Califonia Bountiful

Michelle Risso

Garden and Science Teacher
Napa Valley Language Academy, Napa County

This interview was originally published on CFAITC's blog, "The Fencepost."

How and when did you first learn of Ag in the Classroom?
About 13 years ago, I attended an Ag in the Classroom dinner for Napa County teachers. It was a very nice dinner at a winery and a great opportunity to network with teachers interested in school gardens, environmental studies and education in general. I received a video about bees at the dinner, which I still show to students each year.

How long have you been teaching students and why did you choose to become an educator?
I received my teaching credential in 1989 and I have taught in San Joaquin County and Napa County. I love the enthusiasm and wonderment of children. I have a curiosity about the world and being an educator allows me to be a perpetual learner. I like sharing children's literature at all grade levels and doing hands-on science experiments with students. I like teaching students about nature and inspiring them to be stewards of the Earth.

What is your favorite AITC program/resource/event and why?
My favorite AITC event is the annual CFAITC conference. I have attended these conferences for the past four years. I love the farm tours, which teach us about sustainable farm practices and give us insight into the farm operations of various California agriculture commodities. Each year I learn something new from the engaging speakers and informative workshops. At one of the conferences I learned about Harvest of the Month, and after some research and grant writing, we were able to bring Harvest of the Month to elementary schools in Napa County.

What is the most profound impact that agriculture education/awareness has had on you?
Many students are removed from agriculture and do not realize how important the raising of food and fiber are, particularly to California. Many students are unfamiliar with gardening and the importance of eating fresh fruit and vegetables. It is rewarding to teach them to identify plants and beneficial insects and to introduce them to fresh fruits and vegetables. We all love to eat, so it is so fun to have them ask, "Are we going to eat something from the garden today?" Teaching about nutrition goes hand-in-hand with growing a school garden and learning about agriculture.

Has agriculture continued to impact the way you educate students?
I think students should be well-rounded. We don't talk about agriculture every day, but it certainly relates to many lessons. I use my knowledge of agriculture when I teach fifth grade science lessons about reading weather maps and types of weather, and when I teach fourth grade science lessons on water and water resources in California. When we study plant and animal adaptations in third grade science, we use examples from the school garden. For math graphing activities, we use fruit and vegetable cards to see the nutrition percentages of different vitamins.

Tell us about one person who has most influenced your own education and educational career.
Growing up on a ranch and my parents' involvement in farming have help shaped my path toward becoming a science and garden teacher and my involvement with AITC. My mom has been an avid gardener and my dad a farmer. When we lived in the San Joaquin Valley, we grew cotton, corn and wheat. When we moved to the Sacramento Valley, we grew alfalfa, rice and almond crops. Growing up, we talked about topics such as weather, water, soil, animals and nutrition.

Tell us about a golden teaching moment.
Each spring, our school's second and third grade teachers raise silkworms. I use this time to teach about different fibers and where they come from. After I show the kids a cotton plant, we look at our clothing tags to see what comprises our shirts and jackets. Kids turn to each other and ask, "Do I have cotton in my shirt?"

Describe any agriculture-based projects you have been involved in lately.
Our Napa Valley Museum has "trunks" with different lessons that travel to Napa County schools. I am a docent for the Agriculture Trunk. Upon request, I visit K-12 grade classrooms teaching about the top 12 California agriculture commodities, bee pollination, water resources in California, sustainable agriculture practices, and the Napa Land Trust.

Do you have any advice for other teachers on implementing agriculture into the classroom?
Agriculture can relate to any subject that you teach. It is important for students to know about agriculture.

Why do you believe it is important for our students to be agriculturally literate and aware in today's society?
Food, fuel, forests, and fiber are basic necessities for all people. Students should know about the production of agriculture. As populations grow and technological advances develop, agriculture will continue to be essential.

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