Many times have I found myself watching the hyperactive chaos of schoolyards during recess and thought: If we could harness that energy, we wouldn't need fossil fuels. I recently learned that this very idea is being tested—appropriately, if hard to believe, by second graders. They attend the Academy for Global Citizenship (AGC), a public charter school in Chicago. After a recent unit on renewable energy, the class came up with the idea of an energy-generating playground, with swings and seesaws converted into generators.
The energy-generating playground will be built on the school's large parking lot, and projects like it are why the academy is running out of parking spaces. The lot is being converted, project by project, into a classroom-sized greenhouse, a green-roofed chicken coop, a wind turbine demonstration project, and a garden, the produce from which augments the three organic meals cooked each day from scratch in the school's kitchen.
"We keep eliminating parking spaces to the point where people are going to have to carpool, or ride bikes," says Sarah Elizabeth Ippel, the school's 29-year-old founder and executive director. Already, her students are bugging their parents to arrange more efficient means of transport to school, thanks to a recent classroom focus on energy and the environment. Many AGC students are making their parents save compostable kitchen waste, too, so they can bring it to school to make more dirt.
I met Ippel last month at Terra Madre, an international gathering of food activists, producers, educators and students. Her two-year-old academy currently offers just first and second grades, but Ippel plans to grow the school by a grade every year, so that by 2015 today's second-graders will have blazed a trail all the way to the eighth.
AGC spent its first year in a former dental tool factory before relocating to its present home in an old barrel factory sandwiched between a machine shop and a pallet factory in an industrial neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. The school's next move will be permanent, Ippel says.
"We've identified an abandoned trucking depot down the street," she says. "Our plan is to turn it into a 10-acre urban farm with a net-positive-energy school building that sells power to the grid." She says the new school will have a solar-powered plug-in carport, yurts for "Wwoof-ers" (Willing Workers on Organic Farms), two experimental gardens for the community, and the energy-generating playground.
AGC may sound like the perfect school for, say, children of wealthy ex-hippies. But many of the students aren't there for the eco-organic touchy-feeliness so much as because it's the closest school to their home. Or because AGC's 8 1/2-hour school day is an advantage for parents working multiple jobs.
"Eighty percent of our students live below the poverty line," Ippel says. "Ten percent qualify as homeless."
And 40 percent, she adds, come from non-English speaking households.
It may come as a surprise that the children of this demographic are exasperating their parents by refusing to throw things away or refusing car rides to school. Or by asking for Swiss chard and tempeh at dinner. One of the most exiting things about her school, Ippel says, is the effect it's having on the community.
"Parents want to know what 'freaking quinoa' is, or why rice is brown," she says. Despite their unfamiliarity with the lifestyle espoused at AGC, many families are warming to it along with their children. Several families want to start a community garden next summer. Another group is building a local baking collective to supply whole grain bread to the neighborhood.
Students learn in two languages, English and Spanish. Soon a third, Mandarin, will be introduced.
The school's curriculum is based on the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, which is inquiry-based. For six weeks at a time they work on a question, like, "Where does our food come from?," or "What happens to our waste?," or "Why do all living things need water?" The teacher's job is to integrate all of the IB learning standards for math, science, history, etc., into the unit. "They could be doing math in the garden, or at a field trip to the landfill," Ippel says. "We spend more money on field trips than textbooks."
In addition to learning through inquiry, there are five other core tenets by which the AGC day is organized: Serving the whole child, fostering international mindedness, facilitating collaboration with the community, modeling academic excellence, and environmental stewardship. These goals are expressed by, for instance, beginning each school day with yoga, the employment of a wellness instructor, and those daily organic meals, which Ippel says no other school in the nation can boast.
"We spend more on food than on the school nurse," Ippel says.
You would expect that the school's kitchen, which is assigned the daily tasking of feeding city kids rutabaga and brown rice, would have a few secrets for making such famously unappealing healthy foods attractive and tasty. Here's one such recipe from the school's kitchen for kale crisps.
(Makes 4 sides)
2 bunches of kale
2 tablespoons of olive oil
2-3 large cloves of garlic, minced
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon of toasted sesame seeds
Preheat oven to 375 F. Rinse kale and pat dry thoroughly. Remove and discard thick ribs and roughly chop leaves. Pat leaves dry again. Toss the chopped leaves with olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Spread the seasoned leaves on a baking sheet. Bake for 15-20 minutes, stirring every five minutes or so, until leaves are tender, crisp on edges, and slightly browned. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve.
Ask Ari: Hunting for a book
Q: Dear Flash,
I'm looking for a good, big game cookbook. You know, something less Ted Nugent, more Kim Williams. Got any suggestions?
—ISO Carcal Knowledge
A: Can I interest you in something that's a bit more Herman Melville? My favorite wild game cookbook, for both its literary merit as well as its wealth of practical information, is the L.L. Bean Game and Fish Cookbook by Angus Cameron.
The book is jammed with mouthwatering recipes, delivered in a prose that's more East Coast high society than hunter hick. It's thick with stories about hunting camps and cabins, and backcountry cooking adventures with all kinds of animals, large and small, and shamelessly heavy cookery smuggled into the backcountry. The life Cameron writes about is the life that Teddy Roosevelt might have lived had he not bothered to be a warrior, an author and a president.
The book is extremely well polished, thanks in no small part to the book's so-called "junior author," the legendary cookbook publisher, editor and author, Judith Jones.
Among the 800 recipes there is plenty of room for personal opinion and dissent, plus tips on field dressing, butchering and other aspects of a life well lived in the backcountry.
For a less literary and more technical, illustrated option, consider Dressing & Cooking Wild Game: From Field to Table: Big Game, Small Game, Upland Birds & Waterfowl. An acquaintance of mine who has shot an animal or two in his time and knows his way around the kitchen, loves this book.
"This is the true 'field to table' book, with how-to everything," he gushes. "From big game quarters labeled and dissected on a cutting board to skinning squirrels in slippers to how to skin a deer with a car and a tennis ball. Great recipes for everything from corned elk to bone marrow bullion. The impressive pictures even make raw ground chuck look good."
The volume is part of the seminal "The Complete Hunter Series" by Creative Publishing.
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