Salem teacher recognized for helping kids get their hands dirty

Fourth grade teacher Stephanie Madison checks up on recently hatched chicks at Myers Elementary School on Wednesday, March 17, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Stephanie Madison is adept at conjuring lots of food from very little land.

The Myers Elementary School teacher said she’s grown over 100 pounds of produce on one-fifth of an acre of land in the middle of Salem, thanks to square foot gardening and fruit trees.

About two years ago, she moved to a one-acre west Salem property on Northwest Echo Drive, selling llama manure, compost, eggs and extra vegetables from a roadside stand. Proceeds go to her daughter’s college fund, and Madison invites people to take what they need even if they’re unable to pay.

“If it doesn’t give me food or it’s not really, really pretty or smells really, really good, it’s not going to survive long on my property,” Madison said.

The Echo Valley Farm stand in west Salem (Courtesy/Stephanie Madison)

Madison’s love of gardening and animals is prominent in her classroom, and led the Oregon Agriculture in the Classroom Foundation to recognize her as their teacher of the year for 2021.

With her third and fourth grade students, Madison has brought in a team of biologists to dissect fish in her class, sent home seeds and helped them tend the school’s garden.

Her classroom currently has a bearded dragon, named Dino Smaug, who belongs to a student.

There’s also a betta fish, who the class christened “Long Division.”

Myers’ love of agriculture began during her childhood on a hobby farm south of Salem, where her parents raised a large garden and “dozens of animals.”

As a kid, she was an avid 4-H participant through high school, then became a leader in college.

Her home now includes more than 40 animals.

“Most of them are chickens,” Madison said, though the herd includes a llama (named Lumberjack’s Colonel, or Jack for short) and alpaca (Bella Noir) who she took trick-or-treating this year.

“He was not a big fan of it,” Madison said of Jack, who carried a pack for the candy.

Stephanie Madison with her alpaca, Bella Noir, in 2020 (Courtesy/Stephanie Madison)

In class, Madison said agricultural activities have always drawn her students in, giving them a hands-on way to learn about science and the world around them. She uses kits from the foundation to incorporate hands-on activities.

“One of the benefits of using agriculture as a context is that, by nature, it’s multidisciplinary and our mission is to help educators incorporate it into multiple subjects. If educators have a passion and interest, they find the integration to come pretty naturally,” said Jessica Jansen, the foundation’s executive director, in an email.

Jansen said about 5,000 Oregon teachers use their materials each year, but Madison is a “superuser.” Madison gets the foundation’s monthly subscription box, which has a seasonal lesson for students about everything from hydroponics to the life cycle of Douglas fir trees.

Those lessons have been especially helpful over the past two years – first, for keeping her class engaged during online school, and then for giving them a reason to look forward to returning in-person.

Third and fourth grade Myers Elementary students participate in a “pumpkin experiment” in the fall of 2021 in teacher Stephanie Madison’s class (Courtesy/Stephanie Madison)

“It was a huge motivator to get kids to sign on for their online learning,” Madison said. She led class from her garage, holding up recently hatched chicks in an incubator.

With her students back now, she’s sent home corn seeds for students to try to germinate on their windowsills.

“Coming back from a pandemic of a year and a half at home and a lot of screen time for kiddos and not a lot of teacher attention or expectations or rigor in curriculum, it’s much more difficult to keep students’ attention and keep them engaged in their learning,” Madison said.

When she incorporates agriculture, she sees her students pay attention.

“It’s not just a worksheet like, ‘Okay, fill out the next bubble, fill out the next box.’ It’s get your hands in the soil and plant that seed,” she said. “That hands-on learning is huge for kids and it makes it just so much more fun. School still needs to be fun and it can be fun and engaging and real learning all of the same time.”

In a pre-pandemic lesson, Stephanie Madison’s class gets a visit from an alpaca to learn about how animals’ bodies adapt for survival (Courtesy/Stephanie Madison)

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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