FEDERATION HOSTS FIRST AG IN THE CLASSROOM TEACHER INSTITUTE
MONTGOMERY As first-grade teacher Kristia Brewer examined green rows of cotton and observed cows being milked on a dairy farm, she was already planning ways to incorporate her experiences at the E.V. Smith Research Center into lessons for her students at A.M. Windham Elementary in Daleville.
"I wish I could bring them here to see these farms," she said. "My children would just love it."
Thanks to Alabama's Ag in the Classroom program, she can take the farm to them. Last week, Ms. Brewer joined 65 other K-3 teachers from across the state for Alabama Ag in the Classroom's Teacher Institute, co-sponsored by the Alabama Farmers Federation.
The institute was made possible by a gift of $55,000 from the Federation. Last year, the Federation approved a grant of $275,000 to be used over five years to fund Ag in the Classroom programs.
"Teachers have one of the most important jobs in the world because they shape the minds of young people," Alfa Farmers President Jerry Newby told teachers at the workshop. "Because so few people work on the farm, it becomes more important that we share the story of agriculture and farming. This workshop will allow you to return to the classroom with that story and share it with your students."
For three days, Institute participants attended workshops at the Federation's headquarters in Montgomery and visited farms managed by Auburn University's E.V. Smith Research Center in Tallassee. Dr. Jim Bannon, director of the research center, gave the teachers a tour of the center's farms and facilities and addressed a variety of agricultural topics, from beef farming and dairy research to horticulture and plant breeding. Bill Gregory, superintendent of the beef unit and acting superintendent of the dairy unit at E.V. Smith, helped Dr. Bannon give teachers a tour of the beef and dairy units. The teachers also visited the Milstead Gin in Tallassee, where Greg Pate, manager of Milstead Farm Group, Inc., explained the operation of a cotton gin.
Ag in the Classroom is designed to offer teachers innovative ways to teach agriculture to their students. It was created in 1981 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and implemented in Alabama in 1983. The program receives no federal money and relies on donations to survive.
Curriculum for the seminar was created and 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.
Mrs. Blonk and Dr. McMillin wrote a short children's book for teachers to share with their classes and prepared a thick packet of material for them to take back and incorporate into their lesson plans. Mrs. Blonk said since teachers are required to focus on preparing students for the SAT tests, they implemented a variety of skills into the curriculum so agriculture and skills could be taught simultaneously.
Teachers received activity sheets including "Cow-culations," "soybean math" and "cotton calculations," each of which uses basic math applications to help children develop their thinking skills.
"If you can get children excited about something, then you can teach them anything--math, science, social studies," Mrs. Blonk said. "We want teachers to teach smarter, not harder."
"I will use every one of these activities in my classroom," said Jean Jackson, a first grade teacher at Ruhama Elementary in Dekalb County.
Mrs. Jackson said the Institute's field trips were invaluable. "Because we were actually on the farms and received hands-on experience, we have prior knowledge of our subject matter that will empower us to be better teachers," she said.
That's important, she said, because kids today don't know what farmers do.
"We live in a rural community, and when I ask my first graders if they know where milk and eggs come from, they say the grocery store," she said. "That bothers me. We should all know where our food comes from and not take it for granted."
Amy Childress, a kindergarten teacher at Plainview Elementary and member of the DeKalb Young Farmers Federation, said she is proud of the Federation for supporting Ag in the Classroom.
"I want my children to fully understand and to know the nice clothes they wear, the safe foods they enjoy, the chair they sit in, the pencil and paper they use all started on a farm," she said. "Children today need to understand where consumer products come from other than Wal-Mart and the mall. Everything they come in contact with goes back to a farmer. This wonderful, informative workshop has given me extra skills I can take back and use in my classroom."
Teachers were selected based on an application process and received a full scholarship to attend the Institute. Their lodging, meals, and materials were provided by the Federation and additional sponsors including the Alabama Cattlemen's Association, the Alabama Catfish Producers, the Alabama Pork Producers and the Alabama Poultry & Egg Association.
Mrs. Jackson said she enjoyed the Institute so much she hopes to come back next year. "We will all be better teachers after coming here this week," she said.