Duane Bonifer  |   Published November 19, 2020

Farm Education

Open-air classroom latest project on Educational Farm to help area children learn about nature, their environment.

MONMOUTH, Ill. – A new Monmouth College open-air classroom is helping area school children better understand their environment while giving future teachers new ways to reach students.

Located on the Monmouth Educational Farm about seven blocks east of campus, the open-air classroom was built earlier this fall. And it’s already getting rave reviews from Monmouth students and professors, as well as area school children and educators.

A 30-foot wide geodesic dome inspired by the work of the late American architect R. Buckminster Fuller, the open-air classroom, which sits on the edge of the nearly seven-acre working farm, has hosted socially distanced projects this fall for nearly five dozen area grade school students who are part of the Warren County YMCA’s Y Academy program.

The open-air classroom was built by members of the College’s Educational Studies department, thanks to support from the Rural Schools Collaborative and a grant from Compeer Financial. The open-air classroom’s purpose is to support the department’s efforts to promote place-based learning, which encourages teachers to incorporate students’ local geography into their lessons.

For Monmouth educational studies major Alex Johnson ’21, the socially distanced education events with area school children gave her a rare opportunity to practice place-based education this semester.

“The Monmouth farm provided the YMCA students with an amazing learning opportunity, especially during a time when these experiences are hard to take place in schools due to the pandemic and all the restrictions that it brings into classrooms and schools,” said Johnson, of Aledo, Illinois, who is also a member of the College’s TARTANS rural teacher corps. “This opportunity and experience was so eye-opening for me as a TARTAN since I have not yet been able to see place-based education taking place in person until now.

“The experience at the farm and working with the students really showed me just how much place-based education can impact students and their learning. It was an amazing experience to be able to watch the students actively learn in a hands-on way and be able to fully explore what is around them here in Monmouth.”

“Many of the kids come from different cultures or backgrounds, so they enjoyed connecting with the college students who can relate to them but also set an example that the kids can be many things when they grow up – no matter who they are.”
– Emily Brooks, Warren County YMCA

During their visit to the College farm, the children worked on educational projects that had them hunting for insects and collecting leaves. Some of the children even discovered new foods.

Educational studies major Mariah Garzee ’22 of Bushnell, Illinois, said the field trips were a welcome respite from the sense of isolation that has been created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It made me happy to see the students so excited about looking for insects, and I think they were excited to just get to be outside for a little while,” said Garzee, who is also a member of the TARTANS rural teacher corps. “I was inspired by the excitement and inquisitive nature of the students. Since we live in an ever-increasing technological and digital world, I think that the outdoors and nature isn’t as interesting to people anymore, especially now with COVID-19.”

Seeing students’ interest in the activities inspired Garzee “to continue thinking about how I’m going to incorporate my future students’ place and the nature around them into their education.”

That was precisely why the open-air classroom was built, according to professor Craig Vivian, chair of the Monmouth educational studies division.

“This was a way to reach out to the community and get kids interested in the farm,” Vivian said. “I was also trying to find a way we could get kids to spend more time engaging in the cultural aspects of agriculture, and one of those is an appreciation of nature. I was so happy that every single kid was interested in what we were doing and what they could learn. What they reinforced, for me, was that this idea and vision for the farm and our program is good and has a place. It was very affirming and confirming.”

Vivian said that a place-based nature curriculum “brings out an authenticity in children’s learning that is difficult to get in the artificial setting of most schools.”

“When kids are actually immersed in the natural world, they are not prone to preconceived notions of what’s cool or good,” he said. “They are open to possibilities with no judgments or risks.”

Emily Brooks, who is director of the Warren County YMCA’s YAcademy, said the field trips helped her students discover more than nature – they were also introduced to a community asset and met some role models.

“It was a great opportunity for the kids to get outside and learn about the Monmouth College Farm. A lot of these kids had no idea our community had that so it was a great learning experience for them,” said Brooks. “Many of the kids come from different cultures or backgrounds, so they enjoyed connecting with the college students who can relate to them but also set an example that the kids can be many things when they grow up – no matter who they are.”

“The experience at the farm and working with the students really showed me just how much place-based education can impact students and their learning. It was an amazing experience to be able to watch the students actively learn in a hands-on way and be able to fully explore what is around them here in Monmouth.”
– Alex Johnson ’21

The experiences were also a reminder to Monmouth educational studies major Grace Books ’22 of Monmouth of the farm’s value to the College and the community.

“Every time I go there, I am so amazed that the College has this place, and it is right in town,” said Brooks, also a member of the College’s TARTANS rural teacher corps.

She also enjoyed seeing students discovering new foods.

“One student who took an eggplant had never heard of it before,” she said. “But now, from his experience at the farm, he knows what it is and can look back at his time at the Monmouth farm and remember how he learned what an eggplant is.”

Listen Up …

Craig Vivian explains how the open-air classroom will help educational studies majors become better teachers on the 1853 Podcast. (Interview begins at the 13:04 mark.)

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