Where ordinary people might look and see a middle school student, Altadena teacher Daryl Bilandzija sees a mind ready to be cultivated.   

Perhaps it’s because, growing up in rural San Diego County, a young Bilandzija often gazed at the avocado trees and orange groves that dotted the landscape and marveled at how patterns in nature seemed so simple and self-sustaining. His interest in studying those systems manifested into a lifelong love of gardening and ultimately led him to become certified in Permaculture Design, the process of engineering diverse, stable and resilient ecosystems that can sustain themselves, and humans, for years with little intervention.

Today, Bilandzija incorporates the basic principals of growth and sustainability into the English and history classes he teaches at Odyssey Charter School. Working with administrators, parents, staff and his own students, he built an edible garden on campus that he hopes will not only supply fresh, organic produce to the school cafeteria, but teach students larger principals of stewardship, accountability and problem-solving.

“My idea was just to create an edible learning garden,” Bilandzija says during a recent visit to the still-developing food forest. “Over time, the garden integrates into the natural system and they sort of fuse. You basically let nature design.”
Bringing his passions to bear in the classroom to invigorate the curriculum, he hopes to show his students the power of action. For that, and other on-campus efforts, Bilandzija recently won a national contest, the Great American Teach-Off, sponsored by the online community and magazine GOOD and the University of Phoenix. He was presented with a $10,000 check during an April 20 campus Earth Day celebration to the adulation of students and parents who’d voted for him throughout a two-month campaign.

Despite the fanfare, his approach is simple: Treat the classroom like a garden where ideas are planted in fertile minds. Let the teacher be the gardener, and let nature take its course.

Planting a seed
The garden is an important part of Bilandzija’s class curriculum, and this year the first book students read was a young reader’s version of Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” a tome that encourages readers to think about how their food choices impact health, wealth and global food production.

“This is a book about the world you live in and the food you eat — what is the story of your food?” he says. “The kids always say, ‘How are we going to solve a problem like world hunger?’ Well, if you see it at that scale, you’re not. But if you go from garden to garden and neighborhood to neighborhood, that’s a start.”

To show how utterly doable change is, Bilandzija has been involved in several projects on campus. Odyssey now has a few chickens and is planning to turn unused space nearby into a chicken run. When officials needed to renovate and refurnish two classroom bungalows, Bilandzija stepped up and built tabletops and bookcases from recycled materials, saving the school thousands of dollars.

“He had me at building the classroom furniture,” says Pasadena resident Nina Briggs, the mother of eighth-grader Alia Daridian who nominated Bilandzija for the Great American Teach-Off and led the voting campaign.

“He is an innovative teacher — a Renaissance Man,” Briggs adds. “I think Daryl’s teaching the students to garden has had the biggest impact on them. There are too many wonderful lessons learned that arise out of growing a garden, growing your own food, caring for what you grow and sharing it.”

Nourishing minds
With a student population of about 450, Odyssey Charter School was the smallest school in the Teach-Off. That the parents and faculty members who supported Bilandzija managed to outvote all other campuses is a testament not only to the teacher, but to the overall culture of the school itself, officials say.

Part of Odyssey’s mission and vision is to offer students a “classroom without walls” by encouraging them to interact in the community at large and participate in the wider world around them with open minds and willing hands. Bilandzija’s efforts on campus, which include leading an annual theatrical production performed for parents and the public, contributes to that culture, according to Executive Director Lauren O’Neill.

“Daryl has really been able to take the idea of a classroom without walls to a new level,” O’Neill explains. “[His] winning an award was amazing for him, but it was like we all won that award, because we’re all working for the cause.”
With his winnings, Bilandzija plans to build an outdoor patio off one of the classroom bungalows to serve as a stage for students’ theatrical productions, which he directs. In past years, students staged “Macbeth” and “Romeo and Juliet,” but this year in June they will perform “Alice and Wonderland” in the outdoor garden. A June 8 performance is free to the public, but Bilandzija is organizing a ticketed performance for June 9, during which the audience will be treated to a locally grown, vegetarian and trash-free meal. In summer, when the school garden is more mature, he plans to take produce to Altadena’s Urban Farmers Market, opening May 30. If students want to accompany him and share their experiences working in the garden with customers, they are welcome.

“Everything in my curriculum is about giving them the experience of self-actualization,” Bilandzija says. “And the secret of self-actualization is that you have to go and work. You can’t just sit and wait.”

Nature at work
Getting middle school students to understand themselves as part of a larger, human ecosystem isn’t always easy, the Odyssey teacher confesses. In some ways, it’s like gardening — it takes patience and enormous faith that nature will take over.

“It’s a slow process. The kids are all over the map, in terms of their abilities,” Bilandzija says. “I’ve kind of learned I need to be patient with that. It works itself out in strange ways, and patience is key.”

There are hopeful signs, however. Kids in one class are reading Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” which envisions a future that criminalizes reading and free thought. Bilandzija takes a Socratic approach to in-class discussions, asking a lot of questions and building on the students’ responses.

He notices kids beginning to craft metaphors in their explanations, including references to the garden; it always goes back to the garden, he says. When this happens, Bilandzija knows the bigger life lessons won’t be too far behind.
“They want to be heroes. They still want to fight the fight,” he says. “I’m teaching the whole person. If not now, when? If not me, who?”