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Teacher Spotlight: Anastasia Fotis

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LAND CHILDREN

   When some people think of a farm, their thoughts might wander off to childhood and a  trip to the pumpkin patch. For me, it starts out like a scene from Charlotte’s Web, and I am  drawn into that feeling on the farm when Fern runs to Wilbur’s rescue. I discovered this book  and movie right around the same time we won a greased pig contest at a summer festival in Elk  Grove, CA. We raised our own Wilbur until he was slaughtered, and provided my family and my  neighbors with enough meat that lasted more than a year. Our Wilbur lived out on a family  friend’s farm in West Sacramento, and we went to visit him often. I can still remember those  days with him as well as the dank and dreamy smell of the cellar where Auntie Ollie stored her jars of so many wonderful, canned fruits and vegetables. I was fortunate. I had this amazing  farm experience at a young age that was accompanied by the knowledge of labor, fruits of the  labor, orange mineral-filled well water, and the reality of what the dirt and animals provided for  us that went way beyond the grocery store; although, growing up, I shopped at a store called  Farmer’s Market, and it seemed natural to me that my food came from a farm, a ranch, and  also was processed in one of the several meat packing plants just south of Sacramento.


 My reading of “Lily’s Chickens” brought back so many memories of my time with Wilbur  on the farm in West Sacramento, and resonated with me a great deal. Barbara Kingsolver  discussed many issues around meeting the needs of humans by means of the land and animals  on the land. Kingsolver stated, “Responsible eating is not so impossible as it seems.” This  statement rang like bells in my head. It is that responsibility that we try to impress upon the  adolescent when we discuss the land, as they are the Erdkinder, the land children. I read it and  reread it, then watched Food, Inc., which obviously plants a very different, yet real, view of and  feeling about the farm. No matter how we feel about what actually happens on the farm or in  the slaughterhouse, we must eat, and eating requires that it be grown or raised, which directly  costs lives large and small. Humans are affected as well, on many levels. I used to know a girl  who was paralyzed on one side of her body from the pesticides that would shower down on her  in the fields as she worked along-side her parents. Similar stories, images, and truths were  shared by Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser in Food, Inc. One of the fundamental needs of  humans is that we must eat, and we have a dependency on land, and in most cases, the animals  on that land, to secure our food. In our Montessori studies with students, we seek not only to  educate, but enlighten them in their land studies.

   We cannot embark upon studies of land and conservation and husbandry without taking  into account the various cycles of nature. We are consumers and producers. In order to  produce we must learn about how to produce. In “An Imperfect Marriage: Thoughts on Being  Faithful to Home,” Jan Deblieu writes that, “Water gives shape to our landscape, and also to  our lives.” We give adolescents opportunities to study the biology of the cell, and by learning  the ladder of life, they discover the connections of the cell to all life. It begins with the cell and  an understanding of the true gift of water on this earth. They learn the cycles of climate, cycles  of plants from seed to harvest, an egg to a chick hatching, chick to laying eggs for our breakfast,  life cycles of insects, mammals, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and those studies also include  the concept of death, for both plants and animals. These studies begin at an early age for the  Montessori adolescent and are cultivated in the adolescent community. Their early experiences  with death of a pet or losing a plant to the harsh elements of the Las Vegas heat set the stage  for the work they will do in this plane of development. Without the advantage of being on a  farm, the average adolescent’s experience with the cycles of nature begins with something  small on the school campus. Adolescents are by nature seeking a connection with their places;  home, school, job, smaller and larger community. They want to belong to something larger than  themselves, and we strive to provide experiences for the adolescent to answer the question,  


“Where do I belong, and what does it mean to belong?” 

     

  To this point, the only cycles of nature related to food might be the knowledge of how  long a carton of milk lasts, what spoiled leftovers look like, what happens when they don’t  water their houseplant, or forget to feed their fish. When we present the adolescent with an  opportunity to grow food, raise fish for the local pond, or some other nature-based occupation,  we are hoping to help them make a connection between eating and the land. 

        

   Wendell Berry, in “The Pleasure of Eating” states, “When food, in the minds of eaters, is  no longer associated with farming and with the land, then the eaters are suffering a kind of  cultural amnesia that is misleading and dangerous.” Knowledge of a disassociation of this type  can stay with adolescents their whole lives or impact them enough to change their thinking,  habits, and manner in which they will choose to live. The concept of growing their own food, or  making more responsible choices about how they acquire their food, can be pretty abstract. We  need to get this on a more concrete level in much the same way we do with mathematics,  science, and handwork. Through the study of cycles of nature on a concrete level,  


The work is  balanced between the head and the hand, and will take the adolescent on a journey of creating  life, not only as a consumer, but also as a producer. 

      

   "Eating costs lives. Even organic farmers kill crop predators in ways that aren’t pretty, so  a vegetable diet doesn’t provide quite the sparkling karma one might wish.” This is a reality that is not spoken amongst those who try to make others feel bad for eating meat. Adolescents  talk about vegetarianism as freely as they talk about religion. The way in which communicate  about the ethics of producing and consuming food in the care and interaction with domestic  animals is all dependent upon our experience, knowledge, interest, beliefs, access, and more.  The role of humans in the raising and slaughtering (or whatever word you choose to use-it’s still  killing) of animals for human consumption goes back to the beginning of humans, and some  form of consumption on this level lies in the food chains of most living organisms.  

          

   Food, Inc. and Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan both disclose and expose the raw  reality of securing our food. One of our most basic fundamental needs as humans is food. Just  how do we hope to meet that need is responsibility. We even pose the question to the  adolescent, 


“How can we be more responsible in how we meet our needs over time?”

 

   This  discussion was recently a much-heated debate amongst my current group of adolescents. One  solution was to actually try to raise something for us to eat; maybe a salsa garden or some  herbs for a start. Kingsolver talks about how easy it is in Lily’s Chickens. When we truly realize  that “seeds cost pennies,” how can we not feel a sense of responsibility or curiosity to try to  grow our own food? There are many excuses for not trying, especially in an urban setting;  however, we have a tremendous number of resources available to us. The urban setting  presents probably the biggest challenge. Know thy site, use thy resources. Regardless of biome  or finances, there are ways to grow even the smallest amount of the food we consume. The  truth is also that we really can consume less; less of the so-called pleasures of life in the foods  we eat and attempt to get back to the food our bodies really need. Rooftop gardens, wall  gardens, recycled bottle gardens, garden boxes, and more all provide solutions to the problem.  It takes time and effort; therein lies the benefit. Tasking the adolescent with such a challenge  will benefit them now, individually, collectively, and carry them on into their future as  productive members of society. They will treasure these experience and interaction with the  land and each other for the rest of their days; although they may not know recognize this  treasure right away. Their idea of securing food will hopefully go way beyond the trip to the  grocery store.  

   Shopping for food takes on many forms: the grocery store, local market, big box stores  that now offer groceries, and more. Choices in how we shop for food can even take us on a  road trip to support the farmer who hasn’t “sold out” to the large corporations. Such a man was  featured in the documentary Food, Inc. That is a most ideal situation: raising animals who can  eat the grass, fertilize that same grass, and finally get to the consumer in a way that varies  greatly from the crowded ranches where cattle stand in inches of their own manure before  finally making their way to an assembly line type death and meat processing, in the name of  food. Even knowing about this before seeing this in the documentary, I still (like a very high  percentage of Americans) have enjoyed, on many occasions, a fast-food hamburger. It is  something to work on, to consider, and eventually change. As my students read Seven Habits of  Highly Effective Teens by Sean Covey, they are reminded that our livelihood is filled with habits  and ways of living our lives that we can continue, change, or consider changing. Kingsolver  writes,  


“Our quest is only to be thoughtful and simplify our needs, step by step. In the  way of imported goods, I try to stick to nonperishables that are less fuel-costly to ship:  rice, flour and coffee are good examples. Just simply as I could buy coffee and spices  from the grocery, I can order them through a collective in Fort Wayne, Ind., that gives  me their tropical habitat. We struggled with the notion of giving up coffee altogether  until we learned from ornithologist friends who study migratory birds being lost to  habitat destruction, that there is a coffee-cultivation practice that helps rather than  hurts. Any coffee labeled shade grown was grown under rain-forest canopy on a farm  that is holding a piece of jungle intact, providing subsistence for its human inhabitants  and its birds.”


   There are still ways to enjoy the pleasures of food, but the dilemma lies in the challenge of just  how to pass on the notion of responsibility of choice to adolescents, not demanded of them or  imposed out of fear, but as an informed choice that they can make now and for the rest of their  lives. In a recent Socratic Seminar Discussion about Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot,” two students  had an exchange of ideas that is worth sharing here. 

“Everything is so small, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not significant. We create,  we destroy, we have ideas. We have to be responsible with that power.” Another  student added, “Small pieces matter. Our solar system is like a puzzle piece. You take  away one piece, it won’t be complete.” The discussion went from litter to farming to  space exploration. A third student joined in with, “Even if you say you haven’t littered,  you probably have.” 

   We don’t want to admit our wrongdoing in how we live and meet our needs, but we  must step back and see the bigger picture. I think that these students represent a larger  community of other adolescents who have amazing ethics and seek to treat earth and life on  earth a little better than they have seen in their short lifetime.  

   Being mindful about litter is indicative of a generation of emerging adults who we hope  can make responsible choices about how they will use their resources. We have seen countless  cases of abuse of land, animals, and people. 

   “I’m in no position to judge anyone else’s personal habits, believe me. My life is riddled  with energy inconsistencies: We try hard to conserve, but I’ve found no way as yet to rear and  support my family without a car, a computer, the occasional airplane flight, a teenager’s  bathroom equipped with a hair dryer, et cetera. I’m no Henry D. Thoreau. And there’s no use in  my trying to fib about it.” Kingsolver’s quote reminds me of my student’s quote above where he  states, “Even if you say you haven’t littered, you probably have.” I am also reminded of the very  old Keep America Beautiful commercial from the 70s that depicts a Native American on the side  of the road with a visible tear on his cheek as he sees litter thrown at his feet. The abuse of  resources goes further than the slogan Don’t Litter. It is about conservation. It’s about ethical  and purposeful use of resources. It’s about need vs. want. It’s about preservation. 

   When I read, “What used to be here?” in “Lily’s Chickens” I was immediately  transported into an annual event I do with my students that I call Site Safari. A question I ask in  our site safari at the beginning of each year is, “What used to be here?” Know thy site. We are  not trying to restore the land back to its original state, but with that awareness of what used to  be here, there is a better appreciation and understanding of what we CAN do on the land, even  in the urban setting. I am always surprised what ideas come out of this investigation of what we  can do on our site and out into the community to preserve the land or improve changes on the  land that have made it unusable or less desirable due to modernization, urbanization. 


The  students are curious, insightful, and hopeful. They want to be active members of their  community and make a positive impact for the betterment of themselves, their family, and  their community. 

   

  The theme of being passive seems to run through a few of the readings. “Eating is an  agricultural act.” I can identify with Berry. Meeting our needs requires that we are active in  that search for food. Becoming “more passive and more dependent” upon others for this need  is evident in modern society. The most basic idea of service work related to food is to serve at a  local shelter serving a meal on a holiday. I must admit that at 15 years old, this is something I  did, and I felt great about doing it. The idea of service work seems to take on a cloak of manual  labor without the realization that this manual work is a viable livelihood, feeds the people, and  actually requires more skill than most people seem to admit or understand. The same is true of  those who grow and raise the animals and crops we eat. When I have introduced the idea of  this agricultural challenge to adolescents, they sometimes will bring up the discussion of child  labor laws, or question why they have to do this when they can just get it from the cupboard at  home or have a parent get it from the grocery store. That is when something magical happens.  


The extrinsic motivation for completing a task related to growing food turns into an intrinsic  satisfaction. 


   Matthew Crawford dispels the stigma of manual labor in his essay “Shop Class as  Soulcraft” by avowing, “My real concern here is not with the economics of skilled manual  workers, but rather with its intrinsic satisfactions. I mention these economic rumors only to  raise a suspicion against the widespread prejudice that such work is somehow not viable as a  livelihood.” He continues, “The effects of my work were visible for all to see, so my competence  was real for others as well; it had a social currency. The well-founded pride of the tradesman is  far from the gratuitous “self-esteem” that educators would impart to students, as though by  magic.” The concept of work is not only academic, but also social and self-serving. It goes  beyond the self, though. Crawford adds, “The man who works recognizes his own product in  the World that has actually been transformed by his work: he recognizes himself in it, he sees in  it his own human reality, in it he discovers and reveals to others the objective reality of his  humanity, of the originally abstract and purely subjective idea he has of himself.” 

Service work  naturally comes out of work with living things and lends itself to the adolescent finding  valorization in his work.

   When this work is with growing food and raising animals, there is an  added inner pride, intrinsic satisfaction for the accomplishment that required new skills to be  learned, tools to get to know and use, and ultimately brought about a way in which s/he  participated in helping the community meet its needs – eating.  

   The adolescent then sees an opportunity to provide for the community and begins to  seek out a way to take this work home or out in the community. The adults are tasked with the  responsibility to foster this new work in the adolescent and help him take this work to others.  We set up shopping trips, seek out folks in the community who can provide land, supplies, and  experiences for the adolescent to do this important work. The adolescent transitions away from  novice and becomes a master of his craft, a leader in his small and large community. 

   “The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence  have been known to make a man quiet and easy. Boasting is what a boy does, who has no real  effect in the world.” Crawford speaks a truth here, and so it is with the adolescent who can see   his worth in the product and shares this product with his small and even large community. He  finds a way to connect with his community and in turn strengthens and builds the community  through his effort.

   As a Montessorian and a teacher, I am gifted with access to the young and  impressionable mind of the adolescent. The work on the land might just be the most important  work we can do with the adolescent. He is valorized through his work on the land in so many  ways from the sheer physicality of the work to the research and planning and even further to  the product that becomes a pleasure to eat or share. There is beauty in seeing the progress of  the work on the land and the eventual passing of the torch from the elder in the community to  the young members. The peer teaching and peer learning is evident in the collaboration that  happens, and must happen. The students become a part of the land and a stronger part in their  community. 

   Food is a common need amongst the entirety of human beings. When we cook together  as a family, as a class, we are building bonds. Going a step further and growing or raising the  food with which we will cook makes that bond even stronger. Kingsolver challenges us, “Our  quest is only to be thoughtful and simplify our needs, step by step.” What shall our quest be as  a community this year? How shall we navigate the challenges of an urban setting to become  leaders in our school community, connect with the land, remain cognizant of the responsibility  bestowed upon us as stewards of our space, use our resources mindfully, and make an impact  on our small community that will ripple in such a way that will last for generations beyond the  moment we come together and share the meal we have grown and prepared together? These  are the questions of our lives as Montessorians. The answers lie in our work with the  adolescent.

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