Perspectives: Living proof

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By Paul Larson
Freedom Area School District, Wis.

When I began teaching agriculture in 1987, I had better-than-average insight into what to expect when I entered the classroom because my father preceded me in the profession.  Having taught for 39 years, he participated in the formative years of agricultural education.  He experienced a lot of changes in nearly four decades of teaching, and I can vouch for the fact that changes have continued beyond his retirement.  One thing that hasn’t changed is the agricultural education model of instruction.  It remains the cornerstone of our pedagogy.

In the early days, when agriculture students were all farm boys, the classroom instruction, supervised agricultural experience, and FFA were fairly simple to implement and instructional gains were almost automatic.  Farm boys’ instruction was based on their career interest, their projects were some of the animals or crops they raised at home, and FFA enhanced their leadership and personal growth skills to make them valuable members of their communities.  While our clientele has changed over the years, the successful utilization of the three-circle model has not. 

The model is solid; however, our implementation of the model requires some tweaking.  Today, less than 10 percent of my students come from a farm setting. While some may live in the rural setting, they do not farm and most have no intention of making production agriculture their profession.  Luckily, they are interested in many areas of agriculture that support the farmer.  This change in the audience, from the farm boys of my father’s experience to the agriculturally illiterate of my era, makes the agricultural education instructional model even more critical.  For example, rather than students raising large livestock animals or field crops, I have to apply those same principals toward growing rabbits, guinea pigs, fish, dogs, cats and ornamentals.  I rely more on farmers as partners in teaching. They employ many students, teaching them how to work on a farm that belongs to another.  I must juggle the special requirements of students who engage in job shadow experiences and research agriscience projects and exploratory efforts to discover their niche in agriculture through SAE.  I am a master facilitator at engaging non-farm students in the school greenhouse, fish lab, garden plot and pond area.  Every experience is a vital part of the pedagogy that goes on in my classroom. 

We can share and learn much from student successes and challenges that enhance overall growth through experiencing agriculture.  I know every reader has accounts to share of student success. I’m no different and will share a story of a non-farm freshman who showed up in my class one day.  He lived out in the county, had a pet dog and had no real option for starting a familiar type of SAE project.  So I agreed that for his SAE he could raise and monitor his dog while volunteering in our aquaculture lab in the summers.  Over the course of his agricultural education career, his interest in animals grew and we arranged for a job shadow experience with a local veterinarian.  The vet was so impressed with the young man that he offered him ride-along opportunities through the summers. His SAE expanded as well as his participation in FFA activities, where he developed his leadership skills.

As a result of those early years in a complete agricultural education program, that young man entered the University of Wisconsin-River Falls majoring in pre-vet medicine.  Recently, his professor at River Falls nominated him for a special pre-vet research program. He conducts research in cooperation with his UW-RF professor, his mentor vet from high school and a professor at the University of Wisconsin veterinarian school in Madison.  Participation in this program will allow him to forego the application and selection process at UW vet school. When his undergrad education is complete, he will automatically be a first-year vet student. He is that much closer to his dream of becoming a large animal veterinarian.

This young man is living proof of the value of a complete agricultural education program. Would he have had these same opportunities if he had just taken biology and anatomy classes? Perhaps, but I don’t believe he would have achieved the same level of success as quickly.  He’s a great example of hitting the sweet spot of the three-circle model where instruction, SAE and FFA work together to set a student’s career trajectory.  Now, I am sure I don’t get all of my students to that spot, but I work hard every day, just like my father did, to make all three components of a complete program a reality for my students. They may not be farm boys anymore, but the agricultural education instructional model is still the best way to get young people excited and engaged in the diverse and ever-changing industry of agriculture, train our future community leaders, and create an agriculturally literate society.