“There’s something about turning the compost and watching what once was old bits of vegetable transform into soil over a few months. It’s beautiful. It’s not magical, but it does create a connection that helps ground us. That's a place where a lot of young people are struggling, to keep their feet on the ground.”
- Alison Ward, science teacher at Boise High School
The Downtown Teaching Farm. A half a city block. An orchard, a community garden, a bee haven, an open classroom. Planted a few blocks from Boise High School, on Fort Street between 11th and 12th, the garden welcomes volunteers and students to work the land, grow organic vegetables and herbs, raise pollinator plants, and to learn from nature's life cycle.
As a community gardener, North End neighbor, and a student (virtually) at BSU, I wanted to get in touch with how high school students have been learning in the garden, how they’ve been affected by the pandemic, and how learning has metamorphosed for them in 2020.
I had a chance to chat with a few juniors and seniors from an environmental science class at Boise High School, who spent a class period planting strawberries. I gardened with Alison Ward over the weekend, the program director and a science teacher at the school. Over a sunny afternoon of transporting a package of 10,000 honey bees into the garden, I got to know how outdoor learning in the garden is, for many students, a therapeutic remedy to the countless problems of the past year.
Alison and the Boise High Science Department first organized the Downtown Teaching Farm in 2011 with a vision: “Imagine if we had a community garden that was a school project." Students would grow produce for the cafeteria "in this elegant way." But soon after, she realized the logistical barriers to this agricultural dream; summer harvests don't align with the school year. The students who plant the vegetables in the spring semester may not be the ones who reap the rewards. But the true “crux” moment of Alison's vision came from a sad corn crop—a drooping, depleted, and embarrassing plant.
“My instinct was to say no one wants that corn. That corn has nothing to give us. I crossed over something when I realized this problem is way more interesting than a lesson on how to grow corn. If I can give my students the opportunity to see a crop that’s struggling and think it through as an experiment, that was a big aha! I left the corn and had my students study the sick corn in the fall. Different people posed different soil amendments. Then we made a plan for it. We got to study a whole lot of science that way—real world science."
The shift away from food production allowed students to learn beyond planting seeds. Students help solve problems in the garden, and use the garden to solve problems at school. It’s a type of interactive learning that extends beyond the classroom and textbooks.
The wonders of the natural world display themselves to visitors throughout the garden. For me, I’m fascinated by the details. In March, I was first puzzled by nature’s lace—the look of organic materials after a winter’s decay. Once a radish and now a hollowed structure, I was shocked to see how plants build their skeleton. When watering carrot seeds I met a white-spotted jumping spider on the watering can. Fuzzy and cute, a harmless resident building a home. One day I found a tiny glass eye in the dirt. It must have fallen off an old doll, perhaps an artifact from the houses that used to stand here a few decades ago.
I wanted to know what inspired students when they come to the Downtown Teaching Farm. Isabella, a senior interested in environmental studies, history, and creative writing, told me about the culinary mushrooms: “They were growing mushrooms, culinary mushrooms. I didn’t know you could just grow them. For some reason I thought they had to be forested out in the woods!”
I was just as surprised as Isie to hear how mushrooms grew: oyster spawn are plugged into logs and winecap mushrooms layered into straw. The purpose of these mushrooms is to help solve a waste problem at school. After the Boise School District finally switched from Styrofoam to compostable plates, a new problem sprouted, how to compost the compostable plates in a dry climate?
“We spent a couple of years asking the question if culinary mushrooms could eat the plates. It literally mushroomed into this whole other thing of waste reduction, and a lot of cool science,” Alison said. “In biology and environmental science, there are pieces about fungi. But in reality, fungi is just a vocabulary word that’s taught through diagrams, and students learn just a little bit about fungi. But this project was next level. Now I’ve got way too many mushroom spawns!”
Wine Cap mushroom harvest, summer 2020
While the Southwestern Idaho climate has been too dry to activate the oyster spawns for composting, the lesson is valuable—simple solutions to solve complex problems. Students realize their hands-on experience can make change in their communities. Amelia, a junior at Boise High said, “it almost feels like we are capable of making a change on what’s going on outside of the classroom. Now we know more ways to do something to make an impact and not just know about it.”
Hallee, another junior added on, “In a lot of science classes they talk about stuff that doesn't make sense. It might pertain to the outside world but they don’t explain how it works. What I like about this class is that she talks about stuff that’s going on right now.”
A refreshing approach to high school learning. Outdoor classrooms reflect Alison’s educational mission: “I’m trying to give students agency in thinking about the big issues that we learn in the textbook are happening right now, here in Boise, in our community, or region,” she said. “That’s a driving piece of continuity in my teaching practice before Covid, during Covid, and after Covid. That real world connection.”
Education is on the forefront of our minds this year, causing debates on what’s right for students. When I met with Ms. Ward’s environmental science class at the farm, she told her students to chat with me, and have a chance to reflect on this past year. As a college student myself, it felt nice to sit down and decompress under the sun.
Students explained the nuanced struggles of having to deal with constant change in 2020 rolling into 2021. From starting the year online, to attempting part-time school, to switching back to online, and now in-person Monday through Friday, eight hours a day--students have gone through extremely unusual changes that previous generations have never faced.
When students started the year online, Hallee said “It felt like everything that was fun about school was taken. School was just school. It wasn’t about seeing your friends and talking with people.” The lack of typical social interaction prevented a collaborative learning environment, which so many students need.
Wilted Cosmos in the fall
Amelia shares, “I learn best with collaborative work. It makes more sense in my brain to work with a partner and have a discussion about it. But online, you couldn't do that. Most of the time people had their cameras off so there was no connection there. It impacted my learning. But coming back now it’s kind of scary to have collaborative work.”
Overall, Alison sees the “nervousness and hesitancy for students. It’s unusual because a lot of times young people are in the developmental phase where they feel invincible and are taking a lot of risks. It’s interesting to see collectivity this kind of hesitation."
A typical high school experience isn’t what young folks are getting. Instead, they have stress, anxiety, and problems with mental health, as many of the students I talked to mentioned. Alyssa shared, “it’s nice to be able to talk about it with each other and talk about what we’ve been struggling with, because all of us have been going through basically the same thing. It’s definitely not as stressful, especially when we’re back in class and outside, because we are more spread out. It’s easier to talk about now that we’re together.”
“Like this right now feels normal. Being outside with the class, with people feels normal. But in the classroom, this doesn’t feel normal. Which is weird” Amelia said.
Students are craving collaborative work and activities that support their health and learning. Hands-on learning in safe outdoor spaces, like the Downtown Teaching Farm, is one of them.
Students taking to-go soil boxes, October 2020
I empathize with these high schoolers, as I finish up my final semester online at Boise State. This spring, I found myself disconnected from virtual school. I'd often skip mundane computer work to spend time in my dusty overalls, hand shears at the ready, clipping back old perennials. I spent time watching the wrinkly rhubarb leaves peel and break through the surface. I watched the wormwood grow, carpeting the ground with fluffy foliage. My mind frees up when I use my hands in the garden and an open mind finds new solutions to problems. For me, it's breaking through writer's block or a lack of motivation.
Alison describes the benefits of students learning in the field, “I think the hands and the brain are connected in a really unique way. There’s literally a pathway to more experiential long term learning.” She says, “I have been interested and surprised over the years how some students have little experiences working in soil, using tools, working with their hands. It’s another kind of skill and learning that our school system could really embrace."
Isabella agrees, “Having actual projects that you do with your hands can be helpful, it’s such a big difference from everything in the past year.”
A garden is a textural experience, unlike the most advanced app or a thousand page textbook. Learning in the Downtown Teaching Farm means observing the geometry of a bee hive, detecting the smell of ammonia in the compost pile, building upper body strength with a shovel, narrowing the attention to tiny invertebres, squiggling in a handful of soil. Education needs to be engaging for the lesson to stick.
In my conversations with students, I felt a curious energy about them. These students want to learn practical knowledge about the environments they live in. They want to have physical skills that they can apply to their lives. They want to work together on projects and learn by collaborating.
Honey comb, photo by Alison Ward. Rhubarb in late March.
Out of all the issues a global pandemic has caused, two critical problems exist: the disconnect between screens and the confinement of a classroom. Even with optimism, the pandemic isn’t over yet, and before it is, educators must be prepared to ask, what is the future of public school?
“There’s a huge opportunity to use our campuses as classrooms. Whether that's the physical building or outdoor spaces, students feel connected to their schools, and they want to make their schools better. They’re intrinsically motivated because it’s their community,” Alison said. “There’s a huge opportunity to leverage that in classrooms in the kinds of thinking, writing, calculating, or problem solving that we position the kids to do.”
Alison told me she’s excited to sit down this summer and reflect on how to move forward with teaching methods, because “we can’t keep doing everything.” Schools now have more digital learning resources and disinfectant wipes than ever before. But, alternative learning methods, like taking the classroom outside, can provide even more benefit to students. Supporting ecological curiosity, collaboration, and wellness needs, is what a physical project in the outdoors can accomplish.
“It’s transformative to get students out here. Even if as a group we work a little and chat a lot, and some kids don’t want to get their shoes dirty, you can feel the mood change when we walk back to school" Alison said, "I’m so excited to bring the students back over and show them the garlic we planted last fall, which they probably forgot we did!”
Maybe they forgot about the garlic. But most likely, students will remember an afternoon in the sun, turning the soil, and planting the bulbs with their peers.
Natalia DiGiosia is a graduate from Boise State with a BA in Writing Rhetoric and Technical Communications. Natalia enjoys researching and writing on local and regional matters including sustainable food systems, community building, and the connection of rural and urban Idaho.