By Matthew Durham
I am a garden educator with the Edible Schoolyard New Orleans. I teach garden elective classes at a high poverty K-8 school to some 800+ scholars. My time is spent in a quarter-acre, fully organic garden, complete with three goats, two rabbits, and six chickens. In addition to our classes, we also host field trips to local farms, numerous volunteer days, and a family-supported agriculture program where we send home bags of kid-grown veggies to parents of scholars.
How did my Emerson education bring me here?
I was recently asked to reflect on a time in my life when the benefits of experiential learning became clear. Immediately, I thought of the Alternative Spring Break food sovereignty program, through which I spent a week building edible gardens that would feed local school kids in Taos and Santa Fe, New Mexico, during my senior year at Emerson.
Completing a term of Americorps with Student Leaders in Service while at Emerson also opened my eyes to the real power of volunteering, but more importantly to the resilience of community organizations who do so much for so many with so little. In places like 826 Boston and The Food Project, I found the outlet I was looking for to put social justice theory into practice. A lot of my time at Emerson was spent working on different social justice issues, whether with Emerson Peace and Social Justice or during my time as the Arts and Lectures Coordinator with the SLCA office, but it was always whenever I was out getting my hands dirty (sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically), that I felt I learned the best. That led me to join City Year (the “give a year, change the world” Americorps organization with the red jackets) after graduation, moving to New Orleans in the process.
And that mentality is one that I try to instill in the students I work with every day—to learn by doing. As scholars make their way through our classes, they take on a variety of different tasks using the garden and outdoor space as a launching pad for their dreams. We teach basic gardening skills, from planting large seeds (a technique that includes whispering to all the seeds we plant, “Grow seed, grow!”) and watering with kindergarteners, all the way up to transplanting seedlings from a greenhouse and bringing produce to a local farmers’ market with our middle schoolers. The garden also becomes the perfect place to learn about plant science, life cycles (we have a robust butterfly garden currently under a somewhat welcome siege from caterpillars), and teaching values like community, teamwork, and respect.
At Emerson, you are challenged to stretch yourself beyond the walls of a classroom, to walk many paths until you find your own. What you have done becomes more of a marker of success than just grades. I find myself mirroring that Emerson experience in my work, in educating the “whole child.” This means we focus not just on content and class work, but also social and emotional well-being.