Steven Lomadafkie thinks it's imperative that children learn about the environment. That's why his students at Moencopi Day School spend their time planting tomatoes in the greenhouse, nurturing cottonwood seedlings for restoration projects on Hopi tribal land and recycling paper as an alternative fuel source for elders.
© Paul Markow
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By Kathy Ritchie
It’s a hot August afternoon at the Moencopi Day School, just outside Tuba City, as 10 giggling first-graders huddle around Steven Lomadafkie beneath two large cottonwood trees.
“Hi, Mr. Lomadafkie,” says one student. Lomadafkie takes attendance, and one after another, tiny voices shout, “Here!” It’s the second week of school, and even though Lomadafkie taught some of the same students last year as kindergartners, he’s still learning names and remembering faces.
“They’ve grown up since I last saw them,” he says.
The students are participating in one of the school’s “specials” — extracurricular classes intended to enhance the learning experience. In this case, the students are literally learning how to play in the dirt. As the school’s greenhouse manager and resident gardener, Lomadafkie oversees an acre of land that, since his arrival some seven years ago, has evolved into a place of learning and bounty.
Today’s lesson plan revolves around recycling.
“It was something the principal brought to our attention,” Lomadafkie says. “There was all of this paper being thrown out into dumpsters on a daily basis, and he asked, ‘Why can’t we recycle it and possibly take it to the elders as an alternative fuel source?’ For the kids, it’s something tangible — they can actually touch and feel it, and we can have a discussion about that.”
Lomadafkie leads his students to a covered area near the greenhouse, where they swarm two aluminum bins filled with pink-tinged water and shredded paper. After what must feel like an eternity, the first-graders are finally given the green light to plunge their arms into the water and scoop out handfuls of soaking-wet paper. “Look at this,” shouts one little boy. “Mr. Lomadafkie! I’m wet,” hollers another.
The students carry their soggy masses to the table and fill the metal briquette presses. Lomadafkie carefully watches and guides his students as they operate the manual presses. Water pours from the presses, and once a brick is made and removed, the students hurry back for more wet paper. At another table, three students struggle with their press — the handles won’t budge. A little boy comes over to help, and together, eight little hands move the levers.
“OK, we did it,” says the boy. “Bring it up.”
Lomadafkie watches the vignette play out. He laughs, pleased with the teamwork. After unloading a total of 32 paper bricks onto a wooden pallet to dry, Lomadafkie walks the students back to the cottonwood trees, where he wraps things up.
“I want you to remember this word,” he says. “The word is ‘recycle.’ ”
Steven Lomadafkie, 50, grew up in Moenkopi and Tuba City. His mother was a teacher, and the desire to pay his knowledge forward runs in his blood. So does farming.
“Since I can remember, my relatives who lived in the village were farmers,” he says. “As a young boy, my grandfather and uncles would take me to the fields, and they’d give me a hoe or I would help them plant.”
After graduating with a degree in forestry from Northern Arizona University in 1999, Lomadafkie eventually became a rangeland technician for the Hopi Tribe. Soon after that, the U.S. Forest Service began asking tribes across the country, including the Hopi, whether they needed assistance developing their natural-resource programs through nurseries and greenhouses. It was an opportunity Lomadafkie’s division jumped at, and it forged a partnership between the tribe, the Forest Service and the school. Construction on the greenhouse was completed in 2005, and in 2007, Lomadafkie was hired as the school’s greenhouse manager. He also oversees the garden and the orchard, where 80 fruit trees grow. And then there’s the job of teaching more than 200 students in kindergarten through sixth grade.
Even before class starts, Lomadafkie is in the fields, tending his own 10 acres of land like his uncles and grandfather before him. He’ll return later in the evening and farm under moonlight — or headlamp, depending on the lunar phase. Lomadafkie’s connection to the Earth is palpable.
“I wouldn’t know how to describe it, but I always know that I am a part of it,” he says. “Now, I work the land and I want to work it. I’m driven to work in the fields and grow corn and bring the corn home to my family.”
By 8 a.m., his first group of students arrives. Lessons vary from week to week, and there’s no shortage of subjects. Lomadafkie covers everything from invasive plant species and native seeds to plant and seed identification and climate change.
“I want to make them aware of what’s going on with our environment,” he says. “Not only here, but in the community, regionally and, if they can grasp it, globally. Things are changing, and I want them to see how it affects us in this small community. And it is affecting us.”
There is no traditional classroom. No desks. No pencils. Instead, Lomadafkie takes a hands-on approach to learning. If his students aren’t planting tomatoes in the greenhouse or nurturing piñon and cottonwood seedlings for restoration projects on Hopi land, they’re in the garden, transplanting slips, harvesting the fruits of their labor or, when necessary, pulling weeds — a lesson in itself.
“It seems so natural to be outdoors and have this knowledge of plants and soil, or simply putting your toes in the sand and wiggling them around,” he says. “It’s something new to some of these students, and you see it in their eyes — the joy they get out of something as simple as digging out an earthworm and showing everyone. They’re happy and learning at the same time.”
Lomadafkie has only 30 minutes with his students before another group arrives. It’s precious time. Still, he has high hopes for his kids: “What I’d like to see, when they go off to school, is that they study something that will help the environment — maybe environmental engineering, natural resources or renewable energy — so wherever they go, they take that traditional knowledge to help the Earth.”
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