During distance (and now hybrid) learning, eighth-graders in Kerry Morse’s agriculture elective at Castle Dome Middle School have been exercising their green thumbs as they transform their homes into greenhouses for crops like cotton, avocados, broccoli and pumpkins while they wait for traditional five-day, in-person learning to resume.

“Anytime I have stuff I want them to learn about, if I can do a hands-on activity because we’re not out in the field, I’m all for it,” said Morse. “It’s really hard if you’re sitting at home on a computer all day and you don’t have anything interesting or fun to do. So I’m just trying to come up with fun activities they can still do while at home to keep them interested and their spark going in the class. I have some kids who’ve never missed a class because what they tell me is, ‘It’s hands-on and we like that stuff.’”

Last year, when Morse started teaching the elective, her students were able to tour local fields in order to learn more about the crops growing in their campus garden beds. COVID-19 shuttered their school in March and converted the class to a solely online format, bringing field tours and group gardening to a halt, but Morse wouldn’t let that stand in the way of her students learning everything they could about agriculture.

“In the past, the kids actually got to walk in the cotton fields in the Dome Valley and touch the cotton and see it growing,” Morse said. “This year, I went out and picked some, brought it back to show them online, showed them the video I took of the machine picking cotton and sent them kits with cotton seeds and soil for them to grow at home. But it’s different when you can touch it and feel it. To me, that’s the biggest challenge – not being able to take them out so they can see it.”

In fact, nearly every crop her students have attempted to grow at home has come from a kit Morse has either put together herself or procured from a local grower.

“The ag community in this town is amazing,” she said. “When I reach out to them for something, our community is very receptive to helping the students, and that’s so wonderful. When we went to distance learning in the spring, that was my learning curve. I had to come up with things for them to do at home suddenly. At least this time I had the summer to think about things and think about my curriculum and what things I could start sending home. I had a little more preparation and planning time and it helped me come up with different projects for them.”

According to Morse, some of her students have gone a step further and started growing their own peppers and tomatoes in addition to the crops they’re growing for class.

As is the case with nearly every garden, some plants have been successful and some haven’t, Morse said, which has served as a valuable learning curve.

“We talked about the fact that this happens to farmers,” she said. “Some crops will be great, others won’t be. It’s been a real good learning experience. They like that maybe sometimes it fails and they can think about why. And they like when it’s successful – they get online and show me on the camera, ‘Look at my plant!’ That’s why I’m continuing to come up with ideas and tap into people in the ag community. They’re excited and they’re interested, they’re not just taking an elective. Their interest and excitement excites me.”

On Wednesdays, the class explores a “career of the week,” taking time to research and discuss various jobs in the ag industry.

“Ag is such a big thing in Yuma, these kids need to know about it and the different opportunities there are in it,” said Morse. “There’s 23 million jobs in agriculture...and it was amazing for them to realize how many different jobs there are beyond working in the field, from flying drones and airplanes to working on computers and laser levels. You’d be surprised how many things are tied into ag, and the fact of the matter is without food, none of us would be here.”

And on Fridays, the class talks about historical people tied to agriculture, like cotton gin inventor Eli Whitney or John Deere, who actually did not invent the tractor, despite popular belief.

“The kids were surprised to learn that,” Morse said.

As for the garden beds, those are staying as-is until the elective resumes in-person, affording Morse’s students another opportunity for growth – no pun intended – as amateur agriculturalists.

“I want them to see what happened to the fields from the spring (when they were last able to tend to them),” Morse said. “The dead plants are there and I want them to see how you turn that under and reuse that stuff. We’ve talked about how we’re going to redo the soil and mulch it more, so I want them to see the difference when we’re done and experience it for themselves.”

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