Farm to Table Right in His School's Backyard
I have always viewed public schools as the cornerstone of our democracy. A self-governing nation requires an educated populace of critical thinkers who can analyze the past, assess the present and anticipate the future. The decisions our students will make in the years to come, whether in the voting booth or at the checkout counter, will have an enormous impact on the future of both the nation and planet.
The idea of Education for Sustainability reflects my teaching strategy. The notion, adopted from the name of a program run through a farm near my school in Montpelier, Vt., provides a lens by which students can interpret information and make decisions. A sustainable system meets a community’s ecological, economic and social needs in a manner that does not impede future generations from meeting those same needs.
As a biology and environmental science teacher, I encourage my students to consider these “three basic needs” when we examine the context of science within a community. I am obliged to teach content and skills particular to my discipline, but I soon realized that I would need assistance if my students were to see and experience the “big picture.”
In 2004, I convened a group of like-minded teachers to explore ways to integrate the concept of sustainability across the curriculum. Various topics and reading materials were suggested. Obstacles and challenges were identified. Then a big idea was proposed: The school itself should be a model of sustainability. How often are our students exposed to inconsistencies? How often are they taught why something is important in one class, only to walk down the hall to another classroom or to the cafeteria and see something different? Various initiatives came from this idea, including an assessment of the cleaning materials used by custodians, revamping recycling programs, and an energy audit. But the biggest project proved to be the construction of our 24-by-48-foot solar greenhouse.
Built by summer school students seeking math credits, the Montpelier High School (MHS) Greenhouse is now operated by the school’s biology students. Twice a week before school, the students harvest the very plants they will eventually use to study seed germination, root structure and photosynthesis in the classroom. Later, these plants are served in the cafeteria’s salad bar. The plants are grown, in part, from soil derived from the composted food scraps recovered from the cafeteria, thereby closing the nutrient loop within the city limits of Montpelier. Building on the success of our indoor plants, my environmental science students use their low-input farming practices to grow a dozen other crops in four neighboring garden beds at the school.
Aside from proving to be an effective tool to elucidate the interplay between the ecological, economic and social needs that I’ve mentioned being so crucial to a society’s success, the food system has been a fantastic vehicle for curricular integration at our school. The business class crafted the greenhouse business plan. The physics class studied alternative energy and outfitted the greenhouse with solar panels to power our fans, refrigerator and computers. The Spanish class studied the culture that cultivated our heirloom black beans; and the health class experiments with recipes using whole food from our garden. Indeed, our efforts have transcended academics, permeating the culture of the school. Students compete for Composter of the Month, and our annual Fall Harvest Celebration features a 100 percent local meal and performances by students and faculty.
Click through this gallery to see Tom Sabo and his students at work
The benefits of the greenhouse program are multifaceted. We have reduced our ecological footprint by decreasing our “food miles,” and by using organic methods of production. These impacts are calculated during lessons within the biology and environmental science curricula. The students are also willingly eating their vegetables; the sales of the salad bar meals increase by 65 percent when our lettuce greens are being served in the cafeteria. Most important: By teaching our core content in an influential manner within the relevant context of food, we increase student engagement and learning.
I am confident that further educational benefits are achieved whenever we successfully make cross-curricular connections. In fact, I have worked with various organizations to prove this point. Aided by a fellowship from the Rowland Foundation, I have spent the last year trying to maximize the benefits of the greenhouse program. I am fostering community partnerships and creating a structure that will enable teachers from MHS and neighboring schools to collaborate on curriculum development.
Insightful Lessons, Student Engagement
Plus, the Center for Sustainable Systems (CSS), an organization dedicated to bringing relevance and rigor to high school education in Central Vermont, uses the food system as the vehicle to deliver purposeful, experiential lessons across a variety of academic disciplines. Service learning-based projects that have been developed by certified teachers in their respective disciplines will be carried out in fall 2012 at a neighboring farm in Montpelier. A trained farm manager and program director will provide technical support and logistical coordination. Classroom space is available on-site and transportation to and from the farm will be provided as needed. During the summer, the program works as both summer job and school program, offering students class credit and, when the labor that goes above and beyond the educational experience, payment. The food produced through the CSS will be sold through student-run businesses and provided to community organizations serving those in need.
I am calling this approach Integrated Service Learning. It features insightful lessons that increase student engagement. By integrating the curriculum around a common theme, connections between disciplines will be highlighted, enhancing understanding. Authentic learning experiences will provide opportunities for students to develop the critical thinking and problem-solving skills necessary for success in a changing world. Direct connections with the community foster a sense of belonging, compassion and responsibility, each a prerequisite of active citizenship.
By creating the means for students to engage in the process of building a sustainable food system, we are providing them the opportunity to develop a wide range of skills. Instead of simply applying acquired knowledge, our students will acquire their own knowledge as they apply themselves to the needs of their community. Like the needs of a garden in any given season, life is a moving target. Successful cultivation requires flexibility, compassion, a diverse skill set and a lot of hard work. The Center for Sustainable Systems aims to provide just that for all of our students.
Tom Sabo (VT '09) is an award-winning Milken Educator who teaches biology and life sciences at Montpelier High School at Montpelier, Vt. To talk to him about the school's greenhouse program and other initiatives, email him at email@example.com.
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