Alejandro López

 

When, in the late 1800s, the Navajo—formerly free to traverse the length and breadth of the North American continent, ride their horses, herd their sheep and conduct their ceremonies—were defeated by the American Army and forcibly sent to government schools, only with great reluctance and sadness did they accept what they called “paper education” as a substitute for the wonders of creation and the richness of life itself.

 

At Camino de Paz Montessori School, located on nine acres of farmland next to the Río Santa Cruz, in Santa Cruz, New Mexico, the wonders of creation and the richness of life are once again back at the center of young people’s lives. No doubt a reflection of the wisdom, insight and real love and concern for children that founders and teachers, Greg Nussbaum and Patricia Pantano, possess, the school’s site feels more like a nurturing home than an impersonal institution. Outside of an old, rambling adobe home with a beautiful large portal, a big apple tree with thick, powerful boughs provides shade for two large picnic tables where the school community can relish a meal. That meal, more than likely, would have been produced by the youth, from start to finish. It might include a variety of greens—bok choy, ruby red lettuce, arugula—grown in the three greenhouses, eggs from the chickens, and cheese or yogurt from the many goats one sees munching contentedly in a nearby pasture.

 

In addition to assistant teacher Yvonne Aivaliotis, interns Abby Lundrigan and M’Adele Miller, and Pedro Medina, the groundskeeper, the “faculty” includes the goats, with names such as Hercules, Pancake and such, Annie, the resident dog, and two magnificent Belgian workhorses, Chuck and Charlie. It is no exaggeration to include these animals among the faculty because through observation and interaction with them, as well as with a diversity of plants and other sentient beings, the children come to intimately know, connect with and appreciate the wondrous world in which we live.

 

No doubt, this thriving biological oasis would make the early-20th-century Italian holistic educator, Maria Montessori, the school’s guiding light, molto felice. Montessori posited that the garden environment, with its profusion of flora and fauna, water, soil, flowers and fruit, is the ideal environment for the development of human beings. For young children, the farm is an endless source of sensorial richness, from the auditory perks of birdsong and crunching dry leaves to the visual delight of a peacock’s open plumage, the olfactory experience of fragrant roses and the tactile delight of water or sand. Here, nature provides endless biological lessons. Experiences such as the germination of seeds and the birthing of goats are among the most memorable for the youth.

 

For adolescents, the garden comes alive in other aspects, especially those having to do with opportunity, responsibility and economy. After all, the farm is a place of productivity. Fruit, vegetables, grains, legumes, meat and dairy are for consumption and for trade, barter and sale. As a result, the facility demonstrates ways in which humans can partner with nature to provide for their own and others’ survival needs. Goat care and turning goats’ milk into cheese, yogurt and even soap, as well as the marketing of these products, have become important, character-building learning processes. Each year, the students and their support staff produce approximately 10 tons of food. Their products can be found in 14 regional stores. Profits from sales go toward class trips.

 

Both the day-to-day reality and the values that undergird the farm comprise the heart and soul of this intriguing school for adolescents, grades seven-to-nine, as well as determine the processes carried out throughout the days, weeks and seasons. By 8:30 on a pleasant fall Friday morning, after a brief planning meeting for the day’s work and study, 12-year-old Kristyn and 13-year-old Orlando, from Santa Clara and Tesuque pueblos, respectively, map out the plants still growing in the greenhouses. Kristyn carries a large ledger to note what is growing where and at what stages of their life cycle. The two students express great interest and awe in their findings—delicate little beet seedlings, a lone forgotten carrot still in the ground and an oddly shaped turnip, which Orlando studies for a long time. They amicably inventory two greenhouses and note their findings, pausing to consider the odd, correct spelling of the word “lettuce.”

 

On the same morning, 12-year-old Justin takes his task to heart. He sits on a stool beside Abby, milking one of the goats with great skill. Although certainly capable of play and lightheartedness, in these surroundings and at this work, Justin conducts himself like an adult. They decide to do a somatic cell count on the milk, using a Petri dish and a solution that turns the milk a light lavender color and makes it gelatinous in the presence of certain organisms. Justin conducts the process carefully and interprets the results, checking in with Abby and Patricia Pantano to make sure that he is correct. He articulates his findings with the clarity and sophistication of a biologist.

 

Nussbaum cites these qualities as the true fruits of this approach to education and personal development. “Here, the youth are treated and respected as adults,” he explains. “In addition to all the traditional disciplines of history, language, music, art, math and science, they are engaged in the real world of earth stewardship, such as soil building, animal husbandry, production and processing of food, marketing and retail, strategic planning, accounting and economics. The only difference here is that subjects such as science are taught within a living context that the youth can touch, feel, see, taste and even digest. In the coming months as the goats begin to birth, the students’ knowledge and understanding of genetics will be put to the test when their predictions will either be substantiated by the traits that the newborn kids exhibit or are proven wrong.”

 

Each year, Camino de Paz students make an extended field studies trip to the Pacific or Atlantic Ocean, where they study coral reefs, kelp forests and salt-water estuaries and where they have been privileged to work with professional researchers. Not long ago, the youth of the school sang in Swahili at the Tanzanian Embassy in New York before the Tanzanian ambassador and his staff. As practitioners of the arts of subsistence, the students also serve as teachers and mentors to scores of people from all over the world who come to Camino de Paz to see what a “farm school” is and to learn about responsible, benevolent earth stewardship.

 

Pantano says, “These young people will prove to be the solution to many of our problems and the catalysts for a caring, kind, peaceful and cooperative society of the future.”

 

For more information on Camino de Paz School & Farm, call 505.231.2819 or visit www.caminodepaz.net

 

 

Northern New Mexican writer/photographer Alejandro López has a Masters in Art Education from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. As a project-based experiential educator, he has taught in a variety of settings using the arts, agriculture and building. López is the author of Hispanic Folk Arts and the Environment of the Río Grande, a bilingual curriculum for K-12 students developed under the auspices of the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe.

 

 

 

 

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