Working with Young People in Nature:

We Plant the Seeds and See What Comes

An Interview with Juan-Antonio Santisteban

by Lucy Lewis

Redwoods (Gary Newman)

We met in October, 2014, to have a conversation. Born in San Francisco and raised partly in Mexico, Juan-Antonio Santisteban has a multicultural background, which informs his understanding of the issues his students face. He works with ages ranging from pre-school to middle school.

I couldn’t help but be aware of his bubbling enthusiasm. I wanted to know how he began his work with the students at Global Family School in Oakland, California. I had the sense of his connection to nature and especially with the trees.

For the past several years, Juan-Antonio has been teaching a science curriculum to inner-city kids. It includes outdoor education, ecological restoration, and working with plants and gardens. I wanted to know how his students responded, especially to the outdoor curriculum that brought them into direct contact with nature. From a shamanic point of view, we receive much of our knowledge from nature and this principle has been left out from much of our educational system.

I asked Juan-Antonio how he came to this education work that he loves so much. He told me the following:

Growing up as a child I had the opportunity to go on group camping trips. I basically got a chance to be outdoors, and learn basic survival skills for being in the natural world. It was those experiences that created a lasting impression of Nature in my heart, and I wanted to share that with my students. It was in my late teen years, that I began to go camping with friends, and that is when I first started to sense the presence of the trees. 

Juan-Antonio became more and more fascinated with the trees as living beings, and tried to understand his experiences in an environment that offered very little support.

I spent the next few years buying books and studying all about trees. Of course the field manuals give you all the names of the trees, but the names do not encapsulate the character of living beings. And I was more interested in knowing about the character of trees, so I gave up on just learning about tree classification and began to ask myself the question: What does the name truly tell me? It only tells me the family the tree belongs to, but it doesn’t tell me much else.

I wanted to know the purpose of specific trees, and how it likes to be recognized in its own ecosystem. A name doesn’t tell me what a tree likes, or dislikes, and it doesn’t tell me what the plant’s friends or companions—plants that grow with trees and complement each other—are.

I then became interested in medicinal plants and began my study of bio-dynamics, the system developed by Rudolph Steiner (1993). I began to see the rhythms and understand the forces of nature, forces that before I had taken for granted: the forces of earth, water, fire and wind.

Juan-Antonio (Tony) Santisteban teaches science at the middle school level. In addition, he is trained in biodynamic gardening and permaculture. He and his students partnered with the local junior college in 2017 to build “solar suitcases” for students in Uganda who do not have access to electricity. His students mastered chemistry and electrical skills in order to provide lighting for these students to pursue their studies.

Lucy Lewis is an anthropologist, dancer, and artist focused on the healing aspects of art and dance from a cross-cultural perspective. She is also a body worker. She brings together art and healing in the expressive body. She has taught energy awareness to children through movement. She produced and directed “At the Hawks Well,” by WB Yeats. She created mixed media videos on the Elements, Water of Life, and Between Two Worlds. These works include light projections, masks, and original music. As a student of Ruth Inge Heinze, she has presented at the Shamanism Conference for many years.

Then in my late 20’s I finally made it out to Humboldt Redwood Forest. I was astonished! Growing up around trees in the city is one thing, but seeing those giants gives you a whole other perspective on life.

It was around that time when I began working at Global Family School. I noticed that there on campus was a grove of redwood trees and I saw an opportunity. I would have the chance to share what I had experienced and learned from my visits to the old growth forest with my students. I asked the principal if anyone had ever done any work with the trees. She said no. I asked if I could teach outdoors with the trees and, to my surprise, she replied yes.

From the day I stepped foot on that campus, those trees felt familiar to me. Do you know how it is, when you see someone you haven’t seen for a while, and you can catch up right where you left off? It was like that with the trees at school. They were telling me they missed the children. Unfortunately the section of the yard where the trees lived had been blocked off to serve as a parking lot for the staff. So the trees had lost contact with the children. 

I first started taking the kids out to the grove to hug the trees and gently climb on them too. I would take my classes out there for the sake of providing my students time with nature. I would tell them that we were going to start working with the land. But in order to get started they needed to begin to recognize the trees as living beings that were as alive as they were. We first began by saying hello to the trees as a way of showing respect and recognition to our tree friends.

Then it took off from there; we had a single redwood tree in the lower yard of the school that became a whole ritual. The kids started to ask things like, “Can we hold hands around the tree?” and I would say, “That’s a great idea!” We did that for about a year, and the students really liked the time they were spending with the trees, so I began to embed this time into the curriculum calling it, “Redwood Exploration Time.” 

The principal liked what I was doing and fenced off the redwood area the following school year, so that we could have an area designated as an outdoor classroom. That year we began studying California state parks and their history, and focusing on conservation groups like “Save the Redwoods League,” and those who stood up for the protection of nature. I introduced them to the National Geographic video, “Climbing Redwood Giants.” As they began to explore the history of redwoods, a sense of stewardship began to grow within the students. They would ask, “What are we going to do Mr. S? We have got to save the trees!”

I began to see the rhythms and understand the forces of nature, forces that before I had taken for granted: the forces of earth, water, fire and wind.

Important to trees is water and healthy soil, so we wanted to start there, but first we had to clean the area up. But, no matter how hard we tried the parents would continue to leave trash around the trees. Every day was a new mess, so the kids said, “Let’s make signs. Let’s make signs to protect the area.” And they did; they put their signs all around the center tree. And the trash began to lessen significantly.

Outside of work, I was continuing my studies of horticulture and permaculture at Merritt College. I also got the chance to take a workshop at the Rudolf Steiner College for deeper understanding of bio-dynamics. I began to understand more about plant life as a living consciousness, I felt responsible to help the other trees on the campus.

An Example of How a Good Idea Can Go Wrong

Over time I began meeting with the landscaping people for the district, and found out that they wanted to go have a gardener come to the school and prune some of the trees by using an approach that was not sensitive to the land. So I asked, if I could be there when they came by in order to help with the pruning. They said I could, but schedules changed and they came on a day when I was not there. They ended up chopping down four Australian bottlebrush trees to barely a nub, just enough to be able to grow back.

Now what they didn’t know was that the four trees they cut were the main sources of food for our local hummingbirds. How did the students feel about this? There would be days when I would take the kids out there and we would just sit; we would be quiet and just sit and look at the hummingbirds, watch the butterflies, and the bees. You would think that would be hard to do with kids, being quiet for so long. But because we had been spending the time there they could sense the magic of that place, and it became the magical forest.

Their roots spread out and connect with other Redwoods, so that they support themselves by their relationship to each other. These are principles that can teach kids about themselves.

They would bring up characters from stories I would tell them, and now there was Spirit Bear and Sitting Deer as members of the magical forest; in the same way the trees were a part of the school, these characters were now a part of the forest. The kids would use their imagination and they would say things like, “I saw Spirit Bear and he was telling me to come over and look behind the tree, and he was telling me we have to cover this area with mulch.” And I’d say, “Okay, let’s.”

As I became aware that the kids were becoming more sensitive to the land, I wanted to show them how to help our redwood trees. At that time the trees didn’t show signs of being healthy, the ground was bare, dry and the trees didn’t even have fairy rings around the base (a group of young starts that surround the base of the trunk of healthy redwood trees). I connected with the city to collect compost, and they dropped off about 10 cubic feet of it on the school driveway. The kids along with a colleague and I started shoveling and moving it onto the redwoods. 

Slowly it began bringing the vitality back to the land and turning it into living mulch for our small forest. It took about a year and a half of dedicated work on the part of the students, and this year the trees began giving sprouts, forming their very first fairy rings. Showing the students how to heal the land, and teaching them how to create the living conditions the redwood trees needed to thrive, was amazing. This type of education with nature needs to be reproduced in the public sector.

I asked my students questions like: What do you think the redwood tree likes?

Then we would start a discussion on what the trees might like, and the amount of water they preferred to have. We talked about temperate rain forests, which is the type of forest our kind of redwood belongs to. It is actually the type of climate these trees create as they begin to spread out over long periods of time.

Unlike other trees, the costal redwood creates its own environment. This makes redwoods so unbelievable. Their roots spread out and connect with other redwoods, so that they support themselves by their relationship to each other. These are principles that can teach kids about themselves.

Last year one of our redwood trees started giving seeds. We took some of those seeds and studied them under a magnifying glass; we even tried to grow the trees from seeds. Though none of the seeds grew, the students learned that it is difficult to grow redwoods from seeds. They learned that redwoods typically propagate through burls, which is why young starts around the base of the trunk are important for redwood trees. Students would ask, “Is this a mama tree or a papa tree?” and learned that redwood trees are actually both. Redwoods have two sets of leaves, male and female leaves on the same tree. 

During the typical school week students are pressed to learn for long periods of time sitting down, and are tested endlessly. So when they come to my class for their science period, I try to encourage the students to get closer to nature and be outside. During my lessons I try not to talk too much and I guide the lessons by asking them questions. As they ask me questions, I don’t answer them all, instead I turn it back to them, so that they can answer their own questions. In the process they develop confidence in their own abilities.

For example, in the after-school program that I teach, I noticed that the kids didn’t want to leave. If their parents pick them up early, the students are actually sad. That tells me that they are engaged and feel confident with the work they do for the land. They look forward to Fridays and it always amazes me how children have a natural soft spot for nature.

The original outlook changed when we got a new principal. The district-mandated classroom academic minutes once again began to challenge the outdoor program.

But when our school won a recycling competition through the district, our principal changed his mind about the program and Eco-stewardship education was back!

The recycling competition made the local news; cameras came out to the school because our school had achieved major trash reduction: only four percent of our school waste was going to the landfill. We now had compost bins at our school for the first time.

At this point, I introduced biodynamic gardening and permaculture into the curriculum. I want to give our inner city kids an opportunity to have a redwood forest, to restore, preserve and protect the land so they understand the relationship between humans, plants, trees and other beings. This work helps open up pathways to deeper connections and understandings, which is my main goal during outdoor education time. You don’t need to get caught up thinking of what comes next, when you know how to appreciate being in the moment.

Do you have to think about your heartbeat at all times of the day? The same spirit that embodies us embodies everything.

Our principal is going to give us a small budget to purchase plants for a permaculture design. We can now begin to help restore the redwoods ecosystem. We also have a small vegetable garden in the upper yard of the school, including a 4’x5’ strawberry bed maintained by students and colleagues who also work hard to make outdoor experiences happen for our students. 

Just yesterday I met with the landscape department for the district, because yet another teacher showed interest in gardening, making twelve teachers who now want a garden plot. I am grateful to my colleagues for striving just as hard to support eco-stewardship. But the prime sun location at the school has a giant lawn and we can’t use that space because the district is concerned about lawn maintenance. But I found alternative locations and it looks like we will soon have twelve new garden beds. 

The garden is symbolic for humans; it represents us, awakening to what is possible. The outlook now is to strive for all the teachers to have a garden area, making it possible to teach a garden curriculum in the redwood forest. I can see that the soil in our small forest is healthy enough that it will be possible to grow food in that area. A few years ago it wouldn’t have been possible to grow food, because of the poor soil conditions. I think we can do it now, and with a small budget we will soon have a garden in the redwoods. We have this new opportunity to create a healing garden, a place for learning from and experiencing nature.

I have informally been giving instruction to other teachers who want to do the same kind of work. Over this past summer I had the opportunity to teach a curriculum on habitats. I loved the chance to share this type of information with kids. I feel like I would do this whether I was getting paid or not, and I am learning to live every day with less and less.

Eventually I want to own a farm where I can practice biodynamic farming. In a way, biodynamic gardening and permaculture set the basis for learning to live with other beings because of the connection between nature and us. Why are we shy to say that plants and the soil are other living beings? They are not human beings, but they are living beings nonetheless that need to be recognized and given more than just a name. 

From permaculture, I have learned that there is this magic that takes over a designed garden after four or five years. Once you begin to bring these plant beings together, they now have an actual place to live and grow, a place they can call home. That magic happens because everything is now in balance. You can harvest what comes from the garden, and the system sustains itself and will regenerate. Do you have to think about your heartbeat at all times of the day? The same spirit that embodies us embodies everything.

That is the cool part, to be able to describe the magic that happens to the students, the process as a living being known as Pachamama. Now, the kids greet the Earth as Pachamama. We are giving it not just a name, but also a sense of being.

At first the students would say, “Mr. S, rocks aren’t alive,” but by the time they get to 4th grade they learn about the rock cycle. How could a rock not be alive if it is constantly in motion, changing and reinventing itself? The inclusion of outdoor education along with the school curriculum helps deepen the understanding and connections to the concepts kids are learning.

I have been bringing in music; the kids call the music “native jams;” they are songs from South America. The younger kids love to chant and march around the tree. They sing, “We love Mother Earth.” This came out of them; I didn’t even suggest it. Another chant they created was “Heal the Earth.” It just came from them, and it is such a positive feeling to see this happen.

I feel that the best way I can share my teaching experiences, as far as an instructional model goes, would be to record the experiences and let other instructors apply this material in their own way. Even if you have an administration that is opposed to outdoor education, once they see the way the kids gravitate towards nature and they see a deeper enthusiasm coming from the students, that will speak for itself.

The biggest challenge for me has been the opposition from colleagues and administration to our outdoor time, which they do not consider as academic instructional minutes. My school has not always been supportive of a nature-based education, however things are changing, and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are now becoming more open about outdoor learning, and for that I am grateful.

I asked Juan-Antonio how he could see his work expanding into a broader curriculum and what he felt needed to be done to get more support.

One way of enriching the curriculum is with storytelling. I tell stories, but I would like to invite more storytellers into our forest. It is one thing to hear me tell stories, but to hear them from other adults would help broaden their imagination to the magic of nature. The beautiful stories I heard at the Society for the Study of Shamanism, Healing and Transformation Conference were so bright and filled with light that I would love to bring that type of storytelling to our forest.

We Plant the Seeds and See What Comes Up

We are in the process of starting a medicinal herb garden, and we are growing our plants without chemicals or fertilizers. And to think, this is taking place here in Oakland, California where kids do not have much contact with nature. This year I am pushing for more parent involvement to assist with our Redwood restoration project.


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