My mother was a teacher but I never saw myself in that role, I suppose I always enjoyed the part of student too much. Don’t get me wrong, I pass on information freely but it’s always been on equal terms. So it was a complete surprise when I applied for and accepted a job taking garden classes at a local Primary school. Shelley, a teacher from Moonah Primary came up to me at a festival in Hobart to tell me they had set up a garden and to ask if I was interested in talking to the kids. The following week I dropped by to have a look at their setup. Instantly I was struck by the obvious enthusiasm of the kids to the garden and I knew this was a project that I had to be involved in. Although schools have limited funds, I was amazed at the amount of resources they had managed to set aside to make this project a success.
The school was part of the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation. They had pretty much built a restaurant with a shiny commercial kitchen and a large dining area with seating for 40. The kitchen is extensive. It has five work stations with ovens, stove tops and loads of big sharp knives and then we add 30 kids into the mix. You would be justified in thinking this is a recipe (no pun intended) for a bloodbath, but other than a few minor cuts it all goes pretty smoothly. The school is led by a wonderful Principal and group of teachers who have jumped into the garden, spades first. On the first day I felt just like I had always done on the first day of any school – excited and scared, and nervous.
When I met the kids I was aware that while I was sizing them up they were also scoping me out. One of the roles of a teacher is to maintain some form of discipline but I soon realised this was a skill I was severely lacking in. The first time I had to pull a student aside for a word was a disaster. I started off my pre-planned lecture of `do you that’s acceptable behaviour’ and `did Chris really deserve a whack with that corn stalk?’ but before I could finish my tirade another student stopped me and said `you’re not very good at this, are you?’ To make matters worse the other students close by all agreed. So as a group we decided that an apology to Chris was in order and the offending student should sit in the square for 10 minutes during recess.
There is always a lot of work to be done at a garden that is expected to feed a whole school so rather than have set classes I thought we would all just get down to work and they would learn by doing. Enthusiasm does not always equate to productivity. At school a job that may take 5 min in a normal garden will take an hour in the chaotic fun that is the patch. The last time we put in some potatoes we cultivated the soil, dug some trenches and then planted them out using either over arm or under arm method depending on personal preference and desired distance.
I remember when I was a child, adults forcing me to eat food that I was openly fearful of like spam. When I started at the school I didn’t want to fall into the same trap of punishing kids for being gastronomically cautious. It seems that the people most effective at getting kids to try new flavours are other kids. When you are young you are more likely to listen to a mate than to some deluded old gaffer like myself. There was always one at school with a cast iron gut that would eat anything and everything. This is the kid you need to have on your side! This is your Fonzi, were they go others will follow. You also need something that will appeal to their desire for sugariness, these are not usually things like endives and Swedes although I have been surprised by how fondly the students have taken to radish. The gateway vegetables are things like cherry tomatoes, berries, carrots and of course, peas.
Planting crops in rows is certainly a more productive use of space but planting them in spirals or triangles is way more fun. Radish seed will germinate in under a week and classic activities such as writing your name with a mixture of sand and seeds are great for getting kids excited about the process.
The garden is the size of a soccer pitch and I have only one day a week to keep it in shape, this and the fact that there are very few resources available means that it can sometimes be a bit difficult to figure out how to tackle it. Despite this I am helped by a passionate and determined group of teachers and volunteers as well as an exceptionally wonderful group of children. Because of the large amount of usable bed space it is easy to end up with a rather large amount of produce no matter what kind of season we have.
Working at Moonah Primary has to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I believe in the importance of the project, teaching kids what good food should taste like, where it comes from and the difficulties in producing it. Gardening can teach us many positive things like how to read the seasons and to appreciate being outside in the natural world and also essential traits such as patience and nurturing.
Next – Meeting the Locals