We asked Clarence Atwater, sixth and seventh grade science teacher at San Gabriel Christian School in Los Angeles County, about his experiences with agriculture education.
How and when did you first learn of Ag in the Classroom?
In 2001, I attended my first AITC Conference in Half Moon Bay. That conference lead to a very lasting and fulfilling relationship between me and the California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom. It was packed with workshop sessions, field trips, great food and tons of ideas to take back to the classroom—one of the best being the Imagine this… Story Writing Contest!
How long have you been teaching students and why did you choose to become an educator?
In 1979, while I was finishing up my four-year degree at LIFE Bible College, I was asked to teach a fourth grade class for their second semester. I accepted the position even though I thought my life was going in a different direction; my wife and I worked for many years as clowns for parties, promotions, churches and children’s camps between Southern California and British Columbia. To my surprise, I was asked to fill in at two other schools and found myself enjoying teaching to the point that I am still teaching today.
What is your favorite AITC program/resource/event and why?
Anyone who has attended one of AITC’s conferences will tell you to sign up and get ready for a fantastic time. You rub elbows with ag professionals, gifted teachers, starting teachers, farmers, and ranchers—all providing an abundance of teaching ideas, crafts and handouts with which to enrich your students. You will love the shop talk, networking, and experience of outstanding field trips.
What is the most profound impact that agriculture education/awareness has had on you?
Because of AITC, I have been exposed to the plight facing agriculture families today. Everyone needs water, space, a market for what has been produced, and someone to continue when it is time to retire.
Water during our drought is especially challenging. What if there is not enough to go around? City needs, rural needs, polluted wells, and pollution off the shore contaminated sea life! Who decides who gets how much from where and when? Are all the laws for the best? Are we protected for future needs and health? The Foundation provides a space for teachers to hear from a variety of specialists with a variety of views.
When you go in a field and listen to a farmer who is losing his farm because a developer bought out a neighboring farm a few years earlier, you begin to question, “Shouldn’t farmland be better preserved?” At the same time, doesn’t a farmer have the right to sell the family farmland to be developed if there aren’t others desiring/able to carry on the family tradition? In the Los Angeles area, so much fertile farmland is now lost. While there are still patches here and there producing fresh fruits and vegetables, should more be done to keep a balance when it comes to the use of rich agricultural areas?
On another ag field trip, I remember hearing a farmer explain how there are times he has to plow a whole crop under just before harvest time. Prices fell because the same produce came in from another country at a lower price. These are some of the issues you learn about from AITC.
Has agriculture continued to impact the way you educate students?
Agriculture definitely has a place in the education of my students. I continue every year to ask my students and other teachers to take part in the Imagine this… Story Writing Contest. We talk each year about the importance of water conservation, drought resistant plants, and the impact runoff can have on the environment. The What’s Growin’ On? student newspaper is a fun way to expand my students’ agriculture knowledge.
Tell us about one person who has most influenced your own education and educational career.
Mr. Brummer was one of my high school teachers who was able to spark an idea in his students and gave them a chance to run with it. As teachers, we like to have control, and it can be scary to open the gate and see where a path might take our students. It takes time, energy, patience and acceptance. Sometimes it leaves us feeling like failures especially if our students do not find anticipated success. There were three of us in Mr. Brummer’s class who banded together and found we could make a difference by putting together assemblies for the whole school discussing social issues of the day.
Tell us about a golden teaching moment.
Students love seeing life. We have been able to observe baby snakes hatch and watched pinky hamsters develop fur and grow into adults who have more babies. I love to hear my students’ excitement over animals and hear how excited they are when their plants start sprouting. This last week in the computer lab, my students were entering their data for their plants. Once all the steps had been taken, they pushed enter—an amazing “WOW” was heard throughout the class as graphs magically appeared and students visualized their own projects.
Describe any agriculture-based projects you have been involved in lately.
My seventh graders are growing plants for science fair. They are testing the affects of fertilizers, lighting and watering methods. Some are finding that it is not as easy as it looks while others seem to have a green thumb. Growing plants gives students a perspective on life. Much of life doesn’t happen overnight, it takes time! I see this as a small scale of what takes place in 4-H programs.
Do you have any advice for other teachers on implementing agriculture into the classroom?
Networking with others who are excited about agriculture provides support and ideas. I have gained a wealth of advice and teaching materials from organizations and their members. F.I.T. (Forestry Institute for Teachers) takes you into the woods and gives insight into today’s sustainable forest. E.A.T. (Education and Agriculture Together) allow for you to meet dairymen, farmers, drive a tractor and go home with all kinds of teaching aids. Look to the Farm Bureau in your area for workshops. I have attended the teacher’s conference in Bakersfield several times; it’s a winner! Mary Landau talked me into joining CWA (California Women for Agriculture), where I was able to go on a fantastic water tour of Southern California. 48th District Agricultural Association provides teachers with many resources, and their students have a chance to create agriculture-related projects to display at our local Ag Fair. Smart Gardening has impacted my classes through vermicomposting. Tap into environmental groups like Generation Earth/Tree People for their perspective.
The above list did not come together overnight. I have taken one step at a time.
Why do you believe it is important for our students to be agriculturally literate and aware in today’s society?
Without agriculture we would not survive. I do not want my students thinking an apple comes from a market. Most of my city kids have never picked fruit from a tree. So much of what happens in California depends on agriculture. I want my students to make this connection. Who knows, in the not-too-far-off future, some of my students may be the ones deciding who gets water from where, and how this or that section of land will be used.