BENNINGTON -- Mount Anthony Union Middle school students and teachers celebrated the new sustainability and agriculture program Friday with a school-wide Harvest Day.

The first of its kind, and of many, according to organizers, the day served as an opportunity to highlight the school's recently-implemented grassroots initiative and to celebrate community building.

Activities included cider pressing, face painting, scarecrow making, gym games, pumpkin carving, art projects, drumming, Native American storytelling, and musical performances by local musicians Rick Heiniger and Deena Chapel.

According to Helen Fields, MAUMS social studies teacher and co-creator of the MAUMS Agriculture Committee, a small grant from the Vermont Community Garden Network and the Farm to School Program allowed for the creation of a four-week garden camp, which has run each July for the past four years.

Fully funded

After seeing both the success of the program as well as enthusiasm from students, the MAU school board voted this year to fully fund a sustainability and agriculture program, which is taught by Stephen Greene, Fields' husband.

"We wanted to create this sustainable living course so students could apply themselves in project-based learning, integrate what they've learned in math, social studies, and other courses, to actually use it to build things, be outside, do things like learn gardening," Fields said, adding that plans are in the works for students to build a solar oven and a chicken coop in the future.

Greene noted the importance of the new class, which he described as being a cross between service learning and academics.

"Students need to enjoy school and I think engaging in hands-on projects like the ones in my class allow them to learn by doing, rather than by simply doing desk work," he said. "A large part of what they're learning are life skills that they'll need later on, like preparing food, and what work is involved with sustaining yourself on this planet. It also gives students the opportunity to do something a little different."

Green explained that so far, students in his sustainability class have made their own pesto pasta and pickles and have worked extensively in the school's garden.

Students also worked in collaboration with the Abbey Food group to make 600 pumpkin cheesecakes, which they enjoyed during Friday's festivities.

Eighth-grader Lindsey Main is a student in Greene's sustainability course and noted that she's enjoyed working in the garden.

"I'm really learning a lot," she said. "I think it's important to learn about the environment and other things you wouldn't normally learn in school."

Retreat in Shelburne

Fields said the idea for the MAUMS Harvest Day stemmed from an Agriculture Committee meeting in June and a retreat in which members of the committee participated at the Farm to School Institute in Shelburne.

"One of our goals as a committee is to bring the community into the school," she said. "Something like this is the perfect opportunity to do that."

Fields explained that over one dozen parents volunteered to help with the event and several community members also donated their time, including Mike Clough of the Southern Vermont Natural History Museum, who put on a demonstration of Vermont's birds of prey for students.

MAUMS eighth-grader Hannah Woods said she enjoyed getting a break from the regular school day and participating in the Harvest Day.

"I learned a lot and everything was really fun," she said, adding that she believes learning about sustainability and agriculture is important. She hopes to take Greene's course this spring.

Fields said that the goal of the Harvest Day went far beyond simply exposing students to sustainability and agriculture. 

"The most important thing to do with children is to celebrate life. That's what we're doing here," she said. "This is a time everyone in the school can celebrate their hard work, celebrate their creativity and have a different kind of learning experience."

New experiences

MAUMS English teacher Wayne Bell concurred, noting that some students are being exposed to things they never have before.

"Some of these kids may have no idea where apple cider comes from or how it's made. Now they have the opportunity to make it themselves -- that's something they'll carry with them," he said, adding that he feels "fun" days, like Friday's Harvest Day, are important and often overlooked. "Sometimes we get lost in the seriousness of school," he said. "Kids, especially in our community, need that time to fool around and laugh a little. This day was a perfect example of that."

Fields said she is optimistic about the future of the new sustainability and agriculture program, and added that she believes students are happy to have the unique opportunity at their fingertips.

"What is most amazing is how thankful kids are that you're teaching them all of this," she said. "They really do want to know all of this, to learn. Our hope is that out of this, the students are inspired to become problem solvers of the future."

Contact Elizabeth A. Conkey at econkey@benningtonbanner.com or follow on Twitter @bethconkey.