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Working for kids in Albany schools

Another school year is winding down. Another growing season is shaping up. And the Vegetable Project continues to build hands-on learning opportunities, seeking more than anything else to make a difference in the lives of kids with great needs.

We know from our own experience and from voluminous scholarly research that contact with nature can be a force for good health –

physical, mental and emotional – and thus support vital outcomes that range from sense of purpose to resilience to social competence to academic performance. The late physician-writer Oliver Sacks put much of this under the heading of the healing power of gardens. And that’s plenty of reason to keep planting seeds – of course, both literally and figuratively.

We have been raising salad greens under grow lights in Albany High School classrooms, for example, and are developing tasting events to plant ideas about healthy eating. Within our Garden Club at Myers Middle School, we’re doing more cooking this year than ever, thanks to a wonderful new partnership with Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Capital Region Eat Smart New York Program and its nutrition educator, Kim Maercklein. Giving kids a turn at the stove, and especially with vegetables fresh from our garden, might be the ultimate hands-on exercise in starting seeds of curiosity and engagement.

Seeds for Peace, a nonprofit in Saratoga Springs that provides garden tools and vegetable and flower seeds to people in war- and weather-ravaged places around the world, captures the idea here with language we wish we came up with. The group, whose founder, Sue Johnson, recalls seeing former combatants in Bosnia come to terms with each other working together in a garden, casts itself as “Changing the world, one garden at a time.”

We would be proud if we accomplished something similar, of course in a much smaller neighborhood, but one where serious stresses can also take a toll.

Please keep up with the Vegetable Project by visiting https://www.facebook.com/vegetableproject and liking the page.

–Bill Stoneman

Taking nature seriously in education

Learning, like any other slice of human development, is far too complicated to explain successes or failures in terms of a single factor or two. But contact with nature appears to be a very important one. And education policymakers ought to get their hands around this, starting with a peek at voluminous research supporting this notion.

Goodness knows, sitting at desks in traditional classrooms is not working for many, many students.

“It is time to take nature seriously,” write university researchers in Frontiers in Psychology, “as a resource for learning and development. It is time to bring nature and nature-based pedagogy into formal education – to expand existing, isolated efforts into increasingly mainstream practices.” 

This conclusion is drawn from hundreds of publications that show and describe how contact with nature supports learning in many different way.

“Report after report – from independent observers as well as participants themselves – indicate shifts in perseverance, problem solving, critical thinking, leading, teamwork and resilience,” write authors of Do Experiences with Nature Promote Learning? Converging Evidence of a Cause-and-Effect Relationship.

The authors, from the University of Illinois and the University of Michigan, explain that nature promotes learning by improving learners’ attention, lowering stress, strengthening self-discipline and boosting interest and enjoyment of learning. In one of many examples, they cite research suggesting that learning in nature improves motivation and most strongly among students are who least motivated in regular classroom.

Neither tougher standards nor stricter discipline, more after-school tutoring, uniforms or better recreational outlets are likely to make much difference with many especially challenging students without addressing perseverance, problem solving, critical thinking, leading, teamwork and resilience issues at least at the same time. But fortunately research shows that setting can lead to some progress on those fronts.

From taking our Myers Middle School Garden Club kids outside to developing an outdoor classroom at the school, the Vegetable Project is working to make this important issue a part of our collective conversation about teaching and learning. With your support, we will build ever more opportunities to boost kids’ contact with nature.

–Bill Stoneman

The healing power of gardens

Please take a look The Healing Power of Gardens, a posthumous publication of an essay by Oliver Sacks, the late physician/writer, in this morning’s New York Times. 

We try from time to time to answer such questions as Why a garden? Why the Vegetable Project? And Why do we work so hard to get kids outside? And Why build outdoor classrooms at Albany Schools? Dr. Sacks does it for us even better than we do.

What does healing have to do with teaching and learning? Well, for starters, it could make an incredibly valuable contribution in in-school suspension rooms in schools where we work, where disillusioned, disengaged and angry students, each with a personal story behind all of that, spend time when they disturb the peace of hallways and classrooms. 

–Bill Stoneman

Vegetable Project seed sale ends Friday

Time is running out to buy seeds from the Vegetable Project for this summer’s garden. Please click here for all the details. Please place your orders and make payments by Friday, March 15, so we can get seeds to use by the first week of April.

We get our hands dirty with Albany students. We prepare tasty dishes with what we grow and teach about scientific method. But most of all, the Vegetable Project engages kids. Please share this post to help spread the word about this great opportunity to make a difference in the lives of Albany kids.

Living schoolyard for children’s health

The Oakland, Calif., school district intends to transform asphalt-covered school grounds into “living schoolyards” that promote children’s health and wellbeing.

The initiative, in partnership with The Trust for Public Land, Green Schoolyards America and the Sierra Club, ties in with plans to “address the challenges of the future related to climate change” with environmental literacy.

“We expect it to change the way they view the world,” says Kyla Johnson-Tramwell, district superintendent, in a statement issued by The Trust for Public Land, “and give them a deeper appreciation for the natural environment around them.

With hope to develop an outdoor classroom at Myers Middle School here in Albany, we say, “Pretty cool.”

Especially glad to see the connection made between contact with nature and wellbeing and by extension between wellbeing and the kind of outcomes we all want to see in young people.

–Bill Stoneman

Mich. district planning to teach everyone outdoors

Broccoli June8Teaching outdoors, a big Vegetable Project priority, continues to gain steam.

The Grand Rapids, Mich., school district plans to “create outdoor educational experiences” for all of its 16,700 students, according to an account at mlive.com. (Thanks to the Children & Nature Network  for bringing the news article to our attention.)

With leadership from a nearby teachers’ college and local foundation funding, a three-year pilot project is slated to start next fall.

Clayton Pelon, associate director of the Center for Educational Partnerships in the College of Education at Grand Valley State University, explained, according to the mlive.com article, that schools are moving to “offer an outdoor education experience because research shows there are benefits to moving students outside of the four walls of a classroom to explore and discover the world around them.”

That’s our reading as well.

–Bill Stoneman

Myers outdoor classroom project advancing

Seating3The Vegetable Project has begun development of the outdoor classroom that it proposed creating at Myers Middle School. We purchased and assembled seating that can swing back and forth between benches with backs and benches with tabletops.

With conviction that a change of scenery now and then, and especially one that bolsters contact with nature, can transform academic lives, we will be Continue reading

Schools tackle social/emotional learning outdoors

Climbing treeThe Philadelphia School District has embraced the outdoors and contact with nature as a means of meeting deep student needs beyond anything the Vegetable Project has spoken of. The big city school system pays Outward Bound $340,000 annually “so students can climb tall trees, take nature walks, and complete physical challenges in one- and multi-day expeditions, all in the name of social and emotional learning,” according a great article at philly.com.

Maybe, however, we should put building high ropes courses on our to-do list, too.  An Outward Board staffer says in a video clip with the article that her charges “are working on figuring out how to face challenges and come out on the other side.” Goodness knows algebra classes have limited success in helping kids figure out how to face life challenges, such as that very class. Talk to educators in our schools about daily challenges and you’ll hear plenty about kids who are not so good at continuing forward when things are difficult.

Or as a Philadelphia high school teacher is quoted saying, “As soon as they feel like something’s tough, they shut down.”

Pushing past a fear of heights, however, even as it sets the heart pounding, can help kids reassess how much they can really do.

Plentiful research suggesting a link between contact with nature and myriad measures of wellbeing, such as resiliency, makes a good case for our efforts to move some teaching and learning outdoors. Building an outdoor classroom at Myers Middle School, for example, is high on our to-do list. We’ll keep our ear out for word about what Philadelphia schools accomplish putting all its ninth graders and many other students through an Outward Bound program. It’s not surprising, however, that early experiences point to students gaining confidence in their ability to face adversity.

–Bill Stoneman

Invitation to make a difference in lives of kids

Amoyiea MyersWith this holiday season upon us, I am writing to ask you to consider making a gift to the Vegetable Project. It’s as easy as clicking here to initiate an online payment.

The Vegetable Project has been working to create hands-on teaching and learning opportunities in Albany schools since 2009. With your help, we will make touching and tasting and really doing a bigger part of students’ learning experience. We will bring more students aboard as members of our teaching team. We will develop an outdoor classroom at Myers Middle School. We will make a difference in the lives of students who are not thriving in the main school program.

With gardens at Myers Middle School and Albany High School, we lead kids outdoors to drop seeds in soil and to pull carrots and garlic out, to leave science class recitation about producers, consumers and decomposers behind as we introduce them to the real things, and to capture nature’s power to build equanimity. With produce from those gardens and sometimes just a bit of seasoning and other times real kitchen experiences, we overcome resistance to trying unfamiliar tastes. And with constraints that come with a locale that has four seasons, we build teaching and learning opportunities around hardy plants that make it through cold months in simple greenhouses and tender plants that grow under indoor lighting.

The Vegetable Project, led entirely by volunteers, does all of this and more in classrooms, after school and through paid employment of teens, during the school year and over the summer. And it does this with a particular focus on students with the great challenges in their lives, who typically pose the greatest challenges at school, who would benefit most from touching, tasting, doing and having more contact with nature.

Please learn more about the Vegetable Project at https://vegetableproject.org and https://www.facebook.com/vegetableproject. Please support our work to build hands-on teaching and learning opportunities, to reach more kids and to create an outdoor classroom at Myers that will make taking classes outside occasionally an irresistible option for teachers.

We are a 501c3 nonprofit corporation, making your contributions deductible to the extent allowable based on your specific circumstances.

Thanks very much and Happy Holidays!

–Bill Stoneman

Why build outdoor classroom at Albany school (#2)?

TurtleNot that taking care of a vegetable garden and creating hands-on teaching and learning opportunities in isn’t enough to do, the Vegetable Project seeks to develop an outdoor classroom at Myers Middle School. But why? Why would we stay up nights thinking about taking on more? The garden beds already saddle us with those time-consuming fundraising initiatives, like soliciting Boxtops for Education, and those time-consuming chores in the garden, like weeding and watering. Why isn’t that enough? And why in the world would we harbor thoughts about taking lessons learned tackling an ambitious project at one school to others around town?

Well, the Alabama Outdoor Classroom Program identifies a few benefits (and we explore those big Why questions additional when we can). The program says in its Planning Guide that an outdoor classroom

  • provides an alternative classroom setting
  • includes learning stations for hands-on activities
  • introduces students to nature and the outdoors
  • provides multi-disciplinary teaching/learning opportunities
  • increases local community and business support for the school
  • increases parent involvement in the school
  • establishes habitat for local wildlife
  • helps beautify the campus
  • provides teaching/learning opportunities about wildlife and related natural resources
  • engages students in active, hands-on/minds-on learning
  • provides real-world experiences in a living laboratory
  • creates fun and exciting learning environments
  • helps connect students to their environments and communities
  • makes learning locally relevant
  • enhances biodiversity
  • helps teachers and administrators reach out to at-risk students
  • offers alternative teaching strategies for learning-disabled students
  • provides service-learning projects for students
  • develops a sense of stewardship in our children for the Earth’s natural resources
  • provides opportunities for students to work as a team
  • demonstrates to students that they can make a difference
  • helps combat childhood obesity
  • teaches responsibility
  • provides an alternative to costly field trips
  • excites educators about teaching
  • and motivates students about learning.

That actually is a pretty long list of benefits. We, however, completely agree.

—Bill Stoneman