“They were not going to school to learn where they were, let alone the pleasures and pains of being there, or what ought to be said there. You couldn’t learn those things in a school. They went to school, apparently, to say over and over again, regardless of where they were, what had already been said too often. They learned to have a very high opinion of God and a very low opinion of his works– although they could tell you this world had been made by God Himself. What they didn’t see was that it is beautiful and some of the greatest beauties are the briefest.”
I am writing in response to David Wright’s recent post, “The Garden of Poetry: Why I Want an English Class Garden.” It is my hope to help your own garden become a reality and to inspire science teachers to cultivate that garden, serving as a muse for your fellow teachers and students.
Since I first began teaching science at a classical school, I have had two burning questions: “What is classical education?” and “How do I teach science classically?” The first question is continually being answered and has come about by a sort of osmosis: having good friends who are also teachers that are continually filling my life with virtuous ideas and beautiful literature that fills my soul. I have also learned that classical education isn’t a method, but rather a lifestyle. In light of this, discovering the answer to my second question has been more elusive– so much so that it has caused me to doubt my profession, or at least my chosen subject matter. Even the so-called authorities have been unusually silent about the role science plays within a classical school. Most of my career has been one laborious experiment trying to find my place in classical education.
Then, five years ago, I planted a garden.
The garden began at home, and was my first insight into how to teach science in a classical school. It consisted of a 4-foot by 4-foot box containing 16 squares, and it taught me more about nature than any science book ever had. More importantly, it taught me the value of hard work and gave me an appreciation for God’s creation that I had never experienced. Here I found solace. It was at this time that a friend introduced me to the story of Cincinnatus and also the works of Wendell Berry, especially “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” My response was to go buy a pair of work-boots and a pair of overalls. It was either that or put in my resignation notice. The Mad Farmer chased me out of the subdivision and into a new place. One with chickens, goats, and a donkey, but it was in the Garden that I began to put my faith in the two inches of humus that will build under the trees every thousand years. It was where I began to “practice resurrection”. This simple garden began to cultivate my soul. This newfound joy began to overflow to my students; the next year I would take science out of the classroom and into the fields.
We began with a small plot in the very back corner of our school, near the interstate, with fifteen teenagers that were willing to do anything, as long as it didn’t involve listening to another lecture. My experience: one year of gardening at home, and a book that I used as a guide. (I would highly recommend Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. Not a great piece of literature, just a very simple method for having a successful garden that is easy to maintain.) I must admit, I was overwhelmed; I had no way to assess my students, nor an idea of what jobs to assign to such an eager group. I began my class by watching a documentary entitled A Man Named Pearl. In this film, Pearl Fryar, a self-taught topiary artist from Bishopville, South Carolina, inspires a community by creating a beautiful garden using throw away plants from a greenhouse. I then told my students to take this vision and make it their own. We called the class Horticulture.
We decided to the aboveground box gardening system described in the book I mentioned previously. As we built boxes, mixed soil, and planted seedlings, my class constantly looked to me for instruction. They needed me to assign tasks. I had to continually remind them to work. I had to reprimand them when they forgot to bring in tools. Often, they would wander about not knowing what to do, and not knowing what needed to be done. Many times they needed help, but didn’t know to ask. It was exhausting.
When our seedlings began to grow my students were disappointed at their pace. This was a lesson in itself. In my own garden I had learned that nature teaches through labor. If you forget to water, your plants die, and you must labor to plant more, causing you to sweat and your back to hurt. When you walk to the compost pile to turn it, and leave your tools in the shed, you must walk that distance again to fetch your tools. If you fail to daily pull weeds, they become stronger, causing you to work all the more. A garden is a wonderful teacher for those who procrastinate, or are forgetful or careless. Grades are not needed.
One day I walked in the classroom to give instructions and found it empty. I found my students in the back field, already working. From that day on, my role as teacher became vastly different. When I came to the garden, I became a fellow laborer with my students. I spent most of my time answering questions like “How do I change a drill bit?” or, “Where can I find another shovel?” or, “Are you sure this lettuce is OK? It looks too green!” (actual question). I found myself looking to God to teach me through his creation. I became observant of what was going on around me. I tried to identify every insect and weed I saw. Every new discovery was shared. I still taught facts and skills as I had in the classroom, but here they took on meaning, became necessary, and were beautiful.
I began to see my students differently, too. They were people, individual souls. Each with a dream, wrestling with the earth as I was. We were all tending the garden. Together, we were carrying out our original purpose given to us by our Creator. My favorite times were when my students told me they had been waiting all day to get to horticulture class, or when I would look around and see my kids working after the bell for the day’s dismissal.
Many projects followed. A greenhouse, a cold frame for those in the know, came next. Some wanted to try growing potatoes in a 50 gallon bucket; others found instructions from an old farming manual on how to build a hot box for growing during the winter months. The more artistic took to painting flower boxes and growing small herb gardens to sell. Since that first year we have planted an orchard with 8 different types of fruit trees and vines. We also partner with classes in the grammar school to assist them in making class gardens. Our most recent achievement was winning a grant for a butterfly garden that was designed and planted by some of our senior students. Our school was able to enjoy the beauty of watching 48 monarch butterflies develop and emerge when we came back to school this fall.
I believe I have found a place for science in classical education. I long for the day when my lesson plans are not mapped out on squares in a planning book, but rather determined by the seasons, by which flowers are in bloom. Where my classes are spent catching crawdads by the creek or sketching butterfly wings, and where my students are not measured by standardized tests, but rather by the amount of dirt under their fingernails and the muddy footprints they leave in the halls.