Mr. Todd Willis’ third- grade classroom at Pleasant Hill Elementary School in DeSoto County is anything but typical. On any given school day, his third-graders are busy feeding chickens, gathering eggs, and getting their hands dirty in an outdoor garden where they grow lettuce, strawberries, wheat, sweet corn and other crops.
Now in his fourth year of teaching, Willis has transformed his classroom and surrounding school grounds into an agricultural learning lab where his students learn about math, science and social studies through hands-on projects.
“I grew up on a row crop farm, and my parents let me have pigs, chickens, goats and cattle because livestock always interested me,” Willis says. “When I had children of my own, we bought a house with plenty of acreage, so I could teach my kids about nature. That’s how I developed an idea of what interests a third-grader.”
Agriculture In The Classroom
Willis has two classes – one in the morning and one in the afternoon – of 27 students each, so his classroom and gardens are set up to accommodate 54 kids. Each table of four students has their own chicken pen with one or two hens, and each child has their own plot in the garden.
“Students have 15 minutes every day to water their crops, feed and water their chicken, and gather any eggs to weigh and put in the fridge,” Willis says. “It’s their job. I don’t water their plants behind them. If they don’t water their plants, the plants die.”
Willis says his agriculture-based teaching method allows students to accomplish more during the first month of school than they previously could have accomplished by Christmas. For example, they learn about weight, measurement and data collection by weighing their eggs and strawberries.
“They have to grade their eggs and write on them,” Willis says. “In addition to all the math in each dozen eggs, parents enjoy getting fresh eggs from their child’s school hens.”
In the spring, when students are ready for more of a challenge, Willis teaches them to mill wheat and make yeast bread. There are class contests for the earliest and biggest strawberries picked, and the kids get to take the berries they grow home. The lettuce students grow in their aquaponics unit produces enough lettuce for the entire school’s lunch for a day, providing salad for 900 people.
“I love seeing the connection kids make between math and science and the real world,” Willis says. “You can sit and do worksheets all day, but agriculture in the classroom allows me to transform those problems into real-world examples. It takes education to a higher level.”
Willis even uses agriculture to teach a social studies unit on immigration. “I talk to the kids about how immigrants came here to avoid starvation,” he says. “We set up our own Ellis Island, and each child is assigned a nationality. They have to have all their papers checked. They have to pack a suitcase with pictures of what they would pack if they were leaving their homeland and never going back.”
DeSoto County, Mississippi, Farm Club
Fourth and fifth-grade students who have “graduated” from Willis’ class can join his after-school Farm Club to continue learning about agriculture.
“We have a fourth- and fifth- grade garden across the road where we plant onions, potatoes, tomatoes and cucumbers,” he says. “My fifth graders requested a project on broiler chickens, so [in 2014] they got to pluck them, and some took them home to eat for Thanksgiving dinner. The kids identified the parts, and several parents came to help us. It was a great introduction to where our food comes from.”
One student didn’t want his chicken butchered, so his job was to find a home for it. And he did.
“We’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response from parents,” Willis says. “We keep chickens year round. Each September, I bring in a dairy cow.” Willis was recognized for his innovative teaching ideas as the 2014 Mississippi Farm Bureau Teacher of the Year. He was also the recipient of a Growing Lunch School Garden Grant from the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce. In 2015, Willis won a $1,000 grant from the California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom that he plans to use to buy ducks and geese to help with weed control.
“I plan to fence in our sweet corn and put the ducks and geese in there to kill the nut grass,” he says. “Ducks and geese will walk up and down the rows and eat the grass.” Clearly, teaching isn’t just a job for Willis. It’s his passion. “I think teachers should teach to their gift. Some men and women teach life skills on the ball field, but I’m not a ball player,” he says. “My gift is understanding the natural world.”