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Life Has No Lesson Plan (from a Garden to a Global Math Challenge to the Most Sustainable Shoes in the U.S.)

Posted Nov 20 2011 7:09am
My older daughter is currently wrapping up 36 consecutive hours spent locked in her high school with 75 other students and one of the most passionate teachers I've ever met. They are joining schools all over the nation and world as participants in an applied mathematics competition where teams of four (40 percent of whom are girls, by the way, and that number goes up every year) choose one of two real-world problems (how to structure a bike-share program in a major city, as an example of one of last year's challenges) and use math modeling and logic to propose comprehensive solutions.  

I volunteered to chaperone the first night, which meant staying up all night (except for right after I said, at around 3 AM, "I can definitely do this!" and then, with my next breath, almost impaled myself with the scissors I was using to make seed packets as holiday gifts as I fell fast asleep for two hours.) This photo is a shot of where I set up "camp," right outside the media center that served as the "dorm" for the girls.  Yes, the night, like the photo, was a blur (and I was thankful for extremely good company from another mom, who spent the time sorting photos and chatting with me).  You haven't felt hope for the future until you see 76 ethnically-diverse 16 and 17-year-olds exploring open-ended real-world math problems, by choice, over an entire weekend, and having a great time doing it (the frisbees and scooters in the school hallways helped, of course).  

The most important parts of this equation?  This challenge is open ended.  There is no right answer.  It requires creativity, innovation, and original thought.  There are no grown-ups telling them what to do.  They are able to work together with peers to find solutions.  They are working on real-world problems to propose answers that could actually be implemented.  And they are having fun while doing it.
Back up a few days, to my younger daughter's health class.  Kids bounded down the hill from the middle school for the third week in a row now ( here is how it started ), through the gate that was bolted for years and now allows them access to our community garden right across the street from their school.  They saw the simple goals on the blackboard.  They know how to do all these tasks now, and where everything they need is located, and thus set out to achieve them with no other direction.  They self-divided into teams, student leadership emerged, solutions (such as how to use a wheelbarrow with no wheel--2 and 4 of them carried it at a time, over and over again) proved successful, and answers to questions they didn't even know they had became evident (how long does it take for garlic to start to grow?  That would be a week).  
My 16-year-old has never had her hand in a school garden because every single administration throughout the years either wasn't interested in a school garden or was waiting for those perfect curriculum tie-ins, those lesson plans that propose pre-determined conclusions and I believe thereby kill the creativity, joy, and wonder of discovery ("Today we are going to learn the life cycle of a bean"). (This actually worked out, however, because it further inspired me to expand my home garden over the years so that my children could learn from it). (Blatant book plug here --I could use your help getting the word out.  I'll be blunt--reviews have been very generous: here is the latest ; but sales are sluggish.)
I want to tell you for certain--you don't need lesson plans.  Anyone who doubts me just needs to see children in a garden to know for sure that they learn massive amounts of information from math to science to language arts to history, from physical education to health to art to even music (the calls of the birds, the rustle of the leaves, the howl of the wind, the rhythm of shovels in motion).  
More importantly, they learn they are necessary, that they matter.  They learn how to do real work to grow real food.  They learn by doing, by asking questions, by listening to conversations, by noticing changes from week-to-week, by testing their hypotheses without adult-led pre-determined destinations. Squeezing the juice from rotting tomatoes into a bed of soil, as one group of girls (including my younger daughter) did after wondering about it?  Let's see what happens!  
If you're a teacher who is required to submit lesson plans, I'd suggest you simply list a few goals, go to the garden, and see what happens and fill your lesson plan in afterwards.  If you are a parent who is tired of waiting, I say don't.   Being immersed in a can-do, create-solutions environment can change your life in many ways.  Here's what happened to a girl who grew up in an entrepreneurial, art-based family, where a pottery studio was just a normal part of the house and providing professional artists to major theme parks was a day's work.  She saw a need for something, and created it (even though she had never made this particular thing before).  She wondered how to make it better.  She kept exploring, asking, questioning, connecting.  She tried out solutions, made them better, tried them out again.  She, frankly, didn't stop until she created what are right now the most sustainable shoes in the United States.  Minimalist shoes that mimic the joy and health benefits of going barefoot.  Made of recycled materials that are fully recyclable.  Total cradle-to-cradle adherence to best practices, and beyond.  And mom-friendly, folding up and fitting in a bag, going from walking to school to today's tetherless work sites (have laptop, will travel) to wherever else the day takes you in a snap.
Meet Rachelle Kuramoto of Kigo Footwear , whom I met this week and whose Flit shoe model I've been, well, flitting around in all weekend (including that night in the high school).  TOMS Shoes (which, as you know, I love), move over and make room.  There is a new shoe in town (and one which works better with socks than my TOMS Shoes , so it will take over my winter wear), and my feet are definitely happy feet--and I'm not talking about the penguin here!  But you want to know what makes me even happier about meeting Rachelle?  Her thoughts about The Art of Making Mistakes . Her extraordinary, immediately-evident poise and strength.  Her positive mental and physical energy (she is running the Big Sur Half Marathon today, by the way).  The fact that she is in this world, thinking, creating, doing, and that I now consider her my friend. And the fact that I could tell my daughters about her and her company, as another example of what's possible in this ever-changing world.
Listen, 90% of the future's jobs don't exist (and what will become of me in a world where print is possibly dead is a big, fat question to me right now as well).  If you have not seen this excellent 4-minute video yet, I strongly suggest you watch it.  I saw it several years ago, and it immediately changed my life, and the type of advice I give my daughters.  It continually reinforces for me the extraordinary value of creative thinking and innovative risk-taking needed for the future (skills most American children are not learning in school), and how I will go to the mat (or the garden, or the high school overnight) to make sure my daughters are immersed and encouraged in these attributes.  Because, guess what?  Life has no lesson plan.
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