November 2015

Sixth-Graders Investigate Nature and Contemplate Change at the Farm

Blog Type:  Dispatches From the Farm Date Posted:  Friday, November 6, 2015 Byline:  By Garth Battista, MCS Farm

John walks with a group of sixth-graders up the dirt road past the upper garden, past the bright green hayfield and into the woods. Along the way we pass Thyme Hill on the right, which is partly brushy and partly mowed grass. We stop and taste some rose hips.

Soon we’re into woods full of young maple and ash trees. John says, “You can read the farm like a book.” What was an open field 20 years ago can grow quickly back to a brushy thicket, and then to woods. Lone apple trees that once stood out in the open are now shaded by taller hardwoods. Pine trees planted by early Manhattan Country School students in the 1960s are now 50 feet tall. Stumps from trees that had been cut 10 or 30 years ago are still visible, covered with moss and lichen and mushrooms, slowly crumbling. We talk about how fungi can consume dead wood and break it down back to soil.

This ties in with the MCS Farm’s recent mushroom project, in which students helped to inoculate oak and hophornbeam logs with the spore of shiitake mushrooms. For almost a year the spore will slowly, silently feed off the logs, and in the spring we hope a crop of lovely edible shiitake mushrooms will pop out. Each log can repeat the process for up to seven years before it is spent and falls apart. In that project we learned that living trees generate their own anti-fungal compounds, which fade away within a week or two of cutting. The fungi are all around us all the time, but they can only grow in dead wood and leaves.

We walk along on a thick carpet of brown fallen leaves. We consider what the woods would look like if fungi didn’t break them down. Would we have a 20-foot high layer of leaves throughout the woods, in which we would need to tunnel our way? Everyone seems to like that idea.

We follow the lines of stone walls through the woods. What are all these walls doing in the middle of the woods? We talk about how 50 or 100 hundred years ago all these woods were open fields. And the walls were built through hundreds and thousands of hours of hard labor by the farmers and probably their kids, perhaps no older than the MCS kids with us today. Everyone groans in sympathy. The walls served two purposes: they removed rocks from the fields so crops could be grown and they kept cattle or sheep or horses from wandering off.

We make our way higher up the hill into the sapbush, where MCS Farm kids collect sap in February and March to make maple syrup. Many of the trees are taller here, obviously having been kept as a sapbush even decades ago when the younger woods were still open fields. We talk about cutting some of the trees to let more light in for the others. Selective cutting can lead to a healthier forest; plus the logs from the culled trees will be brought down to the Farm, split and used in the wood stoves heating the rec room and the textiles building. The fallen tops of the trees—the buds and the thin branch tips—provide food for deer in the dead of winter when there is nothing else to eat.

Among the huge maples of the sapbush grow patches of wild leeks—“ramps” that are a highly sought gourmet delicacy that grows here in springtime. One student tells us how her father likes to make ramp pesto, and we spend a few delicious moments contemplating that. A sense begins to emerge of the wealth of forest resources in our backyard.

And again we get a feeling for the time scales affecting our surroundings: decades to go from seedling to tree, decades to go from field to woods, or from stump back to soil. For 12-year-old students, it may be a bit incomprehensible, or maybe a bit awe-inspiring.

We turn and start going home downhill. The muted grumbling about the difficulty of the hike fades quickly as we begin the descent back to the farmhouse. The pace picks up and there is a fair amount of skipping, laughing and running on the way back. We stop off at the lean-to with its glorious long views of the whole farm and much of Meeker Hollow. You can read the farm like a book—and the more you know, the more interesting the book gets! 

New Crops at the MCS Farm this Fall

Blog Type:  Dispatches From the Farm Date Posted:  Wednesday, November 11, 2015 Byline:  By John McDaniel, MCS Farm Program Director

At the MCS Farm this fall, we took the opportunity provided by the change to the lower garden layout and some much needed rain to add some new crops. We added six new apple trees, choosing the varieties of Macoun, Northern Spy and Honeycrisp. Adding these trees will compliment our existing Macintosh, Paula Red and wild trees found throughout the Farm’s landscape.

We also added 15 “high bush” blueberry plants. Jersey, Blueray and Bluecrop were the chosen varieties due to their hardiness in our region and the mid- to late-season harvest time to coincide with student farm trips. Historically, we’ve traveled to nearby farms to pick our berries for the year’s supply. Adding bushes to our own garden adds to our list of foods for which travel is measured in steps.

Another very exciting addition is our newly built grape arbor. Using logs from Hophornbeam trees harvested from our own forest by Fifth Floor students, the rustic arbor will support grapes that will be planted this coming spring. Jellies, juice and freshly eaten grapes from the hand will add a new dimension to our growing variety of crops.

7-8s Continue Building Skills with Design Lab

Blog Type:  Curriculum Spotlight Date Posted:  Wednesday, November 11, 2015 Byline:  By Kerry Devine, 7-8s Teacher

This year, we have added Design Lab to morning work time. It is a time when the children explore open-ended materials and build and create. We were thinking about how the 7-8s is the first year the children no longer use blocks, but that that kind of building and problem solving is such an important skill. 

In Design Lab, there are a variety of materials on each of the tables. Initially the children are asked to explore the materials without an assigned task. Over time, once they are familiar with the materials, we then give them an assigned task, such as, “Can you build a structure that is freestanding?” or “Can you create a structure that is two levels? Three levels?” The children need to collaborate with one another, negotiating with both the materials and each other. We think this kind of problem solving is necessary for them to further their critical-thinking skills and allows them the opportunity to stretch out of their comfort zone.

8-9s Learn Cooking Skills and Life Lessons at the MCS Farm

Blog Type:  Dispatches From the Farm Date Posted:  Friday, November 13, 2015 Byline:  By Garth Battista, MCS Farm

This week, the 8-9s experienced their second time in the Manhattan Country School Farm kitchen preparing food. Students are learning basic cooking techniques and independence in the kitchen, steadily progressing toward the day in eighth grade when each will prepare a whole meal for their class.

Thursday Donna’s cooking class made pizza and green salad, with an apple crisp for afternoon snack. Donna says, “I want them to learn to focus on each task to make the whole dish come together.”

She started off with the three rules of cooking, which are pretty good rules for life in general:

• Keep your hands out of your mouth and nose. (You don’t want to let your germs get into the food.)

• Any mess you make, you clean up.

• Take turns asking questions. (Don’t interrupt someone else.)

With guidance from Donna, the kids immediately jumped into their assigned tasks, and soon the kitchen was filled with the sound of chopping and mixing. They all seemed to enjoy the work, and Donna gave advice on best techniques.

Salad prep begins. Some basic instructions on slicing—always on the cutting board, never toward your hand.

Mixing flour with yeast and water to make a pizza dough.

Coring and slicing apples to begin the apple crisp.

The pizza dough gets kneaded. “Pat – pat – roll. Pat – pat – roll. Pat – pat – roll.” 

The salad is coming along nicely.

Rolling out the dough.

The apple crisp team consults the recipe to see what dry ingredients are needed. Then comes “searching and finding.” Donna says, “Everything in this kitchen is findable.” Students gather all the necessary tools and ingredients: flour, brown sugar, oatmeal, margarine (to keep it vegan), a big bowl, a baking dish, mixing spoons, measuring spoons and measuring cups. 

Using teaspoons and measuring cups. “You want your flour light and fluffy.” 

The pizzas are ready for sauce. 

The apple crisp is ready for the oven. 

The pizza gets sauce, and soon some cheese. 

In very little time the students whipped up a delicious meal. And very soon after, they and their classmates made it all disappear.

A few things overheard in the kitchen today:

“My dad loves to cook.”

“My grandpa loves to cook.”

“Do you like apple pie?”

“Do you like potato s’mores?”  

“That sounds disgusting!”

“How are home fries different from French fries?”

“I learned a new technique!”

“That’s perfect. Absolutely perfect!” (about pizza dough)

“Wow! This is fun.”

“Imagination. Generation. Animation!”

9-10s at the MCS Farm: Putting the Garden to Bed

Blog Type:  Dispatches From the Farm Date Posted:  Thursday, November 19, 2015 Byline:  By Garth Battista, MCS Farm

As winter approaches at the Farm, it’s time to “put the garden to bed.” In Cathy’s farming class this week, the 9-10s students helped harvest the last of the carrots, and they spread compost over the garden beds. The garden will lie dormant until spring, when we begin turning the soil and getting ready to plant all over again.

Ed gets a tractor bucket load of compost from the bin. 

As winter approaches at the Farm, it’s time to “put the garden to bed.” In Cathy’s farming class this week, the 9-10s students helped harvest the last of the carrots, and they spread compost over the garden beds. The garden will lie dormant until spring, when we begin turning the soil and getting ready to plant all over again.

Ed gets a tractor bucket load of compost from the bin. 

Every morning and every evening, waste from the cow and pig stalls is dumped into the manure spreader (a big mechanized wagon towed by our old Ford tractor), and then once or twice a week we either spread it over the hayfields or put it into the large composting bins near the barn. With the help of bacteria, fungi, worms and insects, the compost pile slowly breaks down from table scraps and cow and pig manure to a fine rich humus, full of vital nutrients. These include “macronutrients:” nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, sulfur, carbon, hydrogen and oxygen in large quantities. Seven other “micronutrients” are present in small quantities: iron, manganese, zinc, boron, molybdenum, copper and chlorine. They all are found in our compost and they are all required for healthy plant growth.

Spreading compost over the garden beds. 

Some farms need to buy fertilizer to replace nutrients in the soil. At the MCS Farm, we use the animal and kitchen waste to feed the soil. In this way, we create a completely self-sufficient cycle of food > waste > compost > soil > [add sunshine and rain … and do a lot of weeding] > food.

A local hero—the worm—is greeted and celebrated. 

Digging up the last of the carrots in the lower garden.

Everyone ate a carrot or two (or three) during the harvest.

Overheard from a student eating a carrot: “This is the best part of farming!”

The carrots get dried in the sunshine before being moved to the root cellar for the winter. 

And while the outdoor gardens slumber through the cold days of winter, green seedlings are just beginning to sprout in the MCS Farm greenhouse. The gardens may be dormant, but the Farm never sleeps.

Feelings and Friendship: 5-6s’ Conversations Foster Social-Emotional Growth

Blog Type:  Curriculum Spotlight Date Posted:  Friday, November 20, 2015 Byline:  By Laleña Garcia, 5-6s Teacher

A large part of the work of the 5-6s centers around the social-emotional growth of children. To that end, we have countless discussions about feelings, friendships and families, among other topics. Teachers address these topics when they come up in small groups, as children work and play together, and we also have numerous group conversations.

Recently, we spent a lot of time talking about how to play with other children. We asked children what they need to do before they touch another person’s body, whether it’s to play tag, give them a hug or to slap them on the back to say hello. The 5-6s were unanimous in their belief that you need to ask someone before you touch them. We asked them why. Here are a few of their answers:

“So that they can tell you if you can touch them or not. Because maybe they don’t feel good about you touching them right now.”

“So that they don’t get hurt.”

“If you touch them without asking they don’t feel good.”

“When you want to touch somebody you have to ask because it’s their body and they might not want you to touch them.”

“If you’re asking can you touch them, then don’t touch them while you’re asking.”

“If they first say they want to get touched and then they change their mind, then you still don’t touch them.”

“You can’t touch their body until you ask because it’s their body and if they don’t want you to touch their body you can’t.”

“If the person says yes and you touch them, if you want to touch them another day you still have to ask.”  

There were frequent brain matches and nods of agreement, as children listened carefully to their classmates, responding thoughtfully to their friends’ points, and thinking about their next comment. At a time in their lives when sitting still for long periods of time can be difficult, all 21 children were attentive and engaged for almost three-quarters of an hour, no mean feat for 5- and 6-year-olds.

We’ve also continued having conversations about feelings. We made a list of feelings.  The list began with the usual contenders of “happy,” “sad” and “mad.” Children listened carefully to each other, and offered up “frustrated,” “excited,” “disappointed” and “impressed.”  As the conversation progressed, children raised their hand to describe, “the feeling you have when you have to do something but you really don’t want to,” “like you really want to draw, to make something” and “the feeling you get when you accidentally hurt someone and you didn’t mean to and now your friend is crying.”  We talked about possible words to describe these feelings, such as “resentful,” “creative” and “contrite.” We also talked about how you might not have words for all your feelings, but you can still have them. Furthermore, you might have more than one feeling at a time. This was another long, rich conversation, and one that we will continue to revisit as the year goes on.