Organizing for social justice has become such a dominating motif of my personal story, that I have difficulty giving any reflection without telling the collective story of our time. The social justice issues that I have been most engaged with are climate change and education. Within these two very broad umbrella issues, there are countless injustices that require the detailed attention of strategically organized people tending to each one. How I have chosen to align and organize myself has been a source of my personal growth, as well as my growth as an organizer. I have organized to raise awareness about climate change, and offer a resisting force against it. Within that work, my focus has ranged from obstructing the natural resource extraction that claims so many of our forests, rivers, and oceans, to advocating for the poorest of the poor whose lives become exponentially more at risk as the climate changes. Alongside that work, educational advocacy against the privatization of public education, and the socioeconomic inequities within that system was another frontline that I aligned with.
There was also the incessant and exhausting need to continuously address the toxic relationship between the corporate power structure and the politically corrupt system of government that allow for these injustices to be inflicted in the first place. During these years I grew, and stretched, and expanded, and then I admit, I got tired. While this work may have met my need for agency and contribution, it was neither regenerative nor supportive for all aspects of my life. Another need began to surface, the need for efficacy. The need to feel strategic and intentional with the way I spent my life energy. I took a hiatus, and used that time to reevaluate my frontline, objectives, and strategies. Through the mentorship and teachings of John Young, Starhawk, Steiner, Dewy, Richard Louv, David Sobel, Bob Liebman, Peter Gray, and so many others, I was able to understand how nature connection and early education could be woven together to nurture social stewards; children who would grow to be adults with qualities of compassion and empathy not only for the land, but also for the people of the land.
This expansion of consciousness helped me see the gap between cultures of resistance, and cultures of creation, and asked me to adjust my efforts so that I could be in right relationship and balance with my work. So thoroughly exhausted from a life of resistance that so often required social and political martyrdom, I embraced this request. While I cannot over emphasize the need for civil disobedience, direct action, and other forms of resistance, I also want to give acknowledgement to the work of liberation by way of cultural transformation. The work of shifting the dominate paradigm can only be done by planting seeds of future possibilities, and co-creating a model to live by that honors and holds sacred all forms of life, rather than exploits it. In my quest to merge the many front lines of my work, I was referred to Mother Earth School and found a model for education that I deeply resonated with. In Mother Earth School, I found educators creating a learning environment that merged Waldorf education, and Permaculture. After a lot of work to create the pathway, I was able to secure this CLAS Internship with Mother Earth School and gain PSU academic credit.
At the start of the fall quarter, I listed my personal learning objectives as:
• Observe and familiarize myself with an established model for outdoor,
• Gain skills for engaging children in nature exploration and ecological
• Deepen my relationship with permaculture food systems and gardens
• Connect and develop relationships with practicing educators
Final reflection on the effectiveness of this internship
As this quarter wraps up, my understanding of the “learning objectives” I had set has expanded so that I think of this learning process more as a learning path, rather than a set of accomplishable objectives. I can also feel myself, albeit slowly, adapting to a life where protecting forests from the chainsaws looks more like playing in the forest with children who are falling in love with nature spirits, rather than blockading them. And perhaps a more regenerative response to the oppression and exploitation of our people is in modeling and guiding children into ways of being that hold kindness and compassion as the most valued form of human capitol that one can possess.
However, even within this ongoing process, I can feel and measure the substantial growth that I have undergone as an educator, and the effectiveness of this internship in supporting that growth. The work I have done with my community partners has offered me so much practical experience, as well as a framework for teaching and learning that is so much more in alignment with my world view, and the work that I want to do post graduation. While PSU teacher education disproportionately focuses on preparing students for a career in public education, working with Mother Earth School offered me the experience of observing and learning how to educate children in a way that I am authentically motivated to educate. My experience with my other community partner, Planet Repair, was exceptional. The content of their Permaculture Design Course has given me extensive knowledge of permaculture principles, and skills for building not only permaculture gardens, but also a whole food system. Learning this alongside learning how to use permaculture systems as the environment and curriculum for education was a highly effective learning/teaching model that I think should be available to all students in any teacher-training program.
Last notes on Mother Earth School curriculum and pedagogy
Mother Earth School offers an educational model that provides ample opportunity for nature connection, and nurtures the developmental needs of the whole child. The prioritization given to the social and emotional needs of the students was evident in the pedagogy that I observed over the term. For example, when a student was having a difficult day, they got the patient presence of a teacher to talk with them through whatever was going, until they felt better. And there were never any further behavior issues with that child for the rest of the day. Another example being that everyday, before the end of the day, the class took time to offer gratitude for something nice that they observed someone do that day. Most days, everyone would be appreciated and acknowledged for some kind action. This built a culture that valued kindness. When contrasted to pedagogies I have observed in public school settings, where the child’s academic needs are given prioritization, one can easily make the connection between teacher pedagogy and the behavioral problems that plague so many public schools. I’ve drawn this connection not to ignore the fact that many of student’s behavioral challenges stem from traumatic experiences and/or living in poverty, but to examine the way in which pedagogy that prioritizes the child’s social and emotional development can be a positively oppositional force to those behavioral challenges. The arguments can be made that Mother Earth School is only able to offer that much time and attention to the social and emotional development of their students because of the low student to teacher ratio, the students abundant opportunity to run and play, or the exemption from standardized curriculum and testing, or the fact that demographically, Mother Earth School enrolls predominately students of privilege. I agree with all of these arguments and the many, many more that can be made. While I deeply resonate with the model of education that Mother Earth School provides, I also feel that it is socially unjust that it is available to and only accessible by such a small demographic of students. I can only dream of a world in which our public education system were to adopt the Mother Earth School model, and make it available to students of all demographics. I can only imagine federally funded teacher-training programs that equipped teachers with pedagogy to nurture a child’s whole being, like that of the Waldorf teacher training programs. Though they may be dreams of what could be, I also believe that doing so would be the socially just thing to do. Not just for the health of our society, but for the health of the planet that holds us all.
My final thought goes to the effectiveness of Mother Earth School curriculum and pedagogy to teach to social justice issues such as institutional racism, poverty, or gender violence. When I first began exploring Mother Earth School, I was surprised to find that they are only a pre-k through 2nd grade program. However, when the main objective is nature connection, I have found that this is the developmental age during which our relationship with nature and place is established. In its first priority and objective, which is to help young children establish a deep connection with nature, I see Mother Earth School to be wildly successful. For third grade and beyond, there is still a lot of work to do in developing a model of education that offers our children an understanding of the previously mentioned oppressive forces, nurtures democratic engagement, while still nurturing their emotional development, as well as their relationship with the natural world. It is my deep held belief that the paradigm of the public education system needs to shift dramatically to embrace priorities such as these.