Carl Erbsen, second-grade teacher at Eastland Elementary School in Lanark, shows the sign that announces his selection as the Illinois Ag in the Classroom Teacher of the Year. The award was announced to Erbsen in front of students, staff and fellow faculty at Eastland prior to Erbsen receiving the award at the 2012 Illinois Farm Bureau annual meeting.
Carl Erbsen, second-grade teacher at Eastland Elementary School in Lanark, shows the sign that announces his selection as the Illinois Ag in the Classroom Teacher of the Year. The award was announced to Erbsen in front of students, staff and fellow faculty at Eastland prior to Erbsen receiving the award at the 2012 Illinois Farm Bureau annual meeting.

LANARK, Ill. — Carl Erbsen, a veteran elementary school teacher was born and raised in rural Lanark in Carroll County, where he teaches and where he and wife Becky are raising their sons, Nathan and Nevin.

Like any good teacher, he knows his kids so well that as he looks across at the shelves with each student’s name, he can scan those names and do some quick mental math.

“I would say, at most, two or three out of my 22,” he says in answer to the question about how many students still have a direct connection to a farm. That includes Erbsen’s youngest son, Nevin.

“I think the assumption is we don’t need to do this because we’re in Lanark, it’s rural, kids know about farming and agriculture,” said the Illinois Ag in the Classroom Teacher of the Year.

He’s been teaching for 20 years after being raised on a dairy farm, Erbacres Holstein Farm, in rural Lanark and attending Highland Community College and Northern Illinois University.

This is his first year teaching second grade. When the second-grade teacher at Eastland retired last year, Erbsen decided to make a “loop” with his students so they — and he — moved to second grade.

“When I first started teaching, I had quite a few students who were from a farming background, and today, maybe two or three students,” he said. “You ask them: Where does this come from? The grocery store. No, it doesn’t.”

Erbsen is using a mix of his own farm background along with creativity, teaching experience, enthusiasm and help from the Ag in the Classroom program to make sure his students learn how food gets from farm to table. He varies the activities from year to year.

“You try to find new things that are different for the students,” he said.

Even so, the tried-and-true remains popular — and sticks with students after they’ve left Erbsen’s classroom.

“Students I’ve had who are now in high school have told me they remember when we did different activities. Oh, I remember when we did the incubation unit with Mr. Erbsen. Remember those ducks we hatched?” he said.

He wants students to be aware that products and ingredients they use every day are part of agriculture.

“They use products that come from agricultural things every day, and they don’t realize it until you make them aware of it,” he said.

Erbsen has been incorporating agriculture into his lessons for the last eight to 10 years. He utilizes the help provided by Melinda Charbonneau, the ag literacy coordinator for Carroll County Farm Bureau and Ogle County Farm Bureau.

“She comes in once a month or so to do activities. She’ll do a topic, and I’ll branch off of that,” he said.

This year, students have been learning about agricultural products in different parts of the country. Erbsen contacted state ag literacy coordinators in states ranging from Tennessee to Indiana, Oregon and Florida and others to find farmers growing different crops.

“We pen pal with them to learn how products are grown that we don’t grow around here,” he said. “One of them is sugarcane, and students use sugar all the time.”

Another crop is mint, which is grown in Indiana.

“We were pen palling back and forth with a mint farm. They sent us peppermint oil, so we made peppermint candies,” Erbsen said.

Students also learned other uses for peppermint.

“They sent us peppermint flavoring, which is used in their toothpaste, their gum, things like that. They know now how that’s grown and that it’s used in stuff they have every day,” Erbsen said. “They’re learning how that is something that is part of their lives, and they never would have known that.”

Even the teacher is learning about agriculture.

“I didn’t even know how peppermint was grown,” he said.

Other activities have included a visual, hands-on version of a popular Facebook game that Erbsen’s students were participating in pre-Facebook.

“I’ve done a model farm with them. They put it in a pizza box. They take the pizza box and they have to buy animals. They have to buy the acres required to put the animal on, the tractors, the fences to keep the animals in and the barns,” Erbsen said.

“They kind of get an idea of what a real farm would cost to run and maintain. They have to buy the feed for the animals, and we talk about what feed the animals require, the corn and soybeans and oats.”

The students can choose from chickens and sheep, cows, pigs, horses and, for pollination of crops, bees.

“It’s their own farm, so they can have what they want on it,” said Erbsen of his version of FarmVille.

Other activities have included a class being pen pals with a calf from a local farm.

“Last year, we did ‘adopt’ an animal. The students pen palled back and forth with a local farm family. They wrote to a calf, and the farm family wrote back on the calf’s behalf. At the end of the year, they brought the calf here so the students could meet the calf,” Erbsen recalled.

Including the ag lessons is a challenge in a busy day that also must include core lessons such as reading, science, math and social studies. That’s the challenge, Erbsen said, that faces many teachers who might want to incorporate agriculture, farming and food production into the core curriculum.

“The challenge is finding time in the day. This is considered extra in the day when you need the reading, the math, the phonics, the spelling and all the common core material that’s out there now,” he said.

Erbsen finds ways to make it work with his core curriculum requirements, and he stressed the importance of students learning how their food gets from the farm to their tables.

“This is just as important, when we do the money part with the farms, they need to have that knowledge. With reading, we find as many farm-related books as we can, and we do that during the reading curriculum and integrate it that way,” he said.

Last year, Erbsen located a series called “Minnie and Moo.” The series, by writer Denys Cazet, follows two cows on a series of adventures.

“The students couldn’t wait for the next one. We did the whole series, and they had a riot with it. They read the books, and then we do activities with them. There’s a book for each holiday and many more in between,” Erbsen said.

Erbsen himself received a surprise when he was informed of his selection as Illinois Ag in the Classroom Teacher of the Year, after being runner-up for the honor in 2011.

“I was taking my kids to lunch. My kids were getting their hands washed, and I noticed the first graders, who usually go after the second grade, were already gone,” he said.

Since his students weren’t late for lunch, he didn’t think about it again — until he and his students arrived in the cafeteria to find the entire Eastland Elementary School student body, staff and fellow faculty waiting for him with a “Surprise!”

“I couldn’t believe it,” he laughed.

Since he was in high school, Erbsen wanted to make a difference in young peoples’ lives.

“When I was in high school, I was involved with the youth at our church. I enjoyed working and helping them, and I found that it was neat to watch their enthusiasm with learning things. I thought that would be neat to do, to teach, and interesting,” he said.

“There weren’t many men going into education, and I thought they needed the role models, that it would be something to be my passion to do.”

He grew up with his siblings on his family’s farm. His brother operates the 100-cow dairy in rural Lanark, and the rest of the family still helps out on the farm when needed.

Erbsen has been nominated for the award at the national level. He also has been asked to be on a state committee to develop new ideas for Ag in the Classroom activities.

He willingly offered advice for teachers who want to incorporate agriculture, but aren’t sure how or where to start.

“Contact your county ag literacy coordinator. The activities are easy to do. They don’t require a lot of outside resources. The things are there. It doesn’t take much time at all, and the kids love it,” he said.

“These are things they need to see. They need to see that agriculture is important in their lives. These are fun activities, and they are meaningful. Sometimes students just need that. They’re always doing this rigorous stuff.

“The ag information is valuable, and it is educational, so why aren’t we doing more of it?”