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Summer Reflections Part III: Home on the Farm

“Ahh, look at the sheep.  They’re so cute,” my mother used to say whenever we passed a farm on one of our many road trips.  That was it though.  We never stopped to see the sheep up close.  We never saw the lice or bugs jumping around in their fleece.  We never got to feel how soft the sheep were.  We never learned what type of sheep they were or what they were being used for.  I just always knew sheep as being cute, but there is so much more to know than that.  

Many schools today teach in this same manner.  “Ohh, science is cool.  When you mix two substances, an explosion occurs.  Isn’t that cool?” teachers might say.  They don’t ever let the students explore or test the substances.  They probably never even allow the students to conduct an investigation.  They move onto notes and a lecture to cover more content.  What about depth?  What about play time and exploration time?  What about letting students ask the questions and make the comments?  In this day of educational testing and a set of curriculum standards longer than Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, students don’t have a chance to get curious, be creative, or explore.

Like Ken Robinson’s Book Creative Schools preaches, we need students to do the thinking, questioning, and learning.  Students need time to play and explore so that they have the opportunity to really delve into the curriculum and content in a relevant and meaningful manner.  So, as I thought about how I could reshape the sixth grade curriculum at my school, a few ideas came to me.

  1. I read a blog post in May that mentioned all different types of technology, one being knitting.  Then it dawned on me, handwork.  So many of our students struggle with handwriting and fine motor skills, which means they were never provided opportunities to develop those skills.  Let’s teach our sixth graders how to knit.
  2. I then took that idea a step further when I let my original idea percolate a bit.  What if we had the students go to an actual sheep farm and learn how sheep are sheared?  Then, we could use that fleece to turn into yarn that the students could use when learning to knit.  What a brilliant idea, I thought.  Now, how do I find a farm that would allow us to do this?
  3. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks, a member of Cardigan’s staff runs a farm.  What if I contact her?  She is also our community outreach contact and so she may have an idea if she can’t directly help us.  So, I reached out to her.  She was thrilled that I contacted her and said she would love to host our class on her farm.  Nice.  It all seemed to be coming together even quicker than I imagined.
  4. When we met, my original idea became only a tiny nugget of what Mary Ledoux and I put together.  My first idea became so built upon, that I almost didn’t recognize it anymore.  I was amazed at how one simple idea lead to an entire program for the sixth grade at my school.  
  5. Each Friday during STEM class, the students will travel to Mary’s farm, which is about a mile from campus.  We will spend two hours there working through various activities:
  • Week 1: Farm Tour and Overview of Everything. Students would make observations in a Farm Journal they maintain throughout the year.
  • Week 2: Newborn bunny time. Learn bunny basics. Calculate data such as size, weight, color, etc in Farm Journal. Learn about bunny care.
  • Week 3: Hay Basics. Learn about baling process, implements, etc.
  • Week 4: Bunny Observation Time. Pick grapes, learn about grapes and how they grow. Make grape jelly.
  • Week 5: Bunny Observation Time. Learn how sheep are sheared and participate in process.
  • Week 6: Bunny Observation Time. Skirt sheep fleeces.
  • Week 7: Bunny Observation Time. Wash sheep fiber. Introduction to Felting.
  • Week 8: Bunny Observation Time. Felting exploration time.
  • Week 9: Bunny Observation Time. Work on felting projects.
  • Week 10: Bunny Observation Time. Spinning wool introduction. Explore spinning techniques.
  • Week 11: Bunny Observation Time. Make a drop spindle and spin their own yarn.

We mapped out the first half of the year and created a Unit Plan to provide data for what we are doing and how we are doing it:
  
Essential Questions

  • How are human and natural systems interrelated?
  • How do we depend on natural systems?
  • How do natural systems depend on us?

Habits of Learning

Growth Mindset 

The students will learn to be open to new ideas and methods of learning as this farm experience will be new to many of them. The farm is an extension of our classroom and so the same expectations will apply. We will challenge the students to take risks and try new things on the farm. The students will be provided with new and unique opportunities that we will help them embrace and take on with courage and compassion.

Self-Awareness

The students will learn to be self-aware of their physical bodies when on the farm. As multiple tasks will be taking place at once, sometimes in small spaces, it will be important for the students to understand how to move carefully while also appropriately handling and caring for the animals, equipment, and land on the farm.

Coexistence

The students will learn to effectively work with their peers, animals, and other adults on the farm. The students will need to actively listen and process information with which they are provided in order to solve problems or complete tasks. They will need to be thoughtful and compassionate when interacting with peers, adults, and animals on the farm.

Critical Thinking

The students will learn how to solve various agricultural problems while on the farm. They will need to think critically about the natural world around them and how everything is interrelated in order to solve problems encountered in appropriate ways.

Communication

The students will learn how to effectively communicate their ideas, thoughts, and questions with peers, adults, and animals on the farm. They will need to be patient, at times, as the farm facilitator may be busy assisting other students. They will also need to be sure they are using appropriate language when communicating with others on the farm. The students will need to be mindful of their body language when interacting with the animals on the farm.

Ownership

The students will learn to take ownership of their work on the farm as they will be learning to take on new tasks and responsibilities. As these experiences will be new for many of the students, they will need to put forth their best effort in accomplishing tasks. They will also learn to understand that failure is part of the learning process. They will make mistakes and need to try things again and again. Ownership during these times will be crucial for the students.

Creativity

The students will learn to see how everything in the world is interrelated. This will require a change of perspective for many of the students as they learn to solve agricultural problems in new and innovative ways when on the farm. The students will also be expected to take risks and learn new skills, which could include knitting, crocheting, felting, fiber dying, animal care, and food preparation.

Student Objectives, Skills, and Outcomes

Students will:

  • Understand how the natural and human worlds are interrelated.
  • Understand the farm as a whole system rather than as discrete human, biological or physical components.
  • Care for, appropriately, based on information provided by the farm facilitator, an angora rabbit.
  • Prepare and make grape jelly utilizing grapes picked on the farm and specific instructions from the farm facilitator.
  • Know the source of various fiber types and the processes involved in obtaining them.
  • Know how to felt various fiber types using appropriate materials.
  • Understand how to spin wool using various instruments including a drop spindle and spinning wheel.
  • Create and make a self-chosen project utilizing the skill of felting.

Cross Curricular Connections

STEM

Ecology and Life Science Components

  • The students will learn how natural and human systems are interrelated.
  • The students will learn about the life cycles of various farm animals.
  • The students will learn how grass is used to create food for animals on the farm.
  • The students will learn how to care for a rabbit and document its growth over the course of the year.
  • The students will learn about various flora types growing on the farm and how they can be utilized to help humans.
  • The students will learn about patterns through the completion of knitting and crocheting projects.

 Humanities

Writing

  • The students will periodically journal and document their learning in creative ways.

Assessments

  • To assess students’ ability to understand how the natural and human worlds are interrelated and understand the farm as a whole system rather than as discrete human, biological or physical components, the students will participate in various class discussions on and off the farm as well as various writing activities throughout the unit.
  • To assess students’ ability to care for, appropriately, based on information provided by the farm facilitator, an angora rabbit, the students will take care of an angora bunny and document its growth, in writing, throughout the unit.
  • To assess students’ ability to prepare and make grape jelly utilizing grapes picked on the farm and specific instructions from the farm facilitator, the students will participate in the making of grape jelly on the farm using verbal instructions and a recipe.
  • To assess students’ ability to know the source of various fiber types and the processes involved in obtaining them, the students will participate in various class discussions on the farm.
  • To assess students’ ability to know how to felt various fiber types using appropriate materials, understand how to spin wool using various instruments including a drop spindle and spinning wheel, and create and make a self-chosen project utilizing the skill of felting, the students will design and complete a self-chosen fiber project that utilizes felting in some way.

To think that this whole program came out of an idea I had to teach my students how to knit.  It’s crazy how ideas can grow, multiply, divide, and become something almost unreconizable.  While I am so excited to begin this program, I’m most definitly looking forward to the fiber aspect.  Having the students raise and take care of a bunny that they will then use the fabric from to create an original and unique hand work design is simply phenomenal.   The students will be engaged in hands-on, real-world learning. What is better than that?

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Author:

I teach sixth grade at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, NH. I'm currently ensconced in my fourteenth year at this small, independent boys' school. I love engaging students in relevant and hands-on learning. I was nominated for the NH Teacher of the Year Award in 2016 by a parent. While I love education and guiding students, my first passion is my family. I have a wonderful son, Jeffrey, and a beautiful and intelligent wife, Kim. I couldn't be happier. Every day is the best day of my life.

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