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Do you know where your food comes from? If not, the students in Paula Marquez's sixth grade class at Backman Elementary School in Salt Lake City may be able to help. Ms. Marquez and her students spent the past year studying science, social studies, reading, math, and healthy lifestyles using agriculture in their classroom.
Paula Marquez received Utah State University Extension's Agriculture in the Classroom (AITC) Excellence in Teaching about Agriculture Award for 2009. Additionally, Marquez was selected as one of five national winners for this award and will be recognized in June by the United States Department of Agriculture and the national AITC Consortium at the National AITC Conference in St. Louis.
Marquez says using the content of agriculture to teach core subjects to her students is easy—she is simply sharing her background and knowledge of farming and gardening while growing up in Montana. "I believe these hands-on experiences make a person hard working, strong, and responsible. Helping my students understand agriculture will help them to be better citizens."
With a classroom rich in ethnic and cultural diversity, Marquez had the opportunity to introduce new agriculture-related foods, vocabulary, and stories to her 6th grade students. Students drafted their parents as volunteers, and together they assembled a donated greenhouse. After studying the requirements for planting vegetables, flowers, and herbs, the students watched their plants grow and conducted scientific experiments with decomposing kale and microorganisms. Worms became the classroom "mascots," and students fed table scraps to the worms in an indoor worm bin to make compost for their greenhouse plants. While waiting for their plants to grow, the children learned to can fresh salsa. Science and agricultural concepts were integrated by using the process of pressure-cooking to kill any microorganisms present in the salsa. Students made root beer and discussed the physical and chemical changes that took place.
The story of The Little Red Hen, unfamiliar to most of Marquez's English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) learners, became the basis of a bread-making lesson. Students ground wheat into flour, baked bread, and even "churned" butter for the final taste-testing of their homemade bread. Books about agriculture were invaluable in teaching students new vocabulary and increasing their interests in a variety of agriculture-related subjects.
"Prior to our study of agriculture, I am certain that few students realized that their dinner came from the farm. However, after all of the lessons they have had about agriculture, they are able to articulate the process their food went through to end up on their plates," says Marquez. "An added benefit has been the attitude adjustment in my students. As a service-learning project, they are collecting pennies for leukemia patients. They just want to work together and help others—this is the spirit that working, planting, and learning together has instilled in my students."