Sandwiched between Toledo and Cleveland is the small town of Milan, Ohio: population 1,445. Despite its small size and rural roots, growing pressures from nearby urban areas have removed many families’ ties to agriculture. In the fall of 2006, kindergarten teacher Anne Bickley resolved to do something about the issue, and the result has been a powerful partnership between Milan Elementary and the Erie County Farm Bureau.
Milan Elementary librarian and Farm Bureau member Cindy Thayer initially contacted Bickley about beginning a collaborative project. “She said the Farm Bureau would like to adopt a class and asked if I would be willing to work with them and include all three of our kindergarten classrooms,” Bickley explained. “It sounded like a great way to educate students about agriculture. Though our school is in a rural area, there really aren’t many full-time farms in the area. We began meeting as a planning committee to organize the project.”
The committee started putting together ideas almost immediately. They worked together to select a different topic for each month. A guest speaker with expertise in that area joined the children to share his or her knowledge. The students also participated in a hands-on activity to further their knowledge, and other teachers and the librarian selected relevant books to read. Each month, there was also a special snack that matched the theme. The planning committee was able to tie each of these activities to education standards, thereby infusing agriculture directly into the curriculum.
Bickley recalled the students’ enthusiasm. “The children loved it. They were excited each month to learn of our new topic. Many of the children had never handled real seeds or wool before. They were surprised to see what kind of plants grew from different seeds. Some said they only liked one kind of apple, but were willing to try different varieties. Of course they all loved petting baby animals that were brought to the school for us to see.”
Because of this valuable project, Bickley’s efforts recently gained national recognition. She was selected as one of 10 teachers across the country to receive a prestigious scholarship from the American Farm Bureau Foundation’s White-Reinhardt Fund for Education, as a result of her outstanding efforts to improve agricultural literacy. The scholarship provided $1,200 for her and to attend the National Agriculture in the Classroom Conference held in California in June. At the conference, she was able to gain a better understanding of the importance and diversity of agriculture, while she networked with other educators. Bickley plans to implement the ideas she gained in her own classroom and share the knowledge with her fellow teachers.
The community is also aware of the learning occurring in Bickley’s classroom. “When school started last fall, a year after we had done this project” she said, “I had a parent request that his son be in my class. He was a Farm Bureau member and wanted his son to learn more about agriculture. We hope to continue our efforts on some scale, so more and more children can expand their knowledge, just like his son.”
It is evident that Anne Bickley is a determined educator out to make a difference, one child at a time. Her goal is simple, really: “I want to make my students more aware of the importance of agriculture in their daily lives and to help them appreciate where their food comes from. Agriculture affects us all, and I hope my students can realize that.”