There was a time when teacher Becky Ross couldn't understand why anyone would want a computer cluttering up his ior her classroom. But Ross is a convert now! Her "Flat Stanley" Internet project, based on a children's book of the same name, spawned an activity that had her students visiting farms all over the world -- virtually!
"Hello, Student Farmers!" says Flat Stanley. "Where did you get the idea of sending pictures of yourselves to farms? I know! You got it from the book about me called Flat Stanley. Jeff Brown, who wrote the book, and I both think that was a really smart idea! Good luck! I hope you learn a lot about farms and farming!"
Jeff Brown's clever message served as an introduction to a delightful project Ross created for her third grade class. Ross teaches at Joe Henderson Elementary School in Benicia, California. Her project, called Farms Around the World: A Science, Geography, and Writing Project, was much like its model, the Flat Stanley Project. Instead of sending pictures of themselves to other classrooms, though, Ross's students sent their portraits to farms around the world.
NECESSITY IS THE MOTHER OF INVENTION
Ross didn't set out to integrate the Internet into her farm activities, she just found out that she needed it. "Each year, our school selects a school-wide theme; we build many of our activities around that theme," Ross explained. "One year, the theme was Old Mac Henderson's Farm and it had three components: farms and farm-life, the land and what helps things grow, and the environment (recycling, etc.). Not knowing anything about farms myself, I was worried about how to effectively teach the subject to children so actual learning would occur, and so it would be a fun and hands-on experience. I started wandering around the Internet hoping to find some lesson plans or other sites that would offer inspiration."
Surprise! Henderson found just what she was looking for! Family Farms Around the World, a collection of Web sites sponsored by farming families, had just the information Ross needed to make contacts and lay the foundation for her project. The site's creator, Harold Eddleman, even posted on the Web site a link to the project's home page and a paragraph about its goals. The next step was to link that information to a classroom activity, and Ross knew just what to do! "I remembered the popular Flat Stanley Project organized by Dale Hubert," she said. "I thought perhaps I could find some farms our third graders could "visit" -- and learn about -- via paper versions of themselves. If the farmers were willing to fill in the journals as if they were the visiting students, those journals would become almost-authentic accounts of students' field trips!"
FARMERS JUMPING ON THE BANDWAGON
It was time to take the project idea to a global audience. "First, I created a web page explaining the project," says Ross. "Then, I started e-mailing farms on Harold's [Eddleman's] list. As with most Internet research, one site led to another and another and... I kept writing...and writing and writing. The responses I received from the farmers were so positive; they were excited and proud to share their way of life with our students. They even forwarded the message to friends, organizations, and listservs."
That was just the beginning. Ross continued to receive responses. "We got confirmations from farms and ranches around the world; all were willing to host our flat 'students' for a period of 2 weeks or so," Ross reports. "That meant each student could create a paper likeness of himself or herself, fold it up, and send it by postal mail to a different participating farm. A letter from the student, information about Benicia, and a journal for the paper student's daily entries were included."
Cooperation was key as well. "Someone at the participating farm needed to write the paper student's daily entries, recording information about the farm's routine, outside activities, thoughts, and so on," Ross said. "When finished, the farm family then had to mail back to the real student the journal and any souvenirs that had been collected. The journals and souvenirs were displayed for all to see at Open House night and in a public area of the school."
Altogether, Ross gathered information about more than 400 farms from most regions of the United States and from more than 15 foreign countries including South Africa, Ireland, Scotland, France, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Finland, Japan, and Brazil. The farms ranged from traditional dairy or crop farms to a crocodile farm. Included are farms that raise Texas Longhorns, bison, goats, emus, grapes, honey, and much more. And the farmers were as excited about the project as the teachers and students! "The responses from the host farms were enthusiastic and informative," said Ross, "and provided priceless spotlights into the lives of our world's agriculture community." The response was so overwhelming, in fact, that the project was opened to other grade levels at the school.
FARMS AROUND THE WORLD IS ALL THE "BUZZ"
Ed Mabesoone learned about Farms Around the World through a monthly agricultural newsletter. His farm, The Mabesoone Family Apiary, was located in Brooksville, Florida, and specialized in beekeeping. He became interested in the project because he liked the idea that it exposed children to the world of agriculture. During the visit of his "flat student," Mabesoone said, "We [apiary staff] removed, extracted, and bottled the fall crop of honey from our colonies, along with harvesting and rendering the beeswax from which we make lip balm, skin cream, furniture polish, and candles. We also fed our bees and gave them medications, inspected the colonies, and replaced some of the older queen bees." It's easy to see that life on a farm is never dull!
"More than one-third of our food could not be produced without the pollination services that honey bees provide," Mabesoone said. "I hope this kind of communication helps children learn just how important the bee is, and how important it is to make sure we continue to keep and maintain bees in good health for a long time to come." He added, "Some of our children might not quite understand what agriculture is all about when they start, but I'm confident that by the end of the project they understand the importance of all the different types of farms."
MAKING WINE WHEN IT'S TIME
Mabesoone was not alone in his high expectations for the Farms Around the World project. Education Director Lili Hsi Thomas, of Kendall-Jackson Winery, had equally high expectations for the project. "I hope the students understand that Kendall-Jackson is a fully integrated, agriculturally based business," she says. "Our proprietor Jess Jackson firmly believes wine begins with dedicated farming. We grow the finest quality grapes in cool coastal vineyards, then proceed to concise teamwork in winemaking to create the finest wines. Once the wines are made, we rely on expert marketing and sales. The wonderful conclusion of our combined effort is our wines being served with delicious meals enjoyed by family and friends throughout the world."
When it comes to fine wine, timing is everything! It's no different in planning a visit to a winery. One of the tasks Ross faced was scheduling all the "flat" student visits for when the farms were full of activity. "Ideally, the students' visits should be during our harvest 'crush' period," Thomas explained. "[T]he harvest is a wonderful time for the [flat] students to come, as it is our busiest period of the year. A fall visit offers a good glimpse into the complete cycle of production. From grapes being crushed, pressed, fermented, to wines being aged in barrels and bottled." There is little doubt that the real three-dimensional students better understand the wine-making process through the journal sent from the winery."
"DOWN TO EARTH" OBJECTIVES
Vivid reports of the real happenings on farms are exactly what Ross was hoping to find in the journals returned with the "flat" students. "Our goal was for students to develop an appreciation of their food from seed to table," explains Ross. "They come from families where they go to the grocery store and everything is available, and many of them don't know where food comes from or the hard work that goes into producing it. We hoped for them to reach an understanding of the labor intensity of agriculture and farming."
Another third grade teacher at Joe Henderson Elementary School, Rebecca Sarikakis, assumed responsibility for designing the journal the students sent to the farms. It contained information about the visiting "flat" student and served the purposes of all the varying types of participating farms.
Ross is convinced that all her hard work organizing the Farms Around the World project paid off. "I spent hours and hours and hours surfing sites and contacts and sent hundreds of e-mails," she said. "My eyes got a bit buggy, but I had such a great time, and I know the children had an amazing learning experience. Reading about their 'trips' to the farms was the next best thing to being there."
ADDITIONAL SITES OF INTEREST