Children attending Speake Elementary in rural Lawrence County are setting the bar higher for youth around the state by learning first-hand and important lessons about farming and agriculture.
While most children have a family member in the agriculture business, school leaders are providing them a stronger understanding of the importance of agriculture. Children are learning about the life cycles of animals and plants through the innovative Junior Master Gardener (JMG) program taught by engaged and excited teachers.
These instructions are making a difference not only in the children’s lives but also in the community because of its strong farming heritage. “Agricultural activities have been a novel concept here even in this farming community,” says Principal Tina Blankenship. “The children are learning about the importance of farming and the valuable role played by their family member or by the person they know who is a farmer.”
This past year, kindergarten children watched eggs hatch to tiny chicks, first and second graders incubated the chicks and older children fed and cared for them in chicken coops so they will lay more eggs.
The children took apple seeds out of apples, dried the seed and watched the seeds sprout. They planted, cared for, and harvested a variety of vegetables later used in the school cafeteria, and created a worm farm to make compost for their vegetables.
County and school administrators, teachers and parent volunteers joined together because they decided to educate children a little differently, says Blankenship. While the core educational mission is the same, the methods of teaching curriculum refocused to offer a strong hands-on component. Blankenship says the JMG program helped to further the school’s vision of “Growing Children, Growing Minds, Growing Futures.”
That is where Junior Master Gardner, a national educational program designed to interest youth in learning about gardening education, has been vital. State JMG Coordinator Luci Guthrie Davis trained Blankenship and other teachers, and the two attended a national JMG conference in Dallas to learn how to develop JMG programming.
“We gathered ideas on how to begin a program in the school,” Blankenship said. “It was great because the conference was visually reinforced with tours of schools.”
The school administrators started with a couple of grades and have now expanded. Next year, the second and third grade classes will be integrated into the year-round program.
Blankenship says you see a difference the program is making in the children. “The JMG program and curriculum has made education accessible to all,” she said. “It’s not just for the stronger students in the classroom. They all get it because they can see it, touch it and learn about it.
“Children come to school excited—they are excited about planting day, about chicken coop day and many other activities,” she said.
Ron Beavers says it’s not been just the children who have learned new things. The 39-year teaching legend says he’s been reinvigorated by the JMG program.
“It has really been a lot of fun because it’s taken me back to some of my roots,” says Beavers. “My mom used to do some of these similar activities with us as kids and now the parents want to get involved and know more.”
Beavers said he’s picked Queen Anne’s lace wildflowers and his third and fifth graders have dyed them using colored water to show a plant’s vascular system, incubated eggs, learned about the process of germinating seeds, and picked and dried leaves to make masks for Halloween.
“One of the reasons I like JMG is that is gets parents involved,” Beavers said. “They ask questions and want to do more because they see how much their child is learning.”
Second grade teacher Cynthia Early said her students learned about George Washington Carver and about peanut farming. They studied dairy farming and visited the mobile dairy exhibit and learned about honey making and watched a beekeeper harvest honey and taste it.
Eddie Coker, the sixth- and eighth-grade agriculture educator, says his students made bird feeders to attract birds to the school so other students could learn about varieties of birds, and planted, cared for and harvested the school’s garden. He and the students planted potatoes, pumpkins, turnips, lettuce, mustard greens, onion, corn, broccoli and tomatoes, to name a few.
“The kids loved watching the plants grow from seeds, taking care of the garden and harvesting it,” he said. “They learned a lot that will help them as they grow up.”
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