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Lessons + agriculture add up for winning Tennessee math teacher

CANE RIDGE, Tenn. — Elementary math teacher Andy Roach is aware his discipline is not generally known for incorporating agriculture into its educational practices, but that doesn’t stop him.

“I’m passionate about my kids knowing where our food comes from and how convenient we have it just to be able to go to the grocery store,” he said. “I really want kids to understand how much hard work goes behind getting the food to the point where it’s at the grocery store. It’s just a huge lesson for them.”

During one recent class, Roach’s fourth-graders at McFadden School of Excellence in Tennessee did prep work to begin planting potatoes in their school’s garden, which is overseen by Roach and science teacher Joan Merryman.

“My students read about how to plant potatoes and my main focus was, are we planting them at the appropriate depths for maximum growth and are we spacing them correctly to give them room to grow?” Roach said of the lesson.

“I like for students to use their critical thinking skills and put their heads together and figure out what to do.”

After the research, he watched as his students gathered string and measuring tools, working diligently to mark their garden plot into 1-square-foot sections, the optimal space for their chosen potato breed. “By doing that, they could see how many potatoes we could plant.”

It’s this type of integrated educational experiences that earned Roach a place among winners in the 2018 Excellence in Teaching about Agriculture Awards. The awards, which are annually sponsored by the National Agriculture in the Classroom Organization (NAITCO), USDA and Farm Credit, recognize teachers K-12 for using agricultural concepts to teach core subjects such as reading, writing, math, sciences and social studies.

Other teachers were recognized for initiatives ranging from a New Mexico fifth-grade teacher who developed a school-wide unit on the chile, the state’s signature crop, to a New York first-grade teacher who used Skype and social media to allow her students to follow an Iowa farmer as he planted, tended and harvested his corn and soybean crops. A Wisconsin fourth-grade instructor’s students lobbied state lawmakers to anoint cheese as the state’s official dairy product.

For Roach, the recognition for his efforts is nice but, like every other farmer, he is nearly too busy to notice the fuss. After all, he has ducks to weigh.

“My class has had two ducks and they lived in my classroom when they were little,” he explained. “Each day, my students documented their weight and calculated the percent of change in their weight growth.

“The kids were really blown away by how fast a farm duck can grow. That’s a powerful thing for them to see because they’re not just seeing how the duck can grow, they’re doing so much math just by keeping a running chart of it.”

To further enhance the opportunities the ducks provided for students, Merryman would often borrow them for lessons such as a compare and contrast unit pitting the fowl against a rooster that also lived on the property.

The school’s garden, where students grow crops native to their state such as cotton, tomatoes, peanuts, potatoes, pumpkins, blackberries and herbs, also houses a sunflower emporium, wildflower gardens, a pond and a cedar glade. Clucking about in the garden among the students are often chickens that were incubated by kindergarteners and then raised in the garden.

When his students are not busy working in the garden, Roach will often take them outside to enjoy the outdoor classroom that is incorporated. “A lot of times we just go out and take a quiz out there, because it’s a nice quiet place to be outside.”

For additional information about the 2018 Excellence in Teaching about Agriculture Awards, visit the NAITCO website at