High school in the times of the pandemic and cultivating Interconnection

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Note: photos for this story were taken by Dianne Iverson and Gretchen Lawlor.

While news and social media focus on national polarization these days, the inter-connection of humans within the natural world is the bigger and more enduring story. It starts with being aware of what goes on beneath our feet.

Three south island high school sophomores spent the past autumn learning about their place with the natural world through a custom-curated class weaving in community service, plant science, architectural design, and empowerment for their future. The young men attend the Woodhaven High School Initiative, a seedling school inspired by Waldorf School and other progressive curriculums. This is Whidbey ran a story about the school last November. 

Woodhaven High School students: Kelvin Jenkins, Spencer Jonas, and Dalton Verellen work on their final project. Photo by Dianne Iverson

Gretchen Lawlor, who initially taught art to the students when the school first started, adapted to innovative ways of teaching with faculty once the COVID pandemic hit last March.

“Here it was, this new school initiative and we’re on our second year last March,” Gretchen said. “When the pandemic hit, we had to become immensely creative. We were on to hosting Zoom classes right away.”  The classroom was moved to the South Whidbey Community Center, the site of the former Langley Middle School. “Then we redesigned where the classes would meet. We fitted classrooms with fans, filters, distancing of desks.”

Gretchen planned a class course on Interconnection.

In a simple twist of fate, and a perfect example of interconnection, Gretchen brought her dad Peter Lawlor by to sing at the Mukilteo Coffee Company last August. Seeing her long-time friend sitting at a table looking at plans, Gretchen stopped by and found Dianne Iverson working on landscape design for a proposed tiny house village, the first of its kind, on Whidbey Island, called THiNC (Tiny Houses in the Name of Christ). Gretchen — who recognizes a good thing — brainstormed with Dianne in developing the autumn curriculum.

THiNC founder Coyla Shepard introduces the concept of tiny affordable homes to Woodhaven high school students. Photo by Gretchen Lawlor

“I thought I could tap in to mentors from inspiring people in the community,” Gretchen said. “Kids need more than classroom theory. I picked — Tiny Houses in the Name of Christ — THiNC. I thought here is the project across the street. We can walk there and connect the South Whidbey Community Center and the tiny homes affordable housing project. The students participated with volunteer work on the grounds, and THiNC offered its backyard deck as a space for an integrated classroom.”

Dianne Iverson, a respected Landscape Designer, has attended Steiner Teacher Training, and is a world adventurer. She shared how her work with THiNC evolved into a meaningful class for teenagers.

“There were a a few ironies,” Dianne said. “It started at the coffee shop. Gretchen approached me and we started brainstorming. It just evolved. I was once the administrator of the Waldorf School for five years. I have a Bachelor of Arts degree in Visual Communications, as well as studying Landscape Design and Architecture at Edmonds Community College, with a special interest in biosystems — how trees shape a landscape and how all things ‘inter-relate.’

“The other irony — in this time when COVID creates the sense of ‘disconnection’ — is the vital importance of bringing to life the ‘Interconnection’ within nature, within community. That’s how the class began to evolve.”

Gretchen was inspired by the turn of events and the opportunity given her students to grow.

“I want to give Dianne a lot of credit,” Gretchen said. “I had to team up with others to make the class happen because I was taking care of my dad. Dianne jumped in with her passion and drive. She TAUGHT, was there guiding and inspiring with these incredible information boards. I was the support team for this to happen. Ohmygod. She’s top notch. She’s an ABSOLUTE force. Just the stories she told. The boys were mouth-dropping speechless. They were very alert to her. She woke them up. What this person has done in her life…I had so much fun. I just had to be there and was so excited by what was coming out of her classes.

“Dianne brought an article to class from the First Nations’ concept of interconnectedness as it applies to the environment, a quote from Chief Seattle about how all things connect. That was a major theme to this course.”

Chief Seattle’s quote about interconnectedness. Photo shared by Gretchen Lawlor

Chief Seattle, who in 1854, realized that the native people living in Washington would soon be signing their land away in the wake of a tidal wave of white settlers, gave a now-famous speech to then-Governor Isaac Stevens about humankind’s connection with the natural world, about how the earth beneath us contains our ancestors. One student commented on this quote, curiously wondering how our word would be today, if we had only listened to Chief Seattle in 1854!

Dianne recalled the first class and imagined the best way to engage three teenagers. She shared with them:

“I’ve sailed across the Pacific Ocean four times. I have a pilot’s license, and a scuba certificate. I traveled deep into the heart of the Amazon Rainforest, staying with Achuar and Saporo tribes, some of whom have never left the jungle. I’ve trekked beyond 18,000 feet in the Himalayas. The boys were, ‘Wow, tell us more.’ At the beginning of class the boys were perked by ideas and curiosity.” Dianne adds, “I shared those things, not to say, ‘Oh yes, I’ve done all that,’ but cultivating curiosity and enthusiasm is important to everything. They were engaged at the start.

“The first class we talked about Interconnection. What is sustainability? What is awareness? How does one become aware? Without any conversation as to ‘why,’ I asked them to take their shoes off and take a walk on the property.

“Then we started. I had a teaspoon of dirt in my hand and a tape measure laid out at 12 feet, showing the diameter of a Doug fir, if left to grow. I asked what does a teaspoon and a measure have to do with Landscape Design? I explained that there are more microorganisms in one teaspoon—more than people on our planet. I explained what was in the soil and we talked about how the fungal filaments in soil are fed sugar by the trees, and how they, in turn, ‘Interconnect,’ by engaging and facilitating a kind of  underground internet—the trees actually communicate right under your feet. That began the boys’ curiosity and that opened them to awareness. 

“Then we talked in more detail about soil. The boys were asked a second time, at the end of the class, to take their shoes off. I said, ‘This time, before you go, I want you to walk slowly, feel with your feet, smell with your nose, see with your eyes, listen with your ears, think about how many teaspoons of life are beneath your feet.’

“During the first barefoot walk, the students’ comments were vague. The second time, they reported they felt significantly different. One said he felt calm. They all talked about what they smelled and heard. They were excited by the textures and colors. This led to their recognition that that ‘everything begins with awareness.’ I asked them if they were aware that humans and plants absolutely cannot live without each other. Humans exhale carbon dioxide, which plants inhale to survive, and plants exhale oxygen, which humans inhale in order to survive. We are completely interconnected, tied to each other by our very own breath. The students had not been ‘aware’ of this. I wonder how many humans are not aware of this vital understanding?

“We started small and progressed outward—how the trees grow and speak to each other. They got completely into it. I gave them handouts, a sheet to identify three trees during the week. They identified attributes, such as ‘you can eat the pips of the Doug fir,’ and it can grow to be 12 feet in diameter.’ They became enthused and engaged with it.”

Dianne Iverson’s class outline for sustainable design. Photo by Gretchen Lawlor

Coyla Shepard, founder of THiNC, welcomed the students and what they learned from the project: “It was a great course. I did listen to a little of it. All the medicinal use of the Douglas fir and the madrona trees on the property, the benefits of Oregon grape. Just the things that were there. It was so nice they met in the back yard, out in nature with beautiful trees and shrubs. The first class they discussed all the ingredients in a handful of soil. Half are dead. Most live a short time. All those organisms in a handful of soil. So uplifting and helpful.”

The students learned with awareness, more beneficial decisions can be made. They saw this in action with the THiNC team, such as when THiNC learned about the importance of retaining beneficial soil organisms and protecting the old fir trees’ shallow roots systems. It was this awareness, which resulted in a shift to the tiny houses being built on piers rather than the original plan of pouring concrete foundations, thereby having less impact, which would have harmed the old firs’ root systems.

Guest speakers shared their life experience with the students:

Christine Tasseff, owner of Roots Landscaping & Restoration, gave a class on the medicinal qualities and benefits of native plants. She asked the boys to map the trees on the property and taught them how to carefully plant madrona tree seeds.

Christine Tasseff, a local landscape designer, teaches a class on beneficial native-species plants on the THiNC property. Photo by Gretchen Lawlor

Recently retired from Island County as a development coordinator, Bill Poss —my husband — spoke about watershed, the impacts on water runoff due to clear cutting, and recognizing his need to be outdoors and how that influenced his work: “I told them it was important to look for a line of work that is something you enjoy doing. For me it was important to work outdoors. I found it rewarding in my work with the county in that I had the opportunity in a small role in protecting the environment and the community from poorly conceived development proposals. To help people design their projects in a way that minimizes impacts and is consistent with the county’s plan to protect and defend its rural quality of life.”

Newly retired county employee Bill Poss talks about doing work that has meaning. In his case it is working outdoors and his part in protecting the natural beauty of Whidbey. Photo by Gretchen Lawlor

Civil engineer Carly McArdle, spoke about the Seattle Waterfront project she helped design to improve the salmon population and repair the Seawall at Elliott Bay. Carly is Dianne’s son Auston Reisman’s partner. Diane said: “Carly is a highly conscious and environmentally astute engineer. She was part of the comprehensive team redesigning the Seattle waterfront. One of her proud and admirable achievements, which she shared with the students, was to engineer a highly durable glass walkway, which is now installed. Part of what happened in Seattle is salmon numbers dwindled severely. They are confused by varying light and dark, which impacts their migration. Carly created a design with glass above that could be driven on and walked on. A seawall with texture. They redid the whole bulkhead and it worked. Carly shared pictures of where the healthy salmon now run. You can watch them through the glass. The students were dramatically affected by the influence of how humans can cause damage and how we can use our minds to fix and create a solution.”

Civil engineer Carly McArdle, on steps, and Dianne Iverson with Woodhaven students. Carly helped design a Seattle waterfront park to help improve salmon populations. Photo by Gretchen Lawlor

With their real-life learning experiences, the students designed their own final project, one involving forest dwellers who had to interact with a smoky city and a mountain in between the two societies.

“They brainstormed all three elements with the mountain separating them,” Dianne said. “How could they improve a smoky city and how to not damage the forest. They were enthused. For the last two or three classes a lot of time was spent talking about these ideas they embraced. You could hear they got into it. How could they fix this if there was toxic waste going on. A lot of thinking and processing. Fun to watch them become aware.”

Gretchen sees this class as a stepping stone to future projects:

Final presentation by Woodhaven sophomore Dalton Verellen

“My hope was that even with the THiNC project was an ongoing volunteering opportunity with the boys. Perhaps a mentoring experience with plumbers, electricians, ditch diggers. Back to the whole idea of education. The question is really what experiences do these young people need to have for an unpredictable future? We just don’t know what they will be facing.”

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  1. From Marli Jenkins, administrator of the Woodhaven High School Initiative–Thank you for the lovely article on Woodhaven. The Interconnections class that Gretchen was able to craft, with some amazing people in our community, is exactly the type of programming we love and appreciate at Woodhaven. The beauty of students and mentors working together, and connecting really came across in your writing. It was an excellent experience for all.

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