My Family’s Corn Farm and 8 Other Ways to Teach About Corn

When most people think of Iowa, they think of corn.   It’s the number one agriculture commodity in Iowa, and Iowa farmers grow more corn than any other state.  In fact, only three countries (U.S., China, and Brazil) produce more corn than is grown in our little state.

Because corn is big here, it makes sense that Iowans are excited to get their hands on a children’s book all about corn farming!  My Family’s Corn Farm is a non-fiction book by Katie Olthoff.

The story follows Presley, a young Iowa farm girl.  She lives with her family on a corn and swine farm in southeast Iowa. Presley a takes the readers on a tour of the family farm and discusses how corn is grown for livestock feed, human food, industrial uses, and to produce fuel like ethanol.

The story is written at a 3rd grade reading level, but it is great for all elementary classrooms.  Lower elementary teachers are using it as a read aloud book, and it offers supplemental text on more advanced topics science and social studies topics for older students.

More than 1000 copies of the book were requested by teachers during the first month!   Along with those requests, came requests for corn-themed lessons, activities, and books from our lending library to use with My Family’s Corn Farm.

Here’s eight of my favorite lessons and resources for teaching about corn!

  1. Corny Charades. How fun does that sound? Students will hone language arts skills and learn new science vocabulary while playing this corn-y version of charades.
  2. The Diversity of Corn. Many kids think that most of the corn grown in Iowa is sweet corn.  In this lesson, they’ll explore different characteristics and uses of field corn, sweet corn, popcorn, and ornamental corn, and learn a little about traits and heredity too!
  3. Seed Germination Necklaces. This is a fun twist on germinating seeds, a common science experiment in elementary classroom.
  4. Make Corn Plastic! Forget DIY Slime, when you can make corn plastic!  In this science and social studies lesson, students learn about renewable and non-renewable resources and make bioplastics with just corn cornstarch and corn oil.
  5. Seed to Cereal. In this lesson, students sequence photographs while discovering the journey corn takes from seed to cereal, ethanol, and even cheeseburgers!
  6. Collaborative Corn Stock. The name says it all. Students work together to create a paper cornstalk while learning about plant parts and function.  As an added bonus, you’ll have a great work of art to jazz up the classroom walls!
  7. The Life and Times of Corn by Charles Micucci is a great complement to My Family’s Corn Farm. It’s not a great read-aloud book, but it is a great source for student to flip through to learn more about corn growth & development, history, and uses.
  8. Corn Volumes. This math lesson is a fun way to practice math concepts like measuring and estimating volumes — all using corn!

– Cindy

Three Ways to Help Students Use Text Features

Issue 6Getting students to read from a wide variety of texts is often a challenge in the classroom. Some of the challenges can be time, resources, and ways to help the students access all the different types of texts. Many teachers are using the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation’s student magazine, Iowa Ag Today to offer rich non-fiction text into their learning.

Rich student discussions can occur about the author’s purpose in the nonfiction text of Ag Today. The most common purposes of this type of text are to explain, inform, to teach how to do something, to express an opinion, or to persuade readers to do or believe something. Knowing the differences between nonfiction and fictional text can truly help students understand the meaning better.

Ag Today is aesthetically pleasing to readers as it offers text features to help them understand the text. These text features include and are not limited to print features such as bold print, symbols and icons; graphic aids like maps, charts and timelines; illustrations including photographs, drawings, or cartoons. It is imperative for teachers to explicitly teach students about using these features to help them with their understanding of the information presented.  Here are three ways to do this:

1.  Model through a think aloud. Talk through how you as a reader would tackle the text and how you would use the text features to help understand the text. Look at each page and ask students how an illustration helps them in their reading, or look at a map and ask why the map was added to the text. Students need to have conversations on the importance of text features in their reading to help them use them to better understand their reading. Teachers can also use this time to have students make predictions about what the text may be about after looking at text features.

2. Create a quick reference for to students to access when using text features. Here is an example list students can insert into their working notebooks or turn into posters for the classroom wall:

  • Maps: Help a reader visualize where places are in the state, nation, or world.
  • Captions: Can help understand a picture or photograph.
  • Illustrations or photographs: Help to visualize the text and make it real. They may also help determine what is important within the text.
  • Special print: Look for bold, italics, or underlined words to determine key vocabulary.
  • Graphs: Can help understand important data within the text and assist in interpreting.
Issue 6 centerfold

In this example from Issue 6, text features are used to draw attention, provide additional information, and help students visualize and understand what they read.

3.  Using Ag Today in the classroom not only helps with reading of nonfiction texts, but it also offers opportunities for students to write. Teachers can preview the text with students and then have them write questions they may have about the text features they see. In addition, there are many think and discuss prompts within the text for students to talk with another student and to write their thoughts as well. This truly helps students realize the importance of discussing, reflecting, and writing about what they are reading.

Students reading Ag Today - Issue 2In conclusion, it is imperative for students to have access to multiple types of texts in the classroom. Ag Today is an excellent example to use for not only various content areas but also learning how to use text features for understanding. I would encourage teachers to start with a few strategies such as the ones shared here and slowly add more as you see students becoming more familiar with using text features. Happy reading in your classroom!

-Jody Still Herbold, Education Consultant, Northwest AEA

Agriculture Literacy – What Can You Do?

20161111_123719Every November about 75 people who are passionate about teaching others about agriculture gather in one room for the annual Ag in the Classroom County Contacts  .  It is my favorite day of the year!

In the room are seasoned veterans who have volunteered doing Agriculture in the Classroom programs for 10-20 years.  They’ve visited hundreds of classrooms, teaching students about topics ranging from apples or corn to soil conservation or biotechnology.  Some have led farm field trips, organized large events, or even Skyped with students from a farm.

Many in the room are new to Agriculture in the Classroom too.  They came because they love agriculture and want to help students learn about the valuable agriculture resources in the state we call home.  They see the disconnect between students and agriculture, and want to do something to change that in their communities.

img_1018Farmland covers 70% of Iowa, yet most young people have not seen a corn plant close-up, ridden on a tractor, or realized not all barns are big and red.  How can we expect students to pursue careers in agriculture when they do not have direct experiences with it?  I love seeing students’ reactions when they watch a soybean sprout or discover that farmers use GPS and even drones!  Once they have experiences like these, they are eager to learn more.  All it takes is the first spark.

We all can help young people in our communities learn about and feel connected to agriculture. Being involved with Iowa Ag in the Classroom does not have to involve a large commitment.   From “baby steps” to “big steps”, there are many things you can do.

Baby Steps:

  • mindy-handsaker-reading-before-farmchatLet us know you’re interested in Agriculture in the Classroom. We’ll add you to our contact list, so you receive regular updates about new resources and training opportunities.  Signing up does not commit you to doing programs, but it’s a good way to learn more.  You can take the next steps when you are ready.
  • Encourage teachers to apply for the Agriculture in the Classroom .  Share information about it on social media, and personally spread the word to teachers you know.
  • Spread the word about Agriculture in the Classroom and resources available. Talk about the great things going on across Iowa to friends and family. Send a note to your child or grandchild’s teacher with more information about the professional development opportunities, grants, lesson plans, and free student publications available that connect agriculture to Iowa Core Standards.
  • IALF FFA 4H license plate 10.1.15Order the new Iowa Agriculture License plate for your vehicle! Proceeds from the sale of the plate will help support three important youth programs in Iowa that help young people learn about – 4H, FFA & Agriculture in the Classroom.

Big Steps:

  • Tell teachers you know that you’re willing to help their students learn about agriculture. It can be as simple as providing samples of corn or soybeans to use for classroom experiments.  If you’re willing to go a step further, you could talk to the class, invite them to visit your farm, or do a FarmChat® program!
  • farmchat-with-nick-hermanson-in-turkey-barnSpeaking of FarmChat®, this is a great way to help students learn about your farm or job in agriculture. FarmChat® is a unique program that utilizes technology (Skype, FaceTime and other software platforms) to bring agriculture directly into school classrooms. Using a laptop at the school and a mobile device at the farm, students connect and directly speak with the farmer. They can even virtually ride along in the combine or tour a livestock barn all from the safety and security of their classroom. FarmChat® is growing across the state. Programs can be initiated by farmers interested in sharing what they do. They can be initiated by teachers wanting to teach their students about crops and livestock. If this interests you, learn more about FarmChat® here, watch clips of programs on our YouTube Channel, or contact me for help getting started!
  • Reach out to the guidance counselor at your local middle or high school, and see if there is an opportunity to talk to students about careers in agriculture. Many schools organize career days or career presentations throughout the year to introduce students to various careers.   You could talk about your career, the company or field you work in, or the many reasons an agriculture career is a good choice!

Agriculture in the Classroom efforts are growing across the state thanks to people just like you who took baby steps and big steps to help Iowa’s youth explore the world of agriculture!

– Cindy

The Farmer Grows a Rainbow

Where does our food come from?  This is always the first thing I ask students when presenting a lesson for Ag in the Classroom in Mahaska and Marion counties.  When I first started, the answers were “the grocery store” or “the refrigerator”. Now every hand goes up with confidence as the say, “THE FARM!”  My reply then is, “Yes, because we know that farmers are growing plants and raising animals for our food.”

20160926_095610.jpgBecause so many of our students are removed from the farm, it seems that keeping it simple is the best approach.  I visit preschoolers through third grade in Mahaska County and third grade in Marion County.  I visit most of them once a month. At some point in the year, each of the grade levels have a lesson from “The Farmer Grows A Rainbow” which is based on the MyPlate.

It’s fun to ask the kids if they know that the farmer grows a rainbow for them. We talk about the MyPlate and all the many colors of the foods, a RAINBOW, and how all of the food comes from the farm.

For preschool, I have a large MyPlate mat that we lay on the floor.  Each of the students is given a food card to put in the correct food group.  They can check their answers by looking on the back of the card and the color is the same color as the food group.  The students then take turns looking at pictures of items that come from the farm and some of them we eat, like beans and broccoli and some we don’t eat like shirts and crayons but all of these are possible because of our farmers. The final activity with preschool is to put pictures from each of the food groups in categories using a traffic light with green being food to eat regularly, the yellow light being foods to eat once in a while as they are not very nutritious and high in calories and the red light represents products like chemicals, cleaning products and animal feeds that come from the farm but are unsafe to consume.

20161118_125949.jpgThe lesson for kindergarten discusses nutritious choices in each group.  For the grains group, which is more nutritious, whole wheat toast or a doughnut?  For the vegetable group, a tossed green salad or French fries? For the fruit group, an apple or apple pie?  For the dairy group, yogurt or a milkshake?  For the protein group, grilled chicken or fried chicken? By showing each of these choices, the students “vote” on which is the more nutritious choice.

Second grade has great visuals with talking about portion sizes.  It’s interesting to ask them if they have ever eaten something healthy but eaten too much of it and then they have a stomach ache like too many grapes or too much spaghetti. By showing them objects that represent foods, they see what the correct size should be. Some of the examples are chopped vegetables being the size of a computer mouse, string cheese the size of a tube of lip balm and meat being the size of deck of cards.  That one is always a big shock!  They are given a puzzle piece to match up with a friend to see if they remember which object represented which food.

Third grade gets very specific with what foods are in each food group, what nutrients are in those foods and what the health benefits to those nutrients are. The students then put pyramid puzzles together to check their answers.

Each of these lessons concludes with singing “The Farmer Grows A Rainbow” song.  I try to incorporate singing into many of my lessons as music helps to retain the material.

After each of my lessons, I leave them with some sort of snack to remember the lesson. With “The Farmer Grows A Rainbow” lessons, I leave the classes with a bag of carrots to enjoy. The second graders get a “computer mouse” which they think is funny since for the correct portion size of carrots, it should be the size of a computer mouse. I encourage them to look at their plates or school lunch trays when they eat to see if they have a rainbow of colors. That way they know they will be getting a variety of nutritional foods.

It’s always a good reminder to the students to thank the farmers for growing their rainbow of food!

-Karen Adams is the Ag in the Classroom lead for Mahaska and Marion Counties

Reflections on agriculture education

I have been working directly with students in public and private schools across North Iowa for the better part of 20 years. I am not, nor have I ever been, under contract with a particular school district. Yet I’ve seen tens of thousands of students in my tenure, always with the goal of promoting Iowa agriculture and stressing its importance to our economy and our communities.

rockwell-oct-2016North Central Iowa Ag in the Classroom is the organization I work for, and expectation number one on my job description is to seek out and develop interesting agriculture lessons. It is my job to gather the resources necessary to educate youth about agriculture, and to find ways to (hopefully!) hold the attention of my audience. It might be a 3 year-old preschooler or a middle school student whose mind can be a difficult thing to engage.

Today, there is vastly more support for those of us tasked with providing accurate agriculture education to students and adults. When I started my career in agriculture education, there were few organizations like the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation that someone in my position could turn to for help. There was no such thing as a one-stop source for book recommendations, lesson plans and activities in one neat bundle. It wasn’t uncommon for me to spend days researching and refining a single lesson. I might come across a book I thought described an interesting chunk of Iowa agriculture or farming practices. If I wanted to use that book as the basis for classroom instruction, I then had to seek out or write the lesson plan to complete the message. Once I had the book and lesson plan, then it was on to finding or developing an activity to make the concept more meaningful to the students. Remember, this was pre-Pinterest time! I was completely on my own!

In the beginning, my colleagues and I were commonly considered to be “entertainment” for the students since it was unusual for agriculture to be accepted as an important, relevant component in elementary education.  And, I must admit, we submitted to that request for entertainment in order to get our foot in the door of many school districts. We built scarecrows during a fall harvest festival, we entered classrooms dressed up as the Nutrition Princess to talk about healthy food choices, and we hauled a microwave around to be prepared to make corn plastic.

Rather than building scarecrows, now we talk to kids about the environment and how concerned farmers are about protecting it. We don’t have to dress up in costumes to get students’ attention when we tell them that farmers in Iowa grow the corn and soybeans that become foods they eat every day. Or when we tell them how dedicated farmers are to caring for their livestock.

eville3-nov-2015

Happily, for me and everyone else involved in teaching the next generation of consumers where their food and fiber originates, what we do has become a much more respected practice in the eyes of teachers and administrators. They truly understand the value of teaching youth the importance of agriculture and the many careers tied to that industry.

cs3-oct-2015I am impressed with how far we’ve advanced agriculture education in schools. There are many organizations across the country coming together to support each other’s efforts to teach about farming, and that’s making it much easier for people like me.

-Brenda Mormann, North Central Iowa Ag in the Classroom

Learning about the world around us beyond the classroom

It comes as no surprise that the dynamics of the typical American family have changed and will continue to do so. The family unit is increasingly diverse and constantly evolving. According to the Iowa Afterschool Alliance, 1 in 4 families has a child enrolled in some type of after school program.

Pig Farmer.jpgI would encourage those of us who are passionate about sharing information about agriculture to extend our thinking beyond the traditional classroom. There are a host of resources and activities that are great for specific lessons, but have we thought about using these resources outside of the common teacher/student role? After school programs, library reading programs, child care centers, YMCA youth programs, and home school self-studies are all under-utilized areas for making connections to agriculture.

The after school programs, summer programs, or structured learning within a childcare center provide an ideal time and place to get students excited about learning and pursuing their own interests. Self-confidence expands as they explore new talents in areas that may not be addressed by the regular school curriculum.

Newton library 2.jpgKnowing that many libraries and summer care facilities struggle to find interactive and fun programs to fill their time, I brainstormed a way to share information about agriculture in this setting. The 2015 summer reading theme, “Every Hero has a Story”, provided inspiration for this project. I took the idea of the superhero and applied it to agriculture. “Farmers are Superheroes Too” was born. Many kids can easily relate to superheroes and cartoons. What super powers might the farmer have? The thought of a farmer duplicating animals, having equipment that can drive itself and possessing super strength is exciting and intriguing for the targeted age group within these programs.

Chicks Library-2.jpgFrom photos of animals and crops to people and equipment, each became a cartoon using free online software. Matching up the photos with the superpowers led to the creation of a short story, “Farmers are Superheroes Too”.

Our local libraries, YMCA summer programs and care centers were happy to provide me with time to share this resource. We read the book with ages PreK to 4th graders. An exciting supplement to the book was the chance to use the FarmChat program and Skype with a farmer who demonstrated how his tractor could drive itself. This added experience helped make the farmer superhero come to life while demonstrating technology in agriculture. Other activities that have accompanied the book include planting vegetable seeds for children to take home and bringing baby chicks into childcare centers.

feeding calf at julies.jpgSharing information about agriculture helps put the world around us into perspective. There is no better tool than agriculture for the application of learning. Make sure the activities you offer are fun and engaging, no matter what they are designed to teach. Most kids are tired after a long day at school, and they will be best able to absorb the content of a lesson if it looks more like play and less like a traditional classroom lesson.

Be inspired to share agriculture in new ways! If you would like a free copy of the book, “Farmers are Superheroes Too” please feel free to contact me at jasper.county@ifbf.org.

-Trish Hafkey is the Ag in the Classroom coordinator for Jasper Co. Farm Bureau

The Art of Apple Picking

Fall is just around the corner. For me, Fall brings back memories of scenicfire pit evenings, football games, beautiful fall colors in tree lines, seasonal mums, and picking apples. I savor family time being spent outdoors. I thoroughly enjoy watching my grandkids during this time of year…especially when we travel to the apple orchard and they are all about helping pick “good” apples. That got me thinking about how I can help them learn about picking apples as we have fun at the apple orchard.

I prefer like to look for a “pick your own” orchard because I love to do the apple picking. Many of the orchards offer other festivities like games and pumpkins patches.  Here in Iowa, September and early October are the best times to visit the orchards.

There are a few things that I have learned that will make the apple picking experience a positive event for the visitor as well as the orchard owners.

  • Pick apples in the designated areas. Orchards have predetermined trees that are ready for picking. Meaning that the apples are ripe, ready and will easily come off the ridetree without damaging the tree for future seasons.
  • No tree climbing. Not only is this dangerous, it could do damage to the more fragile areas of the tree and unless they have provided ladders to reach higher limbs, the apples to be picked are the ones that are within reach.
  • No throwing apples.
  • Watch your step. Since apples adorn the ground it is important to watch where you are stepping and to wear appropriate shoes to be able to walk freely on uneven ground.
  • Keep the younger ones close and help them in the picking process. Help them to learn the importance of picking apples with future years in mind. When we damage the tree it does affect the next years’ blooms.

What to look for and how to pick like an expert:

  • Look at the apple. Look for imperfections like blemishes, bruises or insect damage.
  • The apple should have a creamy looking background. If the apple is a red apple, it will isstill have a golden glow behind the red color. No matter what your favorite type of apple, a ripe and ready apple will have a creamy coloring in the background.
  • A ripe apple will general be a sweeter apple. The more tart the apple, the less ripe it is.
  • A ripe apple will be crisp. Apples will become less crisp as they ripen.
  • If there are a lot of apples on the ground, chances are that particular tree is ripe or over ripened and has been dropping apples.
  • Seeds will be brown in color. When you cut into the apple, the seeds of a ripe apple will be brown in color.

Picking apples 101:apple

  • Apples are delicate and need to be treated accordingly.
  • Don’t pull, tug or grab at the apples. Be gentle and roll the apple in the direction of the branch and twist gently. The stem should break away easily and the spur should remain intact on the tree. If you pull to roughly, you remove the spur of the apple.
  • Most orchards will provide bags to collect apples you’ve picked. Be sure to not over stuff the bags which may bruise or damage your harvest.
  • Store your apples in a cool, dark place. They should be separate from other produce.
  • Apples last longer when stored in a cool (33 degree), high humidity (90-95%) location.
  • Do not wash the apples until you are ready to eat them. Unwashed apples have better storage results.family
  • If you notice that the stem is missing – this apple should be used or disposed of, because it can create an entry area for pests.

The apple picking season is just getting started. Get out and enjoy the fall with the family and remember some of these helpful suggestions to make your experience as well as others the best it can be.

 ~  Sheri