Students who don't think they are "into" science or who may find traditional science courses daunting should step into master’s candidate Arla Casselman’s classroom. She brings her passion for food and agriculture to life as she teaches best practices in food sustainability with her students.
In her elective classes at Medomak Valley High School in Waldoboro, Maine, Casselman works to ignite students’ interest in science through lessons and projects that are accessible. “I think when students can see how science is actually happening all around them in their own environment they are more likely to gain interest and engage,” she says, offering as example her ecology class in which 50 percent of the sessions were taught outside in the forest, "where students can physically interact with their ecosystem."
Casselman's path to teaching was not direct. She graduated from Saint Lawrence University in 2011 with a degree in sustainable agriculture and food systems, a multi-field major that she developed herself. After graduation, she was working as an assistant farm manager for a farm-to-table restaurant, when she decided with her fiancé to start their own farm, Ewing Fruit Company, with a focus on certified organic wild blueberries.
Ewing Fruit Company finished out its sixth season last summer. What started with 30 acres has now expanded to 60 acres. In addition to supplying close to 25 stores and restaurants around Maine, the farm sells at farmer’s markets regularly and manages orders from 150 to 200 families a year.
With a successful farming career underway, Casselman was recruited by FoodCorps, a nongovernmental organization that aims to provide healthy food for children in U.S. schools, to give lessons in nutrition and gardening at Maine public schools. Though she hadn’t initially planned to teach as a career, she was so inspired by the experience it led to her joining the staff at Medomak Valley High School.
As a biology teacher, Casselman implemented a project-based learning style in her classes where she’s able to meld her passion for farming and education. She taught several science classes including a course on sustainable agriculture, also known as “the chicken class.” Casselman taught her students how to raise chickens on the school’s campus. In the first year of teaching this project, the class bought 35 chicks that were raised at the school and students were responsible for the chicks’ maintenance. They took care of the daily chores including feeding and providing water to the chicks, and they were also responsible for setting the price for the meat to be sold.
“The students rose to the occasion and learned how to raise meat in a humane way,” she says. “There were about 18 to 20 students in class, so each student was able to take a role in the process — you can’t get that sort of experience through a PowerPoint lecture.”
Casselman says she is fortunate to have a supportive administrative team that has allowed her to implement the chicken project in class, as well as other unusual approaches like teaching ecology in the forest or fermentation by creating yogurt. Although this year the chicken project is not being carried out, Casselman has plans down the road to continue teaching students science through interactive methods. In fact, some lessons extend beyond school, as she hires several of her students to work at the blueberry farm over the summer. Through these experiences in agriculture, she is not only teaching her students science in a dynamic and engaging way, but also giving her students valuable skills in business and farming. Casselman also teaches her students about civic participation through a food pantry project where they have to produce food for an in-class pantry in order to address issues in food security.
With success in both the classroom and on the farm, Casselman enrolled in HGSE’s Specialized Studies Program in order to learn how to integrate her contextual background on food and agriculture into public school settings and develop curriculum based on her work experiences as a blueberry farmer.
“I want to gain more knowledge about working within the education system and how to create curriculum,” she says. “I visited HGSE in December 2016 and felt that all ideas were welcome.”
With this encouraging atmosphere, Casselman is learning about the structure of “place-based education,” where students are centered with a space that connects them with community. She is also learning through Associate Professor Jal Mehta's course, Deeper Learning for All: Designing a 21st-Century School System, on how to engage students and give them a voice and the opportunity to collaborate in order to be successful in the 21st century. With her degree from HGSE, Casselman hopes to start her own agriculture-based school within Medomak Valley High School where she pictures a "school within a school” — a place where students can focus on lessons in agriculture and sustainability while meeting the standards necessary for graduation, such as English and math.
These are lessons that Casselman feels are important to students’ growth. “I think a strong sense of responsibility and accountability is gained when students are involved in the production of their own food, and for students to be able to produce food that they can offer to their community,” she says.
Photo: Aaron Flacke