Reading made Sweet: Interactive Learning about Agriculture

Can you tell the difference between pure and table maple syrup? That’s the question Agricultural Subject Educator, Tess Southern, posed to a fourth-grade classroom one morning at DeRuyter Central. For many students in the room, it was the perfect time to take a break from multiplication and indulge in the sugary substance.

Tiny hands shoot up to the ceiling and chatter among 20 children suddenly begins. The enthusiasm reaches a feverish pitch, leaving their teacher no choice but to raise her hand and start a silent count to 10. The students count, but there is an underlying excitement that can’t be contained – it’s palpable.

“My dad and I make it ourselves!” one student in the far back of the classroom quips.

“My grandma has two maple trees at her house!” another one chimes in.

It’s a conversation that Southern, along with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Madison County (CCEMC) Executive Director, Karin Bump, encounter and welcome on countless occasions with youth, mainly third and fourth graders, through the AG in the Classroom program pilot project in Madison County. The program uses a state-designed curriculum to build interest in agricultural topics through interactive lessons and reading (copies of the book, John Deere, That’s Who! are provided). CCEMC’s goal is to connect children with agriculture and help them understand where their food comes from, along with important lessons about nutrition, land, water and soil.

The program was piloted with the assistance of a $2,500 regrant from the Literacy Coalition of Madison County. It was one of four grants awarded this year, totaling $10,000, towards literacy programs that serve residents across the county. Funding for the regrants was provided by the Central New York Community Foundation.

Southern hit play on a short video clip and the students suddenly become fixated as they learned about the process of making maple syrup. She later asks them questions about the production process and the rigors that go into perfecting it.

“This is fascinating and crazy” a student says, glancing at the chalk board. Southern can’t help but laugh out loud at the comment.

“That’s the best thing I’ve heard all day!” she said.

Southern, Bump and other educators utilize various lesson offered by New York State’s Agriculture in the Classroom program to select ones that are topical to residents of the county and are “in season.” According to Bump, a lead educator is assigned with identifying and carrying out a new lesson each month across five Madison County school districts.

“Enhancing our connection with schools and youth is a priority of Cooperative Extension,” said Bump. “When we got started, we reached out to the school administrators county-wide to determine interest in having us provide some in-school programming. There was high interest in using the New York State’s program. It is a perfect fit, really.”

CCEMC brings an aspect of health and nutrition into each program. This year, the students have learned about apples, popcorn, leafy vegetables – lettuce, spinach, kale, cabbage and parsley – and maple. For the maple and popcorn lessons, CCEMC drives home the nutritional values of buying local and eating food in its natural form.”

Last year alone, Cornell Cooperative Extension Association of Madison County was able to provide lessons at Morrisville, Canastota, Chittenango, Madison and Cazenovia school districts.

“Working with the kids is very rewarding,” said Bump. “They are eager to take things in. They’re very inquisitive and are rarely afraid to ask questions and try something new. When a parent stops us to tell us their child talked about the program, asked questions about the topic at home or encouraged the family to try something new, that’s incredibly rewarding.”

The grant dollars that were awarded to this program are not to be overlooked, said Bump.

“The Literacy Coalition’s grant funding allowed us to make an even greater impact on the children’s lessons by including the distribution of books, which encourages more reading at home. Given that the goal of the Literacy Coalition is to ‘create synergies that infuse literacy throughout the lifespan leading to an improved future, we are so very pleased that the Coalition saw this program as a worthy investment in our children.

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