By Stephanie Aubert, PAN Board Member and Program Coordinator of Grow Nashua
Upon introduction to the concept, I immediately recognized that I was passionate about Permaculture. It just made so much sense. What didn’t make sense to me back in 2010, as an angsty undergrad, was why the masses didn’t look to Permaculture as the only way forward. Of course, I was not aware of how relatively advanced my personal perception of interconnectivity was(is) at that time, but even still, Permaculture was(is) just so cool.
In 2013 I left the comforts of a New England home to reside in the Southwest, followed by the Northwest, and finally the Big Easy; the Crescent City of New Orleans. I had the opportunity to observe several patterns in regards to the practicing permie communities in these three very different regions. A trend started to reveal itself to me – and I know this to be a topic of dialogue in the Permie community in recent years- Permaculture started to seem exclusive to me.
I didn’t recognize my passion for teaching until I felt the rewards that came from inspiring inquiry. I have since been fortunate enough to earn teaching opportunities in a variety of both formal and informal settings, with a broad spectrum of students, on a broad array of topics. Let me make it very clear that I have no formal teaching education. My background is in environmental science and policy, and sustainable and resilient communities. Up until recently, my teaching was limited to a college-aged (and educated) audience. I returned to the Northeast this past winter, and while my intention was to get my feet wet by teaching youth of different ages through substitute teaching, I fell into a much more valuable and fitting position. I found myself employed by a nonprofit organization that was granted funds to create and implement a summer camp serving students from a Title I (category of public schools with the highest student concentrations of poverty) elementary school. We built a roughly STEAM-based curriculum for 35 k-5th grade campers in southern New Hampshire.
Our “camp” staff was excited and as prepared as we could have been going in to the first day of Camp Green Thumbs in early July. What we didn’t know: a) students (or their parents) requiring summer school could choose this free camp program as an alternative b) the majority of the sign-ups were behaviorally considered “high risk”, having been recruited by the school’s behavioral specialist (who had worked with our organization to spearhead the lush courtyard garden at the school) and c) the free breakfasts provided through the programming were composed of Lucky Charms and packaged glazed doughnuts. We were wiping the sweat off our brow by the end of the first day – satisfied that we didn’t lose any of the campers. And by “losing campers” I do mean physically, as we lost their attention even before they showed up that first morning.
But, I was in my element as the natural science and earth stewardship specialist. Students from urban economically-marginalized neighborhoods or other vulnerable situations have been of most interest to me in recent years. And if I am being honest with you all, I think this audience should be of interest to all of us at this juncture. Anyway, throughout the camp experience I did what we permies do best – observe, interact, and adapt. Lately, we’ve been applying permaculture concepts and principles to all sorts of systems – both tangible and intangible-, so I decided to apply them to pedagogy as an amateur teacher. I could write an article on how I applied permaculture principles to my teaching efforts at camp, but for now I’ll settle for a few examples.
Use and Value Diversity:
In teaching tools, methods, and styles. Not all of the campers spoke english, so reading and writing (in any capacity) was not the most effective tool for everyone. On the other hand, some of the kids were enthusiastic about practicing reading and writing english.
Observe and Interact:
I was especially interested in what the campers wanted to, or could, gain out of their experience. I learned early on that many of them loved to share their observations and opinions about the day’s events. So I listened, and this made my life much easier. We were able to continue or repeat their favorite activities, and everyone benefited from this approach.
I also quickly learned that group dynamics made a huge difference from the day to day activities the addition or absence of individuals were felt by all. I was able to pick up on this and adjust accordingly. I recognize that this is one of my gifts. You might consider this creatively using and responding to change. While I originally intended to stick to the same lessons for each group while implementing age-appropriate modifications, what actually happened “in the classroom” was much more organic. I continued to rework and refine lessons to meet each group where they were at based on social dynamics and individual personalities and interests.
Use Small, Slow, Solutions:
Because my prior experience teaching primary school-aged children was slim to down, I learned some hard lessons fast. You have to break down concepts into much, MUCH smaller parts. For example, I wanted to introduce kids to environmental impact. We ended up beginning by defining “environment”. I felt good about this. But I also think it’s important to mention that kids are a lot more competent at understanding and thinking about systems. . . we just need to realize that we all started somewhere!
Self-Regulate; Accept Feedback:
Throughout my camp journey, I spent a lot of time thinking about what factors attention span and behaviors, and what motivates participation and interest. I am looking forward to continuing on this journey, and incorporating many more refined techniques into my teaching toolbox. I was also tasked with disciplinary action on a couple occasions. I don’t have children of my own, so this type of interaction was enlightening for me. It turns out mindful communication works for me. The staff also found that intervening with food choices made a big difference. We had open conversations with the campers about how binging on refined sugars in the morning can impact their minds and bodies, and we were able to see shifts in their decision making when it came to calories. This was helpful for us as staff and teachers trying to maintain some semblance of control, sure, but the hope is that this experience will continue to impact their internal micro-biomes as they grow.
Obtain a Yield:
Yes, we enjoyed an abundance of yields from the courtyard garden – food, medicine, shade, fresh air, and learning opportunities abound – just to name a few. But for me, the ultimate victories were witnessing inquisition and excitement around learning. Our conversations provoked theoretical and philosophical questions explored in graduate school: Why do we keep making things out of plastic? Why are we cutting down all of the forests for development? Why don’t we use more renewable energy? Why don’t people care about the environment? For me, these breakthroughs in pedagogy are among the sweetest of all the yields.