Among friends

It’s time well-spent when CALS agricultural education students teach diverse groups and learn valuable lessons in a service-learning course.

April 15 is usually a date to dread for many, but for pupils at Raleigh’s Governor Morehead School for the Blind, this year that date was very much something to look forward to. On that evening, a class of NC State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences students came to lead a Governor Morehead group in informative – and fun – agriculture-related projects.

The activities were part of an Agricultural and Extension Education course AEE 326, Teaching Diverse Learners in Agricultural Education.

“The service-learning project was designed to give our NCSU students within the agricultural education major a hands-on experience working with individuals with special needs,” said Dr. Joy Morgan, lecturer in the AEE Department and the course instructor.

This is the first year her class has worked with GMS. The CALS class also conducts service-learning labs with the Reality Center in Durham, which works with participants with special needs, as well as disadvantaged youth.

Derrick Bracey with student
Future teacher Derrick Bracey (left) enjoys helping the friends he works with in the service-learning course. Here he assists a Governor Morehead School student with her flower potting.

“After reading a newspaper article on the Reality Center, I thought this would be the perfect place to work with. I contacted this organization, and they have graciously worked with us for the past three years,” said Morgan, who explained that the Reality Center refers to its participants as “friends,” so the CALS students also refer to the GMS pupils in that way.

Typically the friends are ages 16 and over, Morgan said. The AEE students work with the friends in completing ag-related activities, such as planting gardens, making bird feeders, beautification projects on the friends’ campus and other mini projects. “We also go on field trips with the friends,” Morgan said. “Past field trips include visits to Maple View Dairy Farm and a community garden. The AEE students enjoy this project because they receive hands-on experience but are also giving back to the community through their efforts.”

The course originally was created by Dr. Beth Wilson as a special topics course in 2008, said Morgan. “In 2011, it was approved as AEE 326, Teaching Diverse Learners in Agricultural Education.”

It’s a course that helps NC State prepare a skilled workforce for future employers, particularly those that employ teachers.

“Agricultural teachers at both the middle-school and high-school levels are teaching a diverse group of students. The experiential learning components of agriculture courses are a great fit for every student,” said Morgan. “Because of this, agriculture teachers must have expertise in working with a vast group of students.”

Jessica Martin with a Governor Morehead School student.
At the Governor Morehead School, CALS junior Jessica Martin (right) gives a lesson in ice-cream making.

Moreover, research has shown that beginning teachers felt more preparation was needed for working with diverse learners, Morgan said. “In the classroom, teachers must modify and accommodate learning tasks to meet the needs of students. This course and the service-learning project help pre-service teachers become more comfortable working with diverse populations.”

The entire course focuses on teaching diverse learners in agricultural education, she said. The service-learning project takes place the second half of the semester, after students have already been instructed in the foundations for educating students with special needs, strategies for learning, building social relationships, and planning instruction, as well as information on disabilities and special needs.

Students also received training from the orientation and mobility specialist from Governor Morehead School. “Before going to the centers, a discussion about fears and questions also allows students to express concerns,” Morgan said.

“My goal was to design a project that forced students out of their comfort zones in a ‘fun’ setting; therefore, when they enter the classroom, they are comfortable with working with individuals with disabilities and various needs.”

Most of all, Morgan wants her students to be comfortable working with students with special needs and to realize that these students can do anything their peers can do.

Joy Morgan with flowers
Joy Morgan hopes that her class imparts lifelong skills to participants.

“The joy of being an agriculture teacher is the hands-on nature of the courses,” she said. “When implementing experiential learning activities, all students are more engaged in the classroom setting. This course prepares students to make modifications and accommodations to learning activities to meet the needs of students with special needs.

“I also believe that the AEE students come away seeing just how much each friend contributes to the classroom setting.”

Morgan said that Chad Sechrest, an ag-ed senior from Ether, emphasized this point when he told her, “No one ‘friend’ is similar. They all have a variety of strengths, gifts, talents and knowledge. Realizing this made me think about all of the great things these students could do in a classroom. It would be such a joy to teach them.”

This perception also was shown to be accurate on April 15 at the Governor Morehead School. The projects this night included making flower arrangements, planting flowers in pots and making ice cream – with some accompanying horticulture and dairy-related information. (Flowers for the activities were donated by CALS Advancement, from its Donor Reception the previous weekend.)

CALS students Carmen Huneycutt, an ag-ed junior from Benson, and Derrick Bracey, a senior from Lake Waccamaw, guided friends in choosing flowers to arrange, while telling them that the petals they were touching attract bees and that all parts of the flower serve a purpose. With their assistance, one friend chose a lily and two tulips to start her design.

Bracey’s career objective is to be a high-school or college-level teacher. The AEE 326 course and the experience helping diverse learners reach their potential, he said, will be beneficial to him as a teacher.

Bradley Glover and students arranging flowers
Bradley Glover (right) leads a group in flower planting and arrangement at the Governor Morehead School.

Also gaining that experience this night were Danielle Blake, a junior from Mount Gilead; Breanna Williams, a junior from Smithfield; Jessica Martin, a junior from Harnett County; Jordan Shipton, a Davidson County junior; Sarah Smith, a Caswell County junior; Elijah Frisby, a junior from Weaverville; Bradley Glover, a junior from Goldsboro; Sarah Adams, a junior from Granite Falls; and John Ross Robertson, a junior from Four Oaks.

A common denominator: All the future teachers are from small-town North Carolina.

“I never had an experience like this,” said Robertson, who aspires to be an ag teacher and basketball coach. “It is eye-opening and warms my heart. It’ll help me be a more well-rounded person to help people to do more of the things everyone does.”

Morgan would agree. “Not only are students gaining a better understanding of the content, but they are also becoming engaged in their community and developing leadership skills,” she said.

“Part of the goal of an educator is to prepare students for careers in the agricultural setting, but I also strongly believe that we are to build strong leaders who appreciate and value the differences among people.”

In fact, Morgan believes students are receiving better training and are better prepared for their roles as teachers because of the service-learning project.

“The ‘hands-on’ atmosphere has a tremendous amount of benefits for our students, the friends at both locations and myself,” she said. “I leave every visit with a smile on my face because the friends have a great time and so do our students.”

The friends have conveyed their appreciation, too. “On one of the visits, I asked one of the friends what their favorite activity was for the day, and the response was, ‘I loved them all!’” Morgan said. “And that’s typically the response you get from all of the friends. At the end of the visit, I strongly believe that we (myself and the class) are the ones benefitting the most from this experience.

“The students look forward to going to the Reality Center and Governor Morehead, because all of the friends just brighten our day and are so eager to learn the agricultural lesson for the day. I am very thankful that both places allow us to work with their participants, because it’s the participants that make the impact on my students.”

Another benefit of the course is that it raises agricultural awareness, Morgan said. “All of the activities are designed to focus on agriculture, and the more we can positively promote agriculture is always beneficial. In addition, some of the skills such as gardening emphasize lifelong skills that participants can take home.“

A sunny spring day allows for an outside potting session at the Reality Center.
A sunny spring day allows for an outside potting session at the Reality Center.

She notes that one of the friends talked about how he took one of his plants home and a parent helped him make a garden. At the Reality Center, the vegetables from the gardens are also used in cooking classes. And after the April 15 visit, the GMS Student Life director, Laura Wooten, told Morgan, “My students have been raving about the fun time they had last night! Thanks for giving them such an awesome educational experience. The cottage rooms are beautifully decorated with fresh flowers. Thanks again, we look forward to seeing you next week!”

Previous feedback reports indicated that “the friends enjoy being able to plant in their gardens that we have helped create on their campus,” Morgan said. “The things that are taught through the agriculture lessons also re-emphasize some of the curricula being taught in their classes. Overall, both groups of friends enjoy that they are making new friends and learning about agriculture at the same time.”

Meanwhile, the CALS students who participate “talk about how, when they become agriculture educators, they will implement service-learning projects or emphasize community-service projects in their classes and FFA chapters,” said Morgan.

“One of the greatest joys about the service-learning project is seeing the true enjoyment of learning on my students faces. At the end of one of the visits, one of the friends called for attention and proceeded to give a little speech thanking us for taking our time to come work with them. Looking around the room, I noticed tears in some of my students’ eyes, including my male students. It’s at that point you realize the impact that had been made that night,” she said.

“With so much negativity about education in the news, I also believe this class reminds pre-service teachers about the difference they can make in the lives of others through being a teacher. I enjoyed being a middle-school and high-school teacher, and it’s one of my goals to create opportunities for the students in the department to realize just how special it is to be a teacher. It might not be the most respected, high-paying career, but the non-monetary rewards are priceless, and that’s what being a teacher is about,” she said.

“This is paying it forward. Something that was used in my class will be used in their classes, and hopefully we are contributing to the overall good of society with an emphasis on giving back.”

– Terri Leith