Moving a shed 800 yards from Albany High’s Abrookin Career & Technical Center, where Art Erbe’s woodshop students built it back in the spring, to the Vegetable Project garden at Albany High School was the first order of business on Friday. The drive was a bit stressful, but nothing compared to picking it up and setting it down.
Then, about as soon as the shed was situated, the first of four of Joanne Germano’s environmental science classes arrived for a touch-and-taste walk-around. A few bean, cucumber and squash plants that still offered tasting opportunities did get crushed by the shed delivery. Ninth graders, including some who seemed to have little first-hand exposure to eating right from the vine or pulling carrots from the soil, did what we’ve seen so many do in the years we’ve been at this: warm up to an opportunity that minutes before did not look so appealing!
The afternoon was filled with consultation with partners about next week’s busy days. And we do have important plans for Wednesday, which we have dubbed North Albany Middle School Friendship Orchard Day. We would be pleased to find more volunteers to help out with this, but especially for a very particular role in this celebration of learning that revolves around doing and touching and tasting and experiencing: guiding students in painting signs identifying 12 plants that we will install. Serious art skill is not necessary. Please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org or 518-728-6799 if it could be you.
But why all that running around on a single day?
Well, the mainstream education program does not reflect understanding of how vital exposure to nature is to healthy human development. We see no indication that it’s on the state Education Department’s agenda. It doesn’t seem to be on teacher training programs’ radar. School districts, even during the Covid pandemic, made little effort to harness the relative safety of gathering outdoors to facilitate in-person teaching.
All-indoor teaching all of the time may not be the cause of widespread student disengagement, but it likely exacerbates it. It certainly leaves schools without an effective tool that can capture the attention of students who are not motivated by sitting still in a desk and looking up at the front of the room.
Worse yet, access to the health-giving powers of fresh air and nature are not equitably distributed. Quite simply, students whose families have greater financial resources take more vacations to the seashore than students from poorer households. They are more likely to attend summer camps that revolve around swimming and other outdoor recreation. They are more likely to live in homes with ample yards and in neighborhoods with generous tree canopies.
We don’t offer a panacea in the great achievement gap challenge facing urban schools. Still, the surprise and quick shift from standoffishness to inquisitive that we see time and again, leave little doubt that touching and tasting in our gardens on Friday and other recent days helped some students appreciate the wonderful opportunities offered by teaching and learning.