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Herald Times Features 7/8 P3 Work on Urban Homesteading

Chickens in the city: Students learn about urban homesteading
By Brittani Howell 812-331-4243 | bhowell@heraldt.com

(photo caption) Project School students raised five hens, which they delivered Wednesday to a coop they built for Tonda Radewan’s home in Bloomington.

(photo caption)Urban homesteading: Students gain knowledge, expertise through projects

(photo caption) Archie Makice, an eighth-grader with Bloomington Project School, inspects the roosting area of the chicken coop he and fellow students built.


(photo caption) Nathan Jimenez, an eighth-grader at Bloomington Project School, looks into the chicken coop Wednesday as he and the other students say goodbye to the young chickens they raised. The students put the finishing touches on the chicken coop and delivered five female chickens to Tonda Radewan at her home in Bloomington.

(photo caption) Samuel Law, a seventh-grader at Bloomington Project School, helps install gate latches Wednesday on the chicken coop he and fellow students built for Tonda Radewan’s home in Bloomington.

It was a little red hen who first figured out how to use the ladder in her new coop in Tonda Radewan’s backyard on Wednesday.

Six Bloomington Project School students cheered as the hen wobbled up the ramp to the covered loft in the coop, a few feet above the grass. Four other chickens watched from the ground, taking steps as they explored the coop.

Having been raised from a day old in the students’ classroom, the five birds had never seen grass before.

Other groups in the same seventh- and eighth-grade class built raised garden beds, learned about food preservation and canning, or studied water collection through gutter systems and rain barrels. One group explored composting with the help of worms; another assembled a beehive and taught others how to introduce bees to the hive.

The projects put a cap on the students’ yearlong study on food and urban homesteading.

Teachers Scott Wallace and Tarrey Banks came up with the project during a weeklong retreat before the beginning of the 2017-18 academic year. They wanted a comprehensive project that was focused on a place — in this case, Bloomington — and “real issues that folks are dealing with,” Banks said. They settled on the process of how food gets to people’s tables, and some of the complications that come with America’s large-scale food production system.

For the first half of the year, students read a young readers’ version of Michael Pollan’s 2006 book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” to learn about food and agriculture in America. They talked about animal welfare, government subsidies for farms, farm labor rights and the industrial food system. Banks and Wallace then posed the question: Could raising at least some of your own food make a difference?

To find out, the kids split into groups of six to work on different kinds of “urban homesteading,” including three groups that raised chickens and built chicken coops.

The project brought in elements of science and social studies.

Math and engineering came into play as the students built their coops and garden boxes. Students even got to practice entrepreneurship: The teachers put out a call on the school’s Facebook page for anyone interested in trying urban homesteading themselves, and chose 10 “clients” from among 60 applicants. Students in the gardening and poultry groups worked with the clients to get specifications for their raised beds and chicken coops.

They designed the products and received a budget for the construction at Wallace’s home, where he has several acres where students could work. The coop delivered on Tuesday took more than four school days to complete, and has 60 square feet of space with a loft shelter and nesting box.

“At some point, they started to feel adult-like tension: some stress about budget, some stress about time,” said Banks.

But the client thought the end result was worth it — and not just for the chicken coop.

“You’re learning a skill, you’re working together, you’re learning how to use tools,” said Radewan, a Project School parent. She and her partner, Brad Hawley, signed up because she believed in the project but also because they’ve been practicing a bit of urban homesteading themselves. Their compost bin sat next to a vegetable garden, not far from a new bee box.

Wallace said Radewan’s chickens will likely lay one egg per day, per chicken for a total of five eggs a day, seven days a week.

“You can make a pretty big impact on your food,” he said. And when the chickens have aged out of regular laying, they can be kept as pets or, if Radewan chooses, eaten.

To complete their projects, students must apply what they have learned and write a persuasive paper on whether they think urban homesteading is an effective alternative to the industrial food system.

Jaidyn Cooper is convinced. She chose to study poultry to learn something new and to work with her hands to help build the chicken coop. At the very least, she said, raising your own chickens ensures they’re being treated humanely rather than living in overcrowded, unhealthy conditions. Plus, she said, it tastes better.

“I think it’s a lot of work,” she said. “... But I think overall, it’s really worth it. You don’t really see the difference in what you eat until you try it.” She’s started to ask her parents to only buy meat from certain brands, or the farmers’ market. When she’s old enough, she wants to join a co-op such as Bloomingfoods.

Nathan Jimenez didn’t need any convincing. His family keeps chickens, and he swears a fresh backyard egg tastes much better than one bought from the store. He joined the project to lend his expertise to his classmates, but now that it’s over, he’s become more curious about how different elements of urban homesteading can come together: water systems that hydrate gardens as well as animals, chicken waste that can be reincorporated as fertilizer and eggshells that can add to the compost.

“It’s like a chain reaction, I guess,” he said.