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Learning to live a greener life at St Francis College

| March 24, 2015 | 0 Comments

By Saskia Boonzaier

At first glance, St Francis College in the Eastern Cape, near St Francis Bay, looks like many other small, rural, independent schools.

A cluster of red-roofed buildings sits neatly within the boundaries of a working farm, and jungle gyms, goal posts and the odd forgotten hockey stick rub shoulders with the local livestock. Multicoloured chickens wander in and out of the classrooms and the sound of cows bellowing from the kraal compete with the melodies of the pupils’ choir.

A quiet green revolution

However, look closer, and something akin to an environmental revolution has quietly taken hold of this school’s teachers, learners and their families. One pupil can be seen pushing a wheelbarrow full of manure, another child is collecting worm ‘tea’ fertiliser from the worm farm and yet another group is returning from a morning’s hard digging in the school’s vegetable garden. Their hands are dirty, limbs a bit sore, but their cheeks are rosy from the fresh air. They chat excitedly with each other about their ‘finds’ in the garden. One or two munch on freshly picked cherry tomatoes as they settle at their desks to start work. The maths lesson poses questions related to the morning’s activities and is peppered with phrases such as “area of vegetable beds”, “litres of water from the water tank” and “ratio of worm tea to water”.

This comprehensive environmental integration into the teaching curriculum is key to the college’s excellent ‘green’ record and has been facilitated by the school’s headmaster, Alan Campbell. He believes that, “as educators, we have a great responsibility to the future of our learners in creating an awareness and love of our environment. We need to change the mind set of pupils and show that every little contribution, act or deed makes a difference to their future. Fortunately, our educators have embraced this challenge.”

Platinum status The Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa’s (WESSA) Eco-Schools Programme1 has mentored the school’s environmental journey. Now in its ninth year as an Eco-School, the college earned its Platinum award through working on topics such as recycling and encouraging healthy living. The college’s ongoing recycling project has seen tons of plastic, tins and paper donated to the St Francis Bay Rotary exchange shop, which operates from the local township of Sea Vista. In addition, pupils are encouraged to bring healthy lunches to school, and ‘sorting’ their lunchtime leftovers and wrappers has become a fun habit – a little bit to the chickens, some to the worms and the rest allocated to the correct recycling bin.

Coastal clean-ups

Surrounded as it is by such diverse and pristine flora and fauna, the college also maximises the learning time of the children in the outside ‘classroom’. This is a primary aim of the Eco- Schools Programme – to bring environmental issues into the classroom whilst also teaching pupils outside in the environment.

The school’s proximity to the sea has enabled many coastal hikes and clean-ups – one highlight of which was the college’s involvement in greening retail store Billabong’s premises in Jeffrey’s Bay and proudly cleaning the beach during the Billabong Pro international surf competition.2 The children certainly made their mark as the ‘green team’, scouring the beaches and relieving the surf-loving public of their empty coffee cups and general litter.

Unusual assemblies

Back at school, weekly adventure sessions involve cycling, paddling, cross-country running, orienteering and camping skills. Monthly birding outings have inspired a new generation of ornithologists, with the last outing boasting an impressive total of 40 species spotted. Assemblies differ slightly from those sleep-inducing ones of urban schools, with penguins, bee hives and Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA)3 dogs gracing the college’s stage. Activities further afield, such as an annual heritage tour and a wilderness education camp, provide pupils with a broader view of nature and their role as custodians living within it. What began as one or two classes taking part in the Eco-Schools Programme has subtly permeated through to the entire staff and all pupils at St Francis College.

Growing gardens and social responsibility

The college engaged with this very complex issue of food security in two ways: first by expanding its existing organic vegetable garden, and second by launching a ‘Families for food security’ competition.

Two small organic gardens had been established in the school grounds as pilot projects in previous years, and the college was fortunate to be offered a larger piece of land on which to expand its vegetable growing. Grade 5 and 6 pupils had a dedicated gardening time each week to develop the new garden, and a parents’ gardening group was established to help. The school’s garden blog charted its progress (see: The challenges in growing vegetables were many and ranged in both size and shape: from mice, chickens and caterpillars to an unidentifiable fungus, heavy rain and the ubiquitous St Francis Bay wind! But through hard work, perseverance and a lot of motivated students, the garden flourished with tomatoes, potatoes, mielies (corn), Swiss chard, radishes, beans, strawberries, pumpkins and beetroot. A portion of the harvested vegetables was donated weekly to needy St Francis College families and to the soup kitchen in the local township.

Finnemore believes that these donations highlight “that there is a very real need to transfer food to those most in need to reduce the inequalities in food security in the country. Young learners are most receptive to such social responsibility learning. This is an important element in focusing on food security.”

For many pupils, working in the school garden was their first exposure to food in its purest form. As one child noted: “I loved it how the children did almost all of the work and nobody ever had a bad day at gardening. I barely knew a thing about gardening… it is now my favourite activity.” Teaching the pupils about the touch, taste and feel of fresh, pesticide-free vegetables was a first step in changing eating patterns and instilling a deeper connection with nature. Asked about its benefits, one pupil replied that “growing your own food is lots of fun and can get you used to eating veggies, and the quality of freshness will always be guaranteed. Gardening is a life skill.”

Overcoming unusual challenges

The second step in enriching the children’s ‘food knowledge’ was to take part in the college’s ‘Families for food security’ competition. The aim of this long-term project was to encourage the planning, growing and utilisation of a home vegetable garden. Each family that took part received a starter pack containing some seeds, soil, an information booklet and tips on how to get started. Throughout the course of the next seven months, the budding home veggie growers had to work towards compiling a portfolio, which would essentially document their gardening experiences. Families were also encouraged to share their experiences on the school gardening blog. One family noted that “the benefit of this project is that our kids are now more aware of vegetables, how they are planted, watered, fed and how they grow and taste”.

This competition fostered a love of gardening and growing vegetables among the pupils and their families. For many, it was the first time that they had attempted to grow their own greens. And for others, the obstacles to overcome were huge – including people stealing their produce and pigs eating the rest! But despite these challenges, the children persevered and showed true determination to nurture a seed into a meal. And as one pupil remarked: “The gardening competition was fun and lots of children wanted to compete in it. The children made foods like stews and pizzas and they were all yummy.” The school’s garden and family food competition will continue and expand in the future, with a labyrinth, pizza topping plot and colourful wall murals already in the planning stages.

Improved well-being The resultant exposure to green areas, fresh vegetables, exercise and clean air improved not only the pupils’ physical but also mental well-being. Desire Darling, an occupational therapist working at the college, has seen a marked improvement in children’s behaviour, attention span and interaction among their peers. She says that “good nutrition can also make a significant difference in the lives of children who have been diagnosed with attention deficit order. In many cases, dietary changes have not only improved symptoms of hyperactivity, concentration and impulsivity, but have also calmed oppositional behaviour.”

A green flavour

Finnemore believes that the college’s “learners and teachers are fully committed to living sustainably with recycling, water and energy conservation, healthy living, biodiversity conservation and respect for community and heritage projects well integrated into the curriculum and the school’s projects. Food gardening is now the latest project to add to this impressive record. It is such a pleasure to work with St Francis College and see the enthusiasm of the teachers and learners for all things environmental.” The college’s motto of ‘Learn to Live’ definitely has a green flavour to it.

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Category: Autumn 2015

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