Stray Kernels – Pieces of the Puzzle

Posted: April 27, 2018

I’m a little bit of a geek, I guess. I’m planning this year’s Summer Ag Institute for teachers, and I’m ridiculously excited about it. This is the most fun and rewarding thing I do all year. I do a lot of fun and rewarding things in my job, so that’s saying something.


Why do I get so excited about Summer Ag Institute (SAI)? There are several reasons. One is that I love to learn. Every SAI is a chance for me to learn a bunch of new things about farming and the ag industry. I get to see new things and ask new questions. Oh boy, do I ask questions. “What is this thing? What does it do? Why do you use it? How does it work?”

But obviously, the SAI isn’t for me. It’s for teachers. So another reason planning each Institute is so invigorating is that I get to share my excitement about agriculture with people who love learning as much as I do. Teachers aren’t just teachers, they’re also professional learners. Developing an Institute means creating unique opportunities to learn. By arranging tours and presentations, I create experiences many people never get a chance to be a part of.

Planning an SAI is like putting together an intriguing, three-dimensional puzzle with many moving parts. In my mind, a successful Summer Ag Institute—the finished puzzle—should accomplish several things.

First, the Institute should be relevant to the interests and needs of teachers from kindergarten all the way through high school. On one hand, that seems impossible. On the other… well, we all eat and wear clothes. Walk a group of educators to the edge of a cornfield with a farmer in June, and first grade teachers may discover a new approach to teach about life cycles while fourth grade teachers think about ways to enhance their Illinois units and high school science teachers mentally revise their genetics lesson plans. Agriculture connects with so much, on so many levels.

Next, an SAI should provide an overall understanding of local/Illinois agriculture. One way or another, I want teachers to leave with some first-hand knowledge of what I call “The Big 4”—corn, soybeans, pork, and beef. How are they grown or raised, and why? Why here? Teachers leave with the answers to those questions and much more.

Each component of the Institute should fit the theme of the course—in the case of this year’s, our title is “Teaching Social Studies through Agriculture.” I’m constantly asking myself how each tour, speaker, or activity adds to the storyline of the overall course, and how it will help teachers in their classrooms.

The Summer Ag Institute also needs to be engaging and enjoyable. Maybe this should go without saying, but it’s easy to lose sight of. Life is short. Learning should be fun.

Finally, I want everyone involved in our SAI to walk away not just with new knowledge, but with a new perspective, too. To that end, I think hard about where to tour and whom to invite as speakers. In eighteen years of SAIs, I’ve watched hundreds of interactions between farmers, agribusiness people, and teachers. I’ve seen that the most profound learning moments don’t necessarily take place because of polished and articulate speakers. No, those transformational moments happen when tour hosts’ or speakers’ genuine love for what they do shines through. You’ve probably heard the saying, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” It’s absolutely true.

Although many pieces of the 2018 Summer Ag Institute puzzle are in place now, I still have a lot of work to do. I need to communicate with tour hosts, pre-tour sites I’ve not visited before, arrange additional speakers, reserve bus transportation… .

And I’m still working on the most important SAI piece of all: teachers. If you’re a teacher, I’ve got a great experience planned for you!

Rhodora Collins – Ag Literacy Coordinator