MANITOU SPRINGS — On a brisk winter day in Manitou Springs, a group of sixth-graders romp around the Flying Pig Farm. Pikes Peak, dusted with snow, demands at least a glance, but the kids are interested in something smaller.
“I want to feed the goats!” three students announce in near unison. Barak Ben-Amots, a Manitou Springs Middle School teacher, passes out food. “Who can tell us our two priorities with the animals?” he asks. Gretchen Beckman, 12, responds as her hand shoots up: “To keep them safe and to make them feel safe.”
The students are part of the Manitou Springs Middle School’s Growth-based Alternative Learning and Leadership Opportunity program, known as GALLOP, which started in the fall of 2018 with the goal of reaching students who have difficulty learning in traditional classrooms. By showing students a real life connection to their learning, in this case goats, the school is hoping to make classroom study more relevant to students.
The program combines outdoor education with traditional subjects, attempting to connect math, history and language arts with a physical experience. In a school district where every student has an iPad, the program gives kids a space to live without technology.
Writing prompt gets the day going
Students begin class indoors with a creative writing prompt and then discussion that links a humanities concept (writing) to farming (the history of monocropping, for example) before walking to the farm, about a mile away. They feed the animals, gather firewood and drink tea that they grew and harvested. Older students have more time and take on projects; they are currently building a greenhouse.
School Principal Ron Hamilton envisions GALLOP as a way to connect with kids who have been difficult to reach. The program is geared towards students who are having trouble grasping the importance of doing homework and trying in school. Hamilton believes kids need to be invested in learning to begin valuing school and hopes that by involving students in a class where there is a direct link between the farm and their school work, kids will start to come around.
“Where other districts that are larger can have alternative schools for kids, we don’t have the ability to do that,” Hamilton says. “We have to figure out programing in our schools that gives different kinds of resources to kids with different kinds of needs.”
The farming program is part an experiment in experience-based learning, a change in direction after years of nationwide curriculum reduction in response to high-stakes standardized testing. According to a 2011 study, school districts with unsatisfactory results on No Child Left Behind-era standardized tests drastically increased time spent on tested subjects, specifically math and language arts. To find more time for test-focused study, schools cut down on science, art, physical education and even recess.
Experience based learning, a distinct change in direction from test based teaching, has been shown to increase students’ connections with classroom subjects. In Canada, a study found that an outdoor environmental studies program increased student engagement and had benefits for social skills. A 2005 study on a five-day outdoor science program designed for at-risk sixth graders in California found that the class raised students’ science scores by 27 percent and helped them to develop interpersonal skills.
The Manitou program hopes for similar results. “It was set up directly in response to the fact that a portion of our students each year are unwilling to produce or comply in the way that a traditional classroom needs,” Hamilton says. “It gives them a context and a purpose to their learning.” While some after-school farming programs exist elsewhere in Colorado, the blend of social studies, language arts and farming into a course is unique to Manitou.
Ben-Amots, who pioneered the program, hopes GALLOP will motivate students in their other classes. While the ability to want to work and strive comes naturally to some students, he finds others need as extra push. “Those are core skills, and that’s what I’m focusing on teaching,” he says.
Setting achievable goals
By working with students on real-world farm projects and giving them achievable goals in the classroom, Ben-Amots hopes to motivate students by helping them feel like they have accomplished something, giving them confidence in their other classes.
Before heading to the farm, Ben-Amots opens each class with a writing prompt, either imaginative or self-reflective. He might ask the students to identify three strengths they have, three strengths they want to have, and how they would use the strengths they have to get the strengths they want, or he might ask them to describe their ideal house.
Ben-Amots is clear with his classes that he is looking for quantity of writing, for them to immediately start writing when they get a prompt and not stop for five minutes is up. The activity is designed to give students the feeling of success. Even if they don’t feel like they completely understand the prompt, or don’t have a great idea, they know that they can do well on the assignment. He says some students have gone from writing one word to filling a page.
“These are students who, many of them go through their whole day being wrong,” says Ben-Amots. “Going from being unprepared and late and not understanding what’s going on to being unprepared and late and not understanding what’s going on. All day, every day, some of them for the last five years.”
After writing, the class has a discussion. On a typical day, Ben-Amots, or Mr. Barak, will start with the Latin root of a word and lead a discussion that integrates English, history and farming.
“We might look at the Latin roots of ‘mono,’ for instance, and talk about different governmental structures or religious structures, like monotheism and monarchies, and then go from there to looking at agricultural systems like monocropping,” he explains.
If possible, he likes to connect historical themes with everyday objects in kids’ lives. He wants students to think about water vessels in ancient Egypt while filling up their water bottles.
At the farm, Ben-Amots teaches interpersonal skills as well as academics. In showing the kids how to treat the goats, Ben-Amots teaches consent, not to do anything that affects someone if they are uncomfortable with it. The message seems to be working. When asked what they learned at the farm that day, one student responded: “I learned how to be careful with the goats. If you’re slow, they get close to you.”
By integrating farming into standard middle school subjects, Ben-Amots hopes to show students that what they learn in the classroom will be important in the real world. “A lot of my students don’t see the point, so what I’m trying to do is show them the point,” Ben-Amots says.
Why math matters
The older students in the GALLOP program work on farm-improvement projects. Recently, they built a shed for the goats and chickens. The kids designed the shed with local predators in mind. They talked budget and materials, made a plan and then got building. They used math, but the math was in service of protecting the goats and chickens.
“I hope that it gives them a glimpse into what they can do with the knowledge they’re gaining here in school,” Ben-Amots says.
As technology increasingly pervades youngsters’ lives, the GALLOP program attempts to show kids the value of human interaction and activity beyond screens.
When kids head to the farm, they leave their phones and iPads behind. Now that the program has been going for a few months, Hamilton says the students forget they don’t have their phones.
“I’m so thrilled by the change that I’ve seen from the beginning of the year,” Ben-Amots says. When students first arrived at the farm, they often told him they were bored. Now, when Ben-Amots gives sixth-graders the options of collecting firewood, caring for the animals, or writing a poem, not one will come back and tell him they don’t know what to do.
Data to come, but results are evident
As the GALLOP program is in its infancy, both Hamilton and Ben-Amots say they need to wait for a few years of data before they can make any data-backed claims about its success.
Anecdotally, both are excited about what they’re seeing. “We’ve had kids who haven’t passed a single class in the last two years of school, that are eighth graders now, that are passing their classes,” Hamilton says. “They may not be passing every single class, but they’ve got their heads above water, and they can see that they can do it.”
Hamilton credits the more personal attention Ben-Amots is able to give students. He thinks that having someone check kids’ grades and take an active interest in their future helps motivate them to try harder in school. Hamilton hopes that GALLOP is helping students build confidence that can be applied to other classes and carried into high school.
Ben-Amots says that teachers will sometimes update him on a students’ progress. “I’ve heard many positive reports from other teachers on individual students who came in with a lot more wildness than they have now,” he says. “I’m not trying to destroy their wildness, I’m trying to give them a proper place to express themselves and be creative.”
“I think that when you know that you will be able to be loud, it’s easier to understand when you need to be quiet,” Ben-Amots continues. He said he thinks it is important for students to have a part of the day where it’s OK to be physical, energetic and loud, breaking sticks for firewood and running around a farm with their classmates.
While Manitou Springs Middle School will have to wait a while for a statistical assessment, the kids say they are enjoying the farm program.
“I really like it. It’s fun,” says Travis Killey, 12. “We can get out of the school. It’s not like all the other classes where you just stare at a board.”
Hamilton said the GALLOP program is the start of something bigger for his school and public schools as a whole. He points towards movements towards homeschooling as evidence that people are not satisfied with the public school system.
While the farm program is currently limited to students with behavioral needs, he hopes to expand the school’s outdoor program with options for all kids. The first step: A new cooking class using vegetables from the Flying Pig Farm.
In the long term, he dreams of providing Manitou students with the type of access to outdoor programs that is more common in private schools — but without the cost.
“If traditional schooling is going to remain relevant, it’s going to have to have a more hands on, interpersonal approach that’s more than just textbooks and testing,” he says.