4 Inches of Living Soil: Teaching Biodiversity in the Learning Gardens–A photo-essay
In Learning Gardens and Sustainability Education: Bringing Life to Schools and Schools to Life, Williams and Brown (2011) place living soil at the center of the discourse on sustainability education. One of the seven principles that guides their pedagogy of learning gardens is: valuing biocultural diversity. This photo-essay of elementary students in K-8 schools, explores how 4 inches of soil in the learning gardens can teach about life’s diversity. The author urges humble attentiveness to that which is below our feet seemingly hidden and unnoticed yet teeming with life.
In my visits to over 80 school gardens across eight states, I have been struck by the fact that almost all of them have compost piles or bins, and many of them teach students about decomposition, composting, and soil. Art, science, math, poetry, and politics all emerge on school grounds that had in the past been either asphalted or manicured with lawns. Children and youth learn that there is no such thing as “out of sight, out of mind” waste. Instead, they are fascinated by the organisms they discover in the soil and also by soil’s mysteries when taught to observe soil with care. Composting as a way to “make” soil is slowly becoming common sight on school grounds.
In locating biodiversity in the learning gardens, one need go no deeper than 4 inches of soil. Algae, ants, arthropods, bacteria, crickets, fungi, nematodes, millipedes, mites, molds, mushrooms, slugs, spiders, springtails, and ticks, among a myriad of other organisms, interact with one another and with the plant biomass to form a soil food web. A teaspoon of soil holds a billion invisible bacteria, several yards of invisible fungal hyphae, and thousands of other organisms including protozoans and nematodes (Lowenfels & Lewis, 2010). Decay, death, birth, and life play a dance impacting soil texture, smell, porosity, and color. More importantly, the basics of life itself surfaces in significant ways when we pay attention to that which is below our feet.
Soils have defined human societies historically and continue to do so today (Landa & Feller, 2010). As McNeil & Winiwarter (2006) explain:
Soils have their own histories, both natural and human. What people believe about soils influences (although does not determine) what they do with them, whether they conserve and nurture them, whether they abuse and abandon them. What people understand—and misunderstand—about soils is thus a necessary part of any history of the nexus between soil and society (pp. 2-3).
Thousands of learning gardens have sprouted and are established on school grounds providing learning opportunities to students of all ages, as biology, chemistry, physics, along with mathematics and language arts, are integrated with school learning (Williams & Dixon, forthcoming). For children, there can be no better place to commune with life than below the feet on school grounds. Beyond the distant outdoor field trips, children can connect to their own locale and the human-biotic community where learning is housed. In school learning gardens students can relate with soil, plants, food, and the nonhuman animal world. Soil is the frontier where nature, culture, and biology are intertwined, where humus teaches gratitude, where knowledge of decomposition becomes as critical as learning composition (Williams & Brown, 2011). The pedagogy of school learning gardens blurs the boundaries between the human animal and nonhuman vertebrate and invertebrate animal life. Meeting soil organisms as partners in the web of life, learning gardens invite children into kinship with life at a level deeper than words. As interlocutors of nature and life beneath our feet, learning gardens via living soil offer pathways toward organizing a pedagogy from below. Thus, to care about sustainability, we must care and be mindful about soil.
This photo-essay presents how soil curriculum is integrated on a daily basis in three sections of blended first and second grade classrooms at Sunnyside Environmental School (K-8), in Portland, Oregon and at Waters Elementary School (K-8), in Chicago, Illinois. Each photo is a snap-shot of the rich and diverse curricular integration that takes place. Students question, wonder, marvel, and make connections as they get their hands and feet soiled, and learn about biological diversity captured by living soil.
The soil is at once a living community of creatures and their habitat.
- Wendell Berry, 2009
It seems appropriate to pay tribute to the earthworm symbolizing the important life’s learnings.
Earthworm, A Tribute
Wriggling and mysterious,
Natural eating machine
Shredding organic matter, casting compost,
Worms eat the plants and decompose them. They are good for the earth.
Mushrooms are decomposers too.
Different snails are decomposers.
Moles are decomposers.
Decomposed things sink into the ground and help other things grow.
Decompose is a scientific word for rot.
Decomposing is a cycle.
Life’s diversity in 4 inches
Out of sight and out of mind, the vibrant life of living soil has largely been forgotten in traditional education. With concerns about the environment and for sustainability, pedagogy and curricular shifts are being accepted to include school gardens as a viable option. Learning gardens bring life to schools and schools to life through inviting children into relationship with the more-than-human world embodied in living soil (Williams & Brown, 2011). Viewing the complexity of soil counsels care in bold interactions and encourages curious and empathetic engagement with this dynamic entity. The new frontier for pedagogy is not to be sought in the gaze of stars but rather arises from below—it is beneath our feet in the school grounds. Soils and gardens serve as both poetic and scientific text as seen in this photo-essay. This snapshot represents a growing movement to connect students to life, by getting them to pay attention to and appreciate the worth of dirt and soil.
As one 6th grade Hispanic student noted, while trying to transplant a tomato seedling: “Dad says to keep the dirt with the plant. It’s full of nutrients.” She gently handled the roots, separating the fine threads and placing them into the hole she had created in the garden bed (Anderson, 2009). When children and youth gain this critical understanding of life and its biodiversity, there is hope for sustainability. Understanding 4 inches of soil might be an important step to learn about biodiversity. In the words of Thomas Barrett (1947), “The new frontier is beneath our feet.”
Connecting students with the more-than-human world of soil, children are brought into direct contact with a richly diverse animal and plant world often out of sight and out of mind. This contact sensitizes students to care about and value the diversity hitherto unnoticed. The dynamic aspects of school learning gardens can be understood by connecting with soil on school grounds. A mere 4 inches should suffice.
Special thanks to teachers Peter Leki, Robin May, Abby Roth, and Rebecca Wagner for their care and wisdom in teaching children and youth about life and in doing so inspiring others to find wonder and joy in the mundane.
Courtesy, Dilafruz R. Williams
Anderson, J. (2008). Tongue-tied no more: Learning Gardens and social justice. Unpublished master’s research project. Portland State University, Oregon.
Barrett, T. J. (1947) Harnessing the earthworm. Boston: Bruce Humphries.
Berry, W. (2009). Bringing it to the table: On farming and food. Berkeley: Counterpoint.
Landa, E. R. and Feller, C. (Eds.). (2010). Soil and culture. London: Springer.
McNeill J. R. and Winiwarter, V. (Eds.). (2006). Soil and societies: Perspectives from environmental history. Isle of Harris: The White Horse Press.
Shiva, V. (2008). Soil not oil: Environmental justice in a time of climate crisis. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.
Williams, D. R., & Brown, J. D. (2011). Living soil and Learning Gardens: Bringing life to schools and schools to life. New York, NY: Routledge press.
Williams, D. R & Dixon, S. P. (Manuscript submitted). Impact of learning gardens on academic outcomes: Synthesis of research between 1990 and 2010.