some other teachers helped convert scrap wood from old double beds into raised garden beds. First one, then two, then three.
Hugh learned about permaculture and gardens that sustained themselves through clever planting. He told anyone who would listen about building hugels, big bumps of logs and earth, on top of which you could plant whatever you liked. Over the years the logs break down and keep the dirt fresh.
Others joined Hugh. Gardening was offered as an after school activity, and then as an exploratory class with the middle school. A carpenter on staff and a science teacher turned a playhouse into a chicken coop the year before they left for other positions, and another science teacher, a biologist, bought our first five chickens.
Some teachers and faculty members, maybe less green-thumbed than they would like to be, constructed paths between the flower beds and the hugel, and then to the second hugel, and then to the first hobby flower beds started by families living on campus. Our first member from the local town, not an employee of the school, claimed a patch and planted lettuce, strawberries, and plants I never identified.
A scrap woodpile was used for a campfire, and soon there was a ring of stones. A new place for friends to meet. Some Italian staff members installed a pizza oven, and not long after, a bigger pizza oven. (Their pizza is very good and word got around.) Someone organized two hammocks, someone else some tents for shade, with picnic tables underneath. Another picnic area sprang up, with Tony’s help, complete with repurposed furniture from the school to store dishes and matches and cups and knives.
There has been no director of the garden. There have been some deeply committed faculty members who served, for a while, as the principal advocates and go-getters, no doubt. There were plenty of us who spent considerable time and energy in the garden. And there has been some money available through the research department’s citizen science efforts, which saw value early on in learning about sustainable agriculture and getting children who may never have been in a garden before to get their hands a little dirty – also literally.
So how did we go in five years from no garden to a massive community garden? And couldn’t we do the same for some other school projects which seem so infernally hard to change?
Here are some factors that I think contributed to the garden’s success, and that, in translation, might be usefully applied at school.
1. Administration didn’t really care too much if there was a garden or not. Meaning, administration let it develop as it might. Translated for consideration in other areas of the school: Give your faculty space to develop new initiatives. See if there is enough commitment to build and sustain a new program. Allow the space for innovation to happen. It just might.
2. There was enough money to buy some equipment from time to time. If there had been no money at all, the project may still have worked. But the project benefited from having enough tools to distribute to students, enough money to buy some fruit trees and chicken feed and pizza ovens and so on. Translated: Giving space for innovation is critical, but it might not be enough. Give a little cash, too, and trust the innovators to use it wisely. They know most about the project they are working on.
3. There was space for innovation in more than one program. While the space for this specific project, the garden, was allowed, it would not have been as successful if there hadn’t been space in other programs, at the same time, too. Notably, the activities office, the middle school, and the research center took advantage of the development of a garden by offering activities and a class that brought students face to face with the plants, weeds, and bugs. I’m sure there’s a term for this phenomenon (tell me in the comment section below). It is some sort of co-creative factor where multiple initiatives can use each other to be more than the sum of their parts. “Bootstrapping” comes to mind as a term, but there must be something better. Translated: allow space not just for one pilot program, but for several, each with at least some funding. Don’t get overly involved, but see where the synergies take you. Perhaps that’s the term, as worn out as it seems – synergy.
4. And aesthetics. The garden is a nice place to be. It’s beautiful. It draws people to it. Translated: the learning spaces you create matter. The entrance to the building, the teacher lounge, the cafeteria, it all matters. Make your school a place where people want to be and they’ll stick around and apply their creative energies on campus.
I’m sure there were other factors. And I’m sure you might interpret differently how to leverage those factors for innovative curriculum development, new approaches to teaching and learning, personalized assessment that deemphasizes tests and quizzes, expansion of what we think of as after school activities into the daily curriculum, freedom to emphasize skills over content, and much more. But starting with a good-looking space for multiple innovations to develop in parallel, with just enough funding to keep the projects going with minimal administrative intervention, seems like a very good start.
The bees will buzz and the harvest will be impressive, to say nothing of that Sicilian pizza.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Paul Magnuson is the director of Educational Research at Leysin American School and adjunct faculty for the International Education Program of Endicott College. His interests include student agency and self-regulated learning for students and teachers.