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Farm School: How an English Teacher got Schooled on the Farm

This post is written by member Ashley Lamb-Sinclair, the 2016 Kentucky Teacher of the Year.

Ashley-Lamb SinclairIf you had asked me on a chilly, overcast Friday morning how I would have liked to spend the day, you would not have heard, Oh, I can’t wait to scrub down pumpkins with vinegar with twenty fifteen-year-olds.

Yet, this is exactly how I spent one Friday last fall, and I could not have asked for a better day.

I handpicked these particular students to be in a class I’d designed. I chose them because I knew they needed something else—something that school wouldn’t or couldn’t offer them. I wanted to give them an opportunity for learning in a new way.

I called the course Connect because my sole goal was to reconnect these kids with learning. I wanted them to become true learners. I wanted them to be curious.

As you can imagine, the process of designing and teaching this class was an interesting experiment, not without its ups and downs—and at the time of my story we’d only been in school for six weeks. I hit wall after wall, thinking that a lesson or a project would be just the ticket, and it would fail miserably. I picked myself up again with small moments that made me glad to be a teacher—a perfectly worded sentence in their writing, 100 percent engagement, even if it was only for ten minutes. These kids were tough nuts to crack.

But I was the one about to crack on that chilly Friday. We had not had a good week together. I was frustrated with them, and they probably were more frustrated with me. I didn’t think their work was living up to their potential. I didn’t think they were really trying. And I took it personally, so much so that on the morning of the field trip, I said to my husband, “I don’t even want to go on this field trip because I don’t think they deserve it. They’re being so lazy right now.”

So I dragged myself to school, bad attitude and all, and hopped on a bus headed to the farm. It was the worst day for it, too. The previous day was a glorious fall day—warm, breezy, and sunny—and here we were in the cold, damp, gray morning, which definitely didn’t help my attitude. I tried to “fake it till I made it” with the kids, but I really just wanted to hover by the space heater by my desk and toss them a few worksheets to make a point.

But the kids were the ones who made the point.

AshleyLambSinclairPumpkinPatchWhen we got off the bus, a couple of the farm workers asked the kids to scrub black mold off of these huge pumpkins that were piled into giant boxes around a field, using vinegar, water, and old towels. I just prayed for a storm to come so we’d have an excuse to haul out of there, but the kids hopped off the bus like they were retirees trying to get a spot on The Price Is Right. They got right to work like old pros. They were so happy. Watching them, I couldn’t help but crawl out of my funk. I went around asking them if they’d rather be warm inside writing an essay or out there scrubbing pumpkin mold and hauling giant pumpkins around a deadened patch of land, and they all laughed at the stupidity of my question.

It hit me then: These kids are not lazy.

They are a lot of things—unmotivated, frustrated, bored—at school, but out there in the cold, wet morning, they were anything but lazy. I was reminded of why I chose them to be in the class in the first place. I had promised them a new experience, but I had thrown that promise out the window the second they didn’t perform in school the way I thought they should. But why would they? I knew who they were from the very beginning; I was the one pretending.

As Americans, and especially as teachers, we are trained to think about education in a certain way. But more and more people are beginning to recognize that school is not structured in the way that most of our brains work. I became a teacher—I am the definition of an academic—and school wasn’t always great even for me. If we are honest with ourselves, we can all admit that sometimes the way we learn in school and the way we choose to learn outside of school are not only different, but polar opposite.

However, I am a teacher, and therefore I believe inherently that there is nothing in the world more valuable than learning. I also believe that public education has the power to transform a person and a society. But I have to ask myself some hard questions sometimes about why I do what I do in the classroom, and why I expect certain things from my kids.

But here is the bottom line: I want success and a passion for lifelong learning for every kid who walks into my classroom. And of those twenty kids in my Connect class, I want the kid who wants to be a vet to write an unbelievable essay to get into vet school. I want the kid who wants to be a hair stylist to be the most requested stylist in the salon because she knows how to tell good stories and persuade clients to try that hairstyle that she knows will make them look their best. I want the kid who wants to be an entrepreneur to refuse to sign the shoddy contract sent to him because he knows to read carefully, and he knows not only what the words say, but what they really mean for him and his business. I want to see them translate the motivation they had for scrubbing and hauling pumpkins to a motivation for living the best life they can. And that sometimes means working within the confines we’ve been given—navigating the system as it stands. I have to teach them how to walk that line.

AshleyLanbSinclairEggWe ended our day on the farm with a nature walk on a path around a pond. The boys bounced around like Tigger, breaking sticks, hopping on logs, jumping through puddles. The girls led the tribe from the front, their laughter trickling back through the humid air to me as I followed from behind. The rain finally came while we walked, but the tree canopy above shielded us, so we felt only a mist as we paced through the woods together.

A Fresh Start

I told one of the kids ahead of me that it reminded me of one of my favorite quotes: “Some people feel the rain, and others just get wet.” She didn’t really listen because she is fifteen, and I’m just the old teacher saying words to the sky, but I needed to say it then. I needed to remind myself that teaching anyone is an experiment, and learning is a beautiful mess. I made a promise to myself as we ended our lap around the pond and stepped out into the open air, where the rain finally poured down on us, that I will do my very best to feel the rain whenever I can. And I will spend my days letting them teach me how to do it.

 Ashley Lamb-Sinclair is the 2016 Kentucky Teacher of the Year and will return to her classroom after a sabbatical as teacher in residence with the Kentucky Department of Education. She teaches high school English and creative writing. Find her at beautifuljunkyard.com or @AshleyLambS.