Connecticut College Magazine · Fall 2010

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Food for Thought

Food for Thought
Michelle Moon ´93 looks over a table of plants with Eleni Kotsonis '03 at Strawbery Banke. Photo By Whit Richardson´02

Through education and activism, Michelle Moon ´93 plants the seeds for a sustainable future

By Whit Richardson ´02


On a sunny day in April, Michelle Moon ´93 sits behind a picnic table covered in small biodegradable fiber pots sprouting seedlings of heirloom vegetables at the Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, N.H. A teacher by trade, it´s her classroom for the day.

People come and go by the table. Moon hands out young Moskovich and Yellow Ukrainian tomato plants. She explains how they came from a seed bank that preserves local heirloom varieties, such as the types Eastern European immigrants brought with them to Portsmouth. She discusses the need to preserve these heirlooms, the importance of local food traditions, the value of knowing where your food comes from.

At one point, an energetic 5-year-old girl in a pink T-shirt arrives at the table, parents in tow, and looks quizzically at all the little plants. “I know it´s weird, all these vegetables,” Moon says to the little girl.
The girl throws questions at Moon in rapid succession, leaving barely enough time for answers.

“What´s that?” the girls asks, pointing to one of the small green sprouts.

“That one´s kale.”

“What´s kale?”

“It´s like broccoli.”

“You mean it´s broccoli?”

“No,” Moon says, reconsidering her approach. “It´s like cabbage. Have you had cabbage?”

“I want to get one,” the girl tells her parents.

Not the most educational conversation Moon has that day, but a success nonetheless: the little girl walks away with a seedling. Maybe she will nurture it, replant it, watch it grow, and one evening harvest the food for her parents´ table. Maybe she´ll forget about it, lost among the toys and television. Either way, it´s those small conversations, exposing people, one by one, to a new way to think about their food, that make the event — a collaboration between the museum and Slow Food Seacoast, a Portsmouth group co-founded by Moon — a success.

Moon has built her personal and professional life around the belief that education empowers individuals and helps shape healthy communities. It´s embodied in her 9-to-5 job as a museum educator in Salem, Mass., and in her extracurricular activities in the community.

*****

Moon gave the traditional classroom a brief but disappointing test drive after she graduated from Connecticut College´s education program in 1993. Her passion for education had not waned; she simply realized the classroom was not where she belonged. “I wanted to do something different. I wanted to get beyond the classroom walls and be in an environment where people are involved in their own learning,” Moon says. (See sidebar, below.)

Then she discovered museum education, and her whole life changed.

Museums, Moon says, offer a vehicle for learning not possible in a classroom, an opportunity to let children and adults alike experience and internalize the history, culture, science, whatever the curriculum may be, rather then simply reading about it in a book or being lectured on it by a teacher. Three years after graduating, Moon left teaching to intern at Mystic Seaport´s museum studies program, where she ran programs that offered children the opportunity to sleep on historic ships and learn about the local maritime heritage in a hands-on way the classroom could never provide.

From Mystic, she got a job at Strawbery Banke, a preserved neighborhood of 18th- and 19th-century homes in Portsmouth. Gardens are tucked in among the historic homes, sprouting heirloom varieties of vegetables and designed to replicate gardens of the past, such as those planted by Eastern European immigrants during the 19th century and Victory Gardens from World War II. Moon´s work at the museum included programs around these gardens. As director of education, she instituted a daily cooking program that taught 18th- and 19th-century methods of preserving and cooking food, the idea being that these time-tested activities of the past can help people live a more sustainable future. “It was fascinating and rich stuff to work around,” she says.

John Forti, Strawbery Banke´s curator of historic landscapes, says Moon was “one of the best museum professionals” he has worked alongside. “Museums are going through difficult times and to find people who get it deeply, like she does, makes a tremendous difference.”

In 2006, Moon and Forti co-founded a local chapter of the Slow Food organization, an international movement designed to counter the trend of fast food and reconnect people with the food they eat. The group offered Moon a way to extend the reach of the food-oriented educational programs she was coordinating at Strawbery Banke. Riding the rising tide of popular interest in local food, Moon was nonetheless “bowled over” by the community response. “We´ve been going great guns ever since,” she says.

“(Michelle) gets that everything we do comes down to education to make the community and world we live in a better place,” Forti says, “to not be overwhelmed by the idea we can´t effect change, but to start on the community level and create models that can go out into the world to create shifts in thinking.”

Last year, Slow Food USA asked Moon to become regional governor of the nine Slow Food chapters in northern New England, including New Hampshire, Maine and part of Massachusetts. The volunteer position — which is tasked with supporting the local chapters and keeping communication flowing between them and the national organization — was an exciting change for Moon. “Interestingly, we´re not thought of as an agricultural region, because we´re made up of small communities, but we´re kind of leading the nation in new ideas around supporting local farmers,” she says.

Teaching people about food has become a very important piece of Moon´s life and mission. “Food has the power to bring people together and connect them to their own history and sense of meaning in life,” she says. “That power can be used to build stronger communities that can better face the challenges that we live with.”


FINDING HER PATH

Though Michelle Moon ´93 didn´t realize it at the time, the education program at Connecticut College uniquely qualified her for a career in museum education. Professor Michael James “was an inspiring guide to the world of education,” Moon says. “He really took the stance that education should be a transformative experience — not just something that prepares you for a job or makes you literate, but allows an individual to open up and grow in a way that´s important to them.”

This was a novel approach at the time, she adds. “(James) was talking about things like constructivism” — the idea that all people construct their own knowledge — “at a time when it was considered radical. Now it´s one of the building blocks of museum education,” Moon says.

But those “radical” ideas made Moon feel claustrophobic and limited in the classroom. She slowly became aware of how her understanding of education differed from her new colleagues´, and it surprised her. “I went into the world thinking every educator knew this stuff,” she says. “A lot of programs graduate teachers without exposing them to this level of philosophy and cutting-edge approach. It took a while to realize sometimes I had to educate peers on what I had brought with me from Conn.”

James remembers Moon as the type of student every teacher likes to have. “She was always, always curious about how things worked and wanted much more info about not just individual children and development, about systems work, curriculum work and her role within that,” James says. “She was always looking for more.”

James wasn´t surprised that Moon gravitated away from the classroom. “I encouraged them to find their own path, to go out and see what best fits what they need for themselves,” James says. “I´m really pleased as punch that that´s what Michelle went off and did.”

Moon, currently assistant director of education for adult programs at Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., found her own path and plans to stay on it. “This is what my life´s work will be,” she says without a hint of doubt.


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