Oregon teacher promotes permaculture as learning base

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Michael Becker

Michael Becker

A recent two-day workshop sponsored by Fields Forward might just have provided local educators with a glimpse into the future of education.

The workshop was headed up by Michael Becker, who teaches a permaculture-based program at Oregon’s Hood River Middle School.

“Michael Becker is an innovative educator/disruptor/stimulator from Oregon who brings food and agriculture together with kids and adults, urban and rural, indoor and outdoor spaces,” Fields Forward co-ordinator Paris Marshall Smith said before the workshop.

Smith also spoke after a banquet at Lower Kootenay community centre, and started by explaining his own path to a program that has garnered international attention for it’s innovative approach to learning.

“I was a wanderer,” he began. After he and his wife had a child, Becker earned his Masters degree in education, taking a permaculture course along the way.

“I was so excited—I had finally found a framework to work with students,” he said, describing how the approach leads to kids becoming “functional, contributing members of their community.”

Hood River Middle School is located in a heritage building, and once the permaculture program became established, a new building, including a commercial kitchen, music room and greenhouse was constructed, to Gold Lead standards. In that facility, and its surrounding gardens, Grade 6-8 students take a hands on role in all aspects of food production, and in the direction of their own education.

In his writing, Becker explains permaculture and the role it plays at his school.

“Permaculture is a design system for developing sustainable human settlement, while increasing biodiversity, resilience, and local economy. For the last ten years — through the Food and Conservation Science Program (FACS) — my students at Hood River Middle School and I have been designing, building, and operating a permaculture-inspired system that allows the depth, complexity, and ownership required to move from a linear pedagogy to a systems-based approach offering the variables and relevance that my students devour.

“Permaculture is not a new curriculum. There are no new standards or content materials. The permaculture design principles are the tools to increase productivity within the standards and framework that your school already employs. By looking together at the world through a permaculture lens, teachers and students can increase efficiency, stack functions, and accelerate basic skills, while also offering connectivity between subjects that allows students to find relevance and commitment to their work.”

In his presentation, he showed photos of students at work in the gardens and greenhouse, in planning new construction and carrying out their designs.

He described one student, who started a business in Grade 8, offering to create gardens for residents in his neighborhood. He found a half dozen customers, established the gardens and then followed that up by maintaining the gardens, in return for a fee and a share of the produce. He rode his bicycle to carry out his business.

“By the time Austen was in Grade 10 he had saved enough money to buy a car,” Becker said. Austen then expanded his business, hiring a team of 10 students to create and maintain more gardens, and to sell their produce at the school’s farmers’ market. Egg production was included in his business expansion. By the time he finished high school, Austen had earned a full-ride scholarship and is studying organic agriculture in university.

“Our students are expected to start businesses, individually or in groups,” Becker said. The lessons learned are less about capitalism and more about doing market research, creating business plans, carrying out the work and becoming self-motivated.

Becker said that education has to change with the times.

“Our education system—especially in the US—was designed for a specific purpose, to put people to work after World War II,” he said. “Students graduated from high school, went to work at a lifetime job, raised families, and so on.

“But in the last 20 years our manufacturing base has disappeared” and everything has changed.

“Now there is a big disconnect about what schools should be. We need to focus on problem solving versus making stuff.”

When parents first visit his program, Becker said a common reaction is “It doesn’t look like school did when I was a kid.”

His response? “Well, yeah. But what else does?”

The public, Becker said, will accept and embrace new ways of educating children, once they see the effect it has on students.

“Houses cost more around highly functioning schools,” he said. “Now we have professionals volunteering in our classrooms.”

One key is not to put too much emphasis on climate change, over-population and other global issues, keeping the message direct and personal.

“I ask my kids, ‘What did you do to make things better today?”’

Becker’s writing offers the following primer in how permaculture can be introduced  into schools: To get started, here are the four most important permaculture design principles to incorporate into your classroom:

1. Start small.

Small is inexpensive, quickly productive, and usually develops decision making at the right scale. Early mistakes are common, but small mistakes are easier to clean up. Our first gardens were five-gallon buckets in a row outside the window of my room. Those gardens generated huge student interest and parent support for future projects at almost no cost. Ten years later, this is what our sixth, seventh, and eighth-grade FACS students are doing.

2. Stack functions.

School gardens are often small, and we run out of space quickly. How many functions can one element in the system accomplish? Something that only does one job is usually expensive and wasteful. Our aquaculture system grows fish, provides high-nitrogen fertilizer, grows food year round, acts as a heat sink to balance greenhouse temperatures, and is where most of our rooting propagation occurs. It is some very productive real estate in the greenhouse.

3. Obtain a yield.

Get really creative with your idea of what a yield can be: excited parents, a newspaper story, jazzed kids, pumpkins. Plant seeds to get a quick return. Kids can eat sprouted seeds in five days, and baby salad greens in three weeks.

4. Use biological systems.

What natural, ecological function solves a problem that we generally address by putting a plug in the wall? Grapes along the south wall of the greenhouse limit summer sun, but let in winter light when their leaves have fallen. Worms compost our lunch waste to create perfect potting soil, and we can feed surplus to the fish and chickens, or sell them at our school’s Farmers’ Market.

Permaculture allows for an easy entrance that can become increasingly complex over time as understanding, budgets, and attitudes move in the direction that we want. A designer begins to see the world through permaculture glasses, and the layers of complexity and connectivity are an endless source for rigorous student endeavors.