I have had a variety of different positions throughout the course of my life working with kids and youth development. Somewhere along the way, I got this notion in my head that I don’t think you can truly understand something unless you can break it down simply enough to explain it to a seven year old. Someone recently challenged this, saying that it takes a certain type of person to work with children and that understanding cannot be gauged by that.
I know a little bit about most things. For example, I understand the big picture of how a car works, but not well enough to break it down simply, put it in layman’s terms and be able to fully explain it to someone– let alone a child. I think true understanding of a concept or system should be measured by your ability to put it in its simplest terms.
Throughout my FoodCorps service, I have been continuously pushed to better understand concepts related to life science, farming, and the food that we eat. Sometimes I feel challenged while preparing for a lesson, other times it is on the spot in the classroom. Sometimes second graders ask huge questions (some that science doesn’t even have definite answers for) and I just shrug and answer, “Science.” Other times, I am pushed to slowly work through the answer as I explain it to young students (seeming very confident, but having an Aha! moment right before my explanation is done), researching, or just starting conversation with farmer friends.
During a cooking class, a student asked me, “Why do squash grow on long vines?” Having never considered that question before (because as far as I’m concerned, they just do), I worked through the answer out loud. I figured that squash probably grow on long vines because they only set a certain amount of fruit. Unlike some vegetables that continue to produce more fruits after some have been harvested, winter squash take so long to grow that new ones won’t replace the ones you’ve picked. When I got home, I asked my fellow farmer friend, “Are squash considered determinates… or do we only use that term for certain vegetables like tomatoes!?”
Because the schools where I serve do not currently have gardens for the students to use as an outdoor classroom, I do my darndest to teach plant science and how gardens work in a traditional classroom setting. Sometimes I take on grand topics that may be beyond the scope of what Common Core dictates that children this age should know, but I think they can handle it (and they always amaze me at how well they do). Teaching students about specific vegetables and how they grow, when they have possibly never seen this vegetable at all, requires a lot of clever connections, visuals, and a great deal of understanding. Without the ability for hands-on learning in this area, I have to be prepared to have answers for any of the very specific and very complicated questions they always manage to ask.
During another recent cooking lesson, one of my students that always thinks through his questions and answers very methodically asked, “Is olive oil made out of green olives or black olives? Because… I don’t like green olives.” This was something I never thought about and didn’t know the answer to. We came to an agreement that he would try the olive oil because he just might like it and I would look up the answer to his question.
Then, I learned something new. Much like peppers, often times green olives are just under ripe black olives. Then, I proceeded to tell this fun new fact to everyone I know. Sorry, guys.
Children are so curious and observant, making their questions the perfect fuel to create a lesson.
“Did you dump out the water that we put in the pot?”
“No, some of it did something called evaporate and you can see some of it is left as something called condensation on the top of the pot. See here?” And as I, in a very impromptu fashion, explained the water cycle to one of my students, I figured out the perfect activity to illustrate the water cycle to my students, tying in concepts that we had already learned, too.
Teaching these children has taught me to really examine and observe different aspects of farming and plant science in a way I never had before. I have always believed myself to have had the wide eyed curiosity of a child, but they push me to look closer and observe deeper. There are different things about farming that I knew and that I put into practice because that’s how I learned and that’s just how plants thrive. But throughout this year, even though I haven’t been out in a garden with these students, I have been able to explore and fully grasp the concepts that I’ve learned and take the students along for the journey. Or well, maybe they took me.
I thoroughly believe that my year as a FoodCorps Service Member will have sent me back out into the world as a better farmer.
Olivia DeJohn, the first year FoodCorps service member in Ronan & Polson School Districts, wrote this great piece!