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Stray Kernels – Hidden Objective

The graduate course syllabus for the Summer Ag Institute includes the following phrases within its Student Learning Objectives:

“Recognize the importance of agriculture in our society…”

“Collect relevant materials…”

“Develop lesson opportunities…”

“…integrate agriscience into existing curriculum.”

The full objectives are comprised of many more words (86, to be exact), written in what I think of as “syllabus-speak.” It’s all a fancy way of saying: Teach teachers about agriculture so they can teach their students about it. The extra words likely help to legitimize the course in the eyes of university personnel and school administrators, lest they think, “We’re not teaching our students to be farmers, so what’s the point? Oh, right: it’s relevant to their lives, it encompasses hundreds of careers, it’s literacy, it’s a way of addressing learning standards.”

After our first SAI, way back in 1999, I realized I have a deeper objective that is never in the syllabus.

On the last day of that first class, I led a group reflection of what the teachers had experienced during the course and how it would impact their teaching. I asked, “What particularly struck you during this experience?” As they talked, I listed teachers’ comments on a sheet of chart paper. They mentioned the use of technology, the advances in genetic research, the diversity of careers, and the economic impact of agriculture—all responses I had hoped for.

Two comments caught me by surprise, however. First, someone mentioned the kindness of the farm tour hosts, and their eagerness to share their knowledge; to tell their story. There were vigorous nods of agreement. “I was struck by their pride,” added someone else, to more enthusiastic nods and murmurs of assent.

Of course I wasn’t surprised that the farmers were kind or that they exhibited pride in their work. What I didn’t expect was of everything the teachers had learned and experienced, what impacted them most were the intangibles. Yes, the computer technology and the sheer number of ag careers was amazing to them. But one of the deepest messages they took away had to do not with facts, but with humanity.

After the first year or two of SAI, I replaced the more standard written evaluation questions with what I call “guided journaling.” Each day, I handed out 3-5 reflection questions. I found the teachers’ journal responses far more revealing than an end-of-course evaluation. I also liked that the journals doubled as a reflection tool for teachers; after all, we remember most those experiences upon which we reflect.

Over the years, the journals continued to illuminate what I had discovered in that first end-of-institute discussion. Here’s a sampling:

“Wow! It is great to still see such tradition and pride in farming that this family brings…. I learned how hard farmers work to help the environment and their neighbors.”  2004 SAI participant

“Another benefit was the personal contact with the farmers. I enjoyed getting to know their stories, and it gave me a real sense of pride in the farmers of our country. It really helped me personally to remember just how important they are.”  2004 SAI participant

“It is always a pleasure to tour a facility that is built and maintained with pride and places an importance on animal welfare.”  2007 SAI participant

“I can bring back to my students the skills of coachability, willingness to work, taking pride in one’s work, doing one’s best, communicating and getting along with others.”  2018 SAI participant

“How cool was it to see a young couple brave enough to take an established farm and jump into the technology risk.”  2019 SAI participant

So what is my unwritten objective for every Summer Ag Institute? I guess you could say it is human connection. Every tour, presentation, and panel discussion is an opportunity for educators and agriculturists to relate to one another as individuals, rather than job titles.

Let’s face it: all of the facts, figures, science, and technology are practically meaningless otherwise. As the saying goes, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”