The rain came down in lancing spears of cold. The wind carried the rain forward in great wet sheets. Into this mess, only a day removed from the last of autumn’s sunshine, we trudged – two teachers and ten students from the St. Bonaventure’s College garden and compost program. We came carrying buckets and bags to gather up the bounty from our school garden plot – our first harvest! I looked round, taking in our small garden. Tomatoes clung pluckily to vines. Some had fallen and split, reclaimed by the ground that nourished them, but most were still in good condition. The zucchini had multiplied prodigiously. I had almost convinced myself that it was our collective green thumb that led to such size and quantity, until a friend took the wind from my sails.
“They’re prolific,” she said. “A nuisance really. I mean, who eats that much zucchini?”
I pushed on. The potato plants had largely withered to a deadened brown from the recent cold snaps. I took a pitchfork out, dug them up and found the potatoes hard, golden and plentiful. They quickly washed clean in the exposing rain. The carrots were stubby, orange and deliciously sweet.
As we worked, I found it hard to think of the garden plot as anything besides a garden. Though I had been here when it was nothing but grass edging towards the treeline, it seemed to me it that this place had always been a garden planted over with vegetables. Perched atop the hills that rise away from St. John’s proper, I could see all the way to Cabot Tower and beyond to the blue-grey expanse of ocean that separates Newfoundland from Europe.
To see it worked over, planted, weeded and now harvested was to see the land transformed. We had put our stamp on this place. The swampy heat of summer had given way to the cold lash of autumn’s storms. Through it all we had come, learned and taken away a successful haul of vegetables.
As a student and teacher, I have found some of my most rewarding educational moments happened beyond the walls of the classroom. The garden and compost program is a case in point. When we began it, we did not foresee it as anything beyond an extracurricular program. Yet it grew into something that students, teachers and the wider community became invested in. C. A. Bowers contends, in Revitalizing the Commons, that vegetable garden plots offer an opportunity for intergenerational dialogue, whereby young people see older folks as reservoirs of experience and knowledge. This isn’t curriculum-based learning and teaching, per se. Rather, it is a dialogue, seeped in learning and teaching of the world, that helps buttress a local community. In this way are plant, animal and human communities able to find common ground, a shared space of interaction.
Those of us who have been involved in the garden and compost program have been moved by it. We’ve developed relationships with pioneering organic farmers like Mike and Melba Rabinowitz, who’ve farmed in Newfoundland for over 30 years. They have mentored our students and teachers in the finer points of planting, weeding, and harvesting. Though this work might be described as tedious, it has fostered a dialogue. This narrative, shared between students and the Rabinowitzes and their workers – ranging in age from their 20s to 60s – has allowed young and old, doing the same job, to find common purpose. Students genuinely clamour to help out at the Rabinowitzes’ Organic Farm, as much for the conversation and Melba’s post-labour lunches as for what they learn.
As we move into the Anthropocene Era – the Age of the Humans – we need more opportunities, as students and teachers, to recognize the effect we have had on the world around us and dialogue with the world we live in. In a previous article I noted that the skills of reading a landscape are slowly being lost. The people who needed these skills – fishermen, farmers, loggers, trappers – are finding themselves pushed to the economic periphery, expendable to the demands of profit. Their knowledge of place – of geology, meteorology and culture – is out of touch with the dictates of a global market. The dominant curriculum in our society is one of consumption. Even (and maybe even particularly) here in Newfoundland and Labrador, we are caught in the throes of this trap, enjoying the golden glow of an oil boom. As though no lessons need have been learned from the collapse, after 500 years of extraction, of that previous Newfoundland boom, codfish.
We need to find the courage, as teachers and students, to see beyond the world that we have created. I had thought that the garden and compost program would be a means of access into the commons: a place where students and teachers could find themselves in the world, participate in it, get dirt under their fingernails. In and of itself, the program has been successful. Yet, in being just one of a score of extracurricular activities, our program suffers from attracting only a certain type of student. These students are extraordinarily keen, committed and often see the larger picture. They are the program’s greatest strength. However, when we only reach these students we are preaching to the choir.
Extracurricular programs like ours should not supplement a curriculum that refuses to encourage learning and teaching of the world in the world. Rather, we need to rethink the manner in which curriculum is delivered. Increasingly, I find that the curriculum we teach our students ignores the possibility of economic models beyond consumer capitalism, speaks of climate change barely at all. Students today are asked to be proficient across a broad scope of learning outcomes, learned largely from a textbook or from lectures and notes delivered by a teacher in a classroom. These same students spend most of their leisure time in front of a screen of one sort or another. We need a curriculum that encourages care and love for the communities we live in, by situating the learning-teaching conversation in our lived places. Colin Trudge notes in The Secret Life of Trees that, “when science is done its primary role is not to change the world but to enhance appreciation…” I would extend that over the entire ecology of learning. We need to learn, anew, to appreciate the world we live in.
The day was overcast, but humid. The last of the season’s blueberries, ripe, beckoned with promise for those who would seek them out along the trail. We were walking into Freshwater Bay, an abandoned outport community just beyond the growing sprawl of St. John’s. Once there were a hundred souls living there, alongside cattle and sheep, with vegetable gardens and haying grounds. To this day, an apple tree remains, gnarled but bearing fruit in the lee of the winds that swirl round the island. The community was supported by the inshore fishery, which flourished well into the early 20th century. Then, like so many other outport communities, Freshwater Bay lapsed into a state of abandonment. There were better jobs to be had in St. John’s, with better wages and hours then those of the fishery.
We need more opportunities, as students and teachers, to recognize the effect we have had on the world around us and dialogue with the world we live in.
Which was the reason we were visiting. A class of Grade 8 students were hiking in to explore and document the community. They were looking for what might have allowed people to settle here, of all places. Two other teachers walked in with us – the Science and Literature teachers – to broaden the scope of the day. To see a community for what it might have offered its inhabitants is beyond the capabilities of one academic specialty area.
At one point I stumbled across Ms. Power, the Science teacher, explaining which plants were edible, and which were not. This would have been crucial knowledge for the first pioneers settling Newfoundland’s shoreline – as important as building a shelter, or being able to “see the boat in the trees,” as old boat-builders used to say. In short, knowing what plants were useful was a skill crucial to survival. Seeing her hand around plants for students to try that would, just moments before, have blended into the greenery struck me as a particularly powerful learning moment.
Students spoke in their journal entries of how much they’d enjoyed the day for the hiking, the time out of class, the opportunity to swim in the freshwater pond, which gave the community its name. But they also spoke of being able to better see the outport community. And that, for me, was crucial. To be able to imagine a place beyond the textbook – a place where they had spent a day, experienced the community, explored the ruined house foundations, eaten plants previously unknown to them – is to know a place a little better; to understand its roots. Too often students today are divorced from their history. And once we are removed from the world, it is harder to imagine how we might change it.
First published in Education Canada, September 2013
EN BREF – Tant à titre d’élève que d’enseignant, je constate que certains de mes moments éducatifs les plus enrichissants se sont produits ailleurs qu’en classe. Les élèves et leurs enseignants sont souvent coupés du monde. En effet, nous ne sommes pas suffisamment exposés à la nature pour en apprendre quelque chose, peu importe le sujet. Dans son livre The Secret Life of Trees, Colin Trudge écrit : « lorsqu’on fait des sciences, leur rôle principal ne consiste pas à changer le monde, mais à en rehausser l’appréciation… » [traduction] J’étendrais cet énoncé à toute l’écologie de l’apprentissage. Nous devons réapprendre à apprécier le monde où nous vivons. J’ai tenté, par un programme de jardin d’école et de compostage ainsi que par des voyages enrichissant le curriculum dans des collectivités locales, de combler ce fossé afin que les élèves et les enseignants connaissent mieux le monde où ils vivent – et qu’ils en viennent ainsi à s’en soucier et à en prendre soin.
 C. A. Bowers, Revitalizing the Commons: Cultural and educational sites of resistance and affirmation (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2006).
 Chris Peters, “Finding Place in Education” Education Canada 50, no. 2 (Spring 2010): 26-29.
 Colin Trudge, The Secret Life of Trees: How they live and why they matter (London: Penguin, 2006).