Valuing the Marginal and Developing Diversity:


Introduction: Resilience through Diversity

Nature is most abundant on the edge. The interface between two or more ecosystems, organisms, or cultures is often where the most valuable, diverse and productive elements of a system emerge. Like the diversity of a healthy ecosystem, diverse educational communities are more resilient, socially efficient, and sustainable. In the face of global environmental and economic challenges, English as Second Language (ESL) and Multicultural educators have the opportunity to facilitate the interpretation of scientific knowledge for diverse communities of international stakeholders. By teaching language through context and applying Permaculture design to curriculum design, urban educators can facilitate the exchange of ecological wisdom in an international context.

Permaculture in Context: The International High School at Lafayette

The International High School at Lafayette (IHSL) is a public school in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn that serves 350 late-entry English Language Learners (ELLs) speaking 50 different languages. The Internationals Model of ESL Education focuses on language development through context, heterogeneous grouping, project-based learning, and autonomous decision making. Learn more about IHSL by watching the MacArthur foundation-funded documentary “I Learn America,”

Valuing the Marginal: Who are Students with Interrupted Formal Education?

According to a recent study conducted by the New York City Department of Education, 9.8% of immigrant ELLs have been designated as Students with Interrupted Formal Education (SIFE). These students have missed 2 or more years of formal schooling, function at least two years below grade level in reading and mathematics, and are often preliterate in their native language. These students miss schooling for a variety of reasons: Some come from countries where girls are not expected to attend school. Others were migrant laborers, orphans, or refugees. Still others came from oral cultures and speak unwritten languages. SIFE students (long mis-labeled as Special-Ed) are 100% capable of achieving anything their peers can, but require a great deal of patience, scaffolding, and socio-emotional support in order to blossom into their true selves. This is where permaculture as a framework for curriculum design can play a crucial role.


Permaculture Design and the SIFE Victory Garden Curriculum

Students are like flowers. Each one is unique, each one is beautiful, and it takes nurturing and patience to help them grow.

Sometimes, when you plant a seed, it is hard to imagine how big or how beautifully it can grow. From 2010-2012, I was privileged to direct IHSL’s SIFE program, a class where at-risk students could receive nurturing support to grow to their fullest potential. Despite differences in education, status, and abilities, my students are resilient transplants. They bring with them incredible strengths, stories, and experiences that enriched and enlightened our classroom every day.

How can educators bring together so many different young people, and assure that every single person is included and engaged in challenging, meaningful learning? How can SIFE students be served with limited space and resources? The permaculture adage goes, “The problem is the solution.” All it takes is a little outside the box- and outside the classroom- ingenuity.

Engaging Everyone: The Victory Garden

Every person, no matter where they come from, has a connection to food. This universal human experience was a starting point for students to communicate about the role of food, plants, and agriculture in their different cultural backgrounds. They then connected personal experiences to the larger social economic context of food distribution, hunger, and malnutrition in the world. By analyzing evidence from scientific and news articles, students wrote analytical essays exploring how they could provide healthy, fresh, and economical food solutions within their communities.

After writing about food access, the students became eager to act. We wanted to build a garden- but like most public high schools in NYC, we lacked outdoor space. After putting calls through various channels, Dag Hammerskjold Elementary (P.S. 254) in Sheepshead Bay informed us that they wanted an educational garden, but lacked the resources to maintain one.

Thus began an incredible partnership between PS 254 and IHSL. Ms. Lisa Solo and Ms. Louise Atsaves are two incredible teachers who taught us about the garden’s rich history as a Victory Garden during World War II. They collaborated with us tirelessly to bring the garden back to life. 11th grade student Abdoul Akanje, then interning with documentary film-maker Jean-Michel Dissard, created this beautiful 8-minute video that depicts our garden work. It depicts how to effectiveley engage SIFE students to use math, science, and English to help their community in a meaningful way:


Victory Garden Video

Participatory Publishing

The Victory Garden Project culminated in a work day where my 9th and 10th grade SIFE students taught PS 254’s 1st grade students about horticulture. Concurrent with weekly garden sessions were daily readings regarding evolutionary biology, chemistry, and ecology. While learning about plant adaptations, students began writing “Tree of Life” memoirs. Students wrote a series of memoirs about their “Roots,” their “Stems of Support” their “Branching Out” experiences and their “Blossoming” Experiences. Students then published a book of memoirs titled “Growing Experiences.”


ESL students need a studio, a stage, and an audience to make their classwork meaningful. We celebrated and released our “Growing Experiences” book at our student-organized “Café Night.” Students worked in committees to organize the event from the ground-up. Students read their books to their families and friends over fresh food from our garden and food from our different countries. The sense of pride that these often marginalized students had in their accomplishments was tangible. My SIFE students were heroes that day.

For weeks afterwards, my students carried their “Growing Experiences” books with them, eager to read each other’s memoirs during SSR (Sustained Silent Reading) or free time. As a final project, students wrote an analytical essay with one important requirement: They needed to use each other’s stories as evidence. This worked incredibly well. Students were motivated to read about their peers. These texts were self-differentiated in terms of length and reading levels. Finally, if the reader needed clarification, they could simply interview the author.

Permaculture Design and Curriculum Design

When working with SIFE students, it is important to make the community the curriculum. Academic achievement can often be a distant concept for students who have experienced interruptions in their formal education. Simultaneously, SIFE students offer a rich array of experiences and skills that can be exchanged and validated in the ESL classroom. The practical application of literacy and numeracy skills for authentic, observable, and social projects creates a point of entry for SIFE/ELLs that makes academia relevant to their lives.

Below, please find a chart displaying how Permaculture design principles made the Victory Garden curriculum possible:


Observe and interact:

By taking time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.

When working with students from many different cultural, linguistic and academic backgrounds, it is essential to observe and interact with students to discover what strengths, experiences, and talents they have to offer.

Catch and store energy:

By developing systems that collect resources at peak abundance, we can use them in times of need.

How to do you capture and sustain student energy and enthusiasm? By making work student-centered and meaningful so they are motivated over time.

Obtain a yield:

Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing.

Show students that they can be successful. Celebrate their work and they will push themselves to accomplish more.

Apply self-regulation and accept feedback:

We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well.

As beginning writers, students need constant feedback and affirmation in order to make their writing stronger

Use and value renewable resources and services:

Make the best use of nature’s abundance to reduce our consumptive behavior and dependence on non-renewable resources.

As beginning writers, students need constant feedback and affirmation in order to make their writing stronger and more meaningful.

Produce no waste:

By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.

Every project must be purposeful. Every activity is a component of a future accomplishment. There is no “busy work.”

Design from patterns to details:

By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.

In a spiralling curriculum, every activity is a component of a future accomplishment. All student experiences build into a final meaningful project that makes a difference in the world.

Integrate rather than segregate:

By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.

Every student, no matter what language they speak or their level of education, has something to contribute to our classroom community. Rather than be marginalized, the toughest kids in the school are brought front and center.

Use small and slow solutions:

Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes.

Learning to reading and write for the first time is a slow and tedious process. Great accomplishments take time and a LOT of scaffolding and differentiation.

Use and value diversity:

Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.

The vast diversity of our community is our greatest asset. There are so many amazing stories to tell and skills to share.

Use edges and value the marginal:

The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.

SIFE students and ELLs struggle with being marginalized by society. They are at the edge of creative change and are incredibly valuable towards the center.

Creatively use and respond to change:

We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.

This entire project was created out of a 15 foot by 15 foot classroom with no windows with the toughest kids in the NYCDOE. With creative permaculture, there is no limit to what our communities can accomplish.


The biggest tree can grow from the tiniest seed. SIFE, ELLs , and immigrant teens are capable of accomplishing great things for themselves and their communities. As demonstrated, Permaculture as a pedagogical approach can be a valuable tool in the multicultural classroom. More research and experimentation must be done to transcend the disciplines of linguistics, ecology, and pedagogy. Our society needs international solutions to the global challenges we face. By teaching preliterate immigrant students how to read, write, and grow food at the same time, we bring them a seat at the table to lead this important discussion.

Christina Zawerucha is a teacher, farmer, and social entrepreneur who specializes in developing sustainability literacy programs in an international context. Focused on working with refugees, immigrant populations and ELLs, Christina has developed participatory curricula with public, non-profit, and higher education institutions in New York, Pennsylvania, Ecuador, Ukraine, Virginia, and now EthiopiaChristina is the director of the NGO Permaculture for Peace and currently works as a Permaculture Specialist for GreenPath food in Butajira, Ethiopia. Learn more at and

Works Cited

Educator Resources. (n.d.). Retrieved November 15, 2014, from

I Learn America. (n.d.). Retrieved November 15, 2014, from

Permaculture Principles – thinking tools for an era of change. (n.d.). Retrieved November 15, 2014, from

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