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Sol Traverso/Taos News

Vista Grande High School students (center) Kalani Martinez (12th grade), and Andrew Arguello (12th grade), take part in a sustainable agriculture class taught by Nora Corbett Wicks (left) at Rio Fernando Park Gardens on Monday (Sept. 27).

"A lot of them have grown up gardening at home with family members, but for most of the students this is their first time in a production kind of farm or gardening," said Nora Corbett Wicks, sustainable agriculture and leadership teacher at Vista Grande High School (VGHS).

Students get hands-on experience tending to crops of vegetables such as corn, squash and carrots over a third of an acre of garden, known as the Vista Grande Gardens at Rio Fernando Park. The garden is part of a partnership VGHS formed with the Taos Land Trust and the Youth Conservation Corps (YCC).

Wicks said the class has harvested 2,000 pounds of food this growing season alone. The yield is given to YCC interns, VGHS families, North Central Food Pantry, Talpa Farmers Market and the Questa Farmers Market.

But learning about growing crops is not the only focus of the class.

This fall semester, students are studying past food systems and the effects of climate change. In the spring semester, they will learn about seed evolution and genetics.

"​​So it's definitely not just about 'Oh, I know how to grow plants.' It's, about a whole lot more than that," said Wicks.

The class is one example of a model of learning outside the classroom that the New Mexico legislature chose to promote during this year's session. Legislators passed Senate Memorial 1 to promote outdoor learning, partly as an effort to mitigate the risks of the pandemic (the CDC has observed that transmission of SARS-CoV-2 is far more likely indoors than outdoors). Governor Michelle Lujan-Grisham then declared Sept. 27 through Oct. 1 of this year as the first Outdoor Learning Week in the state.

Wicks said there are benefits to outdoor learning that can't be replicated in a classroom setting. In her experience, she finds that skills such as "relationship building" and "social emotional growth" are more easily developed when students are learning outdoors.

"You get to build more meaningful relationships with students than you do inside a classroom - it's everything as far as I'm concerned," said Wicks.

The class was created in 2020 on the heels of the first wave of the pandemic, well before the state started its outdoor learning initiative. The Environment Education of New Mexico (EENM) and the Field Institute of Taos (FIT) were other early adopters of a curriculum designed to get students out in the open air.

Cass Landrum, community programs coordinator for FIT, said that advocacy for outdoor learning in America has come in waves.

"The 70s is kind of when the notion started - when Earth Day started ... but that kind of waned," said Landrum. "Then in the 90s there was another push."

Landrum primarily works with schools and community partners to get students outdoors with the mission to promote environmental stewardship and outdoor recreation. She facilitates field trips, community programs and after school programs. That can mean setting up hikes miles away from schools or simply having students "study leaves from the trees" a few yards from school campuses. Landrum tells teachers that almost every lesson can be made to fit an outdoor setting. The ease of access to public lands in Taos makes the model a near perfect fit for the area, she said.

"A lot of my job is just encouraging teachers - or reminding them - that they can teach just as well, if not better, with all the distractions of the outdoor world because with a little bit of practice and skill you can weave those distractions into your lesson plan," said Landrum.

She has worked in environmental education in New York, Texas and in Albuquerque prior to her work at FIT. She acknowledges that it can be tough for some teachers to learn to take their curricula outside.

"They would love to go outside but they don't have time because they have to teach 80 things about math and they don't even have enough time to do that. If they went on a field trip they would have less time," said Landrum.

Wicks believes that policy initiatives, like Outdoor Learning Week, will help more instructors get the hang of it.

"I would love to see more education policy to support and make it easier on teachers to get outside with students. The research to back it up is out there so much more learning happens in an outdoor setting in a genuine, relevant, authentic hands-on setting than it does in a traditional classroom," she said.

She has many favorite moments of teaching her class, from the conversations that occur while pulling weeds with students - to seeing a student so interested in learning about native plants that they went to visit a weekly meeting with the Native Plant Society to learn even more.

Wicks had her students at Vista Grande write testimonials about what farming and agriculture means to them and their families. These were a few of the responses:

"This class connects to me because I am familiar with agriculture ... My grandparents are in agriculture ... food is a part of me," wrote Itzmir Orozco, a junior with VGHS.

"Growing your own food can be very helpful and useful because we don't know how the world will end up," wrote Abagale Carson, a senior.

Senior Faith Martinez wrote: "Every holiday or feast day we eat at my auntie Berts or my grandma's house. My family cooks a lot of food, every family member, most of the time it's the women that cook, but my uncle Chris cooks green chile stew and other good food. My favorite food would be my grandma's red chili, or my aunt Gina's green chili stew."

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