I Believe in Broccoli
During my first year of teaching 7th grade Language Arts I had some green and white stickers made; they said, “Eat more broccoli.” I ordered 500 and handed them out as rewards instead of the ever-popular candy that permeates schools, jumpstarting students’ brains and cranking them along for a bit, setting them up for that inevitable crash on a sugar low by the next class period. There is one rule in my classroom regarding food: students may eat any fruit, any vegetable, any time.
Four years later, it has sort of become my thing—students call me by my vegetable name and bring me fresh broccoli. The stickers appear in unusual places: as bookmarks, stuck to file cabinets in the science room, on the occasional student forehead, and recently, even on the hot-pink cast of my favorite lunch-detentioner’s left arm.
This phrase has grown to be some of the best advice I know. So many people are willing to tell others what they ought to do, whether asked for their suggestions or not. Teachers are notorious for doing this to students. Those sentences begin with, “You know when I was a kid…” and immediately the joy drains from youngsters faces. While students need boundaries, they do not need countless lectures about how to find their way through life.
I believe it’s best to keep it simple. Give students advice they can use, nutrients for their brains. I try to let them know I care, that I am observing them, and that I’m concerned for their well-being by providing a safe learning environment. When I find myself in the mood for doling out information I try to stick with this phrase. “Eat more broccoli,” I say, first to myself, and then to the person, if it applies. If it doesn’t, I do a little more listening, a little facilitating, letting them find their own way through.
Last weekend, just after dusk, I ran into a former student in the square downtown. He called my name and a pile of words tumbled from his mouth—he said he’d gotten into a bit of trouble and that he was spending an extra semester in high school but that he was confident he’d make it through. He said he’d been reading his poetry at an open mic at a local teahouse and really enjoying it. And then he said to me, “You were really a big influence on me for my writing—oh, and with vegetables…”
When we listen to each other, trust in our fellow humans enough to find their own paths, encourage and support each other’s healthy behavior through modeling and sharing nutrients, there’s always the chance that eventually one of them will appear up on a stage somewhere, sharing his little slice of poetic magic with his community, blond hair tied loosely back in a ponytail, wearing a chili-pepper vest, grinning and chanting, with hypnotizing cadence, truths and suggestions like, “Eat more broccoli.”