You'll never hear Tamara Baker, the Sherman School Garden coordinator, say, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." Instead, she's rallying students in the north side middle school's MSCR summer program to do just the opposite -- to get sweaty and dirty designing and constructing a sculpted partition to enhance the outdoor kitchen space in the school's courtyard garden.
Sherman's impressive urban garden is now in its fifth growing season. It's been a huge asset to the school, allowing students, many of whom had little exposure to planting and harvesting before, to try their hand at growing squash, watermelon and the ingredients for salsa.
But the small area set aside to serve as an outdoor kitchen had one major drawback: "The kids love when we pull out the propane grill, the hand-crank blenders, and the solar oven to make pizza or zucchini muffins," says Baker. But no one loved that the kitchen area overlooked the school dumpsters."
There was little question that more beauty and personalization was needed in the space. But, in keeping with the garden's sustainability mission, Sherman ideally needed a kitchen project that would use locally sourced, earth-based materials.
Enter Whitney Bembenek, a Madison-area natural builder whom Baker had met a few years earlier while working with AmeriCorps for REAP Food Group's Farm to School program. Always the visionary, Bembenek immediately saw the 25 feet of rickety chain link fence separating the kitchen from the trashcans as an ideal canvas for creating an original work of art using a centuries-old building technique called cob.
From an old English word meaning "lump" or "rounded mass," cob is fashioned from clay, soil, sand, straw and water. "It's one of the earliest building materials on record, used since ancient times," she explains. "And it's resistant to fire, load-bearing, long-lasting and inexpensive. Plus, it can be sculpted -- it was the perfect material to use for the Sherman Garden wall."
Bembenek jumpstarted the three-week project this July by helping the 25 students signed up for the program to fashion maquettes, or "mini-models" of what they wanted the finished wall to look like. "It's really important to me that this is a collaborative design project," says Bembenek. "The kids need to feel invested in and ownership of the project because they are the ones that are going to be using the space."
She remembers the kids excitedly discussing how to work the Sherman name into the finished wall (it will appear in relief) as well as great enthusiasm for adding their own personal touches. "They all want to leave their handprints, carve in their names. They are finding really creative ways to make this their own."
Week two was a messy one, dedicated to making batch upon batch of cob to help construct the wall which, when complete, will be close to six feet high. It's an extremely physical process, as cob builders use their bare feet to mix the materials, kind of like grape stomping in traditional wine making. "It's fun to watch the students get really into the mixing. It's almost looks like they're dancing the salsa," says Bembenek. "It's such a total body experience to be building this way. It's not just your arm and a hammer or saw."
In the project's final week, the finishing layer, a cob plaster, is applied before the students are able to embellish with decorative details using reclaimed tile, discarded glass and cans.
In order to generate the dollars necessary to make the project a go, Baker utilized the DaneArts power2give website to crowd-source funding. But both Bembenek and Baker also found joy in having local businesses donate funds.
Plus, there was some reliance on the adage "necessity is the mother of invention."
"I love seeing how resourceful I can be," says Bembenek. "For instance, where do I get clay where it's already dug up and the people are happy to be done with it?" Roselawn Memorial Park cemetery fit the bill nicely. Other local companies including Maple Leaf Landscaping, Wingra Stone and Habitat for Humanity ReStore, among others, were also happy to donate materials.
While the Sherman Garden wall has been Bembenek's first cob project working with children, she thinks the experience is gratifying regardless of the age of the builders. "Everyone acts like a kid, no matter how old they are, when they are getting dirty," she says. "There is something universally fun about playing with mud."
Marcos Davis, 14, a recent Sherman graduate, says helping to construct the wall will be one of his favorite middle school memories: "I like to create, build things and get messy. This is like everything a kid loves to do all rolled into one." Davis is particularly excited to return to the garden to check out his autograph on the wall after he moves on to East High next year.
This doesn't surprise Baker at all. "One of things that has gotten kids most excited about participating is the chance to leave a legacy," she says. "They can come back in three or four years, when they are juniors and seniors in high school, and look for their handprints. Hopefully they'll even return as adults, stand back, and be able to 'look what we did.'"comments powered by Disqus
As far as places to embark on Baby's First Air Travel go, Dane County Regional Airport is a pretty sound choice, especially at 6 p.m. on a Saturday night. My biggest fear was that my nine-month-old son would start screaming in the airport; my second biggest fear was that my son would start screaming and some of my former Epic colleagues would be around to hear it.
The recent shift in the weather is just another sign that autumn is fast approaching. That means one of my favorite activities is just around the corner -- apple picking. My husband and I have been picking apples every fall since before our kids were born.
I have a lot of questions about what to put on my eight-month-olds' plates -- and, if I'm honest, a deep and abiding fear of putting the wrong thing there. Did I start them on solid foods at the right time? What's the deal with baby-led weaning -- how much self-feeding should they be doing? At what age should I give them potential allergens like shellfish or nut products?
Lily the potbellied pig arrived at Heartland Farm Sanctuary blind, lethargic and too overweight to walk. The children of Heartland's summer day camp program took it upon themselves to put the curl back in her tail.
Is it just me or does each summer seem to go by quicker than the last? The end of summer is upon us and for many families this means the start of a new school year.
This past week, on the way to the grocery store, my daughter asked what I believed she thought would be a innocuous question, "Mom, when are we going back-to-school shopping?"
Volunteering with the Young Writers Summer Camp this past week really helped me to remember how utterly creative kids can be when encouraged to come up with their own ideas and use their own words.
This past week I gleefully accepted an offer for new job on the UW-Madison campus. My kids are getting are older and I guess I've felt for a while now that it was time to figure out what would be next for me on the professional front.
"Kids spend so much time in and around school, it's the only place where some have a chance to develop an appreciation for a healthy lifestyle," says Katie Hensel, founder and executive director of Tri 4 Schools.
"I'm envious, mom," said my twelve-year-old daughter as she hopped in the car after theater camp last week. "All the other kids in my group seem to really like, and to be really good at, singing, dancing and acting. But I think all those things are just okay."
"People are looking to book space here all the time," says Remy Fernández-O'Brien, communications and facilities coordinator for the Lussier Community Education Center, a private, nonprofit community center on Madison's west side. "They want to throw their child's first birthday party here or hold a Girl Scout meeting. We're really busy year-round, but it's especially lively here in the summer."
Last week, in response to the county-wide Sleep Safe, Sleep Well public health campaign that encourages parents to "share the room, not the bed" with their sleeping infants, Isthmus contributor Ruth Conniff penned a lovely opinion piece in defense of bed sharing entitled "Confessions of a Co-Sleeper."
As much as I'd like to believe there is latent genius in my daughter's early finger paintings, I'm pretty sure her works are not distinguishable from those created by the pointer fingers and pinkies of thousands of other children from across the world.
Seeing Romeo and Juliet this past weekend was a definite reminder that I need to prepare for something that might resemble a (near) West Side Story around our place pretty soon.
All during childhood, we calmly tell our kids they don't need to be afraid of the dark, thunder or the monster under the bed. But it's pretty hard to keep your parental cool when your kid is about to embark on the one thing that terrifies you. I knew the problem wasn't really with him. It was with me.
Last January, when temperatures dipped below minus 30 and most people between the ages of 16 and 24 did anything to stay inside, a small yet sturdy group of at-risk teenage boys and young men stacked wood and managed controlled burns at Festge County Park near Cross Plains. Five months later, following a temperature swing of more than 100 degrees, Isthmus found some of those same guys removing invasive honeysuckle and buckthorn at Lake View Hill County Park on Madison's north side.
The first week of summer break at our place usually comes and goes without incident. At times, one could argue, it even verges on pleasant. I have no school lunches to pack and the kids have no 7 a.m. buses to catch.
Have you tried getting anywhere on either Verona Road or East Johnson lately? I'm pretty sure a six-month old could crawl to Fitchburg, or across the isthmus, in less time that it takes me to drive there these days.
As soon as the door closed behind him, I poured myself a cup of the coffee he had made and took a moment to let the enormity of what just happened sink in. My son was ready that morning despite my inability to properly set an alarm clock. My kid was ready that morning without nudging, cajoling, or reminding. He was ready, even when I wasn't.
For the past 17 years or so (i.e., since I've had kids), I haven't made books the priority in my life I know they should be. It's not that I don't try. Just this past weekend I had the best of intentions of picking up, and even finishing, I am Malala, this year's UW-Madison's Go Big Read pick. But the copy still sits untouched on my nightstand.