Thursday, December 8, 2016

Time for an Honest Dialogue

Like a lot of people, I've been thinking a lot about politics, government, and our country in general in the month since the presidential election. Anyone who knows me won't be surprised to hear that I wasn't happy about Donald Trump's election. I've got some strong misgivings about Trump's cabinet choices, but have been trying to adopt a wait-and-see attitude. And I've been trying to think of what good could come out of this presidency.

Thinking of potential silver linings of the Trump election, maybe one is this: that our country will finally have a dialogue, a reckoning, about the racism and sexism that continue to pervade our country. Because lately, the talk has not been abstract about systemic "isms" and white or male privilege. It's clear-cut, fear-based and violent actions of individuals that we are hearing about.  If we are paying attention, we currently see reports of individual acts of racism and misogyny being reported at an alarming rate since the election. There has been a documented uptick in reported hate crimes across the country. I read this week that NYC had a documented increase in hate crimes of 35% this past year. In my own town, I've come across reports of intimidation based on race at my son's high school, at my own high school alma mater, and at a local highly-respected university. And a mom at my son's elementary school shared that her cousin was assaulted on the street the day after the election by a man saying "It's official! We can grab 'em now!"

It seems to me that Trump's election rhetoric has made a lot of folks feel that they've been given license to say and do things that were completely unacceptable a month ago. What has long been simmering beneath the surface, with an implicit rule that certain sentiments should not be uttered or acted on in one's public life, has now been exposed. We can no longer use our privilege to ignore the reality for people of color and for women. These reports are in our face, and we shouldn't turn away. System sexism and racism can be ignored by exercising privilege: you don't have to drive through certain neighborhoods to see how "the other half" lives, you can consume as much media as you like and pick and choose whose perspectives you get exposed to, you can pretend that things are better than they are. But blatant, hateful acts perpetrated by individuals at an increasing rate cannot be explained away or brushed under the rug.

So, white people who want to consider themselves "woke": be brave and help shape the conversation among your white friends and neighbors. Talk to people who might not agree with you, don't just preach to the choir. And men who want to be one of the "good guys": listen to women's perspectives, seek them out in your media choices and conversations. And all of us with some measure of privilege need to consider that to make things right in this country, we will probably have to give up some stuff--starting with some of our unspoken and unconscious assumptions about the way the world should work. Maybe if we start to reckon with the fact that these individual acts of violence we're seeing are borne out of a systemically racist and sexist culture, and that we've all had a hand in perpetuating this culture, we will begin to heal.

I hope and pray that we will be brave as a community of Americans. I want to be proud of my country and my countrymen. And while the election has impressed upon me the need to pay attention to current events and weigh-in on issues with my elected officials, it has also impressed on my the importance of having brave conversations with the people I come into contact with. Politics and political action are important, without them we wouldn't have roads, or libraries, or labor laws. But conversations are the links in our culture, and they help shape the narrative of our culture. I don't claim to be the most brave or even curious conversationalist, but I'm gonna try. Never in my life have I felt it so imperative to engage in honest conversations about our country and what it is and could be. I have a feeling a lot of other people feel the same way. I sure hope so.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Pastured Poultry Means More than Free Range

I've known for a long time that "Cage Free" on a carton of eggs doesn't mean much. That "Cage Free" chickens have marginally better living quarters than the chickens whose eggs are sold without any fanfare at the grocery store. But I thought that "Free Range" meant something more, that it meant what it sounds like (chickens roaming outside for food) and so I've been shelling out the cash for years in support of that idea. Turns out that I was duped. "Free Range" means that there is a tiny bit of enclosed outdoor space for thousands of birds to compete for the opportunity to check out. They are still crowded. They are still indoors most of the time. They don't get to munch on bugs found in a pasture (the bugs that are full of the nutrients that make eggs such a great food source). And they still contribute to ill effects on the environment.

I learned today at that "Pastured Poultry" is what I need to search out on my egg cartons. It's the latest in a series of efforts to define how food is raised so that consumers can rest assured that they are indeed getting what they pay for. "Pastured Poultry"--chickens who run around in a real pasture and eat bugs the way they're made to do. Cool. And totally worth the money.

And "Lexicon of Sustainability"--a wonderful project that I am just learning about that aims to give back to words their power. To make sure that consumers and farmers, and teachers, and policymakers speak a common language. So we understand the costs and the benefits of the food we put in our mouths. And so we can advocate more effectively to bring about the food system we so desperately need. Whether you're a foodie or a concerned parent, I hope you'll check out the website. I'm glad I did, it's inspiring!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Importance of Creating Great Outdoor Learning Spaces at Schools

Recently I was asked to share why the Tillman IGNITE project is important to me. It's been a busy couple weeks, so I procrastinated, of course. But, because I didn't have time to wordsmith, I found I was pretty darn honest with my response. And in the interest of using this platform more fully than I have in the past, I thought I'd share. So...

Lots of reasons I'm drawn to outdoor ed, experiential ed, and youth gardening. First, we HAVE to equip our kids to deal with tremendous environmental challenges--climate change, pollution, declining non-renewable resources, and a global population that exacerbates all of the aforementioned problems. Wow. How do we help our kids deal with all of that? I am not totally sure, but I do know that humans don't work to save what they don't love and that a space like IGNITE will inspire a connection to and hopefully love of nature. That is a necessary precursor to solving problems that will also require a good grasp of how systems work. And nature immersion is a great way to begin understanding systems and the complex interactions within and among systems. It seems to me that people are waking up to the fact that we need to raise "systems thinkers" in order to solve problems associated with climate change, and move away from education that fosters mainly reductionist thinking.

Why else? Well, kids need to know where food comes from and how much work it takes to produce it. They need to know that cheap food isn't all that cheap if we count the cost accurately (environmental and social). IGNITE's intensive/functional plants space + our current food gardens will help kids learn the basic, foundational skill of growing food. If they know how to grow food, they have the means of survival if needed and if not, they at least will respect the value of food.

Why else? This one is a bit harder to explain, but I'll give it a shot. I think the root cause for many of our social problems is the same as for our environmental problems. The same mindset that develops a food system that creates so many negative unintended consequences (water and air pollution, antibiotic resistance, inhumane treatment of animals, inadequately compensated farmworkers, soil erosion on a massive scale, etc.) is the same as that which has produced and perpetuated systemic racism. I don't think it's a stretch to think that teaching the current Tillman kids to care about nature, and to unlearn the "otherness" of nature, will transfer to other areas of life. Our culture is so steeped in otherness, defined as separation coupled with domination, that anything we can do to counterract that narrative will be beneficial. Would it be better if we could also partner with a school district in, say, North St. Louis county to help kids learn that just as we are connected and interdependent with nature, we are connected and interdependent with folks in St. Louis despite our de facto segregation? Yep, but we don't have the foundation set for that yet. What we will have with IGNITE immediately, is a space to directly engage with nature and learn that we are a part of natural systems, interdependent rather than here to subdue nature. And we will have a space that will encourage conversations about our interconnectedness with other people and other places as well---i.e. food systems and watersheds are great jumping off points for that.

And finally, I think it's shameful to keep kids indoors all day, every day except for a 20-minute recess. Kids need to be outside. And IGNITE will be a space that makes teachers want to take kids outside. And that will be awesome.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Tillman IGNITE has me all fired up!

The last couple of weeks were a typical story-line for me when it comes to (not) writing in this blog. So many awesome things happened that would be worthy of a post, but they happened in rapid succession and then I posted about none of them. So....turning over a new leaf right now.

I've been working for about three years now at Tillman Elementary in Kirkwood, MO to support an increase in outdoor, experiential education at the school. The efforts are really starting to pay off, as seen by some changes to the grounds, more teachers using these spaces this fall, and the launch of the Tillman IGNITE campaign. IGNITE is the campaign to transform Tillman's backyard from a boring blank rectangle that lacks imagination into a dynamic and engaging learning space that inspires creativity and curiosity.

Students, parents, and teachers helped create the vision; we hired a design firm to flesh out the plans and put this vision on paper; and parents helped design our marketing materials and our website. We learned that this is literally a million dollar dream, and that we need $300,000 to complete Phase 1. The PTO is our partner and included us in the recent PTO trivia night with a paddle raise devoted specifically to Tillman IGNITE. We didn't really know what to expect, but we rolled up our sleeves and worked hard to promote the project and garner support in the days preceding the paddle raise. And guess what?! IGNITE supporters stepped up and donated $34,000 in under 10 minutes at trivia night! Wow! Talk about an overwhelming moment. Add that to the $51,000 in funds that we already had, and we are almost 1/3 of the way to our Phase 1 goal!

And it's not just the funds raised that helps make the goal seem achievable, but it's the way that people came together to support an all-around good idea. And their show of support will show potential grant funders that Tillman is a good investment. My hand is cramping from signing thank you notes, because so many donors, large and small, have already contributed. This project will be an asset to both the school and the community, and I can't wait to be able to break ground. If you're so inclined, please donate at today!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Let's Do Something

I’m writing this to encourage white people in my home town of St. Louis to engage in fixing messed up systems fraught with racial bias and systemic inequality. I’m writing to recommend they attend an awesome event that will help change St. Louis systems so that racial equality actually has a chance here.  I’m also writing to challenge any white folks who don’t already see that our society is structured so that more advantage is conferred to light-skinned people than dark-skinned. I challenge these folks to open their eyes and see the truth, then move forward and help do something about it.

First of all, to my white brothers and sisters who don’t see that there’s a problem that’s all that bad. I’ve been avoiding you for awhile. I haven’t wanted to wade into the murky water of trying to convince you of systemic or institutional racism. Or talk about white privilege or white blindness. I didn’t want to have to spend time digging around for facts to support my position. I didn’t want to alienate anyone either. But my conscience has been nagging me to speak up. So I’ll tell you a few things I’ve noticed with my own eyes and some I’ve learned from others’ research.

For me, one of the most striking things about St. Louis is how segregated we are. This summer I got to work on an organic farm, located in Ferguson, about 25 minutes north of my home in Kirkwood. A couple times I commuted via a North-South artery instead of the freeway. Kirkwood is a predominately white suburb, and Ferguson, well, everybody’s heard of it. About halfway to Ferguson, I would drive through a famously diverse municipality, where the pedestrians and drivers were a variety of hues. Then, I’d cross the unofficial redline and I’d be the only white person I saw again until I arrived at the farm. From my house to the farm, the shift from white to black was pretty dramatic. And it wasn’t just skin color that shifted from one part of town to the other. You’d have to be blind not to notice where signs of affluence fell away, and how this correlates with the skin color of the neighborhood. Goodbye well-maintained turn of the century farmhouses and fancy restaurants, hello liquor stores, pawn shops, and payday loans.

A lot of people who come here from other cities talk about how shocking it is, the degree to which blacks and whites are cut off from each other in St. Louis. The implications of de facto segregation (which is what we’ve got here in St. Louis) are so depressing. Segregated housing is like an enzyme in a body that causes a cascade reaction, with one negative effect becoming the cause for another and another. Long commutes by bus to low wage jobs for so many African Americans--that’s a negative effect of segregation. The ability of whites to not pay attention to black people’s reality--that’s another negative effect. So many negative effects compound over time, and we get entire neighborhoods that are poor, entire school districts that are struggling, and prisons that are chock full of black people. And so many people that would prefer not to think about it.

I’ve spent a lot of time volunteering in a lot of different St. Louis schools over the years. Some in Saint Louis City and some in the county. I’ve been in schools where teachers struggle to keep enough paper and pencils in stock for their students, where textbooks are old, and half the kids might go hungry on the weekends. These schools are full of black kids. I’ve been in private schools that have campuses to rival universities and whose students pay more for elementary school than I did for college. These schools are not full of black kids. And in the schools where my kids go, there there are smartboards in every classroom and school-issued iPads in every backpack. These public schools are not full of black kids.

And what about the statistics showing how well we as a community are caring for our black youth? Starting from birth, there’s a sharp divide. Infant mortality--black babies are 3.3 times as likely to die as white babies in the St. Louis area. And when black kids enter the school system in Missouri, they are 7 times as likely to be suspended in elementary school than white kids, and twice as likely than whites to end up dropping out before graduation. And to top that off, the federal Justice Department just released a scathing report about St. Louis Family Court’s disparate treatment of black and white youth who end up in the judicial system. Put all these things together and tell me that black lives really truly matter in this culture. Doesn’t this break your heart? And don’t you see how this situation is hurting all of us in the long run?

It’s time we stopped looking away from the burdens that disproportionately impact our black brothers and sisters. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and fix our society, which was founded on overt racism interwoven with very lofty ideals. I don’t expect us all to have the same ideas on how to fix things, that’s crazy. But I do think it’s a moral imperative and a civic duty to open our eyes to the truth and engage in repairing our society. I know it’s difficult work, both emotionally and practically. It takes time and energy to learn about the systems that shape our culture, and the work to make change can be slow and sometimes painful. But I also know that to walk through the guilt that comes from seeing one’s own culpability in perpetuating unjust systems and come out the other side ready to take action is so good. Won’t you join me?

On November 1, 2015, Metropolitan Congregations United (MCU), an interfaith community organizing group, and two other community organizations will bring 1,000-1500 St. Louisans together with key St. Louis leaders to help give teeth to recommendations in the Ferguson Commission Report. This report was mandated by Governor Nixon after the shooting of Michael Brown forced the governor to confront the St. Louis region’s racist reality. The writing of the report was required, but there is no mandate to actually do anything with the Commission’s 12 months’ of research and subsequent report. That is where we, the citizens, come in. We have to make sure that the research, the documenting of our current reality, wasn’t done in vain. We have to help our political leaders develop the political will to work to bring about racial equality in our city.

I’ve decided to help by plugging in with MCU, and this may be the organization for you as well. I had the privilege of first working with MCU a decade ago, and it is really an incredible organization. Today, I’m reconnected with them, engaged in work to bring us closer to the vision of a community where black lives really do matter, not just on yard signs but especially in our school systems and our judicial systems. I love MCU, and I’m confident that it’s a good use of my time to work on change-making with them. MCU gets things done, and has a tried-and-true method for doing so. This organization sees a problem and researches the heck out of it. They examine the power structures that underlie the problem, build relationships with the folks who have the ability to make changes related to the problem, and then publicly ask these decision makers for very specific actions in front of a very large, racially diverse crowd. Because they’ve laid a ton of groundwork, developed many relationships, and  packed the house, more often than not the leaders decide to do what’s right. It’s awesome, and empowering, and fun to see that ordinary people do have great collective power.

MCU and their partners are busy preparing for a big gathering like the one described above, on Nov. 1. Leaders like Mayor Slay, superintendents of various schools, city and county council folks, police chiefs, and state legislators will be in attendance. MCU will ask these leaders to commit to specific actions that support racial equity in our city, using the priorities laid out in the Ferguson Commission Report. Hopefully these leaders will feel the pressure of more than 1000 St. Louisans of all skin tones asking for change, and say yes to making our city better for the black citizens, which will actually make it better for us all.  Then, after some well-deserved celebrating, we can begin the hard work of holding folks accountable:) So, if you know that there is much work to be done to make St. Louis a great place to live for everyone--maybe you’ve wanted to help but haven’t known how--come to the meeting on November 1st. There is power in numbers and you are making a difference just by showing up. But fair warning, you might just get hooked and want to do more than attend a meeting.

November 1 Public Meeting
Place: Busch Student Center-St. Louis University
          20 North Grand, St. Louis, MO 63103
          Free parking: Laclede parking garage across the street
Time: 3:00-4:30 pm (doors open at 2 pm)

Monday, December 15, 2014

Next Generation Science Standards

Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn, and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.
                                -John Dewey

I learned a lot about the Next Generation Science Standards last week, and found a resource that I thought anybody in elementary education (classroom teacher, outdoor educator, professional development facilitator, principal, anybody) would find really beneficial and cool. Paul Anderson, Montana's 2011 Teacher of the Year, a science teacher at Bozeman High School, created a ton of really good science videos for students and teachers. I spent some time checking out his website,, and really liked the videos about the Next Generation Science Standards. They're for teachers, under 10 minutes long, and do a great job explaining science in a way that makes teaching it easier. For me, it was a clear, concise refresher on overarching concepts that apply to many specific content areas in science. For teachers with less of a science background, these videos simply explain what we want kids to know and ways to do that at different levels of development.

I learned about these videos at a curriculum planning workshop I got to attend last week.
I felt really fortunate that, although a parent volunteer and not on staff, I was invited to take part in an elementary science curriculum planning session. This particular session built on some visioning that took place in the fall, where teachers painted a picture of what they wanted elementary science to look like in the school district. I learned that the teachers had a vision of student discovery, exploration, and wonder. And that they care about sustainability. But that they wonder about how to realize their vision despite the demands of testing and day-to-day constraints.

The school district's new science facilitator shared his philosophy of science education for the elementary years and how this blends with the Next Generation Science Standards. He talked about the importance of focusing on broad concepts, like teaching kids how to question; the basics of the scientific method; or learning how to recognize patterns, understand cause and effect, and make predictions about systems. He talked about the need to concentrate on these rather than focusing so much on content at this stage. He talked about designing an experience, trusting in children's innate curiosity and purposeful playfullness.

Well, I think this is exciting stuff, to be sure. As one participant remarked during the workshop--almost all educators enter the profession desiring to create learning experiences like the one John Dewey described in the quote at the top. But this can be difficult due to constraints put on teachers, and downright intimidating to some teachers if they don't have a lot of science education themselves. This is where these science videos come in. They turn the 400 page document ( containing the entire framework of science standards into easily understood chunks of information. They simplify complex topics, they're engaging, and I think they will quickly increase teachers' comfort level and ability in teaching science. Check them out, and let me know if you think they're as cool as I do!

Stop there, or read on below for some more tidbits about the curriculum meeting I attended.  This meeting gave me hope for both my son who has a few more years in elementary school, and for his teachers who want the freedom to create learning experiences that help kids maintain an attitude of exploration, discovery, and wonder.

Some of the ideas that resonated with me from the workshop:
  • Young kids learn while playing, and their play almost always has a purpose. Educators can design science-related experiences that tap into learning through play. Check out the Periodic Table of Play to see different ways play can be classified...

  • Currently, we generally begin designing an experience with a consideration of content. (Content is what we want kids to learn, i.e. the parts of a plant or the process of the water cycle.) At the elementary level, content is less important than learning to use scientific practices and learning to understand the broad, cross-cutting concepts which encompass the content students should know when they leave high school. Approaching a learning experience this way makes it more likely students will have a sense of wonder, discovery, and exploration. Basically, the science facilitator's message was this: Get kids comfortable with scientific method and argument and help them understand the cross-cutting concepts. Worry about specific content when kids are of an age where the details will begin to stick. 

  • If you want teachers to feel free to design learning experiences that emphasize Practices and Cross-Cutting Concepts, the grading rubric needs to reflect that. We worked on this a bit. Whew. As if I didn't already think teachers jobs were hard...

  • There needs to be some sort of coordination among grade-levels so that the kids' learning in science builds on previous years' learning without too much overlap in content or activities. This is the nitty-gritty, and it will be interesting to see what happens when the planning gets to this stage!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Benefits of School Gardening

Denver Urban Gardens, or DUG, compiled some research findings about the benefits of school gardens. This is a great resource for those of us who are school garden advocates. The studies cited were all published between 2002 and 2012, so there is some fairly current stuff in there. If you're not already convinced that school gardens should be widely used in every school, check out the link below.

If you are already an advocate, this paper looks like a great resource to print and share with folks who aren't so sure about the idea of gardening with students. It's short, with bullet points sharing the benefits in the areas of academic achievement, social and emotional health, physical health, and benefits to the school and community at large. For those wanting to know more, it includes a list of the sources cited in the paper. Check it out!

"Benefits of School Gardens" compiled by Denver Urban Gardens