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Teaching Makes Us Better at Our Jobs

Our “rainfall simulator” deluges brick-sized soil samples on an unseasonably radiant January morning in Mendocino County. The “rain” drains easily through the healthier soils, but mostly runs off the top of the driest, saddest sample. The class of sixth graders chatter and point: “That one’s really good!” “That water is so gross.” “I would drink that!” “Look! A worm!”

I’m a GrizzlyCorps Fellow at Mendocino County Resource Conservation District (MCRCD). The rainfall simulator demonstration is part of our Farm to School Incubator Program, funded by California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). For this cycle, the grant was managed by a local nonprofit called North Coast Opportunities. It has a few components:

  1. connecting schools to fresh, local produce.

  2. supporting ag-related school infrastructure: tools, greenhouses, etc.

  3. bringing regenerative agriculture curriculum to students in the form of classroom visits and field trips.

The sustainable ag team here at MCRCD is in charge of the 3rd point: visiting classrooms and giving lessons on soil health, regenerative farming practices, and native plants and pollinators. We visit each class three times to do short presentations and demonstrations outside, and bring students on field trips to local farms. This year, we’re visiting a high school and a middle school.

Students peer through close- focusing binoculars at brave December pollinators.

One of the ways people change their minds about core ideology is by the influence of their children. That influence is clear to me when we go into classrooms and teach about soil ecology, carbon, native bees, and what good dirt looks like. After each visit we all want to discuss how our vision of our work has shifted from the experience, what we think is important to talk about in the next class, what the students were excited about, and what they didn’t connect to.

The rainfall simulator shows water that infiltrates down through the soil, and water that runs off the front.

Last week, we asked what healthy soil looks like. A sixth-grader started talking about dirt versus soil: “dirt doesn’t grow anything, but soil has fertilizer and you can grow things.” The student played around with a few more definitions, and we shied away from championing any one of them. We started talking about this challenge in the car ride back to the office: there are many definitions of dirt and soil, and language is very fluid. What definitions should we promote, and how do we organize a discussion about these words?

A slake test shows how well soil clumps hold together when submerged in water, an indicator of soil health.

The Farm to School program is different from the rest of my projects at MCRCD. I’m usually working with adults to fund, plan, and implement projects on the land they own. While I am a practical individual and appreciate that my day-to-day involves accomplishing projects, teaching is an opportunity to step back and reflect:

  • How do I want to frame “sustainable ag” and “resource conservation?”

  • How do I understand and describe the relationship between the humans of Mendocino County and the soil beneath our feet?

It’s motivating to explain the importance of caring for our local natural systems to straightforward sixth graders and dissociating high schoolers. In the act of teaching, we encounter our points of confusion, passion, and discomfort. Students ask questions we can’t answer, redirect focus to what they consider important, and generally shake up our brains, forcing them to reactivate, reorganize, and resettle into a fresh point of view.

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