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Utah Agriculture in the Classroom

Teacher Award

State & National Teacher Award 2023

Melody Thieme

Crimson View Elementary
4th Grade
Melody Thieme

In 2015, my school was fortunate enough to receive a large grant for a self-sustaining greenhouse, in which I was able to implement agricultural literacy outcomes including “Agriculture and Environment,” “Science, Technology, Engineering & Math,” and “Culture, Society, Economy, and Geography” into core standard lessons. Crimson View Elementary is a Utah Platinum-awarded STEM school, as well as a nationally recognized Blue Ribbon School for achievement. We attribute these recognitions to our school culture and focus on STEM practices through hands-on learning. For the past seven years through trial and error, I have created a year-round pacing guide for 4th grade that results in hands-on learning with agriculture.

The start of our growing year actually starts in May of the prior school year. A few weeks before school ends, my class prepares the greenhouse for the summer growing season. We pull out any dead or excess plants, till the soil grows beds, and make sure the aquaponic bins are ready for planting. We then plant different varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, and zucchini in both the soil and aquaponics bins. During June through August, student and community volunteers make sure plants are watered and maintained, and the fish are fed. We take any opportunity to include the school community, so they have an understanding and ownership of the greenhouse. The purpose is for these plants to have a summer of growth, so that in late August when the new school year starts, students can see firsthand what grew the best. They can also compare and contrast the similarities and differences between the varieties that were planted. These fully grown and producing plants allow any teacher from any grade to take their students in and incorporate agriculture into any lesson from day one.

The first week of school, I take my students to the greenhouse to look at everything and explain that it is our class's responsibility to maintain and keep the greenhouse looking amazing throughout the year. I assign every student a job (on a rotational basis), and every Friday we work in the greenhouse. Starting the first weeks of September, I teach plant structure and function through a modified “Farming in a Glove” lesson from Utah Agriculture in the Classroom. My students build personal greenhouses to hang on our classroom windows. They are then able to see a complete growth cycle from seed to plant. During that time, students draw and label the plants’ structures and note how each structure functions within our science standard 4.1.1. They keep a digital science notebook of our observations throughout the project.

When October comes, we know it is time to clean out all the summer plants and prepare the bins for a new crop. Our school’s instructional pacing guide during October results in teaching about the state of Utah in both our language arts and social studies programs. Students read and learn about the history of farming and the importance of agriculture in our state. They explore native plants and how they differ in each region of the state. On a rotational basis, I take the fourth-grade students to the greenhouse to plant Utah native wildflowers in both the soil and aquaponic bins. This way every student has a chance to get a little dirty and take ownership of their learning. We also plant some in our outdoor bins, as I want the students to understand how different environments can affect a plant's growth rate. The focus is that when it gets too cold, the plants will not germinate and grow, but a greenhouse that retains heat allows for year-round growing. Throughout this growth cycle (October through December) my students will chart the growth rate of the flowers and keep a digital science journal to compare and contrast the different flowers and different growth rates among the soil, aquaponics, and outdoor bins. They also take what they learned from the structure and function unit lessons to discuss and write about growing flowers.

In January after winter break, the 4th grade harvests all the flowers that they planted. The students are very excited to point out the flowers that grew where they planted seeds, and they get to see the results of their work. Every 4th-grade student uses those flowers to create their own 3x7-inch bookmark in our laminating machine. The students are so excited to take them home and show off what they made and tell all about the native flowers that are in the bookmarks. This excitement leads to content retention, which is the reason we do hands-on learning.

February is our last planting cycle for the year. The students will plant sugar beets, sweet Spanish onions, and Indian ricegrass or kale. During this time, we are learning about the culture, society, and geography of Utah’s native people. One aspect that stands out about Utah’s native people was their colorful garments and blankets. Students learned that the native people relied on dyes produced from plants they could grow. Because these plants can grow quite tall, we incorporate an engineering project to aid the plants. Working in small teams, students must create a growing cage that allows for light, water, and air to reach the plant. It must be able to support the plant as it grows, so they can measure and track its growth. The students love this engineering opportunity to work together and build something that will help their plants grow. Also, during this growth cycle, I incorporate our current math lessons. The students use meter sticks to track the growth rate of each plant. They convert measurements from standard to metric and create different types of charts and graphs to show the growth rates. Because they planted and are maintaining the plants, the students take every lesson we incorporate very seriously. They now have ownership in what they are learning and a true reason for learning it, which adds accountability that no book or worksheet could duplicate. By mid-April, the vegetables are ready for harvest. We take all the plants we grew and boil out all the color pigments as the natives would and create a natural dye. With that dye, every 4th-grade student gets three pieces of cloth to color and take home. Every student is so amazed that the plants they grew could produce such awesome colors and, just like their bookmarks, they can’t wait to go home and show what they learned. Not only do these projects excite the students, but they allow parents to share in their child's education. At this time, we are in the month of May to start the greenhouse yearly cycle all over again.

I feel I was only able to give you a “tip of an iceberg” insight into how important the use of agriculture and our greenhouse are to our 4th-grade teaching. In more than eight years of using agriculture as a context to teach core standards, I have yet to have a student not be excited to work in the greenhouse and grow plants and raise fish. I also feel that these experiences enhance our community relations and school culture. Our school families and community overly support us because of these hands-on experiences and the ability of our students to take what they are learning home and share it with their families and friends. Teaching is a difficult profession, but when students get involved and take ownership of their learning, it makes my job so rewarding!