Thursday, 13 May 2010

Everything I Needed to Know, I Learned Growing Up on the Farm

Not completely, of course. But I do find it interesting the different things that farm kids and city kids know.

I got the idea of writing this blog about a week ago when a group of us were talking in the staff room. Someone asked me why farm barns were red. I replied that it was because cattle were attracted to red. So, if your barn was red, you were guaranteed your cattle would come home every night. I thought it obvious I was just making a funny remark, but I was startled to find that several of the people around the table accepted this answer without question. (For those of you who are wondering, cattle are red-green colour blind and are not attracted to red, because they cannot see red. Thus, a red barn would not attract cattle any more than any other barn. While there is more to the story, at one time red paint was the cheapest so barns were often painted red.)

I told the story of the red barn to a few people and it got us talking about some of the strange things some (certainly not all) city kids seem to believe.

Here’s a few of my favourites from the Galt:

I often tell students about a game called “rooster in the middle” that is played similarly to “monkey in the middle” and “pig in the middle”. This game is called “rooster in the middle” as it’s played with a hard-boiled egg. And, as I say to students, the name makes sense because after all, who lays the egg? It saddens me that sometimes 90% of the class answers “rooster.”

During our Great Depression program, we talk about some of the farming techniques that were developed and adapted to help keep farmland here in southern Alberta (one of the windiest places around) from blowing away. There were three things that were very much involved: strip farming, trash-cover farming and the invention of equipment such as the blade (specifically Wobick and Noble blades). I realized early on that I would have to think of ways of explaining these to the kids. One student asked whether strip farming had to be done naked. (I think he was thinking of strip poker farming.) And another thought trash-cover farming required you to throw your garbage around the farm. The picture below shows strip farming and trash-cover farming is where you leave behind things like dead weeds or stubble (the short stalks of grain left behind when grain is cut) to help hold the land in place.

For grade 3 we have a program called “Building Bridges” where students work in groups to build bridges out of household material. To add to the challenge, they are not allowed to have glue or tape but must figure out ways to connect things. For connectors they have paper clips, rubber bands, string and pipe cleaners. With the paper clips, we have some that are in paper clip form but others that are folded into U shapes. The hope with the U shapes is that kids will realize they can be used as “staples” to hold the sticks onto the cups. I remember the befuddled expression I got from a kid (years ago) when I said, “you know, it’s a staple, just like the kind they use to hold barbed wire onto the post.” Needless to say, he had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. I always joke that I would like to have a farm nearby for this program where I could take the kids out there and have them build a fort in the straw stack (if I have to explain this, you probably did not grow up on a farm) and have them build or help build things on the farm.

We have a program on irrigation in southern Alberta (it may help to explain that Lethbridge is the irrigation capital of Canada and that the first full-scale irrigation project in all of Canada was built here in southern Alberta). Without irrigation, we would not be able to grow most of the crops that we do in southern Alberta. To start off the program we discuss the explorers’ perspective of the area (with people like Palliser saying the area was too dry and that it should never be used for farming). I ask the students (grade 5s) what we have done to allow farming on the dry, bald prairies. One year it took about five minutes of questioning (giving hints, talking around the name) before the kids came up with the word “irrigation.” One Mom, trying very hard not to laugh, turned to her daughter and said “you do know your Dad is an irrigation engineer, don’t you?”

And when we do the program on Ukraine (Ukrainian Connections) we discuss how many Ukrainian weddings took place at one time of year. And (this is for grade 3s) we tell them that there were 3 essential things needed for the wedding: 8 days off, wheat that could be made into flour to make into bread, and enough food so the bride-groom could feed everyone. And then we ask them what farmers are doing in spring, summer and early fall to help figure out what time of year. It fascinates me how many think farmers are harvesting in spring. Or who don’t realize that wheat is part of bread.

My goal at the museum is to teach kids local history (and how it connects to national and international history). But as so much of our history is linked to farming, I wish there was a better way to connect these kids back with the farms. But until someone donates us a farm close to the museum, I’ll probably have to keep trying to explain what I mean (and using lots of pictures).

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