Sherrie Taylor Vann
3rd grade teacher, Williams Elementary School, Colusa County
This interview was originally published in the February 2011 issue of CFAITC's e-newsletter, "Cream of the Crop."
Sherrie was named CFAITC's 2011 Literacy for Life Award Winner and will represent California at the National Ag in the Classroom Conference in June 2011 in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
How long have you been teaching or working with students?
I have been teaching for six years.
Why did you choose to become an educator?
I have always liked working with children, and my parents always held having an education in the highest regard. They pushed me to be the best I can be. After college I worked for the UC Cooperative Extension teaching youth in some of the outreach programs when I realized that I was pretty good at teaching. When I finished my internship, I returned to school for my credential. I have been a longtime volunteer at events like Tehama County Farm Day and Migrant Education Camp to help educate youth about agriculture and its importance. It seemed only natural for me to continue on that path when I became a classroom teacher.
How do you integrate agriculture into the curriculum or activities you teach?
The cooperation of parents and partnerships with local businesses have made it possible to pursue unique opportunities for agriculture education. Living in an agriculturally rich community, many of my students' parents are employed by surrounding farms and ranches. This year, several agriculture businesses hosted my students during private field trips to their facilities. We visited Morning Star, a tomato processing plant, to learn how tomatoes are processed and packed for consumer consumption. On another outing, we learned about the process rice traverses from harvest to packaging at American Commodity Company. A farther trip was to Chico Nut Company, where we gained insight from the company's president while he narrated an educational video about almond production: from planting trees to product distribution.
Last year, the mother of one student brought in young chicks and ducklings that her children were raising at home. Together with her daughter, they fielded questions from the class about their animals and taught students to properly handle the juvenile birds. Additionally, some of my former students have returned to my classroom to teach the younger children about local agriculture. My class participated in an "Adopt a Ewe" program created by a former student. Throughout the year, the children corresponded with my former student about our ewe. We learned about lambing, wool, caring for sheep, and much more. To wrap up the school year, my former student brought several sheep to school for a presentation. The students were completely engaged and they have an experience to remember forever.
Give an example of how you use agriculture to teach in your classroom or in your program.
My class is predominately comprised of second language learners who have a limited knowledge of verbal and written English and limited opportunities to practice their English skills at home. Many of these students have parents who work in the fields, migrate with crops, or have their own farm. Living in this small farming community, our uniquely common ground is agriculture.
In my English Language Development (ELD) classes, I integrate agriculture into their lessons to improve the acquisition of academic English by conveying this familiar concept and way of life. For example, when teaching students about writing and sequencing, I display four pictures from calf branding that the children must first organize chronologically, and ultimately compose a detailed paragraph describing the action. Children learn to write descriptively with specific verbs, nouns, and phrases in sequence. I introduce new vocabulary, revisit grammar, and improve spelling skills through these lessons and their development of English occurs simultaneously with their immersion in agriculture. A variety of agriculture-based topics are introduced and explored by the students throughout the year during our ELD lessons. The use of agriculture topics in connection with ELD keeps the students more engaged through the learning process. Whether we are in the school garden, on a field trip, or in the classroom, agriculture serves as common ground for my students learning English as well as their English-speaking peers.
Tell us about a golden teaching moment.
I love those moments when my students make connections to the things we are learning about in class to their lives. One of my students told me all about the fresh produce her family bought at our local farmers market when she returned to school on Monday after we had spent time learning about the importance of buying locally at the local fruit stand or farmers market. I can see my students engage and connect when they understand that buying the rice, tomatoes or almonds grown locally actually helps their neighbors and their own families. These are math, social science, and life lessons that have true, personal meaning.
Why is it important for our students to be agriculturally literate and aware in today's society?
As a student I was involved in wonderful organizations like 4-H and FFA, so I always knew where the food I ate came from and I understood that many people helped during the process that my food undertook from the farm to the kitchen table. Growing up, I took advantage of any opportunity to teach the younger generation about the importance of agriculture. I was troubled when I encountered people who had no idea what their food was made of, where it came from, or its impact on our economy—which empowered me to spread agricultural literacy to more people.
I strive to educate my students about agriculture and how it affects all Americans. I want them to learn that farming is a science: Farmers and ranchers are always trying to be innovative and improve upon their sustainable practices to produce a quality product for consumers. Through agricultural literacy, I am teaching my students to value the industry and to see it as a vital component of a healthy economy.