Barry McNamara  |  Published May 26, 2021

Connecting with Community

Vegetables, chicks and bonds with area schoolkids and their parents grow at College’s Educational Farm.

MONMOUTH, Ill. – A flurry of events created through Monmouth College’s rural education initiatives – also known as REDI – concluded the spring semester, helping to ready a new wave of educational studies graduates while making important connections between the College and area schoolchildren.

BEE STUDENTS: Multilingual learners from the Monmouth-Roseville school district and their familie... BEE STUDENTS: Multilingual learners from the Monmouth-Roseville school district and their families were treated to an end of the school year celebration May 12-13 at the College's Educational Farm. One of the stops on their tour of the farm was the bees that are kept by faculty member Craig Vivian.Two of the events were held at the College’s Educational Farm east of campus, while the other was held at the College’s Hewes Library. Both locations made for walkable field trips for students at Lincoln Early Childhood School, a rare opportunity during a school year when “field trips have been non-existent” because of the pandemic, said Jenni Dickens, Monmouth Educational Studies Department director of partnerships and initiatives.

On the last day of April, Monmouth-Roseville kindergartners walked to the farm for a scavenger hunt to close out their unit on farms and chickens. Educational studies staff, faculty, students and volunteers led seven kindergarten classes – about 80 total students – on a tour of the farm.

“When I was in the classroom observing one of our student teachers, I saw a lot of peeping chicks in the classroom,” said educational studies professor Tammy La Prad. “They had watched those chicks incubate and hatch, and by visiting our chickens on the farm, they got to see how that life cycle progresses.”

“And they got to feed the chickens, which was a huge success,” said Dickens.

“These kids are historically underrepresented in colleges, so they literally got to see themselves on a college campus. It was a chance for them to see the wonderful things they can do within the skin they’re in.” Jenni Dickens

The next week, the educational studies department hosted a field trip for Monmouth-Roseville’s kindergarten and first-grade multilingual learners. The students wrapped up their unit on skin color and diversity with a visit to Hewes Library, exhibiting self-portraits they’d created during the unit. They also enjoyed a literature lesson with two members of the College’s TARTANS (Teachers Allied with Rural Towns and Neighborhood Schools) program and left encouraging messages in chalk and on sticky notes to College students stressed over finals.

“These kids are historically underrepresented in colleges, so they literally got to see themselves on a college campus,” said Dickens, who said a virtual art gallery was created so that the self-portraits could be seen far and wide. “It was a chance for them to see the wonderful things they can do within the skin they’re in.”

Students in La Prad’s “Elementary Social Studies Methods” class helped coordinate the field trip, which La Prad said was not on her syllabus to start the semester, but which she hopes to continue to do.

“This pandemic has had many negatives, of course, but one positive has been how flexible people have learned to be – that ability to pivot,” she said.

La Prad said that another positive is connections being made between the College and the community.

Working with multilingual learners

Those connections were definitely the goal of the third event, held May 12-13 at the farm in collaboration with Monmouth graduate Amy Gustaf Freitag ’07, who serves as Monmouth-Roseville’s director of multilingual learners. Multilingual families from the M-R district gathered together to celebrate the end of the school year.

“Nearly 100 members of our amazing multilingual community planted sunflowers, shared stories and fed chickens,” said Dickens, who credited Monmouth biology professor Eric Engstrom for tilling the ground where the seeds were planted. “Professor Engstrom also helped with the initial planning of the whole event – picking out dates, communicating about the farm’s produce and ensuring the farm was visitor-ready, etc. He has been a huge advocate and ally in our farm-community outreach efforts.”

The REDI team and TARTANS put together a tour with fun activities at each stop and, in place of a picnic, the visit culminated with a take-home meal kit (assembled by Hy-Vee) featuring produce grown on the College’s farm.

“Something that’s unique in all this is that we piloted initiatives during a pandemic. We were able to pilot and take off. And it wasn’t any one person. It was a deeply communal effort that was very heartwarming to see.” Jenni Dickens

“We want to break down some of the silo-ing that happens in our community,” said Dickens. “None of this is ‘or’ – it’s ‘and.’ We’re looking at the vitality of our community from a cultural, economic and ecological angle, and you can’t ignore one. You have to acknowledge all those sides.’”

Dickens expanded on La Prad’s point about flexibility.

“Something that’s unique in all this is that we piloted initiatives during a pandemic,” she said. “We were able to pilot and take off. And it wasn’t any one person. It was a deeply communal effort that was very heartwarming to see. It was so cool to see our future teachers working on projects that are making a difference right now.”

Three of those future teachers are May graduates who completed the TARTANS program, which is designed to recruit and retain teacher-visionaries in rural schools. Alex Enright will teach fifth grade at ROWVA Central Elementary in Oneida, Illinois; Holly Reyner will teach orchestra and general music to grades 4-12 in the WACO School District in Wayland, Iowa; and Nate Schroeder will teach high school math in Farmington, lllinois.

“Through these initiatives, our TARTANS were understanding how to work within a community and be a community asset – how to build relationships and trust,” said La Prad.

Dickens also credited a pair of Monmouth graduates in the M-R district, Sandra Pinedo ’17 and Trisha Semetis Olendzki ’08 for their help, as well as the recent $25,000 grant received by the College from Compeer Financial’s Fund for Rural America.

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