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I spent this summer teaching an online class and visiting students who were working on their Internship requirements - talk about a contrast! The online class is "Landscape Estimating" and is all about how to determine costs, develop bids, understand how to manage costs to be competitive and how to operate professionally. Because there are no pre-requisites for it, I will often  get a mix of students ranging from those who are well along in their program of study with us to those who just need 3 credits in a business class. So you can understand why I was pleased to get the following message from a graphic design major taking the class:

"This was a very educational project, and involved me getting out and doing things/talking to people I wouldn't have otherwise been in contact with. It was very enjoyable." She was referring to an assignment (one of 7 they must complete in 5 weeks) that requires the student to determine what it costs to operate equipment and vehicles. My response to her message? - a resounding "YES!" because all too often in this electronic technical age our students seem to avoid personal contact - they text and tweet and friend but good old fashioned conversation seems to be the last thing on their mind. Call me a dinosaur but nothing beats a face-to-face conversation. When you develop an online course you make every effort to find ways to engage the students in the subject, to force them to do more than just sit at a computer - and sometimes the first few efforts do not work so you rewrite and rework and try again the next semester - and it does feel good when you do - finally - get it right! (Others in the course expressed the same or similar feelings to me so I knew it wasn't an anomaly)

 

The Internship course is a completely different experience. All of our students must spend at least one semester completing their cooperative internship requirement - and this summer I served as Co-op supervisor. That meant I got to visit all of them on the job, meet their bosses, see what projects they were involved with - and it is always fun. The bosses love to show off as well and since our program has been around for 31 years we have placed students with most of the employers in the area (which covers about 10 counties in northern and central New Jersey) - and by now a good percentage of the employers are graduates of our program. While I was pleased with all of our placements this summer, one in particular will always stand out. A young man who came to us a little later than most (he's 27 and the father of a 10 year old son) has been in our program for the past year and proven himself to be an excellent student, highly motivated and hard working. As the year went on I learned about his son and about the two jobs he worked to make ends meet. We recommended him for a job with an outstanding County Park Commission to work at a botanical garden - one of the best in northern New Jersey. He was on the job 3 days when he emailed me to say " I LOVE this job! It's the best job I ever had and please come visit me soon so I can show you what I am doing!" I couldn't resist and instead of waiting a week or so as I usually do to allow the student to get settled in a position I went the next day (his fourth on the job).   His boss cornered me as soon as I got out of my truck, shook my hand and said "Thank you for sending Qwamine to us! He is wonderful!" He directed me out into the garden where Qwamine was busy mucking weeds out of a pond. It had to be 95 degrees with 100% humidity and awful bugs around that pond - but there stood Qwamine, big grin on his face, loving every minute of it! I asked what he had learned so far - remember it was only his fourth day - and he started a list that went on and on - I think he had memorized every word they had said to him in those 3 and a half days. Talk about someone finding themselves - clearly this young man has!

 

These are the reasons we do what we do  - the long hours, the travel to events, the early mornings and weekends spent in a greenhouse or barn, putting up with administrators who don't understand what we do, hopig our families do understand what we do - you all know what I mean. And just when we start to question what we do, along comes a student like Qwamine! If you are an experienced teacher you have had this exact same experience many times in your career - and if you are a new teacher - you will have it! As I look back on 34 years of teaching agriculture and ahead to a new adventure (a farm and "retirement") I can honestly say that its the Qwamines I remember - the good times and students who, whether they were straight "A's" or "C's" really found themselves - and maybe their success was due in some small way to some guidance I provided. Or maybe their success was due to me being smart enough to stay out of their way! Either way its been a great run!

Finally - its spring (although we celebrated with 4 inches of snow this morning) and the steel has risen! On our new building that is! The best was that, since we were on spring break last week when the steel went up so this week our students returned and are very excited to finally see progress.

 

We have lots to celebrate as our team returned from a great trip to Joliet to attend the PLANET Student Career Days event. Similar to to the FFA CDEs, the Career Days combines skill and written tests with a Career fair, workshops, and seminars. We have been participating for 8 years and our students have always made us proud. Over 1000 students from both 2 and 4 year colleges from across the United States attend. Our students participated in skid steer operation paver installation, wood construction. landscape design, Woody Plant Id, Leadership Skills, Sales, and more. Many placed in the upper 10% in their events. Our Landscape Plant Installation Team placed 7th - out of 60 teams from across the country in that event alone. They networked and learned and survived the 12.5 hour drive with great stories to tell.

 

For me it seems so appropriate that, as we celebrate the great profession of agriculture teaching, here on our campus we are celebrating agricultural education with the commitment to our new building - it has been a long time in coming - but, when done, will mean so much to our students. It is an exciting time - not just because of the new building but because of what it represents - a new era and focus for us. Our "green" building with its geothermal heat, rain water harvesting, solar panels, and green roof will be the centerpiece of a curriculum designed to prepare students for the future - for careers and opportunities that I may not be able to name just yet but that I know are coming. Its is as exciting a time as I have experienced as an agriculture teacher - and the opportunities are there for all - what a great time to become an ag teacher.

Construction update

Posted by Jan Marie Traynor Feb 23, 2011

When we first started these blogs I talked about our ongoing construction - I figured it was time for an update. The short story is that it has been a long cold winter and that as slowed the progress. On the plus side the money runs out June 30th so they absolutely have to finish by then. This week the upper footings are going in so it is starting to look like a building. We also got word that sometime in the next two weeks they will begin drilling the 12 geothermal wells. The wells will each go down 500 feet - yes I said 500 feet and there are 12 of them. They will use a special drill rig that will stand 45 feet tall when extended and will block completely one of the three access roads onto the campus. They tell me it only makes 90 decibels at the well site which is 20 feet from my classroom but I will believe it when we hear it. It will take 3 weeks to drill all the wells. After that a 90 foot crane will arrive to erect the steel. The whole process has really been a lesson for our students -  a construction lesson, a geology lesson, an environmental lesson, and also a lesson in patience and perseverance.

Snow Days

Posted by Jan Marie Traynor Feb 9, 2011

I like snow days almost as much as my students - as long as they are spaced out about 1 every three weeks or so and always on a different day of the week. So what did we get this year? Snow every Tuesday and Wednesday for 4 weeks. Talk about a disaster for planning! I have some classes that only meet on Tuesday or only meet on Wednesday so they missed (depending on whether we had a delayed start, early dismissal or outright closure) 3 out of our first 4 classes for this semester. Fortunately we have a pretty substantial online presence and the students know to log in regularly and, in between shoveling snow, I had lots of time to record and upload audio lectures for all my classes. Its not the same as having a face to face class but it beats no class at all.

 

This week is our first snow-free week and we are all excited to get back into a routine. Tried something different with my Soils lecture Monday - I am on a mission to lecture less. Pretty tough when colleges define classes as "lecture" or "lab" but I am determined to blur the edges a bit and get more interactivity into the lecture. During all those snow days I found some great You Tube videos on polarity (especially the polarity of water) so in lecture when I announced that they were to break into small groups to watch you tube videos they all cheered - yes even my jaded college students like it when we do something different. After they watched each video, we discussed what they learned, made the connections to water in soils and water management in general. Class ran late by 15 minutes and no one noticed! The videos only took up a total of 16 minutes of class time for both - the rest was student centered discussion. That's a great session! Several also asked if I could share the you tube links so that they can review them and I posted them in the online class. And I am grateful to the teachers with more time than me who made the excellent videos available.

 

Next week its on to model Building in Landscape Design - great winter activity and terrific reinforcement and aid in teaching students to understand what they are drawing in 2-D has 3-D implications. Plus its fun! Maybe not as much fun as getting your students to walk around with orange pig ears taped to their head but still fun!

New Challenges

Posted by Jan Marie Traynor Jan 15, 2011

This past week is our "get ready" week - since our classes start back for Spring semester the day after Martin Luther King Day. It occurred to me that the whole get ready process has changed considerably since I started teaching. At one time it was largely printing and handouts that you prepared, organizing the classroom, a new bulletin board design, double checking materials and so on. A lot of that is still part of the process but for several years now we have added online materials, course supplements, and in some cases entire online lessons and courses to the list of things we have to get ready. On our campus we were one of 3 areas to be early adopters of technology and especially online teaching over 10 years ago. One advantage to being a early adopter is that you can't really do anything wrong - or at least no one knows you are wrong. And the only way to go is up - so I encourage all new teachers to not fear being first - first to test new technology, first to push the administration just a bit more, first to push your students just a bit more. Back to technology - I am not a fan of technology just for the sake of having a new toy (although new toys are fun) - but I do feel that it is critical as an educator to search out and evaluate all technology related to my courses and to the careers my students will likely enter. I am not talking about just instructional technology or instructional delivery mechanisms but more about the technology that will be used on the job. There was a time when every (or almost every) teacher of agriculture came from a farm or some kind of agriculture background. With fewer farms we are seeing less of that and that lack of field experience can make it hard for a new teacher to know what tools they should be looking at. This is where your advisory committee can be a great help.

 

I need to relate the situation that I faced when I first started teaching. I was hired fresh out of college to teach at a county vocational school in a horticulture program that was not having much success. I did not come from a farming or horticulture background - ok we did have a vegetable garden but that was it. Nor was I involved with FFA in high school - my high school couldn't spell FFA - so to say I was "wet behind the ears" would not be an exaggeration. Then, 1 week before starting school, someone shared with me the New Jersey Nursery and Landscape Association Newsletter which included a "Letter to the Editor" about me - and it wasn't good. The author had never met me but he knew that the vocational school had hired a new teacher who had zero field experience and he was convinced that it spelled doom for the program.  The letter was pretty true - especially about my lack of experience. Image my surprise when I received my advisory committee list and the first name on the list was the author of that letter. Talk about fear! This guy had been trained in the German apprenticeship system and, at the first meeting, insisted that I needed to spend two years teaching students to dig holes because they needed to learn to dig the perfect hole. Can you imagine how many students I would have if that was all I tried to teach them? Ultimately Franz became my biggest supporter - and this year I am serving as President of the New Jersey Nursery and Landscape Association - because during that same meeting Franz urged me to get involved with the professionals and their association -great advice! It is important to be active in NAAE and in your state teachers association but also be sure to make time for the association most aligned with your program - you won't regret it and your students will benefit.

One event that we added to our end of the semester activities is the "Design Review". It started when outcomes assessment became a focus on our campus. While some departments embedded test questions into final exams for their outcomes assessment I was not comfortable with that. I wanted a way to have our student learning assessed that was truer to what we ask of them - and a large part of that is their ability to demonstrate what they have learned by doing, by creating, by building something.

 

The design review works like this: students in Design and Planning complete a residential design project and develop storyboards illustrating their project. I invite professional landscape designers, landscape architects and design/build professionals to come to our design review session which is usually held in the early evening. The reviewers are provided with the criteria and design project information which the students worked with. I also bring lots of food. Our students set up their storyboards around the classroom and the professionals move from student to student either individually or in teams of two or three. Each student gets the chance to "present" their work in a less intimidating and more intimate setting and also gets feedback from 5 - 10 different professionals during the event which typically lasts about 2 hours. There is a chance for all to take breaks and get something to eat, there is lots of mingling and networking and my students often tell me that it is the single best thing they did in college - high praise indeed.

 

I also ask the design professional to complete a simple survey at the end of the evening which asks them to tell me how well I did my job - in other words - how well did the students learn what they need to know as professional designers - this is the outcomes assessment component. I get great feedback that has helped me be a better teacher.

 

I think there are several lessons here - but maybe the best is that, as teachers of agriculture, we should embrace the professionals and encourage them to interact with our programs and with our students. I know that, for new teachers, the thought of asking a farmer, or veterinarian, or greenhouse owner to help may be intimidating. Start by introducing yourself - especially if you are new to the community. Get them involved in your advisory committee, ask about field trip opportunities or if they would come to do a guest lecture to your class. Maybe even ask them to come at the end of the school year to see and review student projects. Your program will be stronger for it and your students will gain so much from these interactions.

It occurred to me as I looked over the past few blogs including my own that if we really want to encourage more people to select teaching Agriculture as a career we might scare off quite a few with all the talk of long hours and seemingly never ending demands on our time. Those demands are certainly true and I know that sometimes just venting about them helps but the reality is that teaching Ag is so rewarding that it far outweighs the negatives - and truth be told I don't know any Ag Teachers that, if asked what they would give up if they could (FFA meetings after school, CDE's, Professional Development meetings, etc.) would actually choose to give up anything. Ok - for me I could do with less administrative meetings - the ones that really have nothing to do with my students where I spend time trying to bring yet another administrator up to speed on some campus issue knowing that within a few years they will move on - its the price of being at a place long enough to "know where all the bodies are buried" as we say in New Jersey. Actually I often threaten to bury a few since we do have the equipment to handle that.

 

But back to the rewards - for me it's going to a New Jersey Nursery and Landscape Association meeting and reconnecting with graduates who choose to become members and who learned the value of giving back (perhaps because of something I said or did); it's seeing the student at graduation who, when he or she started, had no confidence in their ability to learn or do anything academically; it's meeting parents on graduation day who shake your hand and thank you for what you did - and then they proceed to tell you want you did and you can't believe their kid actually got all that from you! Its the appreciation on a kid's face when they mess up and you don't judge them for it but help them get back on track; it's the kids who thank you but its also the ones who don't but who you know benefited. It's little surprises like stumbling on a community blog and finding that you and your classes are talked about as a "must take" for anyone who really wants to learn about plants. I could go on and on and I know that all Ag teachers would say the same - we may never get rich monetarily doing this but our lives are incredibly rich in many other ways. So, allow us to vent occasionally but know that we all love what we do!

I think I am a better teacher today than I was a few years ago. That may sound like bragging but I don't mean it that way - I say it because I have learned some better ways to reach my students - and especially through more interactive lessons in the classroom. The changes were actually driven because we have been involved for over 10 years with online courses and more recently with hybrid courses. It is so important when students take a hybrid or online class that they feel connected to the class - to the community of students and faculty that make up the class. It is so easy as a student to feel isolated (especially with online classes) so I found myself developing lots of collaborative activities that students can do when the classes meet. They worked so well that I continued the use of these lessons with my face-to-face classes.  I lecture less and facilitate more and the student success and satisfaction has improved. At first they wanted me to provide all the answers but after a few weeks they learned that it was a lot more fun to find the answers themselves.  Those of you using CASE know what I am talking about since that is very much the way CASE works. Our world is changing so fast that if our students can't think on their feet they will not succeed. If they don't learn that sometimes there really is more than one way to solve a problem they may fail to solve many future problems. Plus it is so cool to watch them figure out a problem on their own. Its ok to not have control ALL the time - its more than ok - I strongly recommend it.

Catching Up

Posted by Jan Marie Traynor Nov 6, 2010

It's been a few weeks since I found the time (ok maybe MADE the time is more accurate) to return to COP - life as usual has been very hectic. Our biggest headache right now is the extremely slow progress on our new facility. A little history might help. When I first started at the college after four years teaching in a County Vocational Technical School I taught most classes in "regular" classrooms - meaning they had seats and a blackboard in typical college mentality. I also taught Horticultural Equipment in a parking lot - really! The equipment was all stored in a garage that had no electricity so the parking lot was all we had. I taught plant related classes in an "inside" greenhouse - an interior room with no natural light equipped with florescent lighting. After two years like that they built us a "facility". It was a pole barn and since they ran out of money it had a gravel floor and no heat in half of it while the other half had a concrete floor and very inadequate heating. In fact the heaters AND thermostat for them were on the ceiling - apparently architects never heard that hot air rises. Oh - I almost forgot - they also left off bathrooms!! Ok - no big deal you might thing - except that like we see on some many school campuses - our building is about 3/4 of a mile from the rest of the school and the nearest bathrooms. After another 2 years we finally got bathrooms and also an on-site office. And for the past 24 years this very modest building has been our home. We got a concrete floor and heat in the back room, and over the years added enough technology to make the front room into a state of the art computer lab and classroom.

 

Of course there were still problems - since we were at the lowest spot topographically on campus all campus runoff came to us - and if the right (or wrong) combination of snow melt and/or heavy rain hit we would flood, getting up to 4" of water in our office and lab. We managed, adding drains that reduced the frequency of flooding and also making sure that everything was at least 4 inches above the floor - helps to have bricks in stock.

 

Every year when administration asked what I wanted I'd ask for a new facility. I'd make sure that the new facility was in every strategic plan I had to do and I made sure to talk about our needs to everyone.They finally (back in 1995) agreed to add our new building to the Facilities Master Plan, promising action within five years. Yes that was back in 1995. In the meantime we continued to do our job, our students continued to graduate and go on to own or manage very successful horticulture businesses or transfer to Universities all across the country. We landscaped around our building and in general patiently waited for action. But nothing happened . .  . until 2007.

 

In 2007 Nancy Trivette, our New Jersey Agricultural Education Program Leader, encouraged me to apply for the NAAE Outstanding Post-secondary Program Award. I resisted, thinking there was no way our little program operating in our little pole barn could possibly measure up to the "big dogs" but when Nancy thinks you should do something you WILL do it. So I did and the rest, as they say, is history. We were chosen first in Region VI and embarked on a celebration that to a large degree continues. We planned a reception and the college agreed to pay but allowed me to invite who I wanted  - and I wanted everyone! The college thought about 30 would show but well over 100 horticulture professionals, ag teachers with their students, graduates of our program, and even our Secretary of Agriculture came. Two of our college's Board of Trustee members came as well - the first time that had happened in our history. It was a great day!

 

The trustees who came went back to report to our full Board that something had to be done - that a Nationally Recognized Program should not have to work in substandard conditions. They convinced the rest that our new building was long overdue - and within a few months planning began. We broke ground in May 2010 and all was well until they found some contaminated soil (from an old ice house that had operated on the site 75 years ago). Since then they took down one of our two greenhouses and almost had to take down our current pole barn. We are living with a huge mess in our front yard and a huge pile of excavated soil in our back compound and my students should get extra credit just for being able to find their way into the building. Completion is anticipated to be September 2011 - so please keep your fingers crossed. The new building will house a Design Studio, Computer Lab, and 2 Science Labs, offices, a conference room, and yes - bathrooms!

 

What's the lesson here? Perseverance pays off - but in hindsight maybe we were too patient all those years. Learn what matters to those who decide funding. Numbers matter - it is not enough to be good if you only have 5 students in your class. We need to keep enrollment in agriculture classes strong -not just for ourselves but because those students are needed to fill the gaps in agriscience, agriculture, natural resource, and food science professionals that are only expected to increase. And don't be afraid to blow your own horn - trust me - the squeaky wheel really DOES get the grease.

I started my teaching career with the notion that none of my students would fail. You see, during college I had written a term paper on "Failure in the Classroom" and was convinced that if I was good enough and clever enough and devoted enough and worked hard enough then ALL my students would be successful. Boy was I ever disappointed! About November of my first year I realized that all those theories I had read about just weren't working for everyone. No matter what I did there were one or two students who consistently got "F's". During a regular review meeting with my Principal I shared my concerns - his answer? You can't save them all! He assured me that, for reasons that may be beyond my control and despite my best efforts there will likely be a few students who will end up earning an "F". And he was right - especially about the "earning" part. I realized that I don't "give" grades - students earn them.

 

Please don't get the idea that I ever give up on a student - I am pretty good at finding alternative instructional methods to try to help students with varying learning styles and abilities - and generally find that any student who at least meets me halfway will find success. These days technology has really helped as I can record lecture reviews or create tutorials and post them online for students to review anytime they want. I have created electronic flashcards as well as shown students how to make "old school" style flash cards. We've played games in class, used peer review, created charts and graphs. We use Google docs for online collaboration to encourage students to develop skill in working together online. I even use collaborative testing in a few classes where students work as a team to complete an exam - which works GREAT by the way!

 

So while we can't save them all we have lots of life preservers to throw out - they just have to grab for for it so that we can pull them to success.

 

I have sat in on meetings with faculty from other departments and listened to them bemoan the quality or should I say lack of quality among their students - the students can't do the work, they aren't motivated, they don't want to learn - on and on they go. This kind of ranting just amazes me - to me this is what teaching is all about - finding ways to reach and motivate students. As the saying goes, "if it was easy, anyone could do it". I teach, not because I can't do other things, but because this is my passion. In fact my favorite students (yes I love them all but still have favorites) are those I call my "diamonds in the rough" - the young girls and guys who love hands on stuff but need a lot of motivation to apply themselves academically. They tend to be bright but they hate to show it, are quick to understand but slow to admit it - but boy do they shine with a little polish - once they have a little success! So I have learned to not be quick to dismiss a student, to assume they can't succeed - everybody gets a chance - and often more than one.

After a first day that started with a student comment that "she won't make it till Christmas" I am sure some are curious how things turned out. That first year most of my students ended up in Horticulture when their first and second and sometimes third choice of program were filled - this was a county vocational school which only had the students for half a day. So I had frustrated "wannabe" auto mechanics, welders, and even carpenters and masons - but no one who actually wanted to be in horticulture. I learned very quickly that it was better to pretend you liked snakes when a garter snake ended up mysteriously in your desk drawer and it was easier to  come in early and simply weed out all the pot seedlings leaving them guessing about why the seeds they scattered never grew.  When I learned that the school had a large van I could use (if I got my bus drivers license) I knew I was on to something. I got my license and made the students a deal - they work WITH me Monday through Thursday and every Friday we would take a field trip. The trips had to be horticultural related and educational but to them just getting out of school was a treat.  By Christmas I overheard them arguing about what to get me as a gift - being high school boys for whom bigger is always better they got me the biggest bottle of Jean Nate perfume and a cowboy hat (they knew I loved country music). The year turned out great -and some of them did decide that horticulture would be a good career.

I remember my first day in the classroom like it was yesterday. I was a very "wet behind the ears" fresh out of college eager newbie - convinced that all my students were as eager to receive my pearls of wisdom as I was to deliver them. I spent time weeks before school started getting my classroom ready and greeted each student as they arrived with my most welcoming smile. They were all boys, that first class  - sophmores through seniors.  Just before I started calling names to take attendance one student asked when the "real" teacher would be there - I explained I WAS the real teacher. From somewhere in the back row I heard "she won't make it to Christmas". What a mistake - not because I punished the student who said that - I never even tried to figure out which one of the 20 young men it was - the mistake was that the gauntlet had clearly been laid down - and I never turned down a challenge. They couldn't have known it but that one statement probably motivated me as much as anything could have. That was 33 years ago - and I have never looked back. Stay tuned to hear how that first year ended up - better than you might think as well as more stories and lessons this teacher learned along the way.

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