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 Innovative educators find unique ways to engage students


Young people today face more distractions than ever. Technology, entertainment, sports and friends all scramble to grab a slice of their attention. As an agriculture educator, you're likewise challenged to reach and engage students in your program.

One approach that's working across the country is to design projects that combine cultural heritage with agriculture. Three educators shared with us the ways they're studying, celebrating and preserving native cultures in their classroom.

Read on to learn about these innovative initiatives – and discover ways you can “import” cultural experiences to your students.

Exploring their roots
At Waiakea High School in Hilo, Hawaii, agriculture students are learning about their heritage as they work with taro, an important endemic plant. Their efforts are led by Terence Moniz, FFA advisor.

Taro, one of the earliest cultivated plants, is a starchy staple much like the potato. More than just a food source, this tuber has special significance to Hawaiians.

“Hawaiians say the original taro plant was the stillborn child of the progenitors of the Hawaiian race,” Moniz explained. “Wakea and Papa had a son by the name of Haloa. Well, Haloa died and they buried him in the field. Haloa then sprouted into a taro plant and would become the ‘big brother' of all the Hawaiian race.”

At one time, ancient Hawaiians grew more than 300 varieties of taro, but only about 80 remain, Moniz said. “Here at the school, we have been able to ascertain 44 varieties in our small area through friendships and community partnerships that we've made along the way.”

Those include a friendship with Jerry Konanui – a Kupuna, or one of the last remaining pure Hawaiian people – and Dr. Susan Miyasaki, a researcher at the University of Hawaii.

Given taro's status as a food staple and an emblem of Hawaiian heritage, Moniz has incorporated the plant into his agricultural curriculum. Supporting university research, his students steam and prepare taro in two ways: poi-style (mashed) or potato-style (cubed). They also learn both modern and cultural methods used in planting, preparing and processing taro. In this hands-on way, students are effectively reconnecting with their heritage.

“Almost 80 percent of the kids here today have some Hawaiian ancestry. But being in a city school district, they are so disconnected from their culture. This kind of brings the culture back,” Moniz said.

“Once you've got them up here, you reach them and you teach them."

It also provides Moniz a means to share important lessons with students.

“We talk about rigor and relevance and relationships in the classroom,” he noted. “This gives a lot of relevance to what they're learning about fertilizer applications, planting methods and the like.”

Interestingly, the taro project is exposing students to the political process as well. Native Hawaiians currently are at odds with university researchers over whether to permit genetic modification, which is intended to save the plant from dangerous diseases. As the state legislature struggles to resolve the clash, Moniz has brought the discussion into the classroom.

“It definitely stimulates interest in learning not only about their culture and this taro project, but it's kind of the hook to get them involved more in FFA,” he said. “Once you've got them up here, you reach them and you teach them.”

Students with taste
Up in Alaska, students are exploring native and world cultures by way of their taste buds.

“We just finished working on a series of lessons on dairy foods,” said Fairbanks FFA Advisor Marilyn Krause. “Members learned everything from milking the cows to making dairy products and cheeses. (They) learned that various kinds of cheeses and diary products come from multiple cultures around the world.”

As part of the project, the group hosted a taste-test event, where students sampled 40 different types of dairy products. They learned that each country or culture raises different kinds of animals that produce milk, cheese and more.

Krause said her students' supervised agricultural experiences provide more opportunities to explore native cultures. “In the past I have had a project on native teas of Alaska. One young lady learned how the teas were made in the Athabascan culture from Alaska's nature, what the teas were used for medically, and then she made the teas for other students to taste test,” she explained. “To learn all of this information, the student spent many hours working with the elders of the native community.”

Another student, who has a parent from Africa, prepared Dwarf Nigerian goat meat in her native way for her fellow students to sample.

As a group, students learn about perhaps the brightest spot in their state's history.

“Each year we celebrate the finding of gold in Alaska and the effects it had on this territory becoming a state. This is done in the form of a float in the Golden Days Parade,” Krause said. “Students costumed in the period clothes ride the float while others walk the parade route.”

Krause knows these projects succeed in connecting students with their culture and community when word spreads beyond the classroom.

“The best way for me to measure the success is how much conversation the projects raise in the community and in the schools. The dairy-tasting event brought lots of conversations within our town and high schools—enough to have a newspaper article written about the event in the young section of our town paper,” she noted.

Bringing the world home
You may not think of Lost Springs, Kan., – a rural community of about 1300 people – as a cultural hotbed. Think again.

Gaea Wimmer, agriculture teacher and FFA advisor at Centre High School, travels the world to experience different cultures. But instead of returning with a suitcase full of T-shirts, key chains and trinkets, she brings home worldly knowledge that helps her students understand their own ancestry—and discover new ways of life.

In this close-knit Midwestern community, many residents have an Eastern European background. So to learn more about her students' heritage, in 2005 Wimmer participated in a five-week program in the Czech Republic.

“I studied at the Czech Tech University with the Fulbright-Hays program out of Kansas State University,” she explained. “One of the reasons I got chosen was because I teach in an area with a high population of Czechs.”

Her primary purpose was to integrate Czech culture into the classroom and help students understand their origins. Since the trip, Wimmer has her students compare and contrast the population, land volume, type of crops grown, climate, units of measure and even food items of Kansas and the Czech Republic.

“We have certain foods that people eat around here based on their ancestry or traditions,” she said. “A lot of the moms and grandmas make kolaches, and the students just think that's normal. I tell them it's a Czech dish I ate when I was there, to draw it all back to where that food came from.”

Just last summer, Wimmer participated in the 12-day Toyota International Teacher Program in Japan. As a result, she plans to incorporate her new knowledge into her animal science curriculum.

“Kansas is big on feeder cattle, and in Japan they raise Kobe beef. So we'll look at the differences in the beef industry—how long they feed them and what they feed them,” she said.

If she has her way, Wimmer one day will travel to Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Australia and South Africa to learn about those cultures. Her overall goal is to impress upon her students the global nature of agriculture.

“It's important for them to understand that throughout the world, there's agriculture,” she said.