Learning the concepts of agriculture requires good, solid classroom instruction – but sometimes it can be a long leap for students to understand how classroom concepts apply to the real world. “Out-of-classroom experiences help make lessons meaningful,” says 29-year veteran agriculture teacher Kevin Gleason of Uniontown High School in eastern Kansas. “So many times we teach concepts, but by taking kids on a field trip they say, ‘Oh, I see.’”
Alternative learning environments are taking place in two broad categories: field trips outside of school in the community or beyond; and environments outside the classroom, but within the school property on school farms, gardens, ponds and more.
Gleason takes his students to various places in the community fairly frequently, with his primary limitation being the need to leave and come back within the class period. Since Uniontown is a small community, Gleason finds this possible, and he takes students out to see land, soil, crops, livestock and plant life, as well as farms and agriculture-related businesses, whenever it would serve as a natural extension of the curriculum. He also takes seniors to a bank to learn about banking, insurance, taxes and investments before they leave school.
“Field trips help kids become more interested in agriculture because they can associate what they studied with occupations and real-life opportunities,” Gleason says. “And those FFA mission elements are easy to emphasize on a field trip. Setting goals, respecting others and preparation are premier leadership opportunities. We have six officers but 82 members, and you can’t say premier leadership is just about the officers. Field trips help develop leadership qualities in all the students.”
Gleason’s students also travel every other year to various large events including the Kansas State Fair, the National Western Livestock Show and Rodeo in Denver, the national FFA convention and the American Royal Livestock Convention. Gleason finds that those trips expose students to invaluable experiences and garner unexpected support for his program. “We take parents along as sponsors, and that helps them to understand the program and represent it in the community,” he says. “We’ve had parents become big supporters of the program after going on these trips.”
Some of the best field experiences can take place just outside the classroom if the school hosts alternative learning environments. Gleason’s school features a pond used extensively by the biology teacher to teach horticulture and other subjects. Chris Bacchus, now Arkansas’ state agricultural education program advisor, made extensive use of a farm brimming with livestock at the high school when he was a classroom teacher. “With sheep, students could see the whole production cycle in one school year (breeding in the fall, lambing in the winter and taking growth measurements before the lambs were weaned.)”
Bacchus found a school farm to be an excellent “lab” to reinforce classroom concepts. “When we would cover a topic such as injection sites, we could go out to the lab and demonstrate where to give injections, and they could actually administer a vaccine, for example,” he says. “The visual appreciation that the students got from actually handling and working with the animals made the concepts more meaningful and enhanced their learning. These are the ‘unteachable’ skills that students gain through experience.”
Alternative learning environments aren’t limited to the livestock industry. Teachers across the country take advantage of landscaping at their school and in the neighborhoods that surround their buildings to teach everything from insect identification to landscape design. Local and state parks afford students the opportunity to experience natural resources, examine environmental issues and learn from the experts. Local industries allow instructors to engage community agribusiness and technology professionals. Students begin to see the real value of quality work when they move outside the agriculture shop or greenhouse to see products that are commercially produced and manufactured.
On-site alternative learning environments can eliminate some of the financial and timing barriers involved with offsite field trips. Both types of experiences require administrative support, parent involvement and sometimes active chapter fundraising efforts – which not only allow you to take students outside the classroom, but help you grow your overall program as well. Both Gleason and Bacchus consider alternative learning environments well worth the effort.
“It’s all about the kids’ personal growth,” Gleason says of alternative learning environments. “FFA and alternative learning environments allow kids to apply what they’ve learned and see the real world.”