Farmyard Academy: Planting the Seeds of Learning

By / Photography By Ellen Petry Whalen | September 15, 2010
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School kids carry plants to garden through Edible Schoolyards

Edible schoolyards are sprouting up across the country. This national educational focus is showing children where whole foods come from and how delicious they taste fresh off the vine. On the Cape, there is one educational institution that has gone two steps further. The Cape Cod Montessori School, serving middle and high school students, planted its open campus on not one, but two farms in Falmouth.

Berkeley, California restaurateur, cookbook author and long-time local and organic food activist Alice Waters was one of the first to shed light on our country’s need to connect children to their food, through school gardens and curricula. In 1995, with the help of her non-profit organization Chez Panisse Foundation, she implemented an ambitious Edible Schoolyard Program, where the organic food, grown by the students, became not only lunch, but part of the curriculum. The Berkeley Middle School, where the successful, educational garden began, became the national model. Today over 4,000 California schools have gardens, and here, on the Cape, many, like Nauset Regional High School and Orleans Elementary School, are now tending their soil too. (See Minding Their Peas & Cukes on page 14.) But before Waters, and most recently, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s Primetime “Food Revolution,” Maria Montessori had a vision that went even further than an edible schoolyard.

World-renowned Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori (1870-1952) believed the perfect learning environment for middle school students was a farm. Preaching that “work makes study better,” in 1926 Dr. Montessori developed an adolescent educational model firmly rooted in farm life that she called “Erdkinder”, or “children of the Earth”. Dr. Montessori explained, “Education should therefore include the two forms of work, manual and intellectual, for the same person, and thus make it understood by practical experience that these two kinds complete each other and are equally essential to a civilized existence.”

Ron and Roxanna Smolowitz, owners of Coonamessett Farm in East Falmouth since 1989, have always had educational components to their farm: school tours; an internship and research program; “Little Sprouts,” a summer-long children’s gardening class; and the hands-on experience of pick your own. Truly believing that youngsters need to learn about food production, it was no surprise in 2006 when Ron agreed to host the new Montessori Middle School on his 20-acre property.

Initiated by Sandwich Montessori School, which serves preschool through elementary-age students, the farm-based school opened its doors in 2007. Cape Cod Montessori’s campus is situated on two sideby-side farms, Coonamessett and the Alchemy Farm.

Jeff Allen, head of the progressive school, explained the school’s mission: “Maria Montessori’s ideal environment for a middle school would be a place, like a farm, where students not only are leaning academics, but are applying them in a real world situation, where what they are doing directly helps the farm and the farm is their classroom. For Maria Montessori their social development is what’s most important. These adolescents are learning how to function in society. And this is what their task is. So in a farm setting we can apply the academics to their environment, but we can also give them the opportunity to learn how to accomplish things together as a group and work together on real and relevant experiences.”

The three-year-old school has fluctuated between 10 to 15 students a year; 30 pupils is their ultimate goal. The adolescents mostly live on the Upper Cape, with two commuting from as far as Chatham. They come from a variety of schools, including Sandwich Montessori School, other private and public schools, and include homeschoolers.  The tuition is relatively affordable at $8,900 per year.

Given many freedoms, the students learn to work independently and as a group. The main campus building is a shared space with Alchemy Farm that has four large rooms, including an auditorium, that serve multiple functions. The students take turns leading the morning meeting to discuss the day’s activities. Each weekday has a different focus, but formal academics are stressed as strongly as handson activities, like the annual boat-building project (which is mathematics in action) or farm work. While weeding out the onion patch with fellow classmates, 12-year-old Stefanie Dorfman commented, “In public school you learn from books. Here we learn what is happening outside of books.” She, like many of the students, was drawn to the school by all of the outdoor activities. In support of this, the whole campus is wireless, so the students can use the school’s laptops wherever their learning takes them.

Friday is community day. The students not only help with the planting, weeding and picking of fruits and vegetables on the farm, but they are also responsible for caring for Coonamessett’s many animals: alpacas, chickens, ducks, miniature donkeys, sheep and goats.  During the rest of the week, science class incorporates many farm activities into the lessons, with the science building conveniently located on Coonamessett Farm, in a no-frills, heated hoop building.  Physical education is not the typical game of dodge ball. With Coonamessett Pond a stone’s throw away, canoeing and kayaking are common activities, along with ice skating at the local rink, horseback riding at a nearby farm and hiking in the bordering 100-acre conservation land, which is also used for science and nature projects.

Subjects are divided up by different topics for the children’s different needs, rather than solely by age. The multi-age, interdisciplinary teaching approach has the feel of a one-room schoolhouse but without the desks. Jeff admitted, “I hate desks.” Every academic unit has introductory lectures, an individual component and a group activity.  “My goal is to keep them all challenged individually,” Jeff shared.

There are four teachers on staff. Jeff teaches humanities, math, boat building, creative writing and sociology. As a Mashpee high school teacher, he was restricted to just English, but he enjoys having the opportunity to teach more than one subject. Joanne Jarzobski teaches science, economics and math. Wanda Rodgerson teaches Spanish and Nancy O’Connell is the art instructor. Furthermore, there is plenty of involvement from parents, the community and Coonamessett Farm employees.

In an age where childhood obesity is on the rise, these children are in good shape. They have a long, active day, from 8:15 to 3:15, walking around the large campus and working on the farm. They have cooking classes, and nutrition is a natural focus. Students can bring lunch or, when open, eat at the café at Coonamessett Farm, which uses fresh farm products.

The school’s main focus is middle school, but they do take high school students, since the program can be adapted to individual needs.  Taking a break from moving some hanging strawberry plants from the greenhouses to the farm store, some students shared their enthusiasm about their school. “Montessori values give us more freedom,” Jimmy Vollkommer (age 16) succinctly explained. James Abdu (age 15) added, “We have a lot of choice about what we choose to work on.” And Lucas Warburton (age 13) noted, “We get a lot of one-on-one time with the teachers.” Commenting on the students’ obvious passion, Jeff added, “This is a critical age for children. If they don’t keep that spark going, it is gone!”

With all the varied activities, individual and group learning and project-based lessons, and a strong sense of trust and freedom, Cape Cod Montessori students are thriving as much as the plants and animals they tend on Coonamessett Farm. By turning their work into learning and their learning into work, these young people will not only be able to properly care for themselves, but also the planet they will soon inherit.

Cape Cod Montessori School
P.O. Box 1381, North Falmouth 02556

Coonamessett Farm
277 Hatchville Road, East Falmouth

Ellen Petry Whalen is a freelance writer. She grew up spending her summers in Orleans and has been calling it home for eight years with her husband and their two organically homeschooled daughters. Before children she worked in sales and marketing in the medical nutrition industry and the wine industry. A supporter of traditional foods, she is a local Weston A. Price Chapter Leader ( She holds a B.A. in Economics and Spanish from Wellesley College

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