Elderberry Trees and Learning Communities

My elderberry tree had black aphids. Lots of them.  Bending near and looking under leaves, I found little black soft bodied bugs massed on all the stalks and stems; it looked like they would devour the entire tree.   As an organic gardener, I had a slew of solutions at my call.  I headed into the house to make up a batch of apple cider vinegar and (organic) dishwashing soap.

This was just after I had finished my Permaculture Certificate Design Course, however, and as I rummaged in the kitchen I began to think through the Permaculture principles.  What were the aphids doing there? I thought.  Did they have a role in the garden?  I decided to google it:  Permaculture solutions to black aphids on my elderberry tree’.  Who knew I would find exactly that- an excellent article on beneficial insects attracted by an elderberry ‘trap plant’ at Gaia Creations:  http://gaiacreationsecoland.blogspot.no/2011/08/elderberry-volunteers-applying.html

I did as advised, and sure enough, I soon saw an army of ants milking my aphids, then insects hunting them, then just like the pictures on the blog, hundreds of beneficial lady bugs in and under the leaves of the elderberry.   This was a turning point in my permaculture practice, the moment I understood the difference between organic gardening and permaculture.   We are not always the solution.   Running to find ‘our’ go to solution to correct the problem that we see may not be the best course of action.  Permaculture principle number 1 is Observe and Interact, but note that the word ‘observe’ comes before the word ‘interact’.   Observation is key to (any) interaction, and sometimes the best interaction is none.   There are many other actors in our spaces, and sometimes the growth of the entire space relies on letting them interact instead.

In my classroom, I have always been a diligent observer.   I see the child who is left out, the one who is an instigator, those who call out for attention, those who like to gossip, those who tend to stay to themselves.  Often, I have also been quick to interact, to comment on behaviors or to intervene to solve problems I see developing.   But this story urges me to perhaps observe more keenly, to look beyond the first instance in an interaction and to consider how the other actors in the class are involved.  Instead of intervening myself, I may find that I can simply strengthen the number of beneficial actors in an area where there is potential for conflict or harm.  For example, if I see one boy is timid and approached by another who is dominant, who may have a tendency to override the situation, even bully, is there another in the class who is a protector, a ‘big brother’ or ‘mothering’ type?  If they are nearby, can this diffuse a situation, and even serve to strengthen and develop all the actors?

I know that if I intervene in this type of situation, a potential unwanted result is that the shy boy may feel embarrassed, called out, or the stronger one rebuked and shamed.  By leaving the solution in the community all the children are encouraged to develop their strengths, to interact with each other, to find their own voices and to create connections.

I still remember a class I had several years ago, where a new boy had come and had trouble integrating into the group.  He often just stood around outside during playtime and was often by himself.  I was about to approach him on the playground when I saw Kaia leave her group and go over to him.   Later in circle time, she herself brought up the fact that she had seen Nicolai alone and that she thought more of the children in the class ought to invite him to play.  Kaia was a little older than the others, a popular girl, with strong mothering instincts.  Before I knew it she and Nicolai had developed a good friendship and Nicolai smoothly integrated into the class.   I could have brought up the situation myself and Kaia may well have come to the fore and volunteered to play with Nicolai, as she was that type of person, but it would have been ‘teacher designed’, and not nearly as genuine or as long lived as the friendship that developed naturally.

I wonder how many other places I can apply this principle of careful observation, learning the tendencies and qualities of the students in my class, encouraging their own interaction in the community.

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