Featured Teacher Steve Schank - September 2019

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I’ve been looking for someone with whom to discuss alternative teaching methods, and Jill Rockwell introduced me to the best possible teacher to begin. I forgot to ask Steve Schank for an inclusive title for his teaching position, but he did say he teaches:

  • Animal Science - Livestock

  • Animal Care - Horses, Dogs & Cats

  • Veterinary Science

  • Forest & Wildlife

  • Floriculture

  • Production Greenhouse

  • Ecology - Water & Fish

  • Agronomy

...he was still listing courses when I interrupted (sorry Steve) to ask how he keeps track of all that. I think maybe the River & Fish Ecology was part of the Forest & Wildlife class. He teaches six per day and divides between two semesters and also touched on a sort of shifting balance for each subject with seasonality. That was my term, but essentially he was saying that the river walks and fish counting are prominent in fall, then deer with hunting season. As the weather closes things down they move inside to work with animals, do a unit on Christmas crafts, and move to production greenhouse then agronomy with spring planting season. P.E. is probably the only other remotely seasonal subject, but seasons dictate our lives and they’re important to recognize. Besides the logistical prowess to keep all of this in order for a big group of students at varying grade levels, the sheer volume of knowledge required is seriously impressive.

I would say Steve is teaching students to work and interact with the natural world for preservation and production. The lessons and curriculum create the structure for the unspoken lessons though. We talked about how quickly people are losing touch with the skills and tools that kept our species alive for eons. Steve says it’s awesome to watch Arcadia High Schoolers get excited about seeds, and planting them and admiring their growth. It is awesome. And vital. We both believe (and I am optimistic having noticed a trend in mindful food quality recently) that near-future generations will need to know how to grow their own food outside the megatech farming trend we see now. Also, he points out, tactile learning and active movement away from a desk are skills often overlooked. Appreciation for the outdoors and for biology leads to a whole slew of important ethics.

Steve is teaching in his hometown of Arcadia, Wisconsin where he grew up around farms and dairies. His brother still operates a local dairy and many of his students have gone on to work in related fields. Being active in these fields with forty years of experience helps him to polish his curriculum as technology and methodologies change.

I asked about how he uses technology in teaching these subjects and he says you have to. Agriculture and horticulture are at once centuries-old and modern. They have a drone! Drones are employed in agriculture for many purposes, my favorite of which is using infrared vision to trace underground pests below crop fields. He says the iPad application for cataloging and tracking soil samples on precise GPS coordinates is groundbreaking (accidental pun). They maintain a modern productive greenhouse.

We talked about the difficulties of keeping an “alternative” department funded. Apparently it’s a tougher sell than it was fifteen years ago when there were more farmers and dairymen who were paying the taxes and sitting on the school boards. He admits that equipment and facility costs are higher and that a regular topic of debate revolves around class sizes. It is nearly impossible to keep thirty students engaged in the complexities of a greenhouse under the guidance of one teacher. Steve credited parental as well as organizational contributions from FFA, local department of ecology and seed producers. (That was my favorite part: he was saying that reading of seed labels is a little-known but difficult skill, and it evolves as fast as the rapid updates from seed companies.) I love learning things that I never, ever would have otherwise. Apparently all those organizations are helpful with their time and donations and he can interweave them into specific lessons (like the one centered around water sampling of local streams).

Yes, he says, he is always prepared to maintain the quality of his program and classes as concerns about cost and necessity ebb and flow. I bet that affects all of you who are inspired to educate your pupils about your passions. You fight to put your best product out there. I pointed out that at least students are filling up his courses. It would be awfully hard to put your heart into something for a lukewarm reception, like an empty book signing or something. Yuck. Steve doesn’t have this problem.

At some point he referenced the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 which I jotted down quickly by a star to research later. This Brittanica article was published in 2014 and one of the most interesting points beyond the history of the Act itself is the critique that it led to differentiation of curriculum. That’s the word of the year for 2018 in teaching trends and it’s amazing how quickly things turn from detriment to desire.

I was going to tell Steve after our conversation that I love the blend of modern and ancient in his curriculum, but he beat me to it. He told me he grew up outside doing these things and after earning his degree in Agricultural Science he chose to teach because he wanted to share the knowledge with students. My compliments to Steve, to Arcadia High School and to the local community for maintaining something so immeasurably valuable in a time when budgets work against it. I see these gardens popping up at schools in my neighborhood and am optimistic that we will remember not to forget such intrinsic skills.

For more on this topic read our blog article:

https://www.connectinglink.com/blog/teaching_and_gardening

We don’t offer a course on outdoor sciences, but if you send enough requests to info@connectinglink.com we can consider it for the future.


Here are a few classes related to this topic:

Ike Martinson
Ike is addicted to life in the Pacific Northwest. He enjoys the mountains, the lakes, the food, the people and all the seasons. He is an amateur chef, a commercial pilot and our Northwest sales director.