Saturday, October 31, 2009

Farm field trips

In the midst of a recent rash of articles and blog posts on agro-tourism, I was reminded of that phenomenon’s not so distantly related cousin, farm field trips, by a recent New York Times article. As previously reported on this blog, Times contributor Javier C. Hernandez wrote an article on the Harlem Success Academy's student field trip to the Queens County Farm Museum on October 20, 2009. According to the school’s administrators, the charter school students took an excursion to Long Island, where the Farm Museum is located, to raise their scores on New York State’s standardized tests. The trip, repeated annually, is meant to neutralize the effect of what the administrators consider to be a rural bias in some of the test's problems. As Herandez explained, “New York State’s English and math exams include several questions each year about livestock, crops and the other staples of the rural experience that some educators say flummox city children, whose knowledge of nature might begin and end at Central Park.” Through exposing the students to rural life, even briefly, the school hopes to take advantage of what "[e]ducators have long known [-] that prior knowledge of a subject can significantly improve a child’s performance on tests."

Responses in the comments to the article were largely skeptical of the purported rural bias in the exam questions, insisting that even the most city-centric children would be familiar with cows and chickens from television shows and books. A quote in the article from Howard T. Everson, chairman of a committee that advises New York State on testing, makes a compelling argument for why urban students’ lack of familiarity with rural life may hurt them on the test, however. He reviewed a “question [that] asked students to calculate how many cornstalks were in a field that had 46 rows of 32 stalks each. ‘Most kids in New York City would know corn, but they wouldn’t know stalk,’ he said. ‘You have to know the unit you are working in to do the mathematical manipulation.’”

In spite of the naysayers, the Harlem Success Academy’s yearly trip is likely to be continued. As one commenter noted, with the students’ scores ranking them in the “99th percentile overall, compared with other schools (private and public) throughout the state,” the results speak for themselves. As for those who persist to doubt the existence of the rural bias in New York's standardized tests, the Hernadez article links to a sampling of the allegedly biased exam questions, so that readers may judge for themselves.

Apart from the skepticism about the underlying justification for the trip, the reader response to the article in the posted comments reflected overwhelming support for the idea of field trips to expose students to rural realities. As readers pointed out, the concept is not a new one. Schools have long recognized the educational value of such trips and have been taking students to view animals and unfamiliar habitats for decades. I myself went on a field trip to a farm in the summer of 2002, after my junior year in high school. The trip took place in the middle of a week-long program on environmental conservation. Today, trips to zoos and farms continue to be a part of school curricula throughout the United States.

Increasingly, the focus of farm field trips is on educating students about where their food comes from and promoting local and organic farming. Many such trips are tied in with “Farm to School” initiatives like the one in Oklahoma that seeks to instill healthy eating habits in children at a young age. According to the Oklahoma “Farm to School” website, such programs currently exist in 39 of the 50 states. This appears to be the latest trend in psuedo-agro-tourism. And if schools cannot afford to pile the kids into buses and spend the day in the fields, then teachers can take the students on a virtual farm field trip.

Clearly, there are many different reasons for students to go on farm field trips, whether it be for test prep, to encourage healthy life choices or, as another commenter on the Hernandez article theorized, as an excuse for teachers and students to get out of the classroom for the day and to enjoy the sunshine and fresh air. Whatever the underlying justification, American children are gaining exposure to rural America. This is important now, more than ever before, because, as one guide to farm field trips points out, “[c]hildren today are one generation removed from agriculture and their connection to agriculture is through their grandparents, if at all.” These trips ensure that students maintain a bare minimum of cultural literacy. Whether or not state exams contain rural-biases or students' food choices are influenced by trips to see where their vegetables are grown, increasing their base of knowledge beyond what they can see and experience in their own backyards will benefit their education.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the popular application on Facebook of an ideal "Farmville" could count as one of those "virtual field trips" to teach the next generation where their food comes from? Tricia Turner, Registered Dietitian