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Forming connections

Kathryn Kao

October 6, 2020

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For some people, a picture of a tree is simply that—a tree. For a horticulture teacher, a picture of a tree may spark a series of questions—what species of tree is featured in the photo and how are they planted?

By demonstrating the strength of different perspectives through this activity at a two-day professional development (PD) training session for teachers, Paula Mellom and her team in the University of Georgia Mary Frances Early College of Education were able to help educators connect to their subject areas and enhance students’ problem-solving skills.

In collaboration with James Anderson, an associate professor in UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Mellom—who serves as interim director of the UGA Center for Latino Achievement and Success in Education (CLASE)—helped develop and deliver a training session for 17 agricultural education and science teachers from the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences and the Harold S. Vincent High School in Milwaukee.

At the end of July, Anderson approached Mellom and her team about planning and implementing an online PD workshop on culturally responsive pedagogy for the teachers in his project. Despite a short turnaround time, Mellom was confident they could rise to the challenge since her team had recently completed four virtual foundational institutes during the summer.

“When James asked us to lead the PD in August, we were prepared to do a three-week turnaround because we just finished shifting all of our summer foundational institutes for teachers from face-to-face to online,” said Mellom. “When the pandemic started in March, we had the luxury of time to shift our thinking about how to provide quality PD in a virtual way.”

The experience of conducting intensive 30-hour trainings afforded the CLASE team, and the 191 participating educators, the opportunity to practice tools and strategies for effective instruction and engaging in PD in a virtual space.

As part of a four-year, $300,000 grant awarded by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Anderson’s project will train 36 secondary educators to develop 180 culturally responsive agriculture and life sciences (ALS) lessons to help make urban agriculture curriculum more meaningful and relevant to students. By creating a national dialogue among teachers, Anderson hopes to enhance students’ problem-solving skills, foster student identity expressions, and increase the number of students pursuing ALS or related careers.

“A lot of the initiatives related to agricultural literacy, health, nutrition, and 21st-century issues are tied to our nontraditional students in suburban and urban areas,” said Anderson. “What happens is we have teachers who have backgrounds in traditional agriculture teaching students who don’t have backgrounds or interests in that area, so the impetus for this project is to train teachers who will teach and engage the new generation of agriculture workers.”

By implementing culturally responsive pedagogy into their lesson plans, teachers prepared by the project can identify students’ unique cultural strengths and promote academic achievement and career attainment in the classroom.

This student-centered approach calls for more interactive and conversation-based learning—which is where Mellom and her team come in. Along with Jodi Weber, associate director of professional development of CLASE, and Rebecca Hixon, associate director of program development and research of CLASE, Mellom conducted two days of professional development training using a variety of online tools including Zoom, Padlet, and Google Docs.

The two days of training were separated by two weeks during which participants were given readings and assignments to discuss and analyze during their second meeting. During these sessions, Mellom’s team challenged participants to think creatively, collaboratively, and analytically.

For one activity, the teachers were separated into different groups and assigned several vignettes on agriculture and farming to read. Each member was then asked to highlight any key phrases or words in these passages that evoked a strong emotion, whether it be anger, happiness, or nostalgia. Once they were finished, the teachers came back together as a group to compose a poem from these highlighted phrases.

“What's beautiful about this is that each group had the same six vignettes, and every person in each group read a different one,” said Hixon. “You're seeing these poems created from the same six stories, but not one of the resulting poems was the same. It was so powerful to see how each individual resonated with different parts of the vignettes. The poems they created all represented cultural diversity in agriculture, as well as each teacher’s personal connection to what it means to be in agriculture.”

Joint Productive Activity (JPA) is the cornerstone of CLASE’s PD work. According to Mellom, the model positively impacts not just culturally and linguistically diverse students, but all students in the classroom. By promoting emotionally safe environments, teachers can help students increase their social-emotional skills, as well as their linguistic and academic development.

This focus on collaborative learning can be applied to any and all subjects, including agricultural education, to help build connections. Most importantly, JPAs allow students to hear other voices in the classroom, so they can learn and connect to content on a deeper level. Anderson hopes that by implementing these models into agriculture curriculum, students can feel more engaged with the subject and understand how it relates to their everyday lives.

“What I love about our work is that this is not something extra teachers just do for 30 minutes at the end of the day, as a special way for students to get in touch with their feelings and get to know each other,” said Weber. “This is how you teach math. This is how you teach every content area that kids are engaged in. And that is how this pedagogy goes beyond the classroom and into everyday life.”

By joining forces, Mellom’s team in the College of Education and Anderson’s team in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences brought their unique perspectives to the table to help teachers better serve and retain students who are interested in agriculture.

“I'm just grateful for the opportunity to partner with James and with his teachers because I'm learning all kinds of things from James who is an agriculture educator focused on racial and social equity,” said Mellom. “Blending his expertise with our expertise and seeing those intersections is what makes this so exciting. When you open up spaces to hear people, that's when you learn.”

After the project is complete, Anderson plans to expand his teacher trainings into an ongoing academy that prepares not only agriculture teachers, but all teachers who are interested in incorporating agriculture into their science classes. By doing so, he can help educators address the health and agricultural needs of their communities as they change in real time. And while the PD is just a small portion of Anderson’s project, he is interested in pursuing future partnerships and collaborations with Mellom’s team.

“The grant is about developing a community of practice where teachers are creating curriculum for urban agricultural programs,” said Anderson. “I am looking for other ways to work with Mellom’s group, beyond just even this professional development activity. I think this space is something that is needed, and I hope to continue helping teachers develop curriculum as our needs in the world change.”