Saturday, May 3, 2014

Teaching as Gardening, or Another Reason I'm Against Common Core

It's been a long slow slog toward Spring here in the mid-Atlantic this year; on the way to school the other day, Monkey actually sighed wistfully and said, "I wish it was Spring!" I had to break it to her that not only was it already Spring, it had in fact BEEN Spring for over a month. She was understandably underwhelmed as she shivered in the car on the way to school. LOL

Finally, though, we've had a couple weeks without frost, and so I've planted a good portion of my veggies in the garden bed reserved for that purpose. I started, naturally, with the cold-resistant plants: kale, beets, spinach, carrots, peas. These are the ones that grow best in the early spring and in fact, many of them don't do well in too much heat, so once Summer kicks in, the peas will die back and be replaced by cucumbers, and the lettuce will become bitter and the spinach will "bolt," growing tall and sending up a center stem and flowering and going to seed, because their "window" has passed. That, though, is when the green beans, summer squash, strawberries, herbs, tomatoes, and okra tend to flourish, in the warmer and hotter weather of later Spring and through the Summer. Once Summer draws to a close, there will be other vegetables to harvest in Fall, some even after the first frost, that aren't even planted yet (but will give us lots of food thru Fall and Winter). In other words, it's not just one garden "season," but a sequence of "seasons."

If I tried to plant tomatoes in the ground now, they simply wouldn't grow yet, but would start up once the soil reached about 55 degrees F. I could water them over and over; I could pile on fertilizer and compost; I could even do additional plantings, but until the soil is the right temperature, they won't grow, no matter how much I will them to do so. I could start the plants indoors, but again, if I put them outside before that magical milestone, they will either hold steady - not growing - or die outright.

So as I monitored my chilly barely-growing garden the past couple of days, looking to see what new seedlings had sprouted, it occurred to me that growing a garden, especially trying to get the most production bang for the buck by taking advantage of the different parts of the growing season, really isn't unlike teaching, or at least like setting academic expectations that match different "seasons" of childhood.

Early Spring is prime time for a number of gardening tasks because of the temperature and length of day and angle of the sun. This is when early greens sprout well, whether it's from seeds I scatter or from leftover weed seeds from last summer and fall. Wild chickweed and miners' lettuce get eaten right from the garden here, both by us humans and by the skink, a sizeable chunk of whose diet should be greens. Worms are waking up now, and new ones are beginning to burrow in the soil as well, digesting the old leaves and compost I put down in Fall and turning it into more fertile soil for the crops to come. This part of the year is perfect for preparing the soil for future crops: putting down compost, digging up weeds that are already starting before they get out of control, loosening soil that's been compacted by Winter snow and rain. Once that's done, scattering kale and spinach seeds now will result in edible food within a month or so, since this is "their" time of year: not too warm, plus little competition from any other plants that won't flourish in this chill. Right now I've been harvesting kale and dandelion already, and the spinach and lettuce are just now putting forth leaves past their first seed leaves; the carrots have begun to make the little ferny leaves that identify them throughout the summer, and the beets have also put up leaves (and are putting down roots). The pea plants have begun extending from the ground, and now that (hopefully, anyway!) the frost is finished, the string beans I've planted in the garden are beginning to show themselves above ground as the sun is higher and stays out longer.

There really is a lot of stuff going on there! Would we call this an unsuccessful garden because it doesn't yet have any tomatoes? Well, if the metric we're using is based on the tomato harvest, then I guess we're in trouble - but the fact of the matter is that if I HAD planted tomatoes outside, there still wouldn't BE any tomato plants, let alone actual fruits. It's not time yet. It *will* be, eventually, but not yet. This is still "kale" time.

In another couple of weeks it'll be time to put tomatoes (and peppers, a related nightshade vegetable) in the ground, at least according to the calendar - but this has been a relentlessly cool Spring with warm weather slow to appear; the soil may not reach optimal nightshade growing temperatures until mid-May or even June at this rate. I could always throw fertilizer at the seeds or seedlings, but that won't change the fact that the weather is simply too cool. It's TOO EARLY, and just because a calendar says my soil *should be* 55F at the beginning of May doesn't mean that it's happening THIS year. LOL Would this also make me an unsuccessful gardener? No - just means I have to either start the plants indoors and keep them in artificial hothouse conditions until the outside weather can take over, or I have to adjust my expectations as to my tomato harvest this year. In the meantime, there is more than enough to do and plenty of things I can eat NOW, and I don't have to look long and hard to see the progress my beans are making as they get past the seed leaf stage.

As Spring finally gives way to Summer - which I am assuming, for now, that it will - we can expect the peas to die back and the spinach to bolt. Their season will be over, their season done, their "window" closed until Fall, while summertime brings forth its own processes and its own very different harvest. If I try to plant the cool-weather veggies in June, either I'll get a reduced harvest or they won't bother growing at all, depending on how heat-sensitive they are. That's OK, though: there are tomatoes, peppers, summer squash (and winter squash!), cucumbers, green (and yellow and purple!) beans, okra, and herbs to enjoy in the meantime. The warm weather IS their "season," in which all I have to do is make sure the bugs don't eat them (and the tomatoes have enough magnesium, easily fixed by giving them some Epsom salts if their leaves start going yellow) and then enjoy the harvest, over and over and over again. There's NO POINT in my planting them earlier, just as there is no point in expecting an amazing spinach harvest when it's so hot the stuff bolts shortly after it grows past its first seed leaves; "To every thing there is a season," right?

Finally, toward the end of Summer, the pumpkins and other winter squash will be ripening. The beans will be petering out and I'll be picking them like crazy to freeze some for Winter; ditto the okra. There will be a few more frantic catnip harvesting and drying sessions before the first frost, and as September rolls on, there will be more fried green (and red!) tomatoes than you can shake a stick at. Sweet potatoes will be unearthed and enjoyed, and the 5 dozen or so red onions taking up an entire backyard bed will get us through much of the winter.

I think it should be pretty self-evident what this has to do with school, with teaching kids different things, in different ways, at different ages and stages, but just in case it's not so obvious, let's draw a parallel:

Early Childhood is where children are immersing themselves in their world and learning about it through direct experience. Babies grabbing hair and throwing food bowls to the floor, over and over and over and over again, to experience gravity, and consistency of results. Toddlers touching EVERYTHING and going EVERYWHERE, whether we want them to or not, because they are hard-wired, DRIVEN, to do so. Preschoolers asking "Why?" even when you've answered the same question a dozen times or more, because each reply is part of the learning process. Lots of physical activity, lots of exploration, the beginning of social interaction, the beginnings of finding a place in the family structure: usually copying parent and caregiver models and examples, beginning to contribute to the household when allowed (allowing for a loose definition of "contribute" when it means "emptying the basket of freshly-folded laundry and necessitating a do-over which is ALSO part of the process" LOL). What starts as parallel play evolves as children begin to interact with each other, absorbing the social conventions that surround them, for better or for worse; this is PRIME TIME for internalizing "Please" and "Thank you" and "Excuse me," even if they don't yet know WHY we say those things. This is when kids learn the "soft skills" like persistence, creativity, "grit." This is when kids get a broad understanding of how the universe works: stacking things till they fall, and then watching them fall, repeatedly; playing in water: pouring, splashing, mixing, lather, rinse, repeat; climbing and running and throwing and swinging and swimming and otherwise learning how their bodies work on a large scale, and seeing how far they can push themselves; playing with words, with their voices, singing and shouting and whispering, making music; painting and drawing and sculpting and acting-out; role-playing games and games with simple rules that they play again and again; for families who use media, watching the same TV shows or videos, or playing the same computer games to the point of parental insanity.

See a theme here, perhaps more than one? There is a LOT of repetition required here. As one clinician memorably quoted at a Music Together professional development meeting years ago: "Repetition is good, repetition is good, repetition is good." :-) How many times can a child build a stack of Legos and knock it over? Anyone who's parented a toddler knows that it can be a LOT of times. LOL

Another hallmark is that the vast majority of this phase is NOT structured. We *could* teach kids about water by sitting them down at tables and showing them videos of water and then having all kids, together at the same time, do prescribed planned water activities, but instead it's better to give them a sink or a tub or a stream or a water table and some cups and other materials they can put the water IN and just watch them teach themselves. No worries - they come hard-wired to do this! Honest! This is the Early Spring of the garden: this is laying the foundation for future learning, not just by letting kids learn generalities about their world and themselves, but by truly internalizing NON-academic skills too. There's no need to push for sit-down learning, for worksheets (a kid asking for worksheets is another issue - I had one of those! - but that shouldn't replace the other stuff, no matter how much neater it makes your house or how much cleaner it keeps your laundry), not when so much else is going on. Additionally, by co-opting that time for academics, when the window for naturally learning things like social skills closes, it's that much harder to make up that time later. Using that time for Early Literacy and Early Numeracy, for formal academics, is counter to everything we know and are learning about how young children learn; one of my major objections to America's latest push for moving academics down into those years is that it does NOT take these differences into account (read here for a cited list of why this is bad if you need it spelled out).

Do I need to go on? Do I need to move on into "tomato season" and go all the way through "pumpkin harvest" to finish drawing the parallels? I'm hoping not; I'm thinking that given even cursory research into what and how kids best learn, and when, we can do a LOT better than we're doing now. We can use what we know about children to not only teach them well, but to teach them more easily, to help them TRULY learn more deeply and even joyfully, and to become the well-rounded humans the educational system once upon a time wanted them to become. Because right now, THIS is where we're headed (17 minute TED talk, fresh off my Twitter feed). There's no reason to plant tomatoes in February, folks - not when there is so much other stuff that HAS to happen first!


  1. This is so exactly right. I see huge problems when we try to force kids to engage in tasks that are developmentally beyond their reach. It stunts their educational growth, quite literally. I have been a special ed teacher for 15 years and have seen many direct instruction approaches crash & burn because they do not honor where the kids are and do not allow them to experiment, play, mull it over, and try again. Instead they proclaim and have the children copy a few times, and then test them to see if it's "mastered". Even fabulous lessons don't work when all the thinking and doing is done by the teacher, with the kids simply watching. They need to do it themselves, in their own time. As a society we don't want to hear that, because we want instant results. So we label people with disabilities who don't fit the mold. I'm embarrassed that I was ever part of that. This metaphor is spot on!


Please keep it clean. Differences of opinion aren't a problem for me. Rudeness is. Thankyouverymuch. :-)