Even the most rural areas of the United States are experiencing growth in the diversity of their communities. As a result, educators are faced with the challenge of building relationships with and among students of different cultural backgrounds.
“I start the school year by telling my students that I'm from a different place. I point out that my language may be different from theirs,” explains Robert Bollier, agricultural science educator at Cheraw High School. Originally from Arkansas, Bollier has taught in his home state as well as Oklahoma, Texas and South Carolina. He's taught Native American, Hispanic and African-American students. “I begin by talking about stereotypes,” he says, “creating a conversation around the words we use that might be different.” This conversation continues throughout the school year. For example, when Bollier's class raised chickens, students learned that while South Carolinians call the young birds biddies, in Arkansas they are called chicks.
Bollier seeks other ways to learn more about his students. “Visiting them at home is another strategy that gives me insight into their lives,” he says. “It's a learning experience for me,” Bollier continues. “I see our diversity as good and want to help the students see that too.”
Honey Key, an agriculture science educator at Mansfield High School in Texas, agrees. “Students come to my classes from throughout the district,” she explains. “Four high schools send their students to our campus for elective courses. As a result, the students don't know one another when a new class begins.” Key uses several strategies to help students learn about each other. “From intentional icebreaker activities to assigning different students to return graded papers, I look for ways to help individuals connect.”
Like Bollier, Key believes that building a personal bond with students is critical. “It is imperative to get to know all of the students individually. Even if the students don't see the relevance of relationship, I know they will come back later for more support or assistance. My goal is to help students leave high school with broader experiences to take into the world.”
Focus on Relevance
Key and Bollier use engaging and relevant approaches to instruction. Bollier conducted a student survey to learn more about his student's goals. In the survey, 48 students expressed an interest in careers in veterinary medicine. So, in response, Bollier developed a small animal care class. During the class each student has an opportunity to bring their own pet to school. Students report on care, feeding, grooming and the needs of their particular pet. ”One student brought her pet rat to school. Other students had never considered the possibility of a rat as a pet,” exclaims Bollier. “I used this as another opportunity to explore our diversity.”
“I like to engage students in building and using personal skills,” adds Key. Working with individuals on choosing their course plans, Key identifies content classes that will build skills relevant to their individual goals. “I point out how an agricultural business class contains content that is relevant to someone who thinks they want to be a small business owner, even if the business is automotive repair. I help them see the connections between course content and their personal plans,” states Key. She is always looking for ways to extend the content and make it relevant. During Black History Month, her students explored the impact African-Americans have had on agriculture in the U.S. During FFA Week she adds cultural facts to the week's events and daily announcements.
“We host a Cultural Leadership Fair, inviting students who don't usually consider agricultural classes as a resource to them. Last year a student attended who was originally from Africa,” shares Key. “She immediately realized that there were opportunities to support her interests and build her experience in classes and through becoming an FFA member.”
“I have a student from India in my FFA program,” adds Bollier. “I invited her to give a talk about life in India. I want to encourage students to teach one another about their own cultures.”
Both teachers concluded that maintaining high expectations for all students is integral to the process. Delve far enough into any student's family history and you'll find that cultural differences abound. But it is up to you to engage each student in all aspects of agricultural education—from the classroom to their SAE to their FFA involvement. And while it can be a challenge, Bollier and Key have proven that they have the chops for it.
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