Middle school integrates agriculture into classrooms

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Kelly Jo Fleming, Jackson Patino and Brady Bernhard guided fellow students through tasting different cheeses after their classroom received a grant from IALF. The students preferred the Cheese n’Salami sample, and their least favorite was Swiss. (Photo submitted)

By Molly Moser

Fresh herbs and cheeses were an unconventional yet exciting part of the educational experience for Eagle Club members at Clayton Ridge Middle School this spring. In February, the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation (IALF) awarded 172 grants to schools throughout Iowa to support the integration of agriculture into classroom instruction or after school programs with an academic focus. Two Clayton Ridge classrooms received funding from the foundation, which designs its grants to help teachers initiate new projects or expand existing projects that promote agriculture literacy in students. Grants can be used to fund innovative lessons, activities, classroom resources, guest speakers, outreach programs, field trips, and other projects.

Instructor Jill Stannard, a member of the Clayton County Farm Bureau board, received grant funding for the purchase of a Miracle-Gro AeroGarden, which provided students with a soil-free indoor garden capable of growing plants five times faster than soil. After learning to operate the machine, including the appropriate addition of nutrients and monitoring water levels, students studied the care of plants, root structure and germination, as well as methods of pruning and trimming herbs for use. 

An estimated 40 middle school students participated in the project, growing Genovese Basil, Thai basil, chives, cilantro, curly parsley, dill and mint. Participants were members of Eagles Club,  an after school program offered by the school where middle school students receive assistance and tutoring from upper grade middle school students and school staff.  Older students also act as a source of friendship and encouragement. "Students participating in this program see results of improved grades, confidence in the classroom, higher frequency of work completion, organizational skills, and social skills. This is a time-tested program that has enhanced the quality of education in our school," said Stannard of Eagles Club.

“We are continuing to grow fresh herbs and will venture into growing vegetables, salad greens, flowers and more in the following year,” reported Stannard. “Students have inquired about growing herbs at home.” She’s guided her students through researching at-home herb gardens, and is looking forward to incorporating the produce they grow next year into after school snacks.

“Students were excited to try the fresh herbs,” said Stannard. After smelling the difference in each plant, they used basil in homemade tomato sauce served on tortilla shells with melted cheese. Students trimmed dill and mixed it with powdered ranch dressing to eat with crackers. “They were amazed by the flavor,” Stannard added. 

Stannard’s students weren’t the only ones tasting new things. In Clayton Ridge Middle School teacher Sara Lawrence’s classroom, Eagle Club members sampled Swiss, Muenster, Colby Jack Longhorn, Cheese n’ Salami, and Cheese n’ Bacon. 

“We read the book Clarabelle Making Milk and So much More by Cris Peterson and learned a lot of fun facts about Holstein cows and living on a dairy farm,” Lawrence reported. “Students were surprised to learn that a Holstein cow weighs about fifteen hundred pounds and a newborn baby calf weighs about one hundred pounds. We also learned that cows are milked three times each day and produce about eight gallons of milk each day!”

Stannard and Lawrence discussed many ideas for grant projects. "We wanted to incorporate the farm and food into our classroom and Eagles club. Jill told me a story about cheese tasting for FFA. Her experiences sounded fun, interesting, and educational. This is how I knew I wanted to share this experience with our students at Clayton Ridge Middle School," said Lawrence.

Lawrence’s students created their own recipe, which they named Pizza Hero. Spaghetti sauce and pepperoni heated in a crock pot were spread on toasted hot dog buns and topped with Mozzarella cheese. They also created snacks using string cheese, bologna, crackers, carrots and ranch dip, and discussed how to save money by making healthy snacks rather than purchasing packaged versions.

The grants are a special project of IALF and made possible through support from the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation. “This year’s grant projects focus on integrating agriculture into 21st century skills and language arts curriculums,” said IALF education program manager Cindy Hall. “We hope these grants will allow teachers to make real world connections to what they are already teaching.” Other projects awarded funding included hydroponics, comparing historical and modern farming, poultry, dairy, and bees. For more information on IALF, visit www.iowaagliteracy.org.

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