A new horticulture program is springing up at a Bronx high school, and environmental science teacher Vanessa Spiegel is helping her run it.
Bronx International High School – a progressive, project-based school that serves recent immigrants – launched its urban agriculture program this year at the five-year-old school Morris Campus Farm, adding it to its list of Career and Technical Education, or CTE, streams. Students can graduate with a career seal on their degree that is equivalent to an advanced Regents degree and three college credits through a partnership with SUNY Cobleskill. They’ve had a taste of running a working farm before: their Serrano, Jalepeño, Poblano and Bell peppers are used by Small ax peppers to make his hot sauce.
“I was impressed that such a large program existed here in the Bronx and loved the idea of giving students access to the land, the process of growing food, the cycles of nature,” Spiegel said. . “When I started teaching, I was surprised by the disconnect between the students who grew up in the city and where their food came from. I would take them to visit our garden and let them smell the mint and, surprised, they would say “Oh! It smells like chewing gum! So helping students make those connections between city life and nature is extremely important to me.”
Spiegel has an ideal resume to lead the new program, especially at a time when academic and social-emotional needs are so intertwined. Not only does Spiegel hold a bachelor’s degree in agricultural and science education, but she is also a licensed social worker. Like a Master Mathematics Teacher for America, Spiegel is part of the nonprofit community of accomplished math and science teachers in New York City. She is also a founding member of Teaching the Truth – Westchester, a grassroots coalition aimed at helping schools and teachers affirm students’ diverse identities and accurately tell the nation’s story.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Was there a time when you decided to become a teacher?
I think I was always meant to be a teacher. I loved playing in school and being a teacher when I was little, and I love learning.
When I was in college, I majored in wildlife conservation because I was able to envision the interconnectedness of nature and understand that everything we really need to survive comes from Earth. Initially, I thought I wanted to be a zoo educator to bring this knowledge and appreciation to others. But by adding my double major in agricultural education, I completed my teaching to students, and have been teaching mostly high school ever since.
I love working with children; they keep me young!
Can you tell me about this new program and what led you to teach it?
We need more farmers to continue producing enough food to sustain our population. In turn, it provides our students with vocational training and certification so they can choose to enter the workforce upon graduation or continue their education in college. The aspect of urban agriculture brings fresh, organic, locally grown food to areas that typically don’t have access to these things. We have the most amazing farm manager, Hector Bardeguez, who loves working with children, has a wealth of experience in sustainable agriculture that I absolutely couldn’t live without!
We currently have over 15 raised beds which are mainly used for crops, as well as a pollinator garden with various flowers and herbs. Students have the opportunity to practice sustainable, organic, and environmentally friendly agriculture by working the farm in all seasons and using it as an outdoor classroom. We have established community partnerships with Bronx Green Up in New York Botanical Garden, Small Ax Peppers, morning glory, and Montefiore [Medical Center], all of which help prolong student learning. We are also a Youth Summer Employment Program, or SYEP, site, so many students are paid through their internships and work experience, which can be incredibly helpful to many of our families. Not to mention the excellent fresh food they bring home!
How do you get to know your students?
One of the first things I ask students to do is complete a “Getting to Know You” questionnaire, which provides insight into the student’s life and experiences from the start. I think it’s easier for them to write certain things through a Google form instead of talking about them in front of their peers.
Then, throughout the semester, I take the time to start and/or end each class with a question, asking students to share a bit about themselves, like, “If you could have a superpower, what would it be and why?” and as we get to know each other better, I will ask deeper questions like “What is your gift to the world?” or “Who do you go to when you have something to celebrate?” I think it helps build a community of trust and support.
And then, of course, there’s time while we’re heading to the farm from our classroom or when we’re working on the farm where we really get to know each other. I always learn a lot during these times because that’s when the students are the most themselves and the least supervised.
Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?
One of my favorite lessons so far has been about gardening according to the phases of the moon, a practice that has been practiced for a long time and is an important part of the old farmer’s almanac. We discussed the different phases of the moon, how they affect plant growth, and what plant management techniques are best to do and when to do them. For example, it’s a good time to cut weeds during the new moon and the full moon because the moon affects the water in the ground (think tides) and the water is pulled up more of the stem, which will cause the plant to die and not come back. . I like this lesson because it really highlights all the interconnections that occur in nature.
What’s going on in the community that affects what’s going on in your classroom?
Many areas of the Bronx are considered food deserts, including where many of our students come from, where there is a lack of access to fresh foods like the ones we can grow on our farm. We are incredibly fortunate to teach our students how to grow their own fruits and vegetables, even in small containers, to counter the lack of access to fresh food. We have a partnership with Montefiore and Well-being in schools to provide our students with additional nutrition knowledge and cooking demonstrations that help our students see new ways to use the vegetables we grow on the farm.
The pandemic has compounded the problem of food insecurity, which is now an even bigger problem than it already was. Through what we grow on the farm, we are able to give back to the community. This year alone we were able to donate thousands of pounds of fresh produce to local food banks.
Do you have an experience from your time as a student that helped shape the type of teacher you want to be?
My homeroom teacher was supportive when I wanted to start a club to discuss the AIDS epidemic and LGBT issues and my art teacher was supportive and positive no matter what. These are examples of what I wanted to be.
On the other hand, there were also the teachers who showed me who I didn’t want to be. I will never forget the teachers who judged me on my style and how the vice principal of my high school scolded me outside the cafeteria for everyone to see because of it. I often felt like I couldn’t be myself or that I was bad because different and unique.
I want to support and respect the interests and personality of my students. I want them to feel seen. I want to highlight their strengths and help them develop their best version of themselves.
What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?
My biggest misconception was that teaching is a respected profession and that my expertise would be trusted as long as I taught, supported and centered my students. I don’t think I realized how political the field of education is and it becomes even more so between the pandemic and the anti-CRT movement.
My school, and the international consortium and networks we are part of, are incredibly focused on equity, culturally relevant teaching, and anti-racism work. However, where I live, I have seen teachers taunted and their jobs threatened for teaching an accurate history of our country and affirming all the students in the class. This realization and frustration led me to be more active outside of the classroom by co-founding Teaching the Truth – Westchester. We are currently focusing a great deal of effort on school board elections and supporting candidates who will work to create equitable and nurturing environments for all students.
Recommend a book that has helped you become a better teacher.
“Pedagogy of the oppressed” by Paulo Freire. It amazes me that it was originally written in 1968 and that everything he wrote about it still happens and remains incredibly relatable. I would venture to say that his main points are central to the anti-CRT movement. If we don’t know our true story and are taught to analyze systemic oppression, then we cannot challenge and overcome it. One of my goals in our program is to integrate BIPOC farming practices through storytelling and practicing respect for the land with sustainable farming methods.
What’s the best teaching advice you’ve ever received?
To slow down! It can be applied in so many ways. We are often taught as educators to complete the curriculum, prepare students for exams, and so on. But if we rush, we don’t take the time to get to know our students. Also, if we don’t slow down, we don’t get to see if students really understand what they’re learning or if they’re just regurgitating information they expect to see in exams. .
I like working in project-based schools like BxIHS because the students have the opportunity to learn by doing. They can really experience what learning is like outside of school. It’s an effort, a search, a trial, an error and sometimes starting all over again. And that’s it! It’s real! This helps students recognize that they don’t need to do everything the first time (most people don’t!) and that sometimes we learn the most when we get things wrong. And all of this learning would be missed if we were to rush it. All of this is especially valuable in urban agriculture, we really have to rely on plants and weather for everything we do, and you can’t rush nature!