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Debbie Spellman Smith

Fifth Grade Teacher
San Diego Cooperative Charter School, San Diego County



This interview was originally published on CFAITC's blog, "The Fencepost."

We asked Debbie Spellman Smith, a fifth grade math and science teacher at San Diego Cooperative Charter School in San Diego County, about her experiences with agriculture education.

How and when did you first learn of Ag in the Classroom?
I first heard about Ag in the Classroom in 2013 when the CFAITC Teacher Conference was being held in Del Mar. The brochure I saw showcased many wonderful places in San Diego off the beaten path for teacher visits and I knew that I could not miss this conference. The field trip locations included Stone Farms and Gardens in Escondido, Village Nursery and the Rockwood, and Organics Ranch in Valley Center – they were amazing! I enjoyed the entire conference with relevant materials for the classrooms, music, guest speakers, and networking with teachers all around California.

How long have you been teaching students and why did you choose to become an educator?
I have been teaching for more than 20 years and wanted to bring the farm-to-fork concept to my students.

What is your favorite AITC program/resource/event and why?
My favorite AITC event is the annual conference and specifically the field trips. Teachers enjoy learning about the surrounding areas and how the classroom can branch outside of the four walls of the school building. It is a great way to meet other teachers and network to find out what is happening in education and classrooms throughout the area.

What is the most profound impact that agriculture education/awareness has had on you?
The most profound impact that agricultural education has had on me is learning that San Diego is home to the most small farms and women-run farms in the state. Most people do not think of San Diego as an agricultural jewel.  The farm-to-fork idea has been written about and incorporated into local restaurants, farmer markets, and within our own homegrown magazine, Edible San Diego.  I loved hearing from editor Riley Davenport and how and why she created the local magazine to present this notion.  From honey to lavender and organic beef, San Diego is bursting with amazing locally grown products.  I want the students in my classroom, school, and community to study, research, and enjoy the local products from our community.  Knowing how and where our food is grown impacts each and every one of us.

Has agriculture continued to impact the way you educate students?
Students need buy-in to learn. They want to construct knowledge from inquiring about their environment and things they are passionate about. By having them involved in building a place to grow foods that they eat, how could the students not feel empowered and want to learn, learn, learn?

Tell us about one person who has most influenced your own education and educational career.
Barbara Mahler, a professor from CSU Chico, influenced me to learn about children while working in the child development laboratory and local schools in the 1980s. She always said, "As a teacher, you may not love every student that you teach but you owe each one of them the responsibility to find out what each student loves and how he/she learns best. Then encourage him/her to find their passion." I live by that philosophy every day in my classroom.

Describe any agriculture-based projects you have been involved in lately.
My favorite agriculture-based project is the vertical stack herb garden towers that we built last year as part of the Literacy for Life Grant we received. The Literacy for Life Grant gave my students and I the opportunity to visit Seabreeze Organics, a local farm, to see how owner Stephanie Caughlin uses a small space to grow local produce and even raise chickens. She has sustainable methods such as composting and recycling on a very small piece of property located in an urban area!

Tell us about a golden teaching moment.
My golden teaching moment was having fifth grade students research California specialty crop herbs. Students were amazed to find out that spices and herbs can grow on trees and bushes. They realized it is necessary to research a variety of topics from water amounts, soil type, sun and shade location, before building the vertical stack towers to grow the herbs.  After measuring, sawing, painting, drilling, and filling the herb boxes, students had to plant, water, and weed the precious herb plants.  Their hard work and perseverance paid off with fresh basil to make into pesto for pizza and pasta sauce, as well as fresh chives for a baked potato bar, and even to pick a pinch of fresh parsley to use as breath mints! The best was to see their understanding of how wonderful it is to have our own herb garden outside of our classroom door, right at our fingertips.  We cook weekly in our math and science class, so this is an additional bonus to showcase the farm (or school)-to-fork idea.

Do you have any advice for other teachers on implementing agriculture into the classroom?
My advice to other teachers is to sign up for Ag in the Classroom e-newsletters, read Edible Magazine, and shop and eat locally within the community. Best of all, share this with your students, parents, and community members. Teaching is about inspiring others through igniting passion. Agriculture is easy to integrate and the students learn so much about their own communities.

Why do you believe it is important for our students to be agriculturally literate and aware in today's society?
It is important for our students to be agriculturally literate in today's society by living cleaner, greener, and longer lives. With STEM/STEAM part of the curriculum in most schools, we all need to be able to integrate agriculture into science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math. This will expose, invite, and encourage participation into nutrition- and food-science-based careers. Our students are the future generations.


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