Virginia Elementary School in Cass County was bursting with energy, excitement and agricultural experiences from 5:30-7:30 p.m. on Thursday, November 16. It was Virginia’s first annual Family Ag Night. Even though the school day had ended, students and their families came back for more learning and interactive fun. Families began the evening by enjoying bowls of vegetable soup prepared with the help of the students. After enjoying their warm meal, families wandered and learned about 15 hands-on activities about where our food comes from and the significant role farmers play in our lives. It was the brainchild of Virginia Elementary School special education teacher Stacy McQueen.
Watching the event that evening it was apparent why McQueen was named 2018 Teacher or the Year by Illinois Agriculture in the Classroom (AITC) program. She says she has been teaching for 31 years without a formal science program/curriculum and has integrated agricultural themes throughout all her studies of math, science, social studies and language arts. She explains the district is heavily populated with both Hispanic and French populations and make up about 70 percent of the enrollment. “For both populations, it is essential to provide programs with additional visuals and hands-on activities that provide a useful source for language,” says McQueen. “Ag in the Classroom lessons are perfect because they are full of hands-on exploration for children and cross all areas of the curriculum while exposing students to new vocabulary.” McQueen will receive a Teacher of the Year plaque and a trip to the 2018 National Agriculture in the Classroom Conference in Portland, Maine. She will also be the Illinois nominee for the National Excellence in Teaching Agriculture award.
McQueen says, “I work to cultivate positive curiosity about the world’s food and fibers in students.” And this night was just one of her many ways she tries to engage the children in agriculture. Virginia Elementary School Principal Kara Bowman began the night’s activities earlier that week when she read the book “Who Grew My Soup” to each of the classrooms. The story is about a little boy who is whisked away in a hot-air balloon over fields after he questions from where the vegetables in his bowl of vegetable soup come. He learns where each of the vegetables grow.
Each class was asked to bring in a different canned vegetable to help make the soup. Kids and their families tried bowls of soup and then enjoyed the activities set up in the cafeteria and gym. Presenters included Master Naturalists, Master Gardeners, farmers, teachers, community members, high school FFA and more. Students and their families could see, smell, touch, feel or taste at each of stops.
Students and parents were fascinated as the stuck their finger or a small spoon in a bee’s honeycomb and tasted honey straight from its source. They were able used flashlights to view bees moving inside an enclosed honeycomb. They could dress as a queen bee and try to match smells from different cups along with many other bee-incorporated activities.
They could touch and feed a hen at one stop, see a rooster in the cage and then learn about chickens and their 21-day development by examining plastic eggs and seeing how the chick develops inside the egg. Kids even made their own origami hens with paper and feathers.
One table was all about butterflies. Families learned about the life cycle of a butterfly and choose to make a butterfly or a craft that showed the cycle of the butterfly on a popsicle stick. Another exhibit taught families about the life cycle of an apple. As a craft, kids made necklaces that explained how apples grow from a seed that sprouts into to tree which buds with flowers that attract bees which pollinate the flowers and seeds develop which turn into juicy apples. They made wearable apple charms that represented each of these stages.
Children were tempted into tasting pumpkin seeds and pumpkin bread and making a three-dimensional pumpkin craft out of orange paper. At still another table, families crowded around touching and feeling fruits and vegetable and guessing which were which with Karen Sibert, nutritionist from Passavant Area Hospital. Some of the smallest children loved the little balls of fruit and would take them from the table daring siblings to chase them.
There was a giant hamburger that kids put together and guessed which plant or animal each of the ingredients on the originated. Some were stumped by mustard.
Students made “Beanie Baby” necklaces out of soybeans that they learned would sprout right in the bag it was in if they kept them around their neck, close to their bodies for heat.
They also learned about trees and plants and how trees grow and show their age in the rings inside their trunks. They could touch leaves, pine cones, acorns, and cotton plants feeling the seeds still inside the cotton balls. They made leaf rubbings and so much more that night. Parents seem to have just as much fun participating in the activities as the students.
It was such an outstanding evening that kept families engaged, active, excited and learning right up until the end at 7:30 p.m. No one seemed to be hurrying to leave. One little boy said he was sad with small tears running down his face as everyone was leaving at the end of the night. Apparently, the big farm tractor which had been parked at the entrance of the school had already “gone to bed” and he wanted to see it just one more time. It was an inspirational event with parents actively involved with their students every step of the way.