Sustaining people and places
The impact of the Landcare programme in the school community is far- reaching and can be largely understood through children's enjoyment of responsive, flexible, semi-structured and non-dictatorial pedagogies that are different to the conventional classroom. Other effects of the programme can also be understood through a changing school culture that is about children's agency and empowerment. Many of these outcomes were highlighted during my initial visit to the school when the principal Alison Grant described the complex sociocultural challenges faced by the disadvantaged school community. Her description of troubled and vulnerable students who saw themselves as 'less achieving' than others revealed underlying and deeply entrenched views about the school and its students:
This is a local place and community where there isn't a huge amount of money; our students feel that they're second best. I heard the term 'bush pig' for the first time when I first worked here. The students had this feeling that maybe other schools are better or other parents care about their kids more, so they might send them to other schools. So there's a feeling of inferiority and cringe amongst the kids that we actually needed to turn around.
Even though the Landcare programme did not specifically set out to address such feelings of 'inferiority and cringe', the success of the programme has allowed children to revel in their achievements. In my observations children saw themselves as having a major part to play in the school's new momentum and were cognisant of the new life the programme injected into their school. Showcasing their efforts to others via the tours, conference presentations and other public forums affords them agency and the opportunity to communicate themselves as citizens who effectively speak and act on behalf of the place where they live and go to school. Having asked students how their actions might influence other children, teachers and others who come to their school, one student explained:
I guess they're kind of interested to see what children can do when they put their minds to something. What we have done over the last maybe five years is to help this beautiful place become what it is today. We've had lots of schools coming to try and do what we've been doing here. So we've actually influenced others to help the environment and that's such a brilliant feeling.
As the school landscape continues to change as a consequence of children putting 'their minds to something', so have the stories they tell about the place and themselves in that place. According to the principal:
Landcare has built up the kids' sense of identity and self-esteem. They feel proud about what they've done, and they get an opportunity to talk about what they've done. The overall strength of the program is its ability to generate success by connecting kids to their place and to their community, so that they now feel really proud of the place that they live in. There's a sense of pride from the whole community so it's not just a school thing. The community has taken it on. And the strength of this program is that Nel connects kids to their place, to their community and she actually generates success and that success is really positive. We're actually setting kids up to have skills and to have values that are going to help them make choices later on in life.
The principal's comments highlight the school's conscious and transformational decision that has been made by adults on behalf of children to commit to curriculum that 'connects kids to their place and to their community', and to make place the basis of building their 'sense of identity and self esteem'. The curriculum and pedagogical frameworks developed by Nel and the school community acknowledge and privilege the contributions of, and children's involvement in, the local environment and the local community. In the spirit of this commitment I am reminded of something Nel had shared with me in one of our many conversations:
David Sobel has this fantastic belief that kids can't solve our environmental misdemeanours if they don't have a foundation of love or care for a place. So it's no good saying to kids fix the problems of the world if they don't have this strong framework about caring for something.