2014 Summer Reflections – A Mixed Bag of Seeds

Today is September 22, the first day back to school for kids in BC and almost the first day of Fall 2014. Naturally, I am inspired to reflect back on these past few months of growing, planting seeds and harvesting an abundance of growth at the school garden at Forest Grove Elementary here in North Burnaby, BC.

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For those of you unfamiliar with the education system in BC, have a quick glance here at a rundown of what has transpired over the past few years coming to a head these past few months. There are several sides to this story so please, if you do want more info, there are several links to read online. This is just one via the Vancouver Sun.

School officially ended for us on June 13, 2014, although at the time on the day, none of us knew for sure that this would in fact be our last day at the school. As such, there was a huge range of emotions; from hopeful that things would work out and we would be back for Sport’s Day events, end of year assemblies and Grade 7 graduation ceremonies to the extreme of cleaning everything out of classrooms and saying final goodbyes. Without knowing for sure, most of us just hoped for the best despite a huge amount of uncertainty.

June 13 for me was crazy busy. I had 2 cooking classes during the day, hosted a visit from Edible Vancouver Magazine to witness our potato harvest with a Grade 5/6 class and also hosted an end of year (as I was pretty sure it was the end of the year) celebration with the Garden Club where one of our main funders was paying us a visit.

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Thank goodness for the Labyrinth!

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Walking the Labyrinth one last time at the end of the school year did wonders for me; I could ground myself after a hectic day, remind myself what truly was important and enter the paths with a deep sense of gratitude as I led my Garden Club Members through the winding paths to do the same. Our visitor from the McGrane Pearson Foundation was impressed to say the least as he left with his bag of harvested greens from the garden.

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Without knowing for sure when we would be back, I was grateful for at least knowing there would be funding coming in for me to take care of the garden over the summer as well as a couple cooking classes with the summer program hosted at the school via The Grove Childcare Society via the grant we received via Metropolis at Metrotown.

It was a quiet summer of Work Bees mostly attended by my own two reluctant children and a handful of other families popping by throughout the summer. Yes, my own two children now are finding it difficult to go to the garden “again!” as their Mumma brings them more than they would like. Thankfully, they do still help water, plant seeds and are also given the camera to take photos as a way to keep them entertained.

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It’s always a magical time in the summer watching plants growing from seed to sprout to seedling to full on fruit bearing plant. I marveled at the corn plants that started out from an Orville Reddenbocker (yes, the K’s grew popcorn!) container in the K classroom that have now grown ears of corn. The sunflowers that always bring smiles to everyone who sees them, tower a good 15 feet above everything also reminded me of our smallest students who earlier in April planted them. I tried to take as many photos as I could of these beauties not knowing if and when the little ones would see them again but luckily there are still a few in bloom today as the kids headed back to school. It’s always the goal for school gardens that we instill a sense of appreciation for growing food from seed. Having the most exciting time of growth happen when students are not around is always a question schools face of whether or not they grow anything in the summer.

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The goal at Forest Grove was to plant out and tend for as many fruits and veggies as possible so that there was a crop to harvest for this Fall’s Cooking Classes that are set to start in October. So naturally, we did have a crop and garden to tend to in the summer. I believe we achieved this goal as the pumpkins, butternut squash, and spaghetti squash are all almost ready to harvest. Our beloved tomatoes sadly caught the blight but luckily I managed to save two ziploc bagfuls of ripe ones that have been frozen ready to cook with the kids. We also had our first crop of rainbow carrots and planted a succession of radishes which several of our students in the summer program really enjoyed.

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The most excited new crop we have growing still are the tomatillios. I point these out to all the kids visiting the garden as they are a fascinating plant that are also quite delicate as they look like paper lanterns. Little fingers have been trying to squish them too which then kills the fruit trying to grow inside. Perfect opportunity to teach both patience, kindness, and being gentle. We’ll be harvesting these as they ripen to eventually create a “canning” session with my older Garden Club students to transform them into salsa verde to later sell at the Christmas Craft Fair. Our principal is excited about this opportunity to teach the valuable lessons of seed to plate to market!

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Swiss chard and kale have been really abundant this season with a whole separate side crop of chard that has leaves grown the size of some of the small preschoolers. I encourage families to take as much as they like home to cook up the same way as bok choi (sauteed with a bit of olive oil, garlic, salt & pepper finished with some stock or water) served on the side as greens for dinner. The possibility of this crop growing over winter is very good as it has grown and survived before in the past couple of years.

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So with the official day of Fall 2014 starting tomorrow along side of the first day the kids are back for a full day of school I am hopeful for many “Seeds of Intentions” to flourish:

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  • To have a good crop of Garden Club Members with open minds and open hearts who are willing to connect to nature, themselves and each other
  • To cook some amazing new recipes with the 12 Divisions at Forest Grove Elementary using as many ingredients as possible from the school garden
  • To expand the Sprouting Chefs programs to other interested schools throughout the Lower Mainland of BC
  • To inspire other willing, open minded, open hearted individuals to join me on my journey to plant seeds of various virtues from love to forgiveness, courage to kindness with children through planting school gardens and cooking what we grow
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Walking the Path – Building a School Labyrinth

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As I sit here today with a pile of “to do’s” on my never ending list of to do’s, I am feeling called to share the experiences of the past month or so. Walking the path, as this title implies, not only means walking the path a labyrinth design creates to find the inner meaning of it all but also walking the path of my truth and what it means to create something that was not there before and also how to sustain it. In simplier terms, creating garden programs is one thing, walking the path it takes to sustain them is something else entirely.

I look back on this past month or so in awe. Between building and talking about the labyrinth with most of the Forest Grove Elementary school population, planting seeds in 2 school gardens with all 10 and 12 classes, teaching 4 cooking classes and recruiting volunteers, you can hopefully appreciate why it’s taken me so long to post anything in a blog. Choosing what to post is the challenge so I’m choosing to follow my heart with this one and write about the most important lessons I’ve learned through all these various experiences.

Be Open But Listen to Your Heart

Building a labyrinth with a group of 4 to 5 class groups who have never done this before can create a lot of hesitation. Staying open to how everything unfolds and to trust in the unknowing process has worked wonders. It allows for us to make mistakes and to learn from them as well as being open to our greatness too. All along the way we kept in mind we had never done this before which in my mind meant, I’m giving myself a break and not choosing perfection. That was a tough lesson for sure coming from someone who never joined the track team because I knew I’d never win a race.

Working with a group of people who were looking to me for guidance, I had to stay open to the guidance and from wherever it came from. In the end though, I had to also listen to my gut and heart when it came to making a decision about anything. When things click, when you receive an instinctual knowing of what to do next, you have to trust that.

Guiding the group of students through the experience of building the labyrinth, there was one basic principle I wanted to instill in everyone’s mind. This was a very important task we were all about to under take. One that would not be entered into lightly or with any sense of disrespect. As the first group of students literally were laying down the soil, the very foundation for the design, I told them they were to walk into this space with a sense of reverence for they were given the task of being the first to create a tool that would be used by many including themselves to find peace and happiness. The energy they brought into the green space was to be the energy of respect and honor.

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The Grade 7 class were given a math problem to create the circuits of the circular designs of the labyrinth. We knew that this was not an easy problem for the entire group after speaking with the teacher. It wasn’t expected that all would participate but I trusted that those who would know what to do would be enough and could then be teachers to others who needed help with the problem.

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As soon as a group of students knew what to do, they were given the large scale compass to draw out the circuits in the soil. All the other students were simply gathered around to witness their actions. That was enough, I felt to be a part of the project.

After the circuits were drawn out into the soil, another group laid the lime into the design to mark the circuits clearly so the next group could then dig out some of the soil and lay coarse sand into the area which would remain after the grass grew in for the pathways.

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It took many hands and many explanations throughout the day of the actual creation and build of the labyrinth with groups of classes, helpers and various volunteers.

What struck me the most was when we as adults stood with the students in silence before we started. I found grounding us all as a large group was necessary as the whole process could have been chaotic and confusing otherwise. This was not a normal class project after all and the kids often came to us with too much energy.

Circling them around me I asked them to close their eyes and feel their feet, taking in big deep breaths from the ground up. This brought them into a calm state but I also recognized there was a definite vulnerability here with many of the students. Asking a group “to close their eyes” can bring up a lot of issues…who else is closing their eyes? is this cool? is this funny? why are we doing this? All these questions and emotions could be seen from the centre of the circle where I was standing. It was clear who had done this sort of thing before, trusted in the process and got right into deep breathing and centering. Amazing. The others…well, maturity has its perks!

No pictures of that moment. None needed really. Centering a group of kids will be chalked up to a moment to remember as one where I can remember a great power and responsibility too.

Moments to Shine, Lead and Follow

When the kids set to task, when they understood what they were doing and more importantly, why they were doing what they were doing really became clear when a couple of the groups were able to walk the labyrinth paths as a group. After explaining about what it means to have an intention before they started, I lead them through with steps of purpose making it clear with the pace I set that this was not a race. No one was allowed to pass the person in front of them out of respect and as students left the circuits, the ones coming into the space, need to step aside to allow other students to pass with ease.

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Have Faith In the Process

Not every student completely engaged with this project as I mentioned before. The majority from what I could tell, understood what they were doing, watched or really took over a certain part of what needed to be done from shoveling sand, directing others what to do and where to go with said sand and making sure everyone was also doing what they needed to do. There were some that seemed distracted and disengaged.

The teachers and I made small notes and one teacher was so concerned about a particular student, she made an effort to get this student to be a part of things by asking her to do a certain task. I noted this and as I am a sensitive person, also noted the discomfort this student had when she was approached.

Later in the day, this same quiet girl came back to the labyrinth in between classes. Her class was brought out for a music class to play soccer. No idea why the music teacher brings them outside to play soccer but needless to say, this student who didn’t care to engage much with her fellow students was once again off to the side of things. She came to me and asked if it would be alright to walk the labyrinth as she hadn’t had the chance yet being in the first group who only leveled the soil. I of course said yes.

Watching her was a gift. I had only explained to her via the whole school assembly how to walk the paths and she instinctively knew how to herself. She came to the centre, closed her eyes, turned her face up to the sky, with the palms of her hands facing upwards as if to ask for guidance. When she came out, she came to me and said “I went into the labyrinth missing my mom and brother (she is a foster child). When I came to the centre, two animals appeared to me; an eagle and a wolf. I don’t know what that means but I have a pain on my side now.” Not fully knowing what to say I suggested walking the paths again with the intention of releasing the pain on her side and asking for guidance as to what the animals represent.

She promptly went back into the space and walked the paths two more times. Afterwards she told me that the eagle was her mother; ever present with her, giving her guidance and the wolf was her brother; sometimes good sometimes bad but also always with her too. To say that I was overwhelmed myself with this story she chose to share with me would be a massive understatement. I told her that I was so honored to have witnessed her walk and felt so grateful she chose to share her experience with me. Then off she went, to be with her 2 other friends to watch the rest of the class play soccer in the field as I almost fell over!

Not every student is going to have this kind of experience. We know this. Having one student find peace out of 270 is enough for me.

Not every parent is going to understand why we need this at all. One parent even questioned after months of explanation of what the labyrinth was meant for, what it was meant for. They even questioned if it was a religious tool as if they had not heard or read anything we had been sharing. But one parent hugged me in relief and gratitude for all I was doing and bringing this tool to the school at all. Many others really are beginning to understand it.

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It’s only been a  month and there is no way to measure the impacts this project has had to the school community.

We still have phase 2 to go which includes engraving some stones and inlaying them into the 4 corners of the labyrinth for reflection stations of Peace, Love, Gratitude and Forgiveness the 4 most important virtues I believe. We also would like to have the “Big Rock” engraved with the other virtues we have around the garden at the base of the rock. And we need a good plaque or sign that explains what the labyrinth is at all. Fundraising for this part of it will be a task but I have faith it will all come together exactly when it should.

We have also had an amazing outdoor yoga session with Child’s Pose Yoga and the lovely Dana Mahon during a Garden Club on May 2nd; barefoot on colorful mats, complete with eye pillows and a marvelous pom pom wand.

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An official opening ceremony at the school is being planned for the Fall 2014. So as always, more to come!

The Labyrinth Project

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A couple of years ago at the start of the first Garden Club of the year, I asked the group what they wanted to do in the year ahead. I allowed them to choose a space in the school that could be something they transform by planting some seeds or making a bit more green. That was the first time I heard about the “Big Rock”. I never even really knew about this place until the group of 30 or so of the kids brought me to this space just beside the gravel field.

Of course all the kids loved it! It had this massive boulder called the “Big Rock” that the kids immediately showed me how they all ran and clammered up to sit on, it has 3 benches, a wonderful oak tree and is surround by the forest. There is even a creek near by that you can hear after the rains.

Most of the kids wanted flowers and maybe an arbor…a gate to welcome people I now remember was also part of the ideas…maybe a few more trees but mostly, lots of flowers.

The plans and ideas sat in a folder for awhile and then while searching for garden ideas to create without much of a water source (no way our hose could get to that space and rain barrels are yet to be approved by the district) I came across the idea of building a labyrinth in this beloved space.

What is a labyrinth?

A labyrinth is a path design that can be found in many forms: traced in the sand on a beach at low tide, painted on floors of cathedrals, lined with rocks in the dessert, rolled up in a canvass that can be spread out on a floor, or painted on concrete in all kinds of spaces. They are tools that people can use to find peace; a walking path of winding designs with one way in and one way out and a centre to stop and pause and reflect. Ultimately, labyrinths are mindful tools that anyone can use when faced with an issue. The idea is that instead of looking outside for answers, the person walking the labyrinth finds the answer within themselves by the time they walk out of the labyrinth.

A huge idea for a school right? In a system where kids are mostly inside the classroom learning all their subjects; except if they happen to have a garden 😉

We had no idea how to build or create a labyrinth. There are several sites on the net, a man who creates them at low tide at the beach at Spanish Banks (http://walkingalabyrinth.blogspot.ca/)  sometimes and there is a labyrinth lady too. But when it came time to write a grant, ask for funds and design this thing, Merrill my side kick parent, Al our principal and I had never really experienced anything like this before. The key thing was though, we were all willing to figure it out. Everything is figure outable after all!

2 years pass by with many design ideas out the window. We looked at paving stones, adding a slab of concrete and painting the design on, in laid concrete or rocks. They all went out the window as the main concern was to be honest, what would the kids do with the rocks or paving stones? Would they could they pick them up and throw them at each other? How can we get this approved if there is any trace of threat of injury despite the intentions of what it is “supposed” to be used for?

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Finally, after attending a summer wedding at the UBC Botanical Gardens, I came across a labyrinth there…I almost actually didn’t even see it at first because the design was in laid right into the grass.

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Finally we had a design that would work. Mind you, we had submitted a proposal with the paving stones that was approved by the District so changing it to this we felt would be even better and easier to get done. Also, the costs of crushed gravel vs paving stones was a big difference. 

A grant submission went into the Evergreen Foundation which was a group I had long wanted to become more connected to anyway as Dolores Altin and I were connected from the first time we met several years ago now. A year after that, we finally had funding to start this project.

Most labyrinth projects at schools are created by teachers who are on board first. We worked a bit backwards, getting the staff on board after funding was secured. It wasn’t a hard sell though. Here we were offering a space to use for the classes outside of the classroom; a place for teachers to bring their kids when they were facing a conflict and needing resolutions. Comments from the teachers included: “I’ll be first to line up and use it on a Monday morning!” as yes, it does seem really easy for an adult to wrap their brains around.

But what about the kids? Getting kids engaged in planting of food seemed so much easier. Would they “get” what this labyrinth thing is even?

All I could go with was what I knew of my Garden Club members and here was where a lesson in trust comes into play. You just never know what a kid already knows. When we talked about this idea to the group of kids who wanted to do something at the Big Rock, I wasn’t sure if they’d go for it. Some were definitely confused but one pair of siblings knew exactly what I was talking about. The two sisters went to a church that had a labyrinth and quickly, the older sister became my “go to” student for support. She always corrected anyone who thought a labyrinth was a maze for example: “no, a labyrinth has one way in and one way out” she would say. I also had the most memorable heart felt conversations with Anna when we talked about the idea of sand blasting our names on to the Big Rock itself.

In a conversation up to the Big Rock one day during the planning phase,Anna thought about  how great it would be to add all the names of the Garden Club members who came up with the idea for the Labyrinth. In reflection however, she said this: “The only thing with adding our names to the rock and not anyone else is that everyone else will feel left out and that’s not ok.” Instead of squashing her whole idea, I suggested we echo what we have around the garden and engrave the words of Virtues instead, those words will never change as being a part of who we are after all: Peace, Love, Compassion, Trust, Forgiveness, Service, Responsibility, Confidence, Respect, and Patience. I checked with Anna and she liked this idea.

See, this is what I love about these projects; when else would I or anyone have the chance to have this kind of conversation with a student? When else can we allow their light to shine this way? That is the intention with this space and the garden space, platforms for greater heart felt conversations. I just feel blessed to be a witness to these thoughts and so many others these kids can have.

And here we are, on Pi Day March 14, 2014, having just finished presenting the whole idea to the entire school. Standing before the large crowd of 270 (minus one class on a field trip) I found myself wanting to be a channel to my higher self and just allowed the words to flow. I wanted to explain the best way I could what the labyrinth will be, how it can help them, how it is everyone’s and that we need to respect it, how it will be a legacy piece for the Grade 7 students (let alone a  math lesson!) and then how to use it when it has been built. All eyes were on me with focus and interest and even the little K’s were for the most part, quietly listening. I included my story with Anna and watched her face light up with recognition. The virtues were mentioned and even though Olivia helped us 3 years ago, her hand still shot up with a memory of the day she painted the word “Confidence”.

We hope to have inlaid slabs of stone engraved with words like Peace, Forgiveness, Love and Gratitude that will be stations for the students to stop and reflect upon in the future as well.

Al our principal, ended the assembly the best way ever, with a slide show compilation of photos of the kids from the past year to the songs “Brave”, “Roar” and “Happy”. Of all the things we can teach our kids and this is where I resonate most with our principal, it is to be happy. I hope this labyrinth as tool for mindfulness will be used for the kids to find their own happiness within themselves.

Stay tuned for posts about our build that is set to happen on April 2, 2014 with 3 of the 12 divisions from the school, an opening ceremony in June and a mindful meditation in May with Child’s Pose, Dana Mahon