Guest Post on Success Academy Blog

This Teacher is Vegan, and Yes, She Has an Agenda

Danielle Pottberg 

 I stopped eating meat when I was 10 — the day I was eating a hamburger on a train, looked outside, and saw two cows on a bright green pasture. I had once biked up to those cows and touched their soft pink noses. I had named them Henry and Frank — and now I was eating a dead animal.

It would be my last. I have been a vegan ever since.

As an arts educator, I carefully infuse my philosophies around kindness, wellness, health, human rights, and advocacy into my art-making classes, and my “Philosophy of Food” elective was no exception. On Day 1, I told my Success Academy high school scholars, “I am vegan, and yes, I have an agenda. I want you to know where your food comes from, and for you to make educated choices about what you eat. I want you to know the science behind how your food affects your life, energy, and health, and I want you to leave empowered, knowing that you can make choices that will protect you, the planet, and its people. I want you to leave this course charged with the power that you can exercise your compassion for all living things through the simple, everyday acts of what you choose to consume .”

I want you to know the science behind how your food affects your life, energy, and health, and I want you to leave empowered, knowing that you can make choices that will protect you, the planet, and its people.

I decided to teach this class during our school’s Winter Opportunity Academy in December because many children are not fully informed about their food choices and don’t question what they eat. I believe that this lack of education around food is the reason so many Americans are overweight, unhealthy, and unhappy. Some children think the chicken in their storybook is different from the chicken on their plate. If children don’t know what they’re eating, how can they make informed decisions about what to put on their plate?

In class, I introduced students to scholarly research and documentary films that helped them understand the difference between organic and processed foods, the treatment of animals in factory farms, and the influence of the meat and dairy industry on the American diet. In one class, scholars studied cafeteria posters to understand how they were being tricked into believing that meat and dairy products are good for their health. My students learned that most dairy is produced not by farmers, but by corporations that operate large factory farms. They watched documentaries showing how animals are mistreated and fed unnatural diets in these horrifying places, and they contrasted these images with those that appear on commercials and billboards. Turns out that the idyllic image of a happy cow in an open pasture that you see on milk cartons is a lie. They discovered that farming, as we know it, is no longer a symbiotic relationship among animals, humans, and the earth, but a profit-first abuse of power by corporations that torture animals, create massive amounts of pollution (if you need a visual, Google “GoPro factory farm”), marginalize poor communities, and violate workers’ rights.

My job as an educator is not just to teach the amazing power of art-making and visual expression, but to ensure that when these young artists and scholars get into amazing colleges, they will know how to choose foods that will give them energy to pull the all-nighters, to write impressive dissertations, and to create those poignant works of art. My goal is for them to have healthy lifestyles that support their success. Without education around healthy food choices and knowledge of food industry practices, our students may leave college not just with a bachelor’s degree, but also with heart disease or diabetes. The question I repeatedly ask students is, “How much suffering will you tolerate for your food?”

For their final project, students created pamphlets, posters, and paintings to illustrate what they learned in my course. One of my students, Lexi Torres, emailed me her pamphlet early to get feedback, and later asked me in class, “Can we pass these out to other students to educate them as well?” Yes, Lexi, please do.

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Holistic Approaches

What can you expect in my classroom studio?

When you enter into my art studio you will see a variety of projects happening at once.  The daily schedule set up for maximum amount of student led learning, experimentation and exploration.  Materials are organized in centers or specific cabinets, allowing for full ownership over the working space.  Tables are arranged to suit students' needs throughout the year. Sewing centers with dress forms transform into printmaking centers and later fold into a mounting center closer to art show time.  The room is responsive, moveable, and alive. The week opens with skill acquisition, followed by work days, and later reflection/critique days.  Students may work alone, in pairs, or in large groups depending on what interests them. 

So what approach do you actually follow? 

I was trained as an art educator at Rhode Island School of Design, where the focus was on project based learning, teacher as a guide and mentor, and open ended projects with backward planning.  The curriculum that I write does not have a fixed ending product in mind, the children create the piece, not me.  I believe wholeheartedly in the approaches of the Reggio Emilia schools, and Maria Montessori's teachings.  Within my courses I infuse the ownership and love of exploration and student led projects through open ended, theme based discussions and honoring and respecting the ideas, processes and discoveries of my students.  Children are people in their own right, in every stage of their life, my role is to guide and teach my students.  While I am the facilitator and guide, the students have equal rights to be respected and to be heard.  The respect I refer to is not only in the form of an atmosphere of respect, but also the respect of their ideas, aesthetic and values. 

My goals in my teacher practice are: 

    • Create and uphold an alive environment for the students, show the proper storage and care of materials, and help them to take care of their materials and their space through guidance. 
    • Allow for space for the opening and closing and reconnecting to projects through the artists' process with a flexible curriculum and process grading systems. 
    • Foster responsible, adaptive artists who are have a thirst for knowledge and who are problem solvers
    • Promote learning in an inquiring, cooperative, nurturing atmosphere through student and teacher initiated experiences
    • Support learning through the senses. 
    • Promote mindfulness and meditation as well as journaling as an integral part of self discovering and nurturing one's inner artist. 
    • Teach outside the four walls of the studio through outdoor, gallery, and museum exploration and experiences. 

I believe in learning through living and that the best learning takes place in a creative, unrestricted setting where we can embrace limitless ideas that target the whole child. 

If I can empower each child to be confident, creative, intelligent and reveal their unlimited potential, they will change the world. 

Love & Kindness