Friday, May 21, 2010

Tabula rasa

After my time visiting the original Edible Schoolyard (ESY for short) on my way through Berkeley, CA, I was excited to see what its first attempt at replication would be like in the markedly different climate -- both socially and seasonally speaking -- of New Orleans. Before I sat in on a few classes last Wednesday, I was lucky enough to have a chance to speak with Kelly, the school's ESY community outreach staffperson (and, ahem, AmeriCorps alumnus), about the program's origins and other Louisiana-specific aspects of the program at Samuel Green.

It turns out that the original public school was in dire straits a few years ago and the school board had more or less thrown its hands up in exasperation. After a series of fortuitous conversations and almost impossible good fortune that included a chance meeting with Alice Waters (who founded the original ESY and who was looking for a way to reach out to the post-Katrina New Orleans community), the founders of a high performing charter school across the city agreed to take over the troubled school. The new charter school's program was essentially built from scratch -- a tabula rasa, as it were -- with a chunk of money from Ms. Waters and the steady support of the community. (For those readers who were not in my NY Teaching Fellows professional development sessions, "tabula rasa" means "blank slate." Jim, stop shaking your head.) The Edible Schoolyard NOLA folks were determined to develop strong lessons that built on Louisiana state standards -- a move that helps lend legitimacy to the gardening and cooking education program that has been criticized by some as taking students away from important lessons on things like memorizing the US presidents in order or diagramming sentences -- and I believe the school is the stronger for it.

The lessons that the California school garden program used didn't translate well to the New Orleans setting. This is not to say that the lessons at the Berkeley ESY were poor, but the school had more leeway. I didn't have an opportunity to sit in on classes there, but I did get the distinct impression that the curriculum was just recently starting to be more structured. (And for the record, I am not all about rigid "structure" or "standards." Heavens no. But as a former public school teacher, I also know you are asking for trouble if you don't have a solid lesson plan or can't justify a nontraditional educational activity. Also, many of the kids seem to respond well to classroom rituals and consistent expectations.)

At Green, the garden lessons for grades 1-8 are closely tied in with science class, while the cooking lessons are (quite creatively, I think) linked to history coursework. Every class is slated for 16 sessions each in the garden and kitchen (which works out to four times per quarter in each space). So while the 1st grade class that I observed conducted group activities related to plant cycles -- having seen the garden during different times of the year, there was much to notice and discuss as they planted flowers and collected seeds -- the 7th grade class reviewed people, places, and documents of the Civil War before cooking up steaming tureens of New England clam chowder and saute pans with traditional southern shrimp and grits. (My stomach started grumbling near the end of the lesson as students and teachers sat down to share the communal meal -- complete with flowers, napkins, and ice water -- so I had to hotfoot it down the street soon afterwards to get myself a shrimp po' boy. Not exactly sustainable, but local and delicious.)

While I did not have a chance to speak with the teachers at Green, I was impressed by the creativity of the lessons and the focus of the majority of the students as they joyfully (as much as 7th graders allow themselves to be joyful) undertook their assigned tasks. It's a very different model than, say, the School at Blair Grocery, and yet both tap into the potential for personal and community growth via food-centered experiences. Pretty fitting for a town known for it's culinary heritage, agrarian roots, and distinct populations.

I'm not saying I'm moving to New Orleans, or that I'm looking to jump back into a classroom full time just now, but what a place to teach!


  1. I think you could have a future with an edible schoolyard, maybe in D.C. perhaps? Think about it...gardening, teaching, FOOD...


Thanks for your comment! Just making sure this isn't spam.... Thanks for your patience. :)Ibti