The mark of a great educator is the ability to create in a student the desire for deeper understanding. When a student actively pursues information, they are more likely to retain it. One method of inspiring independent learning is by applying classroom concepts in real world scenarios.
Elementary school teacher Thomas Bangert does just that. At Westside Global Awareness Magnet School in the Marina del Rey community of Los Angeles, Bangert shows us how he uses nature as a catalyst for comprehension. He teaches his students science through permaculture – the practice of producing food using ways that do not deplete the earth’s natural resources.
Bangert and his students grow food in the classroom and several places around the school. This hands-on learning embeds knowledge in his students, allowing them to literally partake of the fruits of their labor.
Although he works with less than 30 students in the classroom, he educates and empowers all ages through his company One Billion Seeds. There, he not only teaches children and adults to supplement their diets with homegrown foods, but to also supplement their income.
We sat with Thomas Bangert to discuss his approach to education and sustainability.
JCB3: Tell us about One Billion Seeds.
Mr. B: The whole idea is, if you can change or affect a seventh of the world’s population, you can affect the culture on the planet. That number is one billion. I want to try to reach a billion children on this planet, get them to start to grow food so that they tap back into that instinctual agrarian self that we have lost at least in the urban settings of America; but it’s still alive in lots of other places on the planet. If we can get to students when they start school, we can create a culture of cultivation. The whole idea is to give children seeds that will grow throughout most of the planet like carrots, sunflowers, pumpkins, peas, and onion seeds. If a child is able to grow a seed into a plant that produces another seed, they will have a new perspective that shapes them forever.
Americans tend to lose touch with what we already know. Occasionally, a group of people will find that knowledge again and bring it back to the mainstream. That’s what I aim to do. These aren’t new ideas. This is ancient stuff. What we need to understand is that times have changed, people are different, and we need to understand on a global level that while everybody should have an equal opportunity, not everybody does. There are places where seeds are controlled, there are companies that do this globally, and they are starting to do this in this country too, which is unbelievable.
JCB3: How do you facilitate this understanding from the confines of a classroom?
Mr. B: One of the pieces of curriculum I use to supplement what I’m doing is the Hungry Planet. They basically put out a series that shows what people eat around the world. In my classroom I’ve got a number of posters, a family from Bhutan, a family from China, a family from Ecuador, Germany, Chad, Guatemala, India, Japan, Kuwait, Somali, Mexico, and the United States. So they have a picture of the family unit with all the food they would eat in one week. Whatever it is, they have it out in front of them. You can see where they live, where they cook or prepare their food, and what types of food are available to them. They also learn the demographic of the country: population, life expectancy, obesity rate, caloric intake, population living below the poverty line, etc. The one thing that usually gets them is the cost for one week’s worth of food. To feed an entire family, costs range from $500 per week in Germany to $34 per week in Ecuador. So my students learn disparity while learning the difference between personally harvested and packaged foods.
Within most industrial countries, the bulk of the food consumed is packaged. The rest of the countries are eating fresh produce and naturally raised livestock. One particular question comes up a lot: “How do groups that only grow two or three things get the rest of what they need?” I tell them that these families grow and raise what they can and trade for the rest.
This method of teaching stimulates conversation and experiential understanding about the cultures and different peoples on this planet and leads to reasoning and the desire for more information. It also shows that while many cultures don’t have many of the technological conveniences or political freedoms that we have, they do have other freedoms like the freedom to produce and eat untainted natural foods. If you look at the family from Guatemala, most of what they eat is fresh, robust and hardy. The tomatoes, potatoes and carrots are the size of your forearm. You just don’t see that here in the States.
JCB3: How is what you’re doing different from the lima bean project that we all did in grade school science class?
Mr. B: The lima bean experiment showed kids that they can turn a seed into a small bud with a leaf. Then they either take the plant home to die or throw it away; project completed. They never truly understand what it becomes; they don’t harvest seeds from it. They don’t do anything with it, it’s just an experiment. I want them to understand that they are producing something. They can grow in their front yard, balcony, and now it’s getting easier to do indoors.
We have a hydroponic experiment station where we grew four different varieties of lettuce. We recently had a “lettuce party” with four homemade dressings that we created. We did a taste test to see which ones they liked, very simple recipes, but very effective. The kids were profoundly changed by this because they can do it conveniently in the classroom setting. We have sunflowers that are two-to-three inches now. Spending 24 hours under lights, they are growing rapidly and the kids get to see this.
You can do this with a 6 year old or a 60 year old, and it will change them for the better. But again, we should change the culture of education to resemble the way kindergarten was set up before. We introduce kids to nature first and they assimilate everything else through the understanding of nature.
JCB3: Where did this love for farming come from?
Mr. B: I grew up in San Bernardino. There is an abundance of land for farming out there. We grew up very poor, too. So my grandparents and great-grandparents had that knack. They were part of that generation that grew up during WWI and WWII, so they were used to the idea of having to provide for themselves when rations were low. It wasn’t necessarily for survival, but definitely to augment their situation in a positive way. So I learned experimentally as a child.
I model that upbringing in my curriculum. I use the garden as a vehicle to teach science and social studies. It became apparent this was an excellent decision for teaching fourth graders; the curriculum standards all tend to blend right in. The garden was the right vehicle to teach and create that understanding and knowledge base so kids would be interested in science later in the form of botany or chemistry.
I literally started with a little box on top of the blacktop at Walgrove Elementary. I found an old spare tire somebody had left, I suggested we grow a sunflower in it, and everyone said, “No, you can’t do that. Sunflowers have tap roots.” I said “watch.” I put some soil in it and the sunflower grew to be 12 feet tall. You can grow anything anywhere. That’s always been my point of view; if you have a seed, plant it there and see what happens. Just like people, plants are adaptable. They may not be suited for a certain place, but over a period of time they will adapt to it. That’s why we have so many varieties of food. Something might be suited for a certain place, but we don’t live in a subtropical zone. We have microclimates all over Los Angeles so when you’re talking to people who live in a higher desert type part of L.A., or in a beach community, you have microclimates. You can experiment in these areas, and find all kinds of things that will work, and some that won’t.
JCB3: Does your curriculum conflict with what your students are being fed by the district?
Mr. B: It does in some ways, and that’s why I joined up with Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. We have something called the Newman Center in our district where they manufacture food, literally. They cook and prepack it with robotic arms. There are some people actually working there, but it is so mechanized it just got me thinking, did we go 20 years backwards? Why are we doing this when we have people that can work and make food rather than processing it.
I saw this group making about 80,000 meals a day, literally 80,000 meals a day for 670,000 children that are in our school district. Over the past three years, that has increased to over 200,000 meals a day. That tells me again that while we all ought to have an equal opportunity, not all of us do. Because there are 200,000 people out of the 670,000 group that are being treated differently; being fed differently, that are being subjected to lower quality food. Without education, we have a huge disconnect. You can do anything you want to make the food program better, but if you don’t sit with the kids, and describe what they’re going to be experiencing, give them an introduction and show them why its beneficial, if you don’t do the teaching part, you’re not necessarily going to get them to make the changes on their own. They are only kids. We can’t control anybody, we can only influence. Trying to influence them is the piece that’s missing now.
One point I kept trying to stress is that I’m here on behalf of children. I’m not here on behalf of my own agenda, or someone else’s TV show, or whatever. I’m an advocate who lives here in Los Angeles, who has seen this, who grew up with food issues. Somebody needs to stick up for these kids who just don’t have a voice, and I see myself as that person.