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In the Garden with Sarah Johnson

Ms. Sarah Johnson is a Biology and Environmental Science teacher at Leadership Public School-College Park on the Castlemont Community of SmallSchools campus and the Program Coordinator of the Green Pioneers Program, a grantee of the Shinnyo-en Foundation.

Sarah, thank you for making time to talk with us today.  To begin with, would you start by telling us a little about the Green Pioneers Program?

Green Pioneers is a LPS-College Park and Castlemont Community of Small Schools sustainable service-learning program and is composed of about 30 to 40 high school students who participate in designing and implementing environmentally focused, sustainable and peace promoting projects that will benefit the community.

The Green Pioneers primarily focus on learning outside of the classroom, using the Castlemont Community garden as a safe demonstration service-learning space.

What inspired the Green Pioneers Program and how did it get started?

I moved to California in part for the year-round growing season. I was excited to work at a school where we could run a garden-based program for the entire academic year. When I came to Castlemont and saw the space available I was really excited to use it because it was huge, but in disrepair.

It all started with a group of three students that got together after school to help fix up the garden space. It was really difficult to recruit other students for an afterschool program when many students that attend our schools have to work after school to help support their families. I was competing with places like McDonalds and KFC. So, one day, while I was driving to school, I thought, “I could start an internship program and pay students so that they would be able to participate in a garden program and also have a sense of value in their work”.

After talking to the students we started the Green Pioneers Program as an experiment. Soon, we had ten students that were being paid for their service by the YMCA. At that point we did not even have a name for the program; the students named it Green Pioneers later.

The program started with a small idea, a small group of students, and then it grew into something much larger then I ever thought it would, mostly because of the students involved.

What are the goals, objectives, and mission of the Green Pioneers Program?

Well, the mission evolved from the students themselves; it is to identify the students’ interests, develop urban sustainability skills, and teach their best practices to other students and then to the community.

The students also create their own goals around what they enjoy doing. It is really out of the students’ enjoyment of building projects, planting, and so on that pushes the program to evolve.

The mission of the Castlemont Community Garden is to provide a safe and beautiful urban space, open entirely to the community.

Our Student Motto is “Green is Good for the ‘Hood!”

What is unique about the Green Pioneers Program?

Every aspect of decision-making is democratic and the students are involved.

I really like free-school models. In the free-school model, whoever is present at a meeting has a voice. At every Green Pioneers meeting, we have an opening meeting and a closing one, where any student or adult can bring up whatever they want for a vote.

For example, this year the students did not want to work on Valentine’s Day, so they brought it up for a vote. It was actually a day I really wanted them to work, there were a lot of things that needed to be done in the garden. Even though I voted against it, the majority voted to take the day off and it was very important to them that our democracy was confirmed as real.

Also, the emphasis of the program is placed on allowing students to develop their own interests. This comes from the Aristotelian idea that all people have an innate desire to learn. I purposely do not have a specific goal for the students; I support them in developing their own goals.  For example, this year one student created a pamphlet on healthy-living in East Oakland while a different group of students  built an ecosystem pond. I really am trying to give students a safe and beautiful space to contemplate what they actually want to do, and why they are at school.

I think the fact that our program has existed sustainably for two years also makes us unique. I remember that a student who helped rejuvenate the Castlemont Community Garden wrote in her journal that our school does not often have the resources that it needs to finish the projects we start, but that she felt proud that she was a part of something to its completion.

Would you consider the Green Pioneers Program a service-learning program?

There is a difference between our school and others that have the opportunity to provide service-learning programs—80-90% of our students qualify for free or reduced lunch.  So when we started Green Pioneers, we were faced with two challenges; show the students that there was value in learning about urban sustainable development, and make it a viable economic opportunity.

The families of my students are in a situation where they are teaching their kids that part-time jobs with fast-food companies are valuable because those are the available jobs. Corporations put a value on working at a fast food chain, so students work at places like McDonalds or KFC to help support their families.  If we want lower-income students to participate in a program, we need to show them the value and meaning associated with that program. Green Pioneers was partly designed to show students that immediate value.

With the small stipends that we are able to give our students for participating in the Green Pioneers Program, we are showing the students and their families that this service to the community is very valuable.

The point of the program, of course, is not to make money, but to allow students an opportunity to explore their interests and build job and civic skills. At the end of the program, the students are not writing about the money, they write reflections on how they have been transformed through the experience of being in service to their communities.

How has the Green Pioneers Program transformed students?

This year, students that were not even in the Green Pioneers Program signed my yearbook saying that they thought that the garden had helped make the school a better learning environment. What I see in my students is that they have so much pride in their work.

My job is amazing because I have the opportunity to watch students transform from engaging in disrespectful and disruptive behavior to gaining confidence and practicing behavior that demonstrates leadership skills.

There are many examples of how Green Pioneers has transformed students. One particularly great student leader who has worked to maintain the garden space for the last two summers, entered my Biology class cussing and calling me names. After working with us in Green Pioneers, his grades have improved (he recently won two academic awards) and he is my go-to student when I need help with anything from fixing the chicken coop to publicizing events. It has also helped build a sense of community between students at the four different schools on the campus.

How has the Green Pioneers Program transformed you?

I often say that I trust my students more than I trust most adults. The love my students put into the garden, raising chickens, their individual projects—fills me with love for them. I teach all day, I run Green Pioneers sometimes into the evening, but I am still very inspired to come home and write grants to support our programs.

I know it may sound crazy, but there is something supernatural that happens when you give students free-range over their outdoor learning environment. The school day could be violent and difficult, but the garden softens students and the students soften me and push me to provide more opportunities for them. I have learned from my students that whenever they are seemingly difficult, they are actually asking “Do you love me?” If you answer “Yes” enough times, in the form of never giving up on them, then they will show you how brilliant and beautiful they are. My students have taught me the supernatural power of compassion.

Since working with students to create the Green Pioneers model, I have learned and reaffirmed that helping students identify their innate desire to learn is the key to great educational practices.

Starting Green Pioneers is the best personal and professional thing I have ever done.

As a teacher, do you have any recommendations to other educators regarding creating new programs to engage students?

Do not get frustrated by inevitable setbacks, especially when you are in a difficult situation. Instead, as an educator, use the difficult circumstances to teach your students perseverance and discipline. Your students will be so much more invested if you, as an educator, are invested in what you set out to do.

I would also say, “Take risks”.  It takes a great deal of courage to push further and further for student voice.  By giving students the power to create their own project means taking a great deal of risks.  I did not know anything about ponds for instance, but I knew it was important that the students know that they could pursue their project even if they were working with an adult that did not know anything about ponds. I think that by being honest with my students about my own limitations, while also demonstrating a willingness to assist them develop their projects; I earned their respect and inspired their own leadership.

For more information check out the Green Pioneers please visit the sites below