When one of Darlene Petranick’s fourth-grade students told her he didn’t know what a potato was, she decided something needed to change.
The science lab teacher at Lebanon Road Elementary grew up on a cattle and Christmas tree farm in Jackson County in western North Carolina. But she said most students in Charlotte are at least three generations removed from an agrarian life.
“I’ve got to teach my kids where their food and fiber comes from,” Petranick said.
Her efforts have now won her national recognition. Petranick has been honored with the 2015 Excellence in Teaching about Agriculture Award, which is presented by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Agriculture in the Classroom Consortium.
“She does a really good job of opening up their minds and giving them a good foundation on what their opportunities are,” said Michele Reedy of the North Carolina Farm Bureau. “She lived it. She understands it, and she sees the importance of it.”
Starting with kindergarten, Petranick teaches students about how plants and animals are raised and how to be good stewards of the land. Each kindergarten class has two raised beds in a courtyard area growing carrots, broccoli, cabbage, onions, garlic, radishes, cauliflower, strawberries, red lettuce, sweet peas and herbs. In the fall, students harvest sweet potatoes and turn them into a pie.
Petranick also helps other teachers incorporate agriculture into their lessons. A math lesson involves figuring out how many seeds can fit in a square foot plot of dirt. A second-grade classroom with an incubator helps teach about the life cycle as the children care for chicken eggs until they hatch.
For the first time this past fall, Petranick hosted 350 students and parents for a “science night,” where they could learn to identify types of seeds, taste foods made from North Carolina agriculture products, and build tiny greenhouses.
“I want them to be able to make these real world connections back to the farm,” Petranick said.