A Harvest of Lessons

It’s harvest time now in the Midwest. Driving across central Indiana and Illinois last weekend, I noticed all the harvesters in the fields, the golden pyramids of corn in the grain carts, the dust that swirled around the car from combines close to the highway. I wasn’t the one driving, so I had some time to gaze into those fields and reflect on some valuable lessons taught to me by my students—specifically, by my FFA students.

I live in a farming community and have taught in the same (at one time, mostly) rural district since the early 1980s. I grew up in the town where John Deere’s headquarters are still located and where J. I. Case, Minneapolis-Moline, and Allis-Chalmers all had manufacturing plants. Moline, Illinois: The Plow City, it was called.

But I was not a farm kid myself. I was pretty ignorant, when I first started teaching in Indiana, not of the importance of farming, but of the realities of farm life.

I learned some important lessons early on.

That very first year I was teaching 8th grade English, and in early May, I assigned a research paper to my students. Our school library was pitifully small; the only non-fiction sources on the shelves were encyclopedias and magazines like Good Housekeeping and US News and World Report. Not likely we’d find information on the various topics I’d asked students to choose from. So I did the logical thing: I required kids to go to the public library. In some cases, that meant as much as 40 miles round trip on a week night.

A dad set me straight right away. His son delivered a handwritten note the very next day (This was pre-email, pre-telephones in the classroom, and certainly pre-cell phones): “Mrs. Powley, This is planting season. My son is needed in the fields. He will not be going to the library after school.”

In my city life experience, going to the library was routine. It had never occurred to me that a family wouldn’t just drop everything at any time and take their son or daughter to town. I can’t remember now if we changed the boy’s topic or if I found resources for him myself or whether I waived the library requirement—but I sure learned something about flexibility from this experience. More than that, I learned how important it was to know and understand my students and their lives outside my classroom. Had I known more about the community I was in, I would have done what I did the next year: I still required the students to go to the public library—but I moved the assignment to March.

Another year, my teacher was a student who didn’t seem to take my senior composition class very seriously. He was frequently late with assignments and often tardy to my first-hour class. One day, after I’d repeatedly tried to shame him into caring about what I had to offer, he came bursting into the classroom half an hour into the lesson. He slipped into his seat and tried to avoid creating a ruckus, but he was out of breath and his shoes were all muddy. I was on the verge of chastising him once again when he blurted out, “The cows got out!” Suddenly, pronoun antecedents didn’t seem so important, and I learned something about humility. This boy was carrying a man-sized load on his family’s farm. No wonder he was behind all the time. In this case, the office excused his tardy–and I approved.

In another class, another year, yet another student talked to me—talked to the class, really, in an oral report on the pioneers of the West—about the way the soil compacted wherever the wagon trains rolled. The traces of their travel remained, showed up decades later in fields where crop growth lagged in just those places the wheels had turned over and over again. The same is true today when heavy machinery packs the earth—in forests, in fields, and even in sand. In this case, the lesson for me was about variety. Not always doing the same thing I’d done the year before and the year before that. Plowing fresh ground and rotating crops means richer conditions and better yield. The same was true of my lessons, my units, the books we read, the papers we wrote. I stayed fresh and my classes were more engaging for it.

In any community, there are mores and considerations that teachers need to understand in order to serve their students. That doesn’t mean we surrender our authority or give over our instruction, but rather, that we work in harmony with the people we serve. That’s one reason why parent-teacher conferences are important. We learn more about the families in our communities—who they are, what they do, what they hope for and expect from their children and from us. And parents learn about us—who we are, what matters to us, what we have to offer and what we expect from our students. Successful teachers develop partnerships with their students’ parents.

It’s why coaching a sport or sponsoring a club matters. It’s why attending school events registers positively with students and parents. We show we care about our kids and care about community when we show up, give of our time, engage. We build rapport. When we understand the community, we know when to be flexible, when to show some humility, and when it’s time to try something new.

All of these lessons, a rich harvest, taken from the fields and learned over time in my American classroom.

FFA: Not What You Might Think

It was a familiar scene for a former speech coach: Yellow school buses and white vans stacked up in the school parking lot and a bevy of adults clutching clipboards and coffee cups gathered in the Media Center awaiting final instructions from the teacher in charge. In the halls, students clustered in tight little groups or stood nervously to the side, rehearsing one last time the speech they would deliver as soon as the judges received their scoring packets and were released to classrooms. In those rooms, chairs had been pushed back, masking tape had been laid on the floor to delineate the “stage,” and the doors all had signs that were not there the day before: the event to take place in that room, the time of the event, the contestants.

Very familiar. Except that this was not a National Forensic League speech competition. It was the Future Farmers of America (FFA) District Contest yesterday at my high school.

I was assigned to judge “Freshman Prepared Public Speaking”—an event for the youngest FFA members, an initiation into the more difficult “Prepared Public Speaking” competition for older chapter members. These 9th graders—14-year-olds—each chose a topic in agriculture and prepared a 3-5 minute speech on the subject. They had to submit their papers, accompanied by a complete and correct bibliography, ahead of time. We judges had read the speeches before the contestants even entered the room—and, in fact, one of the scoring categories addressed the students’ written language: organization, coherence, logic, language, sentence structure, and whether the writer accomplished the purpose.

For the most part, they had memorized their speeches, although note cards are allowed. The topics were serious ones: The loss of farm land to developers and the implications of that for feeding our rapidly expanding global population; water conservation and the various ways we can effect that; the advantages and disadvantages of biofuels. No fluff here. Students were scored on the accuracy of their information, the evidence they provided and its suitability for the occasion. And that bibliography? Forty points!

The students had been coached in presentation skills. Every one of them strode confidently into the room, shook hands with each of the five judges, and made eye contact, smiling big. Someone who hadn’t learned this first rule of commanding the stage would have been a sore thumb, but every one of these kids was genuine in their friendliness. Their demeanor was refreshing, not staged, and they exuded wholesomeness.

I wanted to claim each of them as my own.

At the end, each student stood to answer questions from the judges. Naturally, they had to maintain their poise throughout the ordeal—and I imagine, to them, it was that. They had no idea what we might ask, but for the most part they had done their homework and could elaborate on their topic—or had the good sense to admit they didn’t know when the question was something that came (I’m sure they thought) from left field. One of the contestants, remarking on the importance of agriculture, observed that kids in general don’t know where their food comes from.

Another judge, an elementary school teacher, concurred with her. “Yes,” he said, “Ask elementary students where hamburger comes from and most will say, ‘The store.’”

P1040331That won’t happen when the student whom I can claim as my own is in charge of her classroom. In an exquisite turn-around, one of the judges I was with was once a student of mine, and now she helped me understand the procedures of my judging assignment. Three years ago, I coached Layne, who was in my American Lit class, in “Prepared Public Speaking” for this same FFA contest.

Layne not only won the district, but she went on to win the state competition and capture bronze at Nationals. Her speech was a heavily researched, intensely rehearsed argument defending the livestock industry against agencies and organizations who brand their practices inhumane. Her compelling explanations and well-chosen evidence convinced not just me, but audience after audience. Layne spoke not just in competition, but also, to rehearse her speech in advance of nationals, to many audiences of adults in business or in organizations connected to agriculture. She met people from all over the state—including a senator who offered to help her with resources—and the networking she did is still bearing fruit.

This past summer Layne was crowned Miss Tippecanoe County at the county fair—another big deal in our state and another competition that is not at all what it sounds like. Asked at that competition what her proudest accomplishment was, Layne replied that it was her experience with the Prepared Public Speaking event in FFA.

Layne is in college now, studying to be an elementary school teacher. Naturally, I wanted to know how FFA had prepared her for college. “Well,” Layne answered, “I’m the one people bring their papers to.”

The answer didn’t surprise me because the contest today was all about literacy skills—not just in the event I judged and the one I had coached Layne for, but in all the others, too: Agricultural Sales Demonstration, Essay, Exhibit, Extemporaneous Speaking, Job Interview, Natural Resources Demonstration—to name just a few.

She knows how to gather evidence for an argument, how to organize a presentation, how to write clearly and convincingly, and how to do that beastly Works Cited page—whether in MLA or APA format. “I did just fine on my first college paper,” she continued.” I already had those skills.”

Of course, the English Department gets credit here, too, but FFA gave Layne the opportunity to apply the skills she learned in English and speech in a real-world setting with authentic audiences. I wonder if everyone realizes the extent to which FFA supports the literacy skills that are taught in English and articulated in the College and Career Ready standards that every state (Common Core states and otherwise) must adhere to? We’re working the same ground, we English teachers and FFA.

And, I might add, FFA is an example of the kind of interdisciplinary learning that our students need. FFA members apply basic math skills all the time, in practical situations they deal with every day and in theoretical ones they’re handed in classes in ag business and ag econ. FFA topics are wedded to science (look no farther than the girl who spoke about water—she cited research at Purdue into drought-resistant plants and mentioned the aquifers in the West) and to history (She tied her speech to the water shortage during the Depression, too).  If we’re going to feed 9 billion people by the year 2050, technology will play a vital role as well. In fact, it is the interdisciplinary thinking and the committed work ethic of kids like those I saw yesterday at the FFA district contest that will make it happen.

The saying is clichéd now—a staple of promotional t-shirts and commemorative swag—but it was new to me yesterday: “FFA: Not just Cows, Plows, and Sows.”

Indeed.