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Spotlight on teachers: Voltaire - Zoo Lab & Agriculture

Wednesday 12 August 2009, by Frances Simmons

I turn up at Voltaire’s house after work on another impossibly hot day. It takes manouevring to navigate my way over his front yard, which is in the process of anonymous works, and clamber up a stepladder to reach the front door. I knock, and a voice calls me in from the kitchen. Voltaire greets me, like he does all the volunteers who visit from time to time, with a warm welcome and sparkling eyes that betray a kindness, cracking and overwhelming a grizzly exterior to reveal someone with unusual generosity. Naturally, I am interrupting a program on al-Jazeera’s documentary channel about elephants, otters, and bats, but the volume is lowered, tea is made and we start talking about the “Zoo Lab”, one of my favourite parts of the Primary School, where the children learn about nature, ecology and how they fit into it.

Voltaire has lived in the village since its early days. He is a well-known and firm member of the peaceful community of WAS-NS, and with his wife and two children shares the house that was designed and built on his own steam. Voltaire grew up on a farm near Ramle, which lies between WAS-NS and Tel Aviv. After leaving home he studied practical engineering, and spent some time as a teacher of mechanics. Later he found he was back in a school environment, where he played the role of mentor for the children in his care, somebody to talk to. “I was never the traditional teacher”, he says, and was “the one who would catch a snake one day and take it to show the children in class”. Not just a teacher, Voltaire is a jack-of-all-trades; acting as shepherd, handyman and engineer, contributing greatly to the establishment of the practical existence of the village. The kind of person to fix locks and pipes. A provider of immediate help when you’re in a pickle. When my room was invaded by a colony of ants at the start of the summer, I called on the person the least likely to provide me with a chemical cure, and was not disappointed: I was handed a tiny jar full of creamy peach coloured powder, derived from some herb or other, to sprinkle round the room. As promised, it expelled the ants within a couple of hours.

Voltaire has been involved in the life of the school over many years, but since the idea of the Zoo Lab was conceived, he has been in the position of full-time teacher for the first time. The Zoo Lab is an animal house comprising a secure indoor shelter, screened to allow the children in to observe its residents, and a cage attached outside. Voltaire has arranged a curriculum, with a general plan extending over the semester or school year, but set from day to day depending on the season, weather, or the behaviours of animals and plants. The children attend lessons based in the Zoo Lab and “Plastic House”, where the plants are grown for agri- and horticulture classes, but classes often take place outside. Each grade has a curriculum that has something in common with the other grades, but also a unique aspect that is special to that year group. The intended outcome of the Zoo Lab classes is that the children learn to enjoy being with the animals (which include rabbits, tortoise, doves and parakeets), how to care for them, by providing the right food and the optimum conditions for the animals’ happiness in their surroundings. They learn the most humane ways to look after animals in captivity.

It’s hoped that they also learn that these animals, and we humans, do not live an isolated existence. The connection is made between us and the animals, and consequently what is widely viewed as “nature”. Through classes in the Zoo Lab, the children learn that humans actually belong to nature too, and we don’t have to stand apart from it.

Our food waste can be given to the animals, and other compostable materials, like grass and weeds, can also be used as feed. The animals live on a thick bed of bracken and branches, and over time, this breaks down into a fertilizer, which can then be used for the agriculture projects. The children see this process happening over a long period. First the wood is taken in, then they can witness a process of decomposition and after a period of several months are involved its removal and return to the outdoors.

Other connections are fostered between the life inside the cage, and what goes on in the outside. The kids see the animals’ behaviour inside, and this helps them to become more aware of events occurring in the natural environment. They observe nesting behaviour, mating, the sounds of birds, how insects survive the different seasons, and can compare this with what they see when they go out in the forest. Their senses become more awakened, because they don’t just see the animals, they can smell and touch them too. By connecting with the animals in this way they become more observant of things like animal tracks left in the dirt, bird calls, left over carcasses. The young naturalists are curious about what they might find in small caves or burrows.

Some of the projects this year also build on what we have in common with other parts of the natural world. Bird eggs are hatched, naturally and in incubators, and the children observe the development of the egg, measuring weight and temperature, and following the embryo by a light shone through the shell. The life cycle of butterflies, a familiar story from early biology classes for most, is also observed at first hand. The children see the story progress from an egg on a leaf, not ending with beauty but continuing through death and renewal, with an overlap between the butterfly’s life and the arrival of new eggs. Our lives and behaviour as mammals are compared to other animals; from nesting habits (why do we continue to depend on our parents, while a new-born horse can stand on its own within minutes), to the ways we adapt to our surroundings while remaining limited to some habitats.

The children have had the chance to experience many special activities in class this year. Combining the animals with agriculture, would-be farmers took the village donkey down to the fields with a hand-plough in the spring. They followed Voltaire’s goats’ pregnancies and finally saw the births, and the children learnt how to milk them. With the milk they churned butter. In the agriculture class, the young botanists grew plants including sugar cane, and learnt which herbs and grasses can be picked to make teas, which we brewed over a fire outside. Olive oil was of course pressed, at Latrun Monastery; and with oils extracted from other plants, combined with alcohol, to make perfumes. At Shavu’ot (the Jewish holiday of Pentecost), the children made bows and arrows using branches and plant fibres to make the string. They even attempted made kites one day, using tree sap as glue!

The children who come to school here have an awareness of things like recycling, endangered species and the destruction of the environment, the big picture. Their parents’ attitudes can be especially influential. Many of the children are involved with environmental projects after school, and they bring this to class and share with the other children. This means we can start at a higher level with them when we go to class.

Voltaire has a few things in mind for the future of the Zoo Lab. He’d like to build an aviary, but this would involve a big investment. He would like to see a large domed structure, with a sustainable plantation of evergreen and deciduous plants covering it. An avian Oasis of Peace would live inside. There would probably be a mix of birds like Quail, who would clean the floor of the aviary efficiently, and other small birds, some ground-dwelling, some that are happy nesting higher up. They would have to be the right mix, Voltaire says, to avoid territorial fights; “the kind of birds that have the idea of living and let-living”.

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