Why Garden in School?

Send by email

From the Summer 2012 Caller

By Carter Latendresse

During the fall months in our 6th grade classes, my colleagues and I teach gardening, ancient flood stories, contemporary dystopian literature, and ancient Mesopotamia. We ask our students to look backward to identify essential characteristics of the first human civilizations, so that they might look forward and imagine remaking Western civilization in the 21st century.
During these lessons, my history teacher partner, Ann Fyfield, focuses on the development of agriculture in the Neolithic Age (8000 BCE to 3000 BCE), the rise of Sumerian city-states, the four empires of Mesopotamia, and the characteristics of ancient civilizations. In my English class, the curriculum parallels and interweaves with that of my colleague at crucial points, especially around issues of soil, water, food, climate, environmental justice, and the stories we tell ourselves as humans to orient ourselves to Earth, to one another, to other animals, and to the cosmos. We can often be found outside during September and October, harvesting apples, grinding wheat, learning about bee keeping, planting overwintering lettuce, or baking pita bread in the garden cob oven. Several people have asked, “What does the garden have to do with English or history class?”
Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, in their seminal curriculum design text, Understanding by Design, show that while the best teaching prepares students for college, it is also rooted in solving today’s problems and celebrating today’s wisdom. The garden is our place of intersection for the teaching of ancient history, the novel, writing, economics, politics, anthropology, religion, myth, and science.
We have many reasons for teaching the Sumerian empire in our organic garden behind the Middle School building. These reasons grow out of the four enduring understandings we want our students to chew on for the rest of their lives.
The first enduring idea or understanding is that the aims and desires of most people on Earth have been fundamentally similar since hunter-gatherers first domesticated crops and animals in Iraq 10,000 years ago, and we can empathize with those people because we too desire, at bottom, the same things, which are connection and belonging. Focusing on new research involving empathy, mirror neurons, the lives of women, the colonized, and ordinary people throughout history, we unearth, as historians such as Howard Zinn, Winthrop Jordan, and Riane Eisler have done, representative stories of everyday people that could stand for the great silent majority of human history. We also presuppose, along with Jeremy Rifkin in The Empathic Civilization, that the deepest unconscious desires of Homo sapiens include companionship in towns that provide nutritious food, clean water, and safe homes for our children. By studying Mesopotamia, we get a snapshot of people putting these desires into action when they created the world’s first cities.
At the same time, I try to show that balanced relationships pervade, indeed define, naturally occurring ecosystems and gardens that are intelligently designed with permaculture principles. We try to dispel centuries of fearing dirt and insects. No topsoil, no life, we tell students, and No honeybees, very boring food. We teach them about life cycles, collecting seeds, planting and transplanting from the greenhouse, companion planting, pollination, mulching, rain gardens, bioswales, native plant diversity, harvesting, cooking, eating, flower arranging, good table manners, composting, and the symbiotic relationships that pervade the cosmos. Reconnecting to the first civilization in ancient Iraq, with their reading, writing, gardening, food preparation, and eating, our students embody the oldest desires of civilized humans striving for community.
Our second enduring idea that we want our students to return to throughout their lives is that a phalanx of interrelated environmental problems faces the human species today, each of which is exacerbated by overpopulation. While these global issues may feel both overwhelming and unapproachable, during the autumn of the 6th grade year, we teach that these problems are linked, while several are causal, one giving way to the other, and all have their roots in practices found in Mesopotamia.
First, I share excerpts from both J.F. Rischard’s book High Noon and Jared Diamond’s history Collapse. These texts detail mutually supporting environmental troubles (Rischard lists 20; Diamond 11) that work today in a kind of grim synergy: global warming, deforestation, biodiversity loss, fisheries depletion, and water shortages, among them. Then I share excerpts from Clive Ponting’s A New Green History of the World, in which he argues that each empire, whether Sumerian, Egyptian, Roman, or Mayan, follows the same paradigm during its downfall: first they clear the land of trees, then erect massive irrigation systems, then they farm monocultures, which leads to erosion and overwatering of inadequate soils, then desertification follows, and eventually the empire collapses.
Another issue we want our students to investigate, as part of this second enduring understanding, is that these difficulties are mutually supporting spokes of a wheel that continue today to roll over the backs of billions, especially in the Southern Hemisphere. “It is wrong to grow temperate-zone vegetables [as monocrops for export, such as bananas] in the tropics and fly them back to rich consumers,” Vandana Shiva writes in Soil Not Oil, articulating some of the sometimes hidden interplay between injustice and ecology. “This uproots local peasants, creates hunger and poverty, and destroys local agrobiodiversity. . . . Since vegetables and fruits are perishable, transporting them long distances is highly energy-intensive, contributing to climate change.” When lands are cleared for these exports, pesticides and inorganic nitrate fertilizers are typically poured into the diminishing soil, which then invites pests and disease—as monocultures have easier genetic codes to crack than biodiverse fields—which in turn increases the need to clear and deforest more land for cultivation. Healthy economies and ecosystems overseas are compromised, even ruined, by the industrialized global food system.
Instead of simply cataloging wrongdoing across the world and assigning blame, though—which in the end is counterproductive to the empathic civilization that we hope to create—we 6th grade teachers like to move quickly to our third enduring understanding, which seeks to empower the students with problem-solving strategies.
The third enduring understanding we unpack for our students is that just as the current global crises are interwoven, multiple solutions will be employed this century on an international scale, but we, paradoxically, might most easily help on campus by studying local, organic food, responsible water use, and enlightened community engagement. If we grow organic vegetables at school in raised beds using low-evaporation drip irrigation, using seed we’ve collected from the previous year, and then we later harvest and eat that produce at lunch in our salad bar, we show the students how to support healthy, local, biodiverse economies—and overseas farming economies, by extension, who might convert their fields back to feeding their own people—while also reducing the use of inorganic fertilizers and pesticides, as well as diminishing global warming that follows energy-intensive global packaging, refrigeration, and shipping.
It’s our job as educators to resist dichotomous, simplistic, silver-bullet thinking; rather, we strive to admit the complex truths and to problem-solve collaboratively across coalitions and issues. We resist cynicism, hopelessness, and paralyzing guilt as we explore these topics with our students. When we look to the past with our students, we can see the choices our ancestors made when they settled around reliable food sources in the Middle East at the end of the last ice age, building the world’s first cities, and we can imagine remaking our future cities this century with smaller carbon footprints.
Our fourth enduring understanding is that the stories a culture tells itself about its origins, its purpose, and its future will determine to a large extent that culture’s ability to survive the tests of time. I find that I am able to present both the intersecting predicaments of our contemporary world and the possible solutions by retelling the oldest stories humanity has told itself about its creation, its place in the cosmos, its meaning and purpose. I therefore teach Gilgamesh, the first of all written stories, from Mesopotamia, as well as Genesis, perhaps the world’s most influential narrative, plus a host of Greek myths, from the beginnings with Gaea and Uranus, through Cronos to Zeus, Prometheus, and Pandora, ending with Deucalion and Pyrrha. Similarities jump out when the three narrative strands are laid side by side: gods create the world, including humanity; humans either lose or try to gain eternal life and fail; gods become displeased with humans and send a flood, killing all except for a favored few, who survive in a boat and then go on to repopulate the world with the gods’ blessings. The fact that the oldest stories all focus on an ecological catastrophe similar to the ones featured on our contemporary nightly news is not lost on our students. They see, for example, that global warming is melting the polar ice caps today, threatening coastal civilizations with flooding. If the ice caps melt, our students know, hundreds of millions worldwide will become ecological refugees. Studying the ancient stories in the contexts of both the founding of human civilization and our current ecological predicaments makes sense, then, as we want the students, ultimately, to imagine new narratives for the coming century that will help them create a just global village.
In addition to studying the world’s oldest stories, I also teach contemporary dystopian literature (titles include Shipbreaker, Hunger Games, and The House of the Scorpion) to explore a number of possible reactions to our numerous ecological predicaments. Further, I pair the dystopian novels with nonfiction reading of four National Geographic articles on the first civilizations, food insecurity, topsoil loss, and water scarcity. We direct students to identify reasons for civilization collapse in their novels and articles and to imagine resurrections based on sustainable principles involving soil, water, food, housing, and energy production. In groups they create their own civilizations in this century, given certain definitions for advanced civilization, while also not ignoring the ecological challenges we are facing right now.
Taken together, these four enduring understandings undergird our reasons for teaching in the garden. We want to provide students with the backstory for how we got to 2012 as a human species, emphasizing that the study of human history should elicit our empathy rather than condemnation. We also want to provide our students with interpretive lenses through which they can analyze both our current human impact and utter reliance on Earth. Last, we want to offer students the schemata to remake a more sustainable, just, and enjoyable civilization for the world’s citizens in the 21st century.
Carter Latendresse has been teaching 6th grade English at Catlin Gabel since 2006. He is also a husband, the father of two including Emma ’20, and the garden coordinator on campus.
You may also like to read the full text of this essay.