What teachers did on their summer vacation

By Stewart Truelsen

Sometimes it is just too far to bring urban school kids out to a farm and get them back to school before the end of the day. Yet, an understanding and appreciation for agriculture and how it affects their daily lives is incredibly important for children.

The Illinois Farm Bureau has one solution. Farm Bureau invited a group of Chicago public school teachers to tour crop and livestock farms and a grain elevator over summer vacation. This was a special group of teachers. They were also participating in the Adopt-A-Classroom program that matches farmers with an elementary school class. During the course of the year, the farmer, teacher and class correspond and exchange videos or photos. The farmer also tries to visit the classroom at least once. The teachers in turn are invited out to the farm.

Kindergarten teacher Kathryn Lesser has been to Rodney Hayenga’s farm in Ogle County, Ill., several times. “I’ve actually been able to drive the combine. I’ve been able to drive the tractors, and Rodney has taken me to all the fields,” says Lesser. She’s proud to claim that she actually planted about 10 acres of corn.

During the school year, her class sends Hayenga questions they have about farms. At first he thought answering the questions from a kindergarten class would be a piece of cake, but one child wanted to know how cows make milk. Hayenga, a corn and soybean farmer, had to think about that one.

The group activity for the teachers on a summer day was very popular. Teachers probably make the best listeners and learners. At a grain elevator, they were fascinated to learn how the corn from nearby fields would be dried and eventually transported by barge down the Mississippi River for export. They had plenty of questions about biotechnology too.

At Jim Milligan’s Hereford farm, they learned about the different types of feed that cattle eat. Samples were placed in plastic bags and carefully labeled by the teachers so they can share them later with students. At every stop, lots of photographs were taken. The teachers posed on combines, tractors, in cornfields, with newborn calves and of course with the farmers. “Wait until my kids see this,” was a common expression.

“I would say 80 to 85 percent of my students have really never been outside of the metropolitan area of Chicago,” says Maureen Lawler, a fourth grade teacher. “When we do have the farm family come, the children are mesmerized and they ask them wonderful questions.”

It would be better yet if the urban school kids could get out to the farm with their teachers. “They would love to, but the problem is time and transportation. But really time. We don’t have enough time in the day to transport them to a farm, have them tour, and then get them back on time,” says Lawler.

The next best thing may be what the Illinois Farm Bureau is doing by bringing interested teachers to the farm and farmers to the classroom and encouraging them to correspond throughout the year.
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Stewart Truelsen is director of broadcast services for American Farm Bureau Federation.