By Joanie Stiers
Three minutes from the Chicago city limits, fourth- and fifth-graders learn as much or more about agriculture as their counterparts in a downstate farming community.
The class writes to pen pals in South Carolina about Illinois agriculture for their literary and social studies lessons. They read an agriculture fact and refer to the agriculture calendar daily. And they grow plants from seed in shoes, hats and whatever else makes an acceptable pot.
“What they don’t understand in depth is how food gets from the farm to their table,” says Debbie Jimenez, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at St. Albert the Great School in Burbank.
Her agriculture-enriched lessons are changing all that.
Cultivating a Statewide Program
Jimenez’s 35 students are among more than a half million in Illinois benefiting from Agriculture in the Classroom (AITC) annually, says Kevin Daugherty, education director for Illinois Agriculture in the Classroom (IAITC). The program touts an active presence in 61 percent of all schools in Illinois, thanks in part to its county-level presence. The program is based at the Illinois Farm Bureau Building in Bloomington and includes coordinators or volunteers at county Farm Bureau offices throughout the state.
AITC is a flexible educational program that uses agriculture as a springboard to teach core subjects including math, science, social studies and language arts at all grade levels. The U.S. Department of Agriculture established the program in each state nearly 30 years ago to give students a greater awareness of agriculture in the economy and society. Illinois resources include lesson plans that meet learning standards, colorful magazines of activities for children, teacher training, an adopted classroom program and more.
Thinking Outside the Textbook
The dedication to agriculture in Jimenez’s classroom began in 2004 when she attended a Summer Ag Institute, a series of ag-focused workshops that teachers attend to receive college or professional development credit. Summer Ag Institutes, offered by IAITC in partnership with various colleges and county Farm Bureaus since 1991, have helped more than 7,500 teachers of all grade levels discover unique ways to use agriculture to teach all subjects.
“It’s a different way to teach than using a textbook, which can get so monotonous,” says Jimenez, who has taught for 20 years. “Kids are different today than they used to be. You have to channel them in different ways, and I think that is what Ag in the Classroom has done.”
She incorporates agriculture into her lessons daily, one reason she was named the 2010 Teacher of the Year for the IAITC program. She regularly uses “Illinois Ag Mags,” children’s magazines with themes such as pork, poultry, energy and water. She stresses nutrition and eating healthy, and cooks vegetables and makes fruit salads in the classroom. Students identify the origin of every food on their Thanksgiving table. They discuss sustainable agriculture, the environment and learn about the climates around the country and how they impact crop production.
The district’s third-graders excitedly anticipate the next grade level, knowing Jimenez grows Soil Sams in her windowsills and invites the entire elementary school to her class’ Ag Fair each spring. All the while, Jimenez correlates agriculture-enriched lessons to the Illinois State Learning Standards and Assessment Framework.
“The importance of agriculture to their lives and the world is astronomical,” says Jimenez, whose only previous connection to agriculture was a late aunt who owned a farm in Wisconsin.
“My love of agriculture comes from the knowledge and how I feel about it. If I can instill that knowledge into the children – the role of agriculture in their everyday lives – I must have done something right.”