Jardin de diversidad
A good way to engage students in a diversity of hands-on projects, while simultaneously building community and conserving important plant species, would be to construct school gardens composed of native and/or traditional plants. Because there are so many diverse microlimates in Chiapas, each with plants uniquely adapted to the local conditions, it would be an extremely time-consuming and complicated task to make an exhaustive online list of every plant and how to care for it. It would be much more efficient and far more meaningful an experience to consult knowledgable community members within each unique region or microclimate, such as agricultural producers, elders, and specialists in plant medicine, who could tell us which plants are traditionally cultivated in each region and how to care for them. And what better investigators than the students themselves! Because of course, they will be the ones who will be planting, caring for and learning about the plants. By asking students to go out into the community and find information about traditional mesoamerican plants, not only would students gain/regain important knowledge about plants and cultural traditions; the exercise would also reinforce the value of knowledgable community members (especially elders), and would encourage a sense of community. If each student returned to the classroom with special knowledge about one plant—and possibly even a few seeds to plant—the entire class would benefit from the knowledge of 30 different plant species. Moreover, creating a class garden of traditional biodiversity would open many opportunities to further involve community members in the school garden project. For example, the class could organize garden tours, could invite family and other community members to share traditional recipes, have potlucks, harvest seeds and organize a community seed exchange, etc.
Below are some possibilities for both short-term and long-term projects that could be incorporated into this diversity garden.
- The initial plant search: each student is asked to find a community member who is knowledgable about traditional milpa plants. The student should choose one or more plants that interest them, and collect as much information as possible about this plant. For example, how big does it get? How does it grow? What special conditions does it require? Does it grow well, or not grow well, with certain other plants? What kinds of bugs does it attract? What is it used for? What parts are used? Ideally, the chosen knowledgable community member should be available for multiple visits throughout the school year. Also, it may be a good idea for each student to return to class with more than one option, so that in the end everyone would have their “own” unique plant to adopt, learn about, and care for. This initial exercise is a good community-building activity that would help to foster respect for elders as well as for cultural knowledge and traditions.
*Alvarez, Diego. 2005. Tres: remedios traditionales (de la cultura Totonaca). ISBN: 970-790-868-8. Great description of what culture is, and why it is important. Focuses on the Veracruz/Puebla Totonaca culture. Good for reflecting on own culture.
*Castaneda, Elisa Ramirez. 2005. Maiz. ISBN: 970-790-874-2. Beautiful book, directed towards indiginous children, all about corn—how it shaped culture, how it is used culturally, traditions, stories, songs about corn. Really amazing.
*Uriostegui, Jesus Guzman. 1997. Roman, un nino del Puuc. ISBN: 970-18-0811-8. Story about a Yucatan Mayan boy, describing life in his pueblo, fiestas, food, planting, and the importance of asking permission from guardian ‘duenos.’
*Zepeda, Monique. Xxxx. Maria la curandera. ISBN: 968-29-8161-1. About an wise elder woman who knows how to use plants for many different remedies. Each page is bordered with illustrations of flowers of medicinal plants.
- Seed collection: How will students obtain seeds for their respective plants? One option would be to obtain them from the community member that they consulted, in exchange for some small favor. Another would be to organize a seed exchange, inviting agricultural producers and family members to the school. This would be a great way to build connections and exchange knowledge.
- Once each student has chosen his or her plant, and has the seeds, it is time to plan the layout of the garden. Taking into consideration the space available, the space required by each plants, and other important plant characteristics, this can be a wonderful exercise in group decision-making and cooperation. Which plants need more sun and which need more shade? Which might provide shade for others, and which plants grow well or poorly together? In addition to group participation, this would be a great opportunity to practice spatial mathematics! The class could make a scale map of the garden, measuring relative distances between each plant. Then, when it comes time to plant the seeds (or perhaps in some cases seedlings or young trees, depending on availability), the initial map can be recreated in the life-sized garden using measuring tape and string to space the plants according to scale. Once planted, seeds should be labeled!
- A good art project would be for each student to envision what the full-grown garden might look like, and draw or paint a picture of it. Better yet, if possible, the entire class could participate in painting a garden mural. If a wall isn’t available, butcher paper (or a few yards of cloth) could be used instead.
- Students should not only care for their plants daily (according to advice from their plant mentors), but should make careful observations of the plants’ growth. Students could keep plant journals, and make weekly field sketches of the growing plants, and of the garden as it evolves. As the plants grow, this would be a good time to talk about plant growth and plant physiology, using the diversity of plants to compare and contrast various plant parts and growth processes. Mathematics could be incorporated in measuring growth rates (in height as well as width and approximate circumference/soil surface area).
*Juan, Jose (Jose, Juan?). 2001. Tablada para ninos. ISBN: 970 186180-9. Many short, haiku-like poems (in Chuichol or wixarika/espanol) about animals and insects, plus a page of form poems. Maybe a good model to follow for writing garden haikus?
- Composting, of course, should be an important component. Ama Marston’s (1997) undergraduate thesis includes an excellent compost-building guide that is culturally relevant, regionally applicable, and accessible to primary students. A good context for discussing nutrition as well, because as Marston points out in her guide, soil is the food of plants, and plants have many nutritional requirements, as do humans.
*Manning, Mick. 2003. !Chomp, chomp! ISBN: 968-01-0055-3. Wonderful depiction of food chains, starting and ending with a little seedling. The seedling is eaten by progressively larger animals, culminating in a fox, who then dies and is eaten by progressively smaller and smaller organisms, until from the soil springs another seedling, ‘eating’ the soil to grow.
*Cabrera, Celestino Perez. 2005. Bepu di hokma haihu: como obtener mejores cosechas. ISBN: 970-790-869-6. Wonderful book about reciprocity and our relationship with soil. Talks about the importance of “feeding” the soil, and details how to do so. Beautiful pictures of milpas put information into good visual context.
- Plant reports and class presentations: Again, information sources will include community members (as well as books and online sources, if availible), which strengthens community-based learning and also fosters a sense of personal importance, because each student will have his/her own mission, gathering information that will eventually contribute to the greater whole of the group agroecosystem and exchange of knowledge. Students will become experts in their own adopted plant, investigating important information about the plant’s physiology, ecology, cultural uses, nutritional value, etc. This would not only make each student an “expert” about his or her particular plant, but also an active conserver of an important aspect of the local culture, instilling a sense of pride and revalorizing agricultural work. It would also be an excellent information-sharing opportunity for the entire class.
- Family members could be invited to the class to give cooking demonstrations, using traditional recipes that include plants from the garden. Or, if there are plants with medicinal or other value, demonstrations could also be given.
*Castaneda, Elisa Ramirez. 2002. Comida y recetas. ISBN: 970-18-8670-4. Wonderful book for kids about regional recipes, where food comes from, cultural significance of different foodstuffs, etc. Illustrated by kids.
- Community potlucks could also be organized around the same theme, which would be a wonderful way to invite community members into the school and garden, and for students to share their knowledge as well as learn.
- As the garden matures, the class could organize an “open garden” day, and invite family and/or the public to tour the garden and learn about the plants.
- Seeds could be collected from matured plants, and packaged into seed packets by the students. Seed packets would include a drawing of the plant, as well as information about how to care for the plant and what it can be used for. Afterwards, the students could either exchange seeds with their classmates, or organize a community seed exchange and/or sale, inviting the community to exchange seeds. This would further the ecological service of conserving important plant cultivars, by dispersing them beyond the school garden and out into the community! Great time to talk about the importance of seed-saving, especially with the invasion of transgenic seeds and other factors that contribute to decreasing agrobiodiversity.
*Roig, Edurne Gomez. 2004. Los transgenicos. ISBN: 970-741-348-4. Very informative book, often citing corn and other foodstuffs as examples.
Considerations and potential obstacles:
– Not all plants fruit/flower and/or produce seeds at the same time, which could present challenges in coordinating some of the activities
– Plants may need to be limited to a certain size… Obviously, a tree will not grow and fruit from a seed in the span of a school year (although willing students might take pride in leaving something for the next generation of students)
– Might encourage posessiveness? (MY plant vs. YOUR plant)