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Gardening for the future

MITCH Charter School immerses its students into nature one project at a time

An industrial park isn’t typically the first location that comes to mind when one thinks of a school, and it’s definitely not what one imagines when that school is actively incorporating agriculture into its curriculum. But, nestled between businesses and warehouses, that’s exactly what MITCH Charter School in Tualatin has set out to do.

“It’s the primary technology for any civilization. (If) we don’t have agriculture, we don’t make it,” said Melissa Meyer, the school’s executive director. “So one way or another, our students, our childrenPhoto Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Wil Hoskin and Duncan Ketel, both teachers at Mitch Charter school, walk though the school's garden. The water jug in the forefront is a solution for a greenhouse created by students. — in the world that we are giving to them — they need to know how to sustain life as populations grow. As there’s more harm done to the environment, they really do need to understand how to provide for themselves, and hopefully as leaders, how to sustain their communities, as well.”

With agriculture as an element of the school’s charter, it’s always been something that the teachers incorporated into their classrooms. However, prior to this school year, the educators did so without much outside influence and planning; it was an individual process rather than cumulative.

Before classes began this fall, several days were spent mapping out the year’s curriculum as a group and figuring out ways to seamlessly incorporate lessons on agriculture. One outcome of this was Agricultural Fridays, which happen twice a month and are a way to get the middle school-aged students back into nature. While the elementary students don’t yet participate in Ag Fridays, the educators are looking at ways to incorporate them in the future.

“We wanted to give them a bigger challenge. If you look around here, we’re surrounded by buildings and factories, and it’s not ideal for growing. We could accept that as a weakness, or we could look at it as an opportunity to grow. So, we chose to challenge the students,” said kindergarten teacher and agricultural curriculum coordinator Wil Hoskin. “We tackled the three problems: soil and nutrients, sunlight and then water. We are presenting the kids with those problems, and giving them the information and the skills they need to try and come up with solutions.”

Every quarter, the problem rotates, and for the first quarter, the students came up with solutions to growing in colder seasons. They brainstormed ways to build greenhouses, and then executed their ideas into tangible results. Sometimes this went smoothly, but often it involved a bit of a learning curve.

“You’d be surprised how many kids asked, ‘What end of the hammer do I hold?’” said Hoskin.

Once those kinds of struggles were worked out, it was common that problems still arose. What happened when someone was missing materials? What if the group dynamic didn’t work? What about when the concept on paper didn’t work in reality? It’s through these avenues that students navigated, and where their lessons went beyond learning about agriculture.

“In some ways, I’m like, ‘Wow, this stuff we’ve been teaching, this stuff has been sinking in,’ even though in the classroom sometimes, you’re not really sure,” said physical education and wellness coordinator Duncan Ketel. “But they’re learning — they’re figuring it out. And the tools we taught them, they’re able to use out there and are able to make sense of what we’ve been (teaching). You just see that learning immediately.”

With nearly an acre of land, named the Mitch Frontier Garden, recently acquired next door, the hope is that this learning will be amplified even more. Currently, the only land the students have to work with is on the side of a neighboring building that previouslyPhoto Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Melissa Meyer, MITCH Charter School's executive director, is working with her team of educators to amp up the school's agriculture curriculum. housed shrubs. With the labor of students, teachers and parent volunteers, the shrubs were pulled and the dirt was weeded, turning it into a space where their greenhouses, compost bin, raised beds and projects can reside. But, the space is limited, and it’s clear that it would be outgrown sooner rather than later. This means that ambitions are high for developing the new land this year.

“To have green space where the kids can actually have beds and grow things the way things were meant to be grown, the possibilities are just so exciting,” said Hoskin. “I want to make sure we utilize it to its full potential.”

Meyer said the Frontier Garden will be used both for agriculture and activity space, and like Hoskin, wants to be utilizing it as much as possible by the end of the year. Ketel’s short-term vision for the space involves spending a couple days putting in raised beds, filling them with soil and having them ready to plant. For teachers who’ve so far been working with a small strip of land, the possibilities for this acre seem endless.

“The way children, but even many adults, think about food now is, ‘I go to the grocery store to buy food,’ and there’s no real understanding of how it’s grown and what goes into growing that: labor, soil, water, taking care of the plant and nurturing it,” said Ketel. “For me, it’s this separation between humanity and nature, and this is one way to reconcile that difference.”


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