The Living Classroom - National Tree Day Blog

The Living Classroom

A small gate overgrown with climbing vines opens to a sea of green. A lone pathway meanders down through the green to a gully growing tall with rainforest trees and wetland grasses. The scent of wet earth seeps up with every step and a gap in the canopy above filters gentle morning light down to the garden floor, where three students are swaying and singing in Kinyarwanda.

Only a short drive from Wollongong, on the grounds of Warrawong High School, two special planting projects are underway. One is a regeneration project connected to a large urban permaculture farm that employs resettled refugees. The other, an edible garden where students come together to learn about plants. Both projects are helping newly arrived community members lay down roots in Australia.  

For last year’s National Tree Day, Warrawong High students used funding from Planet Ark's Seedling Bank to expand the school’s gardens, create new bee habitat and revegetate the area that connects the school grounds to the farm.  

Plants provide important opportunities for cross-cultural learning at Warrawong High, where 55 per cent of students come from non-English speaking backgrounds. The school’s Intensive English Centre (IEC) teaches English to pupils from Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Zambia and Myanmar, among other places. In total, 39 nationalities are represented in the student body and the school gardens provide a supportive space to bring them together to connect with nature and each other.

“Working in the garden provides a safe place where we all share our stories and knowledge about plants, food and gardening,” IEC teacher Maria Schettino tells Planet Ark.   The school gardens are a second home for Maria, who has been teaching English at the IEC for over 14 years. She has seen first-hand the positive impact of the gardens in bringing students from the main high school together with the IEC students to learn about different cultures through plants.  

Located beside the main school building is a space known as ‘The Living Classroom’. It’s filled with an array of Southeast Asian and South American plants, many of which are edible. The root of casava can be boiled down and sprinkled with salt, ice cream beans are a delicious addition to salads and guava is a sweet treat between classes.  

Former Warrawong High student, Leatitie Umuvyeyi, has spent more time than most in these gardens. Arriving from Zambia in 2015, she has now graduated and works casually in the IEC as a learning support officer while completing a Bachelor of Science majoring in cell and molecular biology.  

Leatitie couldn’t speak English when she arrived in Australia, but plants provided a source of comforting familiarity as she tackled the challenge of learning a new language and adapting to life in Warrawong. She describes the Living Garden as a special place that reminds her of home – “it means a lot to me as someone who came from a place where I used to see my dad doing gardening every day”.  

Maria says the most rewarding part of her job is watching newly arrived students make friends, build confidence and settle into life in Australia as part of the school and wider community. She describes the garden as a place to heal, connect and grow, with spontaneous singing often heard floating up from the gully.

  As well as maintaining the Living Classroom, Warrawong High students have been transforming the gully behind the school that connects to Urban Grown, one of the largest urban permaculture farms in the world.  

Established by Green Connect – a social enterprise that grows chemical-free food to create jobs for resettled refugees and young people – the farm sits on formerly-neglected school grounds, which were once infested with invasive lantana, plastic waste and dumped vehicles. Urban Grown employs students from Warrawong High to work at the farm on a part- time basis.  

Over the last three years, students have cleared plastic and rubbish and started planting subtropical rainforest trees, shrubs and grasses in the gully. They are now looking to introduce a bee habitat garden to pollinate not just native trees, but also the fruit and vegetables growing on the school grounds and in the wider community. The Seedling Bank supported the project with funding for 450 trees, shrubs and grasses.  

Jennifer McMillan

Jen worked as a vet nurse while studying environmental science and completing her master's degree in Journalism. She loves bushwalking, storytelling, caring for baby animals, Australian birds and river red gums. Jen works on the National Tree Day campaign and Planet Ark's Seedling Bank.