How and when did you first learn of Ag in the Classroom?
I was looking online for a teaching job in Fresno. I was curious how many Fresno schools had gardens and found only a few. But, through this research, I also found Ag in the Classroom.
How long have you been teaching students and why did you choose to become an educator?
I’m in my sixth year of teaching and my third year at Starr. I came into teaching after 20 years in newspaper editing and reporting. I did a brief stint in public relations, but still wasn’t satisfied with my work life. I read Po Bronson’s book “What Should I Do With My Life?” and that helped me realize what I really wanted was to have more personal relationships in my work. I also saw that I really like kids. Teaching was my answer!
What is your favorite AITC program/resource/event and why?
Right now, I’m loving the Specialty Crop Taste Test Grant! We’ve tasted pineapple guava and pistachios. Students practiced “close reading”—a new Common Core strategy—with the pistachio fact and activity sheet. I showed a video clip on the stages of ripening and how they are harvested. Many students had eaten them salted, from a split shell. So I wanted them to taste them shelled and unsalted. They also ate them in a pesto. My husband came to class, donned an apron and showed how to whip together the nuts, basil and olive oil in the food processor. We spread it on slices of a baguette. Some liked it one way and not the other, but most liked both. Next up for us will be kiwifruit from Exeter and dates from the Coachella Valley. I want to try kale too, both fresh and then dried as chips by my gardening elective students.
What is the most profound impact that agriculture education/awareness has had on you?
It’s made me think of where the foods I want to buy are from, and how much labor and gas it took to bring them to me. It’s made me a more discriminating shopper and more of a locavore.
Has agriculture continued to impact the way you educate students?
Knowing in general what it takes to grow real food helps me answer questions that come up in class. Agriculture awareness has affected how I acknowledge holidays. Under the old state standards, there was so little time for teaching anything extra that I usually did nothing with holidays. Now I try to mark holidays at school through a taste test or food activity, while covering the new Common Core standards. This past Halloween, I used an Ag in the Classroom lesson and handout from the specialty crop resource packet in both my gardening-elective and fourth-grade class. We learned names for the parts of a pumpkin and how some varieties are grown for their seeds, some for their pulp and some for carving. We scooped out the guts and saved them for the elective class. The next day, my fourth-through-sixth graders prepped the seeds for toasting in our teacher’s lounge oven. A parent and an aide helped us out. The students saw firsthand how different the Cinderella pumpkin’s shell and seeds were from the carving pumpkins. I learned how tough it is to cut open a Cinderella! And the seeds were sort of chewy but tasty.
Tell us about a golden teaching moment.
In my elective, we were clearing weeds from our school’s 8-by-20 garden plot for the very first time. I didn’t know if the kids would think this was fun or a bore. McKayla, a fifth-grader, waved her big weed in the air, “Look, Mrs. Friday, it’s a huge taproot! We just learned about these in science, and I found one!” I’d never seen anyone so happy to yank a weed from the ground.
Describe any agriculture-based projects you have been involved in lately.
We are changing our planting area to become a bee-friendly garden. We grew sunflowers the previous year, Lemon Queens, to participate in a bee count with San Francisco State’s program. But rats started dining on the seeds, and I was told we couldn’t plant food there anymore. So we are slowly changing that area to perennials and reseeding annuals—butterfly bush, salvias, iris, alyssum—and transplanted mums that were gifts. We will see what happens. Meanwhile, we have a place to look at and learn more about bees. Last year, we learned that bees are trucked in from other states if there aren’t enough here for the big orchards when they’re in bloom.
Do you have any advice for other teachers on implementing agriculture into the classroom?
My advice would be to face your limits of time and look for ways to weave ag-ed in with what you must teach anyway. For example, under the new Common Core standards for fourth grade, students must learn how to use more than one adjective to describe a noun, and in the right order. So it’s five orange pumpkins, not orange five pumpkins. I taught that standard first using other material. When we taste kiwifruit, we will revisit that standard and also prepositional phrases, which they just learned. Secondly, I would suggest teachers ask for Ag Activity volunteers at Back to School Night. Some parents will say yes because they can help only once or twice and make a difference. I couldn’t have done mine the way I did without some adult help.
Why do you believe it is important for our students to be agriculturally literate and aware in today’s society?
I think agricultural literacy is important for several reasons, but mostly I think about politics. I was a government-journalism major in college in the 1980s. We have been arguing in this state over water, soil and resource management for decades. None of it is going away any time soon. I figure if kids taste fresh food, experience gardening, and get an appreciation for what it takes to grow food that is shipped around the world, then maybe when they’re old enough to vote, they will make more informed decisions about issues that affect our food supply.