Down on the Farm
by: Susan August


- Sue August

Recently, we went on a field trip to Howell Farm.  The farm is owned by Mercer County and is farmed for educational purposes only.  They give various demonstrations about how things were done on the farm one hundred years ago.  We have been going to Howell Farm several times a year for the last three years.  Although it takes us over an hour to get there, it is, by far, our favorite field trip location.  

During this past visit, I asked myself what made this place such an outstanding experience.  Although farm life at the turn of the century can be interesting, it is not our passion.  So it couldn't be the theme that makes us keep coming back.  The personnel are friendly and knowledgeable, but that's not unique to Howell Farm.  

The reason I was trying to pinpoint what made a trip to Howell Farm so enjoyable, was that I thought I might be able to add some tips to my repertoire of teaching skills.  Following are my observations about what makes Howell Farm such an effective educational experience.

A tour at Howell Farm takes about two hours.  During that time, the focus is on a very specific topic.  Our most recent visit was about maple sugaring.  Our tour took us to four different learning stations.  At each station, new information is given but just a few key facts are reviewed at each location.  Here's the first lesson I learned.  I have a tendency to want to accomplish too much.  Think how much material one could cover in two hours!  But how much would be retained?  Because we spent a lot of time and reviewed the key facts over and over, the students will retain those facts for a lifetime.

The first station was in the sugar bush (a grove of maple trees).  A young man, dressed for the part, gave us background information about the history of maple sugaring, tree identification and tapping equipment.  Just when I thought he had talked long enough and my concentration was waning, he gave us an assignment.  We were actually being asked to gather the full containers of sap from the trees and replace them with empty containers.  I had to pay attention and had to understand the process in order to complete my assignment.  The second lesson I learned is that doing requires more learning than hearing.  The students surely would have forgotten the details of tapping a tree if they hadn't had to manipulate the equipment themselves.

Since there were four stations, I have a visual memory of each place and can therefore remember the main point of each of those four places.  I'm not sure that I could recall those same four facts if they had been told to me while I stayed in one place.  I know I can't set up elaborate stations at home for every fact I want my child to remember.  I will consider ways of linking important facts to things that will be memorable.  When reading aloud, I will link a fact to every illustration we come across.  I'll stop reading long enough to comment on the illustration and repeat a relevant fact.  Even better, I'll ask my child to tell me what the illustration brings to mind for him.  This will keep his mind active, knowing that he is "on call" to respond to what he is hearing.

I'm sure there are more lessons to be learned from experiences like Howell Farm.  The three I mentioned are ones I figured out in retrospect.  I know now, that whenever I am in a learning environment where someone else is teaching, I will be sure to keep the analytical part of my mind tuned to their methods and techniques.  I will also watch to see how my son responds to different educational approaches.  It will only take a couple of pearls of wisdom now and then to keep our homeschooling journey fresh and exciting.



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