Teacher Spotlight: Anastasia Fotis
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.
“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.