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Outdoor Learning Piques Educators’ Interest

August 07, 2014

Melissa Martin

Deb Widner of Cullman’s Soil and Water Conservation District takes a hands-on approach to learning at Clay-Chalkville High School’s outdoor classroom.

The 2014 Ag in the Classroom (AITC) Summer Institute sent more than 80 educators back to their schools armed with ag-centric resources and a mission to expand their classrooms to the great outdoors. 

Held in Birmingham June 11-13, the AITC event offered teachers from across the state a chance to explore new ways of sharing agriculture’s message with students. From interactive workshops and panel-based seminars to networking events and tours of outdoor classrooms, the annual program introduced ways to reach students from kindergarten to high school. 

Margaret Martin, retired teacher and volunteer at Mary B. Austin Elementary in Mobile, said her inaugural AITC experience provided her with practical application tools. 

“Three years ago, we had a fifth-grade teacher who decided to do an outdoor garden,” Martin recalled. “He built raised beds on two different sides of the playground — a protected area that was shaded for the kindergartners to use, and a more sunny spot for his fifth- graders. He’s since retired, and the beds are mine to tend. Ag in the Classroom inspired me to build on what he created, and get all students involved.”

Martin said Alabama’s natural resources lend themselves well to outdoor classrooms, and teaching kids where their food comes has never been more essential. 

“Students study science and math indoors, but exposing them to an outdoor classroom where they can plant, measure and grow their own food would be a tool they can use for the rest of their lives,” she said. “The resources, advice and easily executable ideas I’ve received here are some of the best teaching tools I’ve had the privilege of getting in my career.”  

Cullman County educators Audrey and Jim Parker also complimented the summer program. 

“We heard about Ag in the Classroom from our principal who attended last year, and it sounded like such a great opportunity,” said Audrey, who teaches science at West Point Elementary. “It was so helpful to hear that creating an efficient, functional outdoor classroom isn’t something that can be done in one school year. Rather, it’s a multi-year journey of trial-and-error.” 

In addition to teaching music at West Point Elementary, Jim helps Audrey maintain the outdoor classroom. He said he’s learning how to turn the manicured garden into a natural landscape, and seeing Bluff Park Elementary’s outdoor classroom was exactly what he’d been searching for. 

“Looking around this area, it’s genuinely impressive to see what can be done with time, natural resources, manual labor and community support,” Jim said of the outdoor area, which houses vegetable and herb gardens, plants and wildlife habitats. “We have maybe a quarter-acre of an outdoor classroom on our campus with a greenhouse, koi pond and butterfly habitat, but I’m ready to go back and really create a natural habitat students can take care of and nurture.” 

Alabama AITC Chairman Kim Ramsey said she was thrilled with attendance at this year’s summer institute.

“This year’s program provided 85 educators an opportunity to learn ideas for spotlighting agricultural literacy, building outdoor classrooms, and hosting ag fairs or school and community ag-based socials,” Ramsey said. “Attendees also received books, DVDs and other curriculum, as well as hands-on life cycle and farming mobiles, to share with students during the year.” 

Applications for the 2015 Summer Institute will be available in February. To view photos from this year’s event, visit the Federation’s Flickr page or ‘like’ the Alabama AITC Facebook page. For more information about the program, visit AlabamaAITC.org. 


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