Califonia Bountiful

Mary Landau

K-1st Grade Teacher
Monte Vista Elementary School
Glendale, CA

This interview was originally published in the January 2012 issue of CFAITC's e-newsletter, "Cream of the Crop."

How and when did you first learn of Ag in the Classroom?
I first learned of CFAITC from a retired principal, Don Fiske. He showed us (GUSD teachers) the many wonderful resources that Ag in the Classroom had to offer. We were able to hear speakers and learn many exciting and teachable lessons for all grade levels. He had a way of making everything we learned exciting and fun. We received free seeds that helped us plant our own gardens, and were able to participate in terrific learning tours. One that I will always remember is the trip to pick cotton, and see a cotton gin at work. I was able to bring my 8-year-old son with me. We both learned so much about how California plants, grows, and harvests cotton. (My son took the opportunity to climb a "cotton seed mountain" at the gin.) It was amazing!

How long have you been teaching students and why did you choose to become an educator?
I have been teaching students for more than 30 years. I wanted to become a teacher to share the excitement of learning, and to give children a chance to understand our world better. I found that teaching children about plants, and how they grow, is very helpful in teaching life skills and our connection to each other. You can't rush a plant to grow to maturity in 30 minutes. Real life takes time and caring.

What is your favorite AITC program/resource/event and why?
I love all of the AITC events and resources! I especially like to attend the yearly conferences. It is a wonderful time to get to know other teachers in the state and share what we are doing, as well as receive a ton of free resources that we can use right away in our classes. I have learned so much over the years, and owe most of my garden knowledge to the CFAITC conferences that I have attended.

What is the most profound impact that agriculture education/awareness has had on you?
The most profound impact that agriculture education has had on me is to help me understand the "big picture" of life. I have come to understand what life is all about because of my experiences with agriculture. When I was a little girl, my mom suggested that I try planting some seeds and watch them grow during our summer break from school. Nothing I tried worked for me! One day she suggested that I plant some popcorn seeds on the south side of our yard. After about a week, the seeds sprouted. Much time was spent watching those corn plants grow. They did something very interesting! Instead of tall corn plants, mine were short. The ears that they produced were small. I was encouraged to eat them. They were delicious! Success was mine! From that day on I just knew that I could meet life's challenges, even if things didn't turn out the way "they should."

Has agriculture continued to impact the way you educate students?
Agriculture has continued to impact the way that I teach. Whenever I can, I bring something of the garden or nature into the classroom. We spend time looking at leaves, how plants react to different environments, what plants need to grow, and why. When we take time to wonder about the world around us, we learn so much more about our place in this world. Nothing is really isolated. Plants have interactions with other plants, and the animals that visit them. We planted sunflowers at school, and watched how much they grew when the days were sunny or cloudy. We noted the insects that were on the plants. We watched as the ants milked the "dew" from the aphids. Spiders were there to eat some of the pests. Bees pollinated the flowers. When the seeds were ready to be harvested we noted that some were big, and some didn't mature at all.

Tell us about one person who has most influenced your own education and educational career.
One person that most influenced my own education was my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Howe. She taught us how to work with wood and how to grow seeds. She brought in a walking stick bug to show us, and helped us to ask the questions that got us to think. She really cared about us, and allowed us to try new things, or do things differently.
I had a wonderful biology professor at Glendale College that greatly influenced my outlook on education. Burnell Yarick taught us that if we teach others about something, we will learn and understand it better. He had us go to the grade schools to teach the younger students about plants. He was so right! Mr. Yarick also taught us that if we are excited, or passionate about our subject we will learn much more about it, and understand it better. Motivation is a key element to learning. A motivated student will learn so much more than an unmotivated student.

Tell us about a golden teaching moment.
One of my golden teaching moments was during the time that my students planted a "wheat field." We wanted to make our own pizza from the crust up! (I got the idea at one of the AITC conferences). We worked the soil, and added some soil amendments. We scattered the seeds on the wet ground. We watched them grow. Some of the grains became tall and had a full head of kernels. Others were short, and only had a few grains on them.
We talked about what might have caused the difference. That's when it dawned on us! The grains that fell on the soil that got more of the amendment were better nourished than the grains that fell on the slightly amended soil. We learned that plants need to have good nutrition to grow to their full potential (just like we do). Before we harvested the wheat, we sang "America the Beautiful." One of the parents that joined us said, "Oh, so that's what those words mean!" when I told the class about the wheat in the song.

Describe any agriculture-based projects you have been involved in lately.
Currently my class is working to restore a butterfly garden at our school. We have removed and cleaned up the dead plants, replanted some iris, and bulbs, and planted a few seeds. The children are learning about what is in the soil and how to care for the garden. They are very proud of their work, and the parents are pleased to see the progress and the learning taking place.

Do you have any advice for other teachers on implementing agriculture into the classroom?
The most important thing to remember when you are working with children is that it is OK when things don't go as you planned or if something doesn't work out. The best learning experiences happen when things don't go as planned. Children can learn from things that go wrong as well as the things that go right. It's OK to experience "failure" because we can learn what doesn't work, and change the way we work. My favorite story of turning a negative experience into a truly great learning one is found in the Gardens for Learning book that was published several years ago by the California School Garden Network. It still lives online at Look at the story on page 73 to see what happened to us one year, and what we learned!

Why do you believe it is important for our students to be agriculturally literate and aware in today's society?
It is so very important for students to be agriculturally literate. We all need to know where our food and clothing come from. Children need to know what it takes to bring food to our plates in order to truly appreciate and understand what is involved in meeting their nutritional needs through the growing process. Children learn best through hands-on experiences, so why not help them truly understand life by experiencing a garden, growing food they get to eat, and doing the wonderful activities that are available through AITC.

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