Helping Bronx students connect with the Earth and each other

Questions and answers with Vanessa Spiegel, a teacher at Bronx International High School, who helped launch a program that provides technical education in urban management for high school students.

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A new horticultural program is flourishing at a high school in Bronx, and Vanessa Spiegel, an environmental science teacher, is helping to take care of that.

Bronx International High School – a progressive, project-based school that has recently served immigrants – launched its urban management program at the five-year-old Morris Campus Farm, which put it on the CTE list for career and technical education. . Through a partnership with SUNY Cobleskill, students can earn a degree with the equivalent of a higher Regents degree and three college credits. They’re already getting a taste of running a working farm: serrano, jalepeño, poblano and bell peppers are used by Small Ax Peppers for their hot sauce.

“I was impressed that such an extensive program existed here in the Bronx, and I really liked the idea that students had access to land, the process of food production, the cycles of nature,” Spiegel said. “When I started teaching, I was surprised that the connection between the students who grew up in the city and the origin of their food was broken. I would take them on a tour to our garden and ask them to smell the mint, and they were surprised and said, Oh! It smells like rubber! That’s why it’s incredibly important for me to help students build relationships between urban life and nature. ”

Spiegel has an ideal resume to lead the new program, especially at a time when academic and socio-emotional needs are so intertwined. Spiegel is not only licensed to teach agriculture and science, but also a social worker. As a Master of Math for America teacher, Spiegel is a member of this nonprofit community of outstanding math and science teachers in New York. He is a founding member of Teach the Truth – Westchester, a grassroots coalition that aims to support schools and teachers in affirming students ’diverse identities and telling the nation’s history accurately.

This interview was slightly edited for the sake of length and clarity.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I think I’ve always meant it as a teacher. As a kid, I loved playing at school and being a teacher, and I love learning.

When I was in college, I specialized in protecting wildlife because I was able to imagine the connections between nature and understand that everything we need to survive comes from Earth. I originally thought I wanted to be a zoo instructor to pass this knowledge and appreciation on to others. But with the completion of two courses in agricultural training, I have completed my student teacher studies and have been teaching in high school essentially ever since.

I love working with kids; they keep you young!

Would you tell us about this new program and what led to the teaching?

We need more farmers to continue to produce enough food to sustain our population. It provides our students with professional training and certification so they can choose to enter the job market after graduation or continue their studies in college. The aspect of urban farming brings fresh, organic and locally grown food to areas that don’t usually have access to these things. We have the most amazing farm manager, Hector Bardeguez, who loves working with kids, has an extensive past of sustainable farming, and without whom I absolutely couldn’t do it!

We currently have more than 15 bedding plants used primarily for growing plants, as well as a pollinating garden with a variety of flowers and herbs. Students have the opportunity to practice sustainable, organic, environmentally friendly farming by working on the farm in all seasons and using it as an outdoor classroom. We have built community partnerships with the Bronx Green Up at the New York Botanical Gardens, Small Ax Peppers, Morning Glory and Montefiore. [Medical Center], all of which contribute to the extension of student learning. We are also a Summer Youth Employment Program or SYEP website, so many students are paid through their internships and work experience, which can be incredibly beneficial to many of our families. Not to mention the excellent fresh food they bring home!

How can you get to know your students?

One of the first things I ask students to fill out is our “Getting to Know” questionnaire, which provides an insight into a student’s life and experience at an early age. I think it’s easier for them to describe a few things through a Google form instead of talking about them in front of their peers.

Then, during the semester, I take the time to start and / or finish each lesson with a question and ask students to say a little about themselves, for example, “If you could have any super ability, what would it be and why?” and as we get to know each other better, I ask deeper questions like, “What is your gift to the world?” or “Who are you going to if you have something to celebrate?” I feel this will help build a community of trust and support.

Then of course there is time until we go out to the farm from our classroom or when we work on the farm to really get to know each other. I always learn a lot in these moments because students are the most themselves and the most vulnerable at this time.

Tell us about your favorite lesson. Where did the idea come from?

One of my favorite lessons so far has been gardening according to the moon phases, which has long been practiced, and is a major part of the Old Farmer’s Almanac. We discussed the different phases of the moon, how they affect plant growth, and what plant treatment techniques are worth performing and when. For example, during new moons and full moons, weeds are good because the moon affects the water in the soil (think of the tide) and the water pulls up more on the stem so the plant dies and doesn’t come back. . I love this lesson because it really highlights all the connections that occur in nature.

What is happening in the community that is affecting what is happening in your class?

Many areas of the Bronx are considered food deserts, including where many of our students come from and where there is no access to fresh food, such as what 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 compensate for the lack of access to fresh food. We are partnering with Montefiore and Wellness in Schools to provide our students with additional knowledge about nutrition and cooking demonstrations that will help our students learn about new uses for vegetables grown on the farm.

The pandemic has exacerbated the issue of food insecurity, which is now an even bigger problem than it used to be. By what we grow on the farm, we can give it 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 any experience from your student life that has helped you develop the kind of teacher you want to be?

My home teacher was supportive when I wanted to set up a club to discuss the AIDS epidemic and LGBT issues, and my drawing teacher, whatever happened, was supportive and positive. These were examples of what I wanted to be.

On the other side, there were also teachers who showed me who I didn’t want to be. I will never forget the teachers who judged me by my style and how the assistant principal in my high school scolded me at the front of the buffet for everyone to see because of it. I often felt like I couldn’t be me or I was bad because I was different and unique.

I want to support and respect the interest and personality of my students. I want you to feel seen. I want to highlight their strengths and help them develop the best version of themselves.

What was your biggest misconception you initially took to teaching?

The biggest misconception was that the teaching profession is a respected profession, and my expertise is trusted as long as I teach, support, and focus on my students. I don’t think I was aware of how political the field of education is, and it becomes even more so between the pandemic and the anti-CRT movement.

My school, as well as the consortium and international networks we are part of, have an incredible focus on equity, culturally relevant teaching, and anti-racism work. However, where I live, I have seen teachers taunted and threatened with their work for teaching the exact history of our country and reinforcing all students in the classroom. This recognition and frustration led me to be more active outside the classroom through the co-founder of Teach the Truth – Westchester. We are currently making great efforts to elect school board candidates and to support candidates who create a fair and empowering environment for all students.

Recommend a book that helped you become a better teacher.

The Pedagogy of the Oppressed ”Paulo Freire. Surprisingly, it was originally written in 1968, and everything he wrote about it still occurs and is still incredibly related. I risk his main points are at the heart of the anti-CRT movement. If we do not know our true history and are not taught to analyze systemic repression, we will not be able to challenge and overcome it. One of the goals of our program is to integrate BIPOC agricultural practices through storytelling and the practice of respecting the land with sustainable farming methods.

What is the best advice you have received about teaching?

Slow! This can be applied in many ways. We are often taught by educators that we need to go through 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 won’t have a chance to see if students really understand what they’re learning or just collect information they want to see on exams.

I like working in project-based schools like BxIHS because students have the opportunity to learn through action. They can really experience what learning looks like outside of school. Effort, research, trying, making mistakes, and sometimes having to do it again. And that’s okay! This is the real one! It helps students realize that they don’t have to fix everything in the first place (most people don’t!), And sometimes we learn the most when we “spoil” it. And all this learning would be missed if we hurried. All this is especially valuable in urban farming, we really have to rely on plants and the weather in all our activities and you can’t rush to nature!

Chalkbeat is a non-profit news site dealing with educational changes in public schools.

Amy Zimmer is the Chalkbeat New York office manager. An award-winning journalist, he previously taught DNAinfo’s New York news site. His writings have appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Metro newspaper, and City Limits, among others. Her book, “Meet Miss Subways,” focused on one of the country’s first integrated beauty contests. He also led a content strategy at, a technology startup. Amy earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Yale and a master’s degree in journalism from New York University.

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