About JP Green House

The home base for JP Green School is JP Green House, an urban homestead in Jamaica Plain. Conceived in 2008 by Andrée Zaleska and Ken Ward, and built by the green building firms Placetailor and Structure Design and Build, this unique house runs entirely on sunlight! Using a combination of passive and active solar, the house provides all its own heat and electricity.

When we bought JP Green House in 2008, out of foreclosure, it looked like this:

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A local eyesore, it was 100 years old, had been a corner store and family home for 75 years, and then was lost to a bank. We were looking to create a fully sustainable urban homestead, and the location–with a large parcel of land–was ideal.

Eight years later we have recovered the building and site and made it into one of the most unique buildings in Boston.

 

The most unique feature of the house is that it is a Passive House. This means it uses a combination of thick insulation, a tight seal, and southern-facing windows to capture and retain heat directly from the sun. We use no gas or oil for heat, and only a minimum of electric heating. All of the electricity used in the house comes from our solar array on the roof. The net result is that the house is “energy positive”–it makes more energy than it uses!

The original garden was entirely overgrown with grass and a noxious invasive weed called Pale Swallowwort. It took eight years of diligent labor, but we now have fully reclaimed the land with 2000 square feet of vegetable beds, 5 fruit trees, a bank of raspberry bushes, a chicken coop and a large play structure. We grow all our own produce. And it’s the ideal urban classroom!

The best way to experience JP Green House is to come for a visit in the spring or summer. We happily give tours to individuals and groups interested in green building and sustainable living. Contact us at greenhousejp@gmail.com to arrange a visit.

Be a squirrel–grab an acorn!

Acorns Are Not Only for Squirrels 

by Lauren Ockene

As part of our study of seeds, we gathered acorns! When students started to crack them, they discovered that larvae enjoy acorns and many were not edible. Of those that were, we kept them in the refrigerator for a week, only to discover that now many more had larvae; we inferred that they were there all along and ate more while living in the refrigerator. Next time we’d have to use the freezer to store them!

Students learned to see larvae holes in acorns, and Haniyah told us a great trick for discovering other rotting acorns – put them in water, and the rotting ones float.

The next steps were cracking them open and then breaking them into smaller pieces with a mortar and pestle. We then ground them in a wonderful old-fashioned grinder, until they looked like a coarse flour. The last step is to soak the meal in water and to rinse it many, many times to take away the bitter tannic acid. This is called leaching and Lauren did most of it at home in between JP Green School sessions.

Finally, we made acorn/oat porridge with maple syrup in the JP Green School kitchen. All of the students who tried it liked it!

 

Winnowing, Threshing, and Tasting Amaranth

Lauren had grown lots of amaranth, an ancient Incan grain, at home. We did not have quite a big enough amount to thresh in the traditional way so we scrunched it up in our hands, over bowls, to separate the seeds from their big red seed heads. Then each student brought a bowl of seeds outside and we winnowed them with a gentle breath, separating the fluffy chaff from the slightly heavier seeds. It was magical! Students tasted the seeds and some enjoyed eating them raw.

 

Bulbs, Tubers and Seeds

Our big theme this fall was seeds. We asked questions about  how they are dispersed, and simulated the ways in which they get around, like being blown by wind or carried along by animals on fur, or eaten and “pooped out” by birds. We learned about squirrels hiding acorns away, and then we gathered many ourselves. We processed them and made delicious porridge out of them. We also looked at some other ways plants reproduce when we dissected and planted bulbs like garlic and tulips, and harvested and ate the rhizomes of Jerusalem artichokes. One seed investigation highlight was when we separated tiny amaranth seeds from their big beautiful seed heads and then winnowed them to remove the chaff.

Three Things I Learned

My work as a teacher, and the founder of JP Green School, has been informed by a wealth of stories. Endless stories: Because everyone has a story they are longing to tell about their education, or their children’s education. And I want to hear all the stories. I especially want to hear the success stories: What have you learned well in your life, and how did you learn it?

The stories of failure all come to sound the same. We wanted to learn something, but we were taught in a way that made us feel stupid, humiliated us, or bored us. In other words, the fun went out of it, and we doubted ourselves. Too often this is the story of school: Drudgery, failure.

“But learning can’t always be fun!” “It takes effort to learn hard things!” “Kids today are spoiled–they want everything to be easy.” These are the words of protest we both hear and say. And I agree–it’s not always fun. Work and learning both involve some drudgery. Learning hard things is hard. Failure, repetition, discouragement, boredom–all part of life as well as education.

 

I looked at my own educational history and found three examples of how I learned hard things. Two are success stories and one is a “failure”. Here they are:

1. Guitar: My parents were working class people with no education in music, and they wanted to give us a serious musical education. So I took classical guitar lessons for 10 years as a child. I loved my teacher–an elderly Austrian immigrant–and I loved my guitar, but most of my early musical career was spent feeling frustrated at my mistakes (classical guitar requires an absolute precision that isn’t compatible with the way I do things), and hating daily practice. When I was 15 I asked to switch to a blues-rock oriented teacher, but I was discouraged (my parents thought, wrongly, that learning to play classical music would enable me to do anything I wanted with the instrument later.)

Maybe you can guess the outcome. I became a reasonably good guitarist, but I don’t enjoy playing and I don’t play. This is because feelings of anger and frustration at myself became attached to the guitar, and I can’t play without calling them up. I didn’t really want to play classical guitar–I did it to please my parents. I managed to rescue my abandoned musical self by taking up singing and strumming in my thirties, but I still struggle with irritability when I’m playing and I make a mistake.

2. Philosophy: In high school I had a great platonic love-affair with my philosophy teacher. Jeff was a big, wild man with a passion for politics, debate, and reckoning with the really big questions. (If you know me today, you’ll recognize these qualities–that’s how profound his influence on me was.)

I doubt that I would have volunteered to read Homer, Socrates, Shakespeare, Locke, Jefferson, Marx and Engels, Hobbes, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and Simone de Beauvoire (this is just a partial list–it was a four-year course in the great books of western civilization). I don’t think I would have done all that underlining on my own. I don’t think I would have learned to make and defend a point, tease out a complex argument, and parse the difficult language of philosophy without a great mentor. But I did these things because I was inspired by a subject and a passionate teacher. He encouraged me to do hard things, and I learned to enjoy using those intellectual skills. To this day I feel real joy when confronted with big philosophical questions, and a chance to debate and discuss them.

3. Gardening: Most of us who garden talk about it as a great joy and passion. I can easily spend three hours outside working without a break. I have to make sure I drink enough water or I’ll find myself suddenly dizzy. It’s a classic “flow state”: the work is so engrossing and inherently motivating that I don’t notice that I’m tired and thirsty — that it is “hard”. I hear the plants telling me what they need, and I follow my instincts to serve them. This does not feel like work. (There’s more I could say here, about how we feel passion for the elemental work of being human — parenting, cooking, growing things, hunting — because we are designed by evolution for these tasks, but that’s another blog post.)

When I consider these and other examples from my own life, I realize that I only ever learn under conditions of joy and passion. Those qualities come from a place within me that really longs for a certain knowledge or skill. And they are enhanced by loving mentors. When passion and loving mentors are present together, learning hard things is possible.

What hard things have you learned in your life? When does work feel like play?

This is what is meant by “play-based learning”, or “self-directed learning”. Joy and inspiration for a subject or a skill have to be present in the student. When those qualities are apparent then the teacher can teach. If you try to force learning you end up with me as your guitarist.

Fall at JP Green School Exploring and Learning, with a Focus on Seeds

By Lauren Ockene, Lead Teacher

This fall at JP Green School,  seeds took a front row seat, and related topics were woven into our learning in every session. We asked questions about how they are dispersed, and simulated the ways in which they get around, like being blown by wind or carried along by animals on their fur, or eaten and “pooped out” by birds. We thought about form and function, and used science notebooks as tools to help explore and reason about the relationship between the two.

We learned about squirrels hiding acorns away, and then gathered many of these oak tree seeds ourselves. We went through a long, fun process to make them into flour, and finally created a delicious porridge out of them.

We learned about dormancy in winter, including seeds and other parts of plants as well as animals. We studied the buds on trees, as well as ways other than seeds that plants reproduce. While working with this topic, students dissected garlic and tulip bulbs, and then planted some that were whole.

One seed investigation highlight was when we separated tiny amaranth seeds from their big, beautiful seed heads, and then winnowed them to remove the chaff. It was a poetic moment when all of the children were standing and silently, gently, intently blowing just enough and at just the right angle into their bowls of seeds to make the light, red chaff blow off of the slightly, barely heavier seeds. Their pride was tangible when the red chaff was (nearly!) all gone and there were just pure light brown seeds left. Lovely.

Another bonus is that both the amaranth seeds and chaff are AWESOME when seen through the microscope!

We built hoop houses to see if we could get lettuce, spinach and kale plants, with leaves,  to stay alive in our cold winter by giving it an environment in which it could live in dormancy, just like seeds do. It looks like we were a little too late with the transplanting, so many already look too weak to survive winter. However, the process was full of enjoyment and learning, and it will be exciting if we have even a few lettuce and kale plants that make it alive through the winter in our hoop houses.

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Behind all this deliberate work lies our philosophy of inspiring curiosity and scientific inquiry through activity–both playful and focused. We know we’ve done our job when the children take their free time to take apart a sunflower and bake its seeds. Or when they methodically glue flowers and seeds onto paper into a collage. Or when they create a “fairy meal” out of the tiniest garden vegetables. They’ve made work into play, and that’s  the relationship to learning that we seek to inspire.

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