In college I studied Conservation Ecology, Biology, and Permaculture Design and then relocated to Florida after graduation for work with sea turtles and tortoises. My background allows me to understand how nature works and inspires me to seek out new information and ideas. When I made the daunting career-switch away from the field science world six years ago, my number one motivator was to help high school students—in some of Chicago’s most impoverished areas—develop this curiosity as well.
The first few months working at an alternative high school in North Lawndale, I realized many of my students had never been introduced to ideas like ecology and environmentalism; some weren’t even familiar with the term recycling. In those early days, without knowing much about me or the subject I was teaching, students had a hard time understanding these topics or relating to them in a meaningful way.
The light-bulb moment happened one day when I was on lunch duty. Casually eating while I monitored students, one student asked me what I was holding (it didn’t look anything like her yellow cheese and canned jalapeño covered nachos). "It’s a blueberry," I told her as I offered my Tupperware full of them. She tried a few, and loved them, and nearly every following day I would share a few blueberries with her.
Pretty soon other students started asking me about my lunchtime curiosities and it hit me: Food was my in. It was how I would get them excited and curious about the natural world around them. Together we created the school garden. Bloomed from this experience were kids in North Lawndale who wondered where their food came from, asked questions about how this all happened, and pleaded to take home what they grew in the garden to show their families and friends.
I had hooked them, and they proved to me that curiosity comes in many forms and can be fostered anywhere as long as it is meaningful.
Fast forward six busy years of teaching. The school has changed, the kids have changed, and I no longer teacher science. This school year I pivoted my career again, and I am now the Dean of Students at a new school in Chicago. What hasn’t changed, though, is the ingrained passion I found six years before: to connect kids with the environment, their communities, and their health through food. So, in January 2014, I co-founded Gardeneers, a non-profit that creates and maintains school gardens in Chicago.
Gardeneers works by pairing a school with two school garden professionals. Once a week the Gardeneers are onsite teaching students about nutrition, community, and of course, environmental stewardship—all woven into a curriculum that is STEM-focused and teaches kids how to grow food. Programming starts in March and goes through the end of November, covering all aspects of gardening from the seeds, the plants, the harvest, and everything in between.
Gardeneers also works with school cafeterias to ensure what is grow in the school garden can be eaten during lunch time. We are serving nine schools this fall, with a projected 20 schools for the 2015 growing season. With that many kids, there is a lot of natural curiosity being fostered!
With so much focus on tests and scholastic achievement, it can be hard for teachers and administrations to work in lessons about the world on a grander scale. The Gardeneers model engages the greater community without burdening teachers and administrators with extra programming.
We all share the goal of fostering students who are healthy, mindful, and make good decisions for themselves and the earth. This Green Apple Day of Service, talk to the students in your life about being strong environmental stewards.