Last Friday I had an opportunity to attend an awesome presentation by motivational speaker Jesse Saperstein. Jesse shared his journey as a person living with Asperger syndrome. He found a way of bringing humor to some of his most difficult moments, allowing the audience to get a glimpse of how his form of autism is not well-understood by many, and as a result, can create discomfort and confusion for some. My greatest take-away was this: self-acceptance is the key! Jesse conquered his fears of being different as he began to understand what it means to live with Asperger syndrome. He is now a best-selling author and autism advocate. He travels the world discussing bullying, raising awareness, and promoting acceptance. If you want a feel good moment, check out his YouTube video Free Falling to End Bullying.
Who knew that Jesse’s talk on facing fears last Friday would be so on-trend for some of my students this week. You see, our task this week has been to help our newest residents (1 lb of red wiggler worms, Eisenia fetida) become acclimated to their new home in the greenhouse. That’s right, it’s time to vermicompost!
What on earth is vermicomposting you may ask? Well, this is the practice of keeping composting worms (different from earthworms) in a special bin and feeding them kitchen scraps. The worms then eat the scraps and the castings they create are fantastic fertilizer for plants and garden beds. While teaching in the South Bronx, I was lucky enough to attend the New York Botanical Gardens Master Composter series which taught me everything I ever wanted to know about worms…and more! This class is a must for anyone interested in composting. Very hands on and engaging. If you have a community or school garden in the Bronx especially, this class will help you connect with other gardeners and like-minded people, as well as teach you everything you need to know to build and maintain healthy composting systems.
In addition to creating a special compost, the worms also offer a host of teaching opportunities, from science to literacy and math to life skills. As we move forward with our lessons in vermicomposting, I will share some of the projects that we complete touching on varied subject matter and offering a whole new modality for learning.
Full disclosure: not all projects are a hit with all kids. Many of my students have sensory issues. The worm bin has an earthy smell, while it is not offensive, it certainly is strong. And let’s face it, tactility speaking, worms are wet, slithery and do produce a fair amount of mucus when reproducing.
When I began to prepare for Ms. Sacer’s class, I remembered that Donovan, a favorite in the garden, had expressed a real fear of worms while working in the vegetable beds over the summer. With Jesse’s motivating words in mind, I saw the opportunity for Donovan to potentially overcome his fear. I work very hard to make the greenhouse a safe environment, where I hope my students feel a sense of acceptance and limitless potential to learn and succeed.
With that in mind, after opening the top to the worm bin and hearing Donovan express his fears, I asked him why he was so fearful (he was eying his classmates excitedly poking around in the bin). Donovan told me it was their slimy exterior that scared him. I fished out a worm and described that healthy worms are wet, not slimy, in order to breath through their skin. (It seems like too much information to start describing their mating habits right off the bat.) A classmate who was holding a worm put it on the table in front of Donovan and said, “Look, it’s not scarey! It doesn’t even have teeth.” Before I knew it, Donovan reached out, touched the worm and began to smile. “It’s not slimy, you’re right. They’re not scarey!”
Oh, if only all fears were conquered so easily. Given the right information, good timing and the willingness to move on from feelings and ideas we hold on to, we are able to overcome fears and challenges. We can learn from examples as predominant as Jesse Saperstein, but we can also learn from very small incremental experiences like Donovan’s.