A Sustaining Education

At Davis Bilingual Magnet School, first-grade teacher Julian Barceló celebrates curiosity and discovery through his outdoor classroom.

November 11, 2017

Edible InterviewIssue 27: November/December 2017

Voices spill out of Señor Barceló’s classroom at Davis Elementary. While they line up at the door, Señor Barceló asks his first-graders in Spanish: “What is your favorite place?” “¡El jardin!” the students shout. Exiting the building, the students become giddy after spotting a grasshopper on the wall.

Every walk is an adventure.

The class ventures across the street to the garden Barceló revived and expanded in 2010 with fellow teachers, UA interns, students, parents, and community members. In the garden, there’s a chicken coop adorned with a dry-erase board with a diagram of a hen’s anatomy and a tool shed painted with the faces and names of his first students to work in this garden. In addition to garden plots, there are pomegranate, quince, fig, and mesquite trees, and a Tohono O’odham-style ramada next to a semicircle seating area, handmade from adobe, meant to promote conversation.

Students seat themselves at wooden picnic tables as others pass out composition books and pencils, and Barceló goes into the coop to collect today’s eggs. “Hoy encontramos cuatro huevos,” he says and continues with the math problem in Spanish. “If we have four eggs for five days, how many eggs do we have?”

Students write down the problem in Spanish and draw oval circles in quartets in their notebooks and add them, bringing their notebook over for him to check. “Gracias” he says, calling each student by name.

Then the students scatter. This is their reward for completing their work. Some of them go over to a shady spot to draw. Others go off to examine ants climbing a wooden pole with magnifying lenses. They have just finished studying ants. “Look,” one student says. “He’s carrying some green stuff. That’s so awesome.”

At Davis Elementary, teacher Julian Barceló prepares a meal for his first-grade class in their outdoor kitchen and classroom.

Why do you bring students to the garden?

The garden is always an extension of the classroom. Here we will see future biologists. This place gives you the space to develop one of your many intelligences.

What brought you to teaching?

I started observing and helping my wife. She was teaching at that time and then I found connection with the kids. I saw the necessity of bilingual teachers because Spanish is an important part of the Latino/Hispanic culture. It’s part of this area historically. And then I went into a [bilingual teaching] program with Pima Community College, the UA, and TUSD.

Have you taught different grade levels?

I have mostly been teaching kindergarten and first grade. When you work with kids, it’s because you have hope. They take things so serious. We were finding out about insects. We study ants, grasshoppers. Every time we study or learn about animals, little creatures, they become so sensitive. They even make posters around the building that say, “Don’t hurt a grasshopper,” because we practice self-reflection. Grasshopper is the other you. You see how they are connecting things. That’s the beauty of working with kids. When you work with them and see how they react to those positive experiences, you have hope for the future. That’s how we use the garden.

Do you take them to the garden most days?

I take them every day. We just finished a unit on ants. The students observe the anthill, they observe the shape and size. They see how they are eating and working. They are using the five senses. [It’s] the difference between being in the classroom drilling and being outside using their senses and developing. The colors, the shapes, the smells of the vegetables. We are harvesting the eggs right now because our next Friday cooking is going to be burritos de huevos from our own chickens.

It sounds like with math and science they get the practical applications of what they learn at the garden. What that looks like and means in their life in terms of food they eat.

Exactly. We develop art, reading, math, science. And the students have more empathy with the environment. They value nature. They start connecting our environment and native plants. We have three types of berries: wolfberries, mountain hackberries, and one other—an ancient, medicinal plant. Last year we harvested mesquite pods. We arranged them, dried them, ground them, and made pancakes. From the native mesquite, we made cookies. We baked bread in the outside [adobe] oven. Having the garden expands the possible experience of the students. There are some teachers who never experienced how the wheat plant grows and turns golden before it’s ready to harvest.

Is that something you experienced growing up?

Kind of, because I grew up in a little town in Mexico. I was born in 1967. I was born in Huásabas, Sonora. I moved to Hermosillo when I was 10.

Huásabas was a little town next to a river. The fields, the ranch, animals, and plants. I’m very lucky because I’m still remembering the smells of the plants when my dad used to water the field. There is a plant called estafiate—when it touches the water it has a beautiful smell. And there is a kind of bird that comes to eat the insects. These sorts of things I never forget. Next week, we are going to start opening the land and getting ready for the winter season. The students are going to find a lot of insects. I start telling them today that those insects are protein for the chickens. Everything is connected. Everything has a reason.

Barceló says that by teaching students outside, they start to value nature and have empathy for the environment.

How do you decide what you are going to cook for your class meals every Friday?

My dream is to have families share their culture through cooking. A family from Cuba just shared an amazing dish, Moros y Cristianos—rice and black beans. Then we are going, I hope, to have a family from Puerto Rico. From Chile. From Palestine, Argentina, France.

The families bring the recipes?

Most of the families who bring recipes bring everything. During the summer, I bought tamarindo and in the summer it was so refreshing. I said, “That’s what I’ll do my first Friday.” I bet most students don’t know what is tamarindo, the shape of the beans. So a day before I brought the pods, they observed, cleaned it, and then we boiled it and made the drink with a lot of ice. You might say: “Why tamarindo?” It’s another taste, color, flavor, everything. Then we searched: Where does it come from? Different cultures use different ways. In Mexico we use it as a snack, candy, or drink. In India, they use it as an important part of main dishes.

Is one reason you cook in the classroom to help grow students’ palates and expand their tastes?

Exactly. I put it this way: At this point, peer pressure works in a good way. When some students cook and harvest, they want to taste it and aren’t afraid. When others see their good friends are tasting something they never had, they want to try. And then we are trying to emphasize what is native: corns, fruits, plants. Using the eggs. Sometimes we boil eggs. We make cookies, breads, burritos using the eggs. And let me tell you, those eggs are tasty.

How do you talk about and explain the idea of local foods that are native with the kids?

That is one of the main reasons of having a field trip to the Desert Museum, learning about native animals and plants that adapt to this environment. How people adapted, how they take advantage of the weather in this environment. They survive—they knew how because they knew about plants and animals. That’s adaptation. That’s harmony. That is our main goal to find the harmony of the environment but at the same time the social justice.

On Fridays, Barceló makes a class meal, offering students a chance to share their cultures through cooking.

How do you talk about social justice in terms of food, the environment, or sustainability?

In a very simple way: respecting. Using but respecting. Like we have chickens—we need to have a healthy environment for the chickens if we want to have good eggs. The same with the plants. To be aware of [our impact]. Some people in our culture relate chickens with poverty so they don’t feel proud about it. But when they see that we honor and celebrate, that for us it’s important, they feel proud.

So your students are 5, 6, 7—within that range. What do you think is important about introducing these concepts when students are in that age range?

It’s important because they go home and start talking to their parents. Parents say, “I’m glad you are cooking and have a garden because at home they didn’t want to eat, and now they want to try new things.” In our cultura mostly women cook. I’m proud to model to them that Dad can cook too—males can make tortillas, males can make frijoles. Overall, the garden, the cooking, I’m doing this ’cause students have issues with reading and writing. When you develop curiosity, reading and writing comes by itself. Now I’m curious about insects and I want to read. I want to write about this. This is the beginning of research they’ll do in high school and college.

[It’s about] developing their passion and their curiosity. Sometimes they’re so engaged with the grasshopper in the gardens and the ants it can become a problem. My classroom was full of grasshoppers. At the same time, you need to show empathy because that little thing is so important for them. [Years ago] this girl rescued a rooster. A dog was playing with it and almost killed it. She brought it to school and two interns took it home for one month and then we put it back in the garden. And I always tell this girl, “Remember the rooster you saved? Thanks to you the rooster survived.”

Lisa O’Neill is a freelance writer living in Tucson. Her work focuses on intersections of social justice issues including sustainability and food security. Visit LisaMOneill.com.

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