Rivka Mason invites me to visit again during class times in the garden classroom, her “school under the sky” at Malcolm X Elementary School in West Berkeley. The dinosaur kale is ready to pick, and it is the sweetest now in late winter.
In this lesson, the kids are making their own kale salads. Each child picks six of the dark green knobby leaves, and takes a bowl and fork to the picnic table. They tear up the kale into bite-sized pieces.
Rivka circles around the picnic table and splashes a bit of olive oil into each kid’s bowl. She says, “Let’s massage the greens with our hands. They’re going to relax and get soft. The more you massage the leaves, the more you’ll break down the cells. They’ll taste like they’re almost cooked.”
All the hands and fingers start kneading, pinching and working their leaves into glistening softness. Rivka spritzes each child’s bowl with a vinegar dressing. She talks about the biology of these plants, where they come from, what their nutritional value is, and when they are available in this climate. The kids dig in, and devour the salads they’ve made. Most of these eight third graders want second helpings, and they grab a few more leaves to tear up.
One little girl says, “Hold on, I still have a couple of cells to eat.”
Another boy asks, “Ms. Rivka, can you give this recipe to my Mom?”
So, here is the recipe for everyone who might never eat raw kale, including all the parents who don’t think their kids would ever touch a leaf of it to their lips. The salad is warming and energizing, and perfectly delectable for a late winter’s lunch.
Rivka’s Massaged Dinosaur Kale Salad
- One bunch of Dinosaur Kale
- 3 TBS olive oil
- Juice of 2 lemons
- 5 TBS soy sauce
- 5 TBS rice vinegar
- Salt and pepper to taste
- De-stem the kale and chop the leaves into thin strips.
- Combine the lemon juice, soy sauce and rice vinegar. (Rivka pours this mixture into a spray bottle to spritz on the leaves, which works really well)
- Place kale in mixing bowl and sprinkle with olive oil.
- With clean hands, massage and knead the leaves for 2 minutes, or until they have softened and shrunk a bit in size.
- Splash or spritz the glistening and softened leaves with the soy, lemon, rice vinegar mixture.
- Serve and enjoy with salt and pepper to taste.
You can also add in other finely cut up ingredients like julienned carrots, cold cooked beans, finely diced cooked chicken or sesame seeds.
This scene in the winter school garden produces a magical and intimate feeling on this unseasonably warm February morning. It’s coupled with a sense of sadness and impending anxiety for what these children may be losing. These beautiful, workable and useful scaled garden worlds created by teachers like Rivka Mason, and found throughout the elementary schools in town are increasingly vulnerable in the face of financial resources that may, or may not, disappear before the next school term.
Teachers, parents and administrators aren’t sure about government funding for this curriculum now. Several of the schools may not qualify for the grant funding because they aren’t showing more than 50% low-income families in their demographics.
There are a variety of reasons that this may be happening. Because of a diversity and equity plan, a broader mix of children are coming from all income levels and being more evenly distributed throughout the district. Because of the economy and recession, lower income families are moving away, and more affluent families are placing their kids in public rather than private schools.
For these and other policy or zoning changes, the numbers have dropped below the requirement for 50% low-income enrollment necessary to qualify for state and federal funding for these classes. They are often hovering around the 43 − 48% level. The penalty will be a loss of this foundational support to maintain the vigor of the programs and not rely on volunteers.
Principals and parents do not want to shut down the cooking and gardening classrooms. But when the patchwork of sources to pay for salaries, supplies and professional development is weakened, it becomes increasingly challenging to weave it back together through bake sales and fundraisers.
Parental fundraising energy can accomplish miracles in the short term, which may happen for the schools waiting to find out about their funding qualification. Beside the rapid response needed immediately to help protect the gardening and cooking programs, there is the bigger question we need to address — how to educate the whole child, and make this value strong and sustainable across all sectors.
It’s a question that reverberates throughout our society as the lure of technology and the digital screen entices so many youngsters. Many will barely learn to, or never really experience, the sensory stimulating kingdoms to be found in gardens, kitchens, nature, and adventuring freely through the real world. Rivka Mason worries about this fact, since she sees so many children become transformed through even their modest contact with this outdoor environment, away from the classrooms inside.
There is an ineffable quality that draws children into this garden kingdom at school. I watch a few 5th graders sitting, talking and eating “weedos,” a creation that consists of rolled up collard greens filled with other tender pickings from the garden. Other kids return to the garden during recess or lunchtime to eat and hang out for unstructured play. Rivka always welcomes them.
The whole world is now germinating for these children through this simple and subtle process of learning through all their senses. Perhaps it can be quantified for funding purposes, but I predict that in fifteen years and beyond, one or more of these children will draw on this experience that he or she was given as a child. It will germinate and blossom into a work of science, or art, literature, or good work and good parenting.
The whole world is in a seed, and how it will express itself in the future, throughout these children’s evolving lives, we can only imagine.
The awakening process starts now.