Archive for the ‘Bernal Heights Living Library & Think Park’ Category


Three Stars Shine on A Living Library and Illuminate Student Discussion on our Responsibility to our World

In May, OMI/Excelsior and Bernal Heights Branch Living Library & Think Parks were illuminated by three brightly shining stars in San Francisco. The largest one in our solar system, the sun, finally made a long lasting appearance in all it’s glory. It warmed our bones, and our new greenhouses’ occupants from last month’s seed planting course.

This month our students focused on community and environmental stewardship conversations spurred from the brightly shining Hayes Valley Farm, the Free Farm Stand, and REACH The Future. These stars made a lasting impression on our students and posed the rhetorical question of whose responsibility is the future of our earth and its communities?

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As a person caught in limbo between rural mountains and urban architecture, I often question: Do green spaces support strong communities, or do strong communities support green spaces ?  

Two well known San Francisco Urban Agriculture programs, the Hayes Valley Farm and Free Food Stand, lead me and A.L.L. students to question and answer, Well, maybe both ?

Students were brought into the world of community supported green spaces and community building through giving and the generosity of certain community groups. The Hayes Valley Farm was a three year interim land use project, dedicated to educating people that dirt and plants can grow bountiful food and community. The Free Farm Stand was spurred by the idea that bounty should be shared. This project started as neighbors giving away excess from their own backyards, and rapidly transformed to become a city-wide, supported endeavor where we learned first hand that food, health, and community can, and should be equitable and accessible to all people.

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This year, both of these community supported projects came head to head with adversity, as they were asked to leave their areas of green occupation. After multiple years in their respective locations, these projects had to be temporarily dismantled and relocated to make way for new city development.

And how did the groups respond ? By giving !

Our students were introduced to dozens of plants given to A Living Library by these two organizations. Our students were gleeful about the opportunity to plant and care for food plants, such as tomatoes, basil, peppers, tree collards, and chayote. They learned the benefits of beautiful native and ornamental geraniums, yarrows, strawberries, comfrey, and clover. And, through all this, our students were mesmerized by the generosity of communities, and green space. It seems that green spaces supporting strong communities is a closed-loop system, that should be everywhere. They are equitable, integrated and help elevate each other.

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With grace, inquiry, and camaraderie, another group, REACH The Future, engaged students in a discussion about natural resources and our abhorrent consumption of energy as Americans. Although the U.S. only houses less than 5% of the world's population, Americans use 25% of the world's energy. Some students were shocked to learn of our unfair consumption, while some retorted that we deserve more than other people. This reaction, and the unanswered questions, as to whose responsibility is our future, was a spark that provided an eye-opening introduction to students into powerful, real-world issues happening today in San Francisco, and across the world.


REACH The Future founder, Michael Gutman, continued with the lesson to discuss cleaner, renewable energy sources such as wind, water, and solar power. And to the students’ surprise, he showcased a simple, do-it-yourself solar oven with a warm, delicious apple cobbler. This treat would have convinced any critic of the impressive power of the sun.

After our classes learned how to build their own solar ovens using just cardboard, aluminum foil, glue, and string, a finished oven was auctioned off to a lucky student in every class ! 

This month at A Living Library, our partners planted seeds of green space, food, health, responsibility, nature and nurture, and we hope to produce the most abundant, beautiful bounty of all, community.

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Blog written by A Living Library Garden Teacher, Courtney Calkins.


The Bounty of Spring with A Living Library = A.L.L.

Let us take our baskets early

To the meadows green,

While the wild-flowers still are pearly

With the dewdrops' sheen.

Fill them full of blossoms rosy,

Violets and gay

Cowslips, every pretty posy

Welcoming the May. 

Then our lovely loads we'll carry

On each door, with laughter merry, Down the village street,

Hey-a-day-day! It is spring now, Hang a basket sweet.

See the pretty things we bring now, Lazy folks, awake!

For the May Day's sake! 

May Baskets by Evaleen Stein 

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It is not yet May in our OMI/Excelsior and Bernal Heights Branch Living Library & Think Parks, but Spring is well on the way.  And, change is happening all around us, as sleeping, barren branches make way to grow blankets of apple, plum, and pear blossoms. And, the quiet winter air turns to a buzzing warmth with gold and black ballerinas dancing across floral stages.  Our curious feathered friends, from year-round residents, to week-day visitors, streak the skies with brilliant blues, greens, and mahoganies.

Spring is here, in all it’s bounty. It is a time of celebration, not only for our Branch Living Library & Think Park Gardens, but also for the students, who visit as the school year draws to an end. This spring, we turn our focus towards our Garden, our home.


Students revisited the idea of this Garden home as a bustling working system that integrates all components of life. Billions of micro-organisms build strong soil for plants to unfold from protective bulbs and seeds. Flowers and fruits develop to serve as a beacon for friends and foes. Birds fly with wings and maintain balance. And, our composting comrades are always working hard to ensure energy is continually flowing through all these components.

We ask our students to discover where else, this intricate system can be seen. Everywhere, our students offered.

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And, so, we went to work in the Gardens, doing our part to add bounty, beauty, and a strong diverse plant foundation. Throughout the duration of the month, students broke into groups and set out to plant seeds. The sweet and savory smells of cilantro, basil, dill, and onion began to stimulate our nostrils. Images of ripening tomatoes, eggplants, and summer squash filled our minds and eyes. And, the colors and smells of zinnias, sweet peas, marigolds, calendula, cosmos, and towering sunflowers, mixed, like tie-dye across the Garden. Our seeds were small, and newly planted, but our dreams were huge this Spring!

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With our plantings just starting, two projects were about to bloom.

One, a lifeless greenhouse, which stood as an aspen in winter waiting for spring, to come alive. Our greenhouse, up to this point was a lifeless structure. Banished to a world of random wood storage, plant-less, useless. Within the first week of April our after school Student Stewards  Interns took it upon themselves to resurrect our greenhouse.  And so they began. Within the first week, students had cleared the clutter, started measuring, cutting, and attaching a flexible transparent roof, putting about six hours of measuring tape and screw driver experience under their belts.

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During Week Two, they added doors, and found the most fluorescent spring green paint imaginable to make it visually obvious, this was our GREENhouse!  And, by the middle of April, just as seeds were starting to peek through the seemingly enormous soil grains, we were in business. A newly bustling hot spot, literally the warmest place in the Lower Garden.

Students learned the many benefits of a Greenhouse for added protection for seedlings from weather and insects, water conservation, and storage. The question of greenhouse gas led to a discussion on the larger issue of environmental stability in our future of global climate change. In typical Living Library Garden fashion, small projects evolve into larger environmental and social learning opportunities.

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Our second major garden project of April was well under-way. A year’s worth of garden visits and idea-sharing from our 8th grade Community Development Class, had created a new movement, A Living Library’s Farmers Stand !

This idea came from our study of the inequitable distribution of food and health, where under-served families are usually the victims of food deserts. A national plague, where fast, fatty foods are far easier and cheaper to access, than healthy, supportive foods. This was a community development project that our Living Library environment, and its students, could directly confront. 

And, so it began.  A Living Library’s OMI/Excelsior Branch with James Denman Middle School Students came together to share the Spring bounty of the Garden with other students and families in the Denman community.  The actual Farmer's Stand was not scheduled to debut until Mid May, but preparation was well under way.

Students laid out a list of what could be given away from the Garden. And though our crops seemed sparse, they learned that there is always much to be shared. Students began transplanting apples, chocolate mint, and nasturtiums into pots to give away. They made a list of foods that would be ready to harvest in May, such as kale, chard, onions, artichokes, and beautiful bursting roses. 

A discussion of sustainability inspired the idea of a seed-give-away, and so, seeds of sunflowers, carrots, parsley, corn, and peas were offered in homemade packets.

As you can see from the photos, there was plenty to give. And the Farmer's Stand turned into a huge success with students, friends, and even families, who stopped by to enjoy all that the Garden, and the Students had to give. Some were astonished by the rich bounty ready for harvest in May, that included parsley, thyme, chard, artichokes, and many brightly colored flowers, while others remembered fondly, their past year of working in their Living Library & Think Park Garden.

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The bounty was so great, that even our San Miguel Child Development Center classes visited, and took home handfuls of food and flowers for their families.

This was our first attempt this year to share the wealth of our labors with others who might not have access to such beautiful and healthy food-scapes. For many of our students, running the Farm Stand was fun, exciting, and most of all a powerful learning experience.

Beauty, bounty, and wealth are all up to personal interpretation, but are always exponentially exemplified when shared with others. We hope to continue our Farmer's Stand with future students of A Living Library, and make it an even more, long-term learning resource.  And with this, April fog showers bloom into to May flowers where new Garden surprises await. 

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A.L.L. Student Stewards Participate In SF Mayor’s Budget Town Hall Meeting


On Saturday morning, May 4, 2013,  A.L.L. Teacher, Tessa Kappe, and Founder/Director, Bonnie Ora Sherk, with a group of Student Stewards from the OMI/Excelsior Branch Living Library & Think Park,  attended the SF Budget Town Hall Meeting at Cesar Chavez Elementary School, where Mayor Ed Lee, Members of the Board of Supervisors, and SF City Department Heads were holding a meeting to hear the needs of San Francisco’s residents.

As the Branch Living Library & Think Park After-school, School Day, and Summer Programs (PreK-8) at six SFUSD Schools were facing 100% cuts from funding from DCYF  (Department of Children, Youth, and their Families) and SFPUC (Public Utilities Commission),  A Living Library (A.L.L.) was in attendance to show how, and why, it has been, and is, a thriving and vital force in the positive transformation of our City, and its youth, and must be continued.

Tessa Kappe says: 

"As an educator with A.L.L., I was moved by the response from nearly a dozen of our Student Stewards, the Afterschool Club comprised of James Denman Middle School Students with whom we do hands-on, multi-arts, gardening, ecology lessons, cooking, and nutrition, among many other related subjects. The Stewards wanted to show their support for A Living Library by attending the meeting early Saturday morning. 

What 12 year old wants to convince their parents to let them go sit around at a meeting on a Saturday morning? What about hanging around eating cereal or doing whatever 12 year olds normally do? Well, not these guys and gals. What they did, is what we try to engender in our teaching: growing not only urban green spaces, but healthy and engaged young people who in their own actions and selves represent the values of community, environmental stewardship, and being empowered participants in their world.

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At eight am, I arrived at the Living Library Lower Garden to see all of the Steward's bright, eager faces, ready to jump in the car, and tell the Mayor and Supervisors how important A Living Library is to them. We swooped up our bounty of bouquets, picked from our teeming gardens by the students and me, and strolled into the meeting with armfuls of mason jars, overflowing with artichokes, roses, wheat, rosemary, mint, native flowers, sage, wild oats, rainbow chard, and everything in between!

We nestled ourselves in the front of the room, and the presence of these young people and their colorful offerings could not be missed.  The flowers served as talking pieces for the Stewards to convey their knowledge and enthusiasm to our elected officials and Department Heads, including: Mayor Ed Lee, Kate Howard, the Mayor’s Budget Director, Supervisor David Campos, and Director of Public Works, Mohammed Nuru, as well  other city leaders and community members.

One student, Karen Chen, wore a crown of Fremontodendron, or California Flannel Bush, a native with a lively, yellow, hibiscus-like flower, which she wore when she bravely stepped to the podium to address the crowd in the room, as to why she believed in A Living Library, and its continued existence. As she, A.L.L.  Founder and Director, Bonnie Ora Sherk, and Junipero Serra Child Development Center Principal, Jane Mancina spoke, the rest of us stood alongside them, holding our beautiful bouquets -  gifts from A Living Library Gardens.

Whether we spoke or not, each of us stood holding our own convictions about the deep importance of the knowledge, beauty, community, healing, and empowerment we cultivate within these Gardens.



At the close of the meeting, students gave their bouquets to the Supervisors, and the various Department Heads, including DCYF Director, Maria Su, who pledged her continued support of the program.  I handed one of the most expressive arrangements to  Mayor Lee himself, wishing him a Happy Birthday (which happened to be the following day), from A.L.L. He, too, expressed his support for A.L.L

On Monday morning, through a phone call with the Budget Director's office, we learned that our bouquet was still on her desk this week!


After the meeting, students shared their thoughts about how it was to attend a civic meeting that reflected the concerns of the community, and in which, they themselves participated, and made an impact."

The following are some of those reflections from the fabulous young people with whom we have the pleasure of sharing our stewardship of A Living Library:

"Hi! My name is Aaliyan Wright:

On May 4th, 2013, which was a Saturday, at 8 o'clock am, I went to a meeting for our Living Library Garden to get our funding back. It was important to me because I LOVE the Garden so much, and this Garden is beautiful too. We all work hard to make the Garden look like this. We come here 3 days a week, and everyday I come, I work hard. We took our time to work here. This Garden is very important to all of us.

At the meeting there were a lot of important things that were talked about and it was kind of boring at first, but it was interesting. There were funny things said too, so some of us were laughing. We saw Mayor Lee, but I called him Mr. Mayor. It was our turn to go up, and we took our flowers. It was a long wait when we were standing, and Karen (new Student Steward) talked about how she didn't want to see the Garden go to waste. Then we gave the people in the the front that were listening to us, flowers.

I really thought it was the best Saturday I ever had. I had fun hanging with my friends. It was the most fun day ever, and now we have our funding back. We can come back next year.  I didn't know what to say in front of everyone and I am sorry I didn't go up. I was very shy and unsure of what to say. I will be back next year too. Why? Because the Garden is awesome. We love you, A Living Library !"

Karen Chen says: 

"I woke up early that Saturday morning because the Living Library Garden is a place where I can relax and have fun with my friends. It's my happy place. If I were to see the Garden abandoned I would be really sad because I have met so many new friends and learned so much. The Living Library has been a place to escape the outside world and be happy with people who care about you. I have had so many new experiences, and without the Garden I wouldn't be doing what I am.

At the meeting we saw how much money they could spend and it wasn't a lot. I got to tell the Mayor and the Board of Supervisors how important the Living Library is to me and my friends at the Garden. We brought flowers and plants from the garden and gave them to Ed Lee, the Mayor, and the Board of Supervisors. I know we made a big impact by coming and showing how important the Living Library is to us."

"Hi, my name is Don Bautista:

On May 4th we went to Cesar Chavez Elementary and listened to other people who needed support, and I just want to give them a hug, because they were convincing. When it was our turn I was nervous at first. I really want to keep A Living Library because I have met lots of people, and I want incoming 6th graders to have the same experience."


"Hi. My name is Denisse:

I am 12 years old and I went to the meeting because I believe the Garden should continue. At the Garden I have met a lot of new people. Also, the Garden is really fun because we get to learn a lot of new things, and we get to eat food from the Garden that is really yummy !!!  The Garden is a place where I really get to learn a lot about plants. Before I used to not really care about the earth, but now I do. That's why I went to the meeting, and I loved to get the news that we get to keep the Garden program."

Nathan Zhao:

"I went to the meeting because I believe that the Living Library Garden should continue. At the Garden I have met a lot of new people since the first time I came, which was last semester. I want to meet even more people in 7th and 8th grade." 

Stephany Rodriguez:

"I came to the Town Hall meeting on Saturday because the Garden has done more than just teach me about nature. It has helped me make really awesome friends that I care about. At the meeting we heard people from different groups talking about their groups, and why they should get their funding back. It was interesting to see the problems of the city and find out about other problems in the city."

"Hi. My name is Natalie Liang:

I wanted to go to the town hall meeting because I wanted to save the Garden because I like to come and it's a safe place. I also like it here because I have lots of friends here. I have fun coming here. We went to the community meeting to talk to the Mayor. We picked flowers to make bouquets to give to the Mayor and the Board of Supervisors. They felt happy that they received flowers. I am happy because we went to the meeting and we got our funds back (partly). YAY!!"



Capturing A Living Library Through Art

 This month at A Living Library, students took a deeper look at the Gardens and Landscapes through the lens of art. Art for creation, for beauty, and for self-expression.  Students opened their eyes to details of the Gardens at the OMI/Excelsior and Bernal Heights Branch Living Library & Think Parks through Photography, Blind Contour Drawings, and Scientific Observational Drawing Classes.

Older students at our OMI/Excelsior Living Library & Think Park learned how to critically analyze images and objects using perspective, light, balance, color contrast, focus, background, and the rule of thirds. Each student used these principles of photography as they explored the Gardens taking photos.

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Blind Contour Drawings are an art form that encourages you to pay more attention to the shape and essence of your subject, rather than the detail and accuracy of your drawing. There are only 3 guidelines for this art form:

1) Never take your eyes off of your subject

2) Never lift your pencil off your paper

3) Have fun!

Our after-school students from 2nd through 7th grades participated in this activity, that is far more difficult than it seems. Students first learned the basics of Blind Contour by drawing a partner’s face, as their partner drew theirs. This show-down stare contest produced interesting art works that encouraged students to let go of perfection, and just have fun. Students were then able to take their talent to the Living Library Gardens and capture the forms of human figures, flowers, and other garden treasures.

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Our youngest students at A Living Library were encouraged to observe plants and flowers in detail, and produce scientific drawings of their subjects. Students explored the Garden and sat down in front of their subjects of choice for a closer look. Students observed their plants, and drew them as they saw them, identifying and matching shapes, colors, proportions, and growth patterns. With the A.L.L. Teacher asking, “What else do you see?”, students repeatedly returned to their subjects to add any parts they missed before.

Scientific Drawings encourage observation, critical analysis, and an awareness of the details of nature. Students were asked to take a look at the differences between these art forms. Each one brings new light and new attention to the beauty of the Garden, and the self-expression of each student, who is part of our Living Library & Think Parks

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Healthy Hearts of February: Valentine’s Day Celebrated A Living Library Garden Style!


IMG_0736Love was in the air in the OMI/Excelsior and Bernal Heights Branch Living Library & Think Parks this February, and Valentine’s Day was not the only reason why.  IMG_0731

This month we took a fun turn towards learning of healthy hearts, as our A.L.L. Garden Instructors brought food choices and food fun to the garden table.  For two weeks, students from Kindergarten to 8th grade took part in a Juicing for Health Lesson that brightened up eyes and taste buds, with Hulk Green Juicing Machines !

Students of all ages worked together to categorize the foods we commonly eat, and that we know can, either support, or destroy, our bodily systems and balance. Students actively participated in acknowledging the health benefits of fruits and vegetables, and the health risks of diets, high in fats and sugars.  Did you know that a can of soda or a regular glass of fruit juice can contain up to 10tsp. of processed sugar?


  Expressions of “Yuck” were soon overcome, with looks of “Yum”, when our students started preparing fresh fruits and vegetables from the local grocery store, and seasonal edible plants from our Living Library Gardens. We added some super power from greens, such as chard, kale, dandelion, miner’s lettuce, and even sour grass, to our mixture, for an ever-changing, new, flavor of health. 

And, with this comes the great lesson of how each food choice can support, or hurt us, in different ways.  You probably knew that carrots provide carotene for stronger eyes and vision, but did you know that parsley has been found to contain anti-tumor fighting agents?

Through preparing meals, and creating art with colorful foods as the medium, students learn that healthy food is fun, and, Yes, we should play with our food at A Living Library!

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 Blog written by A Living Library Garden Instructor Courtney Calkins.     

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