by Stuart Summer
I founded and teach in the EARTH program, a will-based farm school program for elementary school students. We currently serve nine children, grades 2 – 7 and have successfully graduated seven children into conventional school settings. Over our four years, EARTH has attracted children who love nature and working with their hands. It has also attracted students who were severely burned-out on school and life. It has been our task to bring joy for learning back into these children’s lives and to help the children overcome the habits and impediments that have stood in their way. It is our task to cultivate a heart connection with every child while we cultivate the earth.
One could say EARTH has very big carrots and very big sticks. One carrot is the satisfaction the children experience working and learning with their hands in the garden and kitchen and forest, working with farm animals, and doing crafts. Work done well is the best food for the soul. Another carrot is the care and guidance the children feel from our small setting and experienced teachers. We listen to each child, we observe each child and we gradually come to understand what each child really needs. We have the time and attention to do this.
At the same time this care and guidance is also a metaphorical stick. We hold children accountable. They are respectful to their teachers and classmates. They must do their best with their individual tasks either in the time provided or at recess and after school. There are consequences for poor behavior or for performance that is below the student’s best.
This accountability and follow-through teaches the child: I AM WORTHWHILE.
It has been our pleasure to work with children who were completely disruptive of their classes in their previous schools. These children are gifted! But each one needs to be understood, and needs to be in a setting where their frustrations and their emotional patterns can be addressed positively and firmly. They experience that “I MATTER, and therefore my behavior is taken seriously.” This builds strength and confidence.
I will tell you about a particular child, a boy who in second grade was unable to successfully be in a classroom for an hour unless he had at least 45 minutes of directed movement first. (He became a master pogo sticker!) Even with this movement, Fred (I will call him) could often be angry, aggressive, loud and bullying both verbally and physically. He had tremendous will power, deep insecurity and great intelligence, but he was unable to apply his intelligence constructively to his work.
In third grade when Fred joined the EARTH program, he hated being in a “different” school. He ran away, he argued, he criticized, he insisted he knew everything, he had to win every disagreement and he instigated dozens every day!
But Fred learned that he was not going to win by arguing, bullying, or refusing. What he was going to do was run.
Built into the EARTH program is a great respect for running. We run to begin every day. We see that when children run, they start to breath. Their blood begins to flow. They get into rhythm with their bodies. They forget about their pet peeves, their gripes. And as their strength grows, they grow happier and more content. They start liking to play games, to feel themselves in motion, to exert themselves. Fred ran a lot that first year. He learned that disrespect and disobedience led to running. He became very fast and very strong and gradually, very gradually, Fred learned that he had the strength to control his anger, to control his habit of putting others down, to control his habit of arguing. He learned self-control. He became a civil, respectful, capable boy. He has now graduated to a mainstream school and earned straight A’s, impressing his teachers with his engagement, his seriousness and his respectfulness. This was not a surprise to me, but it would have been impossible a few years before.
But Fred did not make these gains only through discipline. Fred learned another lesson. His teachers loved him, I loved him, but we did not love his behavior! We stayed late after school to follow up, we met in the evenings to establish learning contracts, we worked through long sessions helping him to see his own behavior through loving eyes, and we answered his infinite questions about every subject under the sun. We went to his soccer game! Fred needed a lot of caring but today Fred cares about other people.