To the Kumeyaay, the soil was a sacred commodity that they treated well so they could grow everything they needed to live on. Applying the same principles to teaching, we find that our students grow naturally when we provide them with conditions they need to thrive.
This is the next installment of columns honoring Native American month and The Grauer School’s appreciation of the wisdom of the first people of this area.
When I suggested that the incoming freshman class go out and taste a pinch of campus dirt as part of our matriculation ceremony, it did not land well. Though it is unspoken and left out of the State curriculum, the soil beneath our feet has to be a part of great education. If only we can remember to ground our kids. Not much has a greater impact on what we do as teachers.
All uses of the land were regenerative back in Kumeyaay days, before the Spanish and then the “Americans” came, and they treated the soil as a sacred commodity. Native American friends of our school have been kind in giving us instruction as we attempt to understand our land better and, though we cannot approach their wisdom, we care a lot about representing it respectfully and as a part of our efforts to advance the causes of diversity and inclusion on our campus. It was clear to the Kumeyaay a long time ago that they could only benefit from the land to the extent the land benefitted from them, even though today our biologists, chemists, and biochemists need to run complicated formulas to prove it.
Our best teachers will account for both ways. Having a naturalist school would mean treating our soil as well as it treats us, with gratitude and analysis in equal parts. We would have to learn how to treat our soil as well as we treat our buildings and classrooms.
Our buildings are beautiful, but they do not give anything back no matter how we treat them. Soil nourishes us, the coming generations of well-educated ones will be charged with consciously recognizing that, and with nourishing it back with aeration, cover crops, compost, rotations, recycling, etc. They give all that nourishment back to us in beauty and education: the giving economy.
As our orchards and our wildlife corridor mature, our students learn to watch them more closely. There’s nothing like the bite out of a sweet apple to help us love an apple tree—and then a soil study to understand it: if we want that sweet crunch, let’s make sure our soil is not too acidic. Regenerative land use practices are making their way onto our campus and into more of our curricula. It seems like every year a few more students, teachers, and parents are tending to the soil. If we are going to have educated graduates, we will have to teach our children about this regenerating nourishment, the love of dirt.
As our school ecology programs thrive, students and teachers learn what must have been obvious to the Indians, that we are not working the plants so much as we are working the soil. There are so many useful metaphors for this I hardly know where to start, except I do: This is the same way we treat our most precious resource, our students. They are not something we add foreign chemicals to, or extract gain from. We cannot create learning or that thriving state of relaxed alertness, we can only create the fertile conditions to support them. How are we doing on that?
The teacher as gardener metaphor knocks me out, it’s so optimistic! We are their soil. When students are not naturally learning (growing), we first question ourselves as teachers, and the classroom conditions we offer them. We question the culture and climate of the school, their soil. Not too acidic or basic! That analogy has limits because we mustn’t try to grow just anything. But when we provide them with fertile conditions appropriate to our climate and ecosystem, we find that our students are natural, sweet learners.
This all is more than a metaphor. Local dirt has bacteria that stimulates the immune systems of young people. Many parents and schools try to over-sterilize and standardize environments, making them foreign to us. Kids need to get dirty, play with animals, and come into contact with germs within reason in order to grow healthily. Tasting a pinch of dirt now and then, even from a faceplant on the sports field, tends to be good medicine and a great teacher.
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