Students learn about agriculture through hands-on activities

OTTAWA, Ill. — Learning through hands-on activities is the focus of the agricultural classes at Marquette Academy in Ottawa.

“In the fall, we did a farm-to-fork lesson where I took 60 of my students to my family’s farm and Martha Hoffman brought a dairy cow and milked it,” said Teresa Dittmer, agriculture teacher and FFA adviser at Marquette Academy.

“The next day, we pasteurized the milk and the following day we made butter and ice cream,” said Dittmer, who is a first-year teacher. “On Friday, we used the leftover buttermilk to make buttermilk pancakes.”

Dittmer also did a similar lesson with apples.

“Applejack Acres donated about 300 apples, so the kids peeled apples for a day and we made a bunch of recipes throughout the week with them,” she said. “There’s no foods teacher this year, so I’m trying to put a spin on the foods class.”

All of the students at the high school and some students from the grade school learned about sheep and wool production during an event held on the school’s football field.

“I brought six Icelandic sheep and had a sheep shearer demonstrate how to shear a sheep and he talked abut the different uses for wool,” Dittmer said. “So, kids learned about where their clothes come from.”

The current project is an egg-hatching lesson with six dozen eggs.

“We started incubating them today and the hatch day is May 21,” the ag teacher said. “It will be a neat experience for the kids to see the growth and development.”

Most of the students at Marquette don’t have an ag background, Dittmer noted.

“We’ll be candling the eggs every couple of days to see the development of the chicks,” she said. “God has his hand in agriculture and creation, and even if we lose a chick, that’s part of life.”

Full-time class pets are part of the experience for ag students at the school.

“We have Mini Holland Lop bunnies that are brothers named Walter and Oliver,” Dittmer said. “And we have baby red-footed tortoises, Zeke and Vinny.”

During National FFA Week, chapter members took the bunnies and tortoises to the grade school.

“We walked there with a wagon of animals and read the ‘Tortoise and the Hare’ book to the kindergarten class,” the ag teacher said.

For the Future Friday program, Dittmer invites agricultural professionals to talk to the ag students about their careers.

“I’ve had 10 to 12 people come to speak and I want to have as many as I can because the ag industry is so broad and diverse, it helps to put it in perspective for the kids,” she said.

Amanda Andreoni, with Hageman Reality, spoke to the students about her career selling farmland.

“We received a donation from Amanda and Hageman Reality to purchase 14 FFA jackets,” the ag teacher said. “The kids wrote an essay about why they wanted to win a FFA jacket and those jackets will be presented to the winning members at the end of the year.”

Dittmer, who lives on her family farm near Marseilles, did not plan to become an agricultural teacher or FFA adviser.

“I did not apply for this job. God chose this for me more than I did,” she explained.

“They had an ag teacher who backed out 10 days before the school year started, so they called me and asked if I would come in for an interview.”

The new teacher received the curriculum three days before school started.

“It was a whirlwind, but it allowed there to be a neat relationship for me to develop with my students,” Dittmer said. “The kids are really good about jumping into things and all my students are such a blessing in my life and it’s a blessing to be here.”

Established in 2018, the Marquette Academy FFA Chapter has 92 members.

“I was home-schooled so I was not able to be part of FFA so this is a whole new world for me,” Dittmer said. “It’s fun because I have a lot of first-time experiences with the kids.”

Last October, Dittmer and nine FFA members attended the National FFA Convention.

“That was a really neat experience and we’re definitely looking forward to doing that again,” she said. “I’d love to take 20 students if I could.”

Lilliana Bernabei, a high school sophomore and FFA chapter secretary, went to the national convention with the chapter members.

“If you imagine what it would be, it was 10 times greater than that,” she said. “Everybody in their blue corduroy is awesome. There was so much blue and gold.”

Joining the FFA chapter, Bernabei said, provided her the opportunity to compete in contests to test her knowledge and skills, as well as meet people.

“Being part of FFA has helped me grow as a person and leader to be able to accomplish what I want to become,” she said.

“I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer, but now I want to be an ag teacher,” she added. “My mother, grandmother and aunts have all been teachers.”

Pete McGrath has been playing sports since he was in kindergarten.

“I don’t have an ag background, but I was given the opportunity to join FFA so I took it and it’s been a good experience,” said the high school junior and FFA chapter vice president.

“For me as a teacher, it’s important the kids are making good memories and learning along the way,” Dittmer said.

One of the first things Dittmer did as the FFA adviser was establish a motto for the FFA chapter.

“Our motto is ‘Deeply Rooted’ because of our love for agriculture and our faith,” she said. “One of our students designed our T-shirts that feature the tree roots and cross.”

“God’s hand is in everything and bringing the Lord into these kids’ lives is my main passion,” she stressed. “It’s the kids that keep me going.”