Teachers Plow New Ground At Summer Institute
After being outside in the summer heat, Jamie Roberts, a teacher at Ladonia Elementary School in Russell County, was excited when she won the drawing to drive a tractor during the Ag in the Classroom Summer Institute. She was even more excited when she realized the tractor had air conditioning. Though the ride was bumpy, Roberts said she couldn’t wait to share the experience with her kids. That is exactly what organizers had in mind when they invited 75 kindergarten through third-grade teachers from throughout Alabama to attend the three-day conference, said Alabama Farmers Federation Women’s Director Ashley Davis. “Agriculture is important to everyone, but especially our young people who are the leaders of tomorrow,” Davis said. “Decades ago, most everyone lived on a farm or was only one generation removed from farm life. Things are different today, and students need to know where their food, clothing and shelter come from. Ag in the Classroom helps teachers take that message to them at a young age in a very positive way.”The Ag in the Classroom (AITC) program was created in 1981 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and started in Alabama in 1983. This is the third statewide in-service program conducted by Alabama AITC. The Federation provided a gift of $275,000 to fund the institute through 2004. Future AITC funding will come from the new Farming Feeds Alabama license tag.The program is designed to offer teachers interesting ways to teach agriculture to their students. In order for teachers to bring the message to their classrooms, the organizers said they need to see farms first hand. The teachers made four farm visits during the conference. For some it was their first visit to a farm. “I have never been around a farm before, and today is my first time,” said Audrey Johnson of Hatton Elementary in Lawrence County. “I have so much to go back and tell my kids. This is all amazing to me. I didn’t realize how much time and energy goes into farming. It is sad that so many kids miss out like I did. I am just now starting to learn.”Five teachers, including Roberts, drove tractors during their stop at Ronnie Holladay’s farm in Lowndes County. Richard and Lane, Ronnie’s sons, said they enjoyed showing the teachers how to drive a tractor.Richard also told the teachers basic facts about cattle and gave them an overview of the cow’s life cycle. He showed them equipment and told the teachers just how hard raising cattle could be.”I don’t want children to go to the supermarket and think that’s where their beef comes from,” Richard Holladay said. “I want children to know it comes from hard work and sweat. When they see the man in the dirty blue jeans in a red truck. I want them to know that I am working for them.”While Richard told one group about cattle, Ronnie was giving other teachers a lesson on cotton. He gave each a bag of cotton seeds, which the teachers said they could not wait to plant for their kids. He put signs in front of cotton plants at different stages of growth so teachers could see the process.”It was fascinating to see what cotton is like at the start and then at the end, and also to hear everything a bale of cotton makes,” said Debra Perkins, a teacher at Wetumpka Elementary in Elmore County. “This made me appreciate agriculture more, and I want to help my students learn the importance of agriculture.”The Holladays and other farmers involved in the tour welcomed the opportunity to show their farms to teachers. Ed Dennis, a Dallas County farmer, shared his greenhouses and a few jokes that illustrated just how expensive farming can be. “One ounce of pansy seed that I purchase is $960,” Dennis said. “So if someone asks if you want an ounce of gold or an ounce of pansy seed. Take the pansy seed.”The teachers also had the opportunity to visit the largest pecan orchard in the state, operated by Lowndes County farmer Jerry Ingram. He thinks it is important for children to know how pecans fit into farming. He told the teachers that pecans are a good way to diversify a farm.The teachers also toured a catfish farm, where they saw catfish being fed. During the tour, they were told of the importance of water quality and oxygen in catfish ponds. The teachers said the tours were invaluable.”This has been the best experience I have ever had at a workshop,” said Sandra Watson of Susie E. Allen Elementary School in Russell County. “This has been so hands on. I feel like I am going to a new, science magnet school.” In addition to the farm visits, the teachers attended workshops taught by Xris Blonk, a third-grade teacher at Montgomery’s Dozier Elementary, and her mother, Dr. Barbara McMillin, a retired specialist from the Alabama Department of Education. “We need to create an appreciation for our food and fiber and where it comes from,” Blonk said. “Young students need to know how fortunate we are to have an abundance of food in our country.” During the workshops, Blonk gave the teachers a list of ag-related books and teaching tools. She also told them how to grow soybeans in the classroom and how to make paper pig faces called “Practically Perfect Piglets.”Another project allowed the teachers to make a miniature sheep using real wool and clothes pins. The purpose of these projects is to make learning about farming interesting and fun for young students, Blonk said. “When children are excited about something, you can teach them anything.”Teachers also attended two workshops given by out-of-town guests. Dr. Robert L. Horton from Ohio State University gave a presentation entitled “Breads of the Harvest,” and Dr. Thomas M. Zinnen from the University of Wisconsin spoke to teachers about science lessons that emphasize food and agriculture.”This workshop has been amazing,” said Misty Searcy, a teacher at Robinson Springs in Elmore County. “I can’t believe the amount we have covered in this short time.”For more information about Alabama AITC, contact Ashley Davis at 1-800-392-5705, ext. 3280, or by email at email@example.com.