A cool October wind blowing across the hilltops at Spring Brook Farm welcomed the bus with seventeen 5th grade students and two teachers from Brooklyn’s PS 233. The students excitedly piled off the bus, exclaimed at their new surroundings, and gathered to meet the farm staff. After a brief introduction to their new home for the week, students loaded their suitcases onto a waiting pickup truck and began the first of many trips on foot from the dairy barn to the dormitory.
Comments overheard by the evaluator reflected the students’ unfamiliarity--and in some cases discomfort--with this new natural environment. Sheltered from the wind at the corner of the barn, a butterfly flitted in and landed on grass. The students were excited to see it, and one asked, “Is it real?” Another student, while rolling her suitcase from the bus to a waiting pickup truck asked, “Why can’t this be paved?”
Through the woods on the way to the dormitory, a student remarked, “If anything comes out of these bushes, I’m running back to the bus!” Other students expressed fears about snakes and wolves.
“Are we gonna milk the cow?” asked one girl. “That’s nasty!” she declared.
So began a typical week with a new batch of urban students at Spring Brook Farm.
Introduction to the Case Study Process
The case study followed one group of students through their experience at the farm, collecting data at various times and through various methods. For the reader unfamiliar with the program, the case study provides a concrete, story-like context for understanding the program outcomes described in the pre-exiting and current survey data sets. Furthermore, the teacher, staff, and evaluator observations as well as student voices presented in the case study offer a further point of triangulation for the overall evaluation findings.
The case study was designed to focus on three areas: changes in students’ personal and social skills, changes in their attitudes about food and health choices, and changes in their views on the environment. Students completed a survey prior to their arrival, participated in group interviews on their first and final nights at the farm, and completed a survey on their final full day at the farm. Teachers and staff were also interviewed, and filled out observation forms throughout the week. Data were also gleaned from student journals, and the evaluator observed students participating in a variety of farm activities. Seven months later, the case study students and teachers completed surveys as part of a larger evaluation effort.
Discussion of Findings
Three primary areas of change in students were investigated:
What areas of students’ personal and social skills are being affected, and in what ways? (self-esteem, self-confidence, leadership, cooperative teamwork, conflict resolution)
How have students’ knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors about food and health choices changed?
How have students’ knowledge of and attitudes about agriculture, farm animals, and the environment changed?
The discussion of changes to students’ personal and social skills has been left in a chronological format, to preserve the feeling of following the students through their week at the farm. Discussion of key findings about food and health choices, and the environment and agriculture follow the chronological description. A brief summary of data gathered months after the farm trip is also provided.
Personal growth during a week at the Farm
Following the students’ week at the farm through interviews, observations, and their journals gives some of the flavor of their personal journey. It is a different experience for each student, but they all seem to take away something positive.
When asked what she thought was the most important thing that the farm experience does for her students, one of the teachers responded that it was “...social development and self-growth. A lot of the students become independent in ways that they weren’t. A lot of them become more confident and their self-esteem is built up.” She added that “the chores and conquering their fears” were big contributing factors for this growth, and explained,
I think they develop a sense of self-worth. They’re doing things and they know they are responsible not only for themselves, but for the animals, and for the plants…they actually change places with the animals. At home, they’re the “animal in the barn” with parents and teachers doing things for them. Here, they’re the adult, because now the animals are depending on them.
The teacher also described how the farm provides a good environment for students to work on their conflict resolution skills:
In their own environment they seem always, unfortunately, to be quicker to use their hands to handle their problems. They also have more children telling them to do the wrong things. Here, they know that there are strong and strict consequences for their actions, and in a smaller group, it’s easier to encourage them to talk it out, to work it out.
First impressions, concerns, and goals for the week
Insights into the students’ first impressions of the farm were gathered from their journals and during interviews the night of their arrival. Their comments reflected a mix of excitement, trepidation, and openness to the new experience.
In their journals a few students wrote of their excitement and enthusiasm about arriving at the farm. About his arrival at the farm, a particularly upbeat student wrote, “I was very excited, and joy just came to my heart. I was cold but happy. I know we are going to have a good and hard working time.”
One student found some prior concerns about the farm to be unfounded:
I thought there would be animals running around with no control, but the animals and people are really friendly. Even if you have no clue who they are, you just wave at each other. Really friendly. You can’t find people like that in New York. They would look at you like you are a mad person.
Most of the students had never been to a farm before, or seen or touched any of the farm animals, and there was some nervousness about this. One student wrote, “I totally freaked out! The cows frightened me the most.” Though not as strongly, a number of students echoed this type of sentiment. “A lot of them come with fears,” their teacher remarked. When asked the first night what they thought they would miss while at the farm, most students mentioned family, television, and video games. Some were worried about the darkness, the sounds of animals, and the food.
The students’ first journal entries reflect many positive aspirations for the week. While some students hoped to overcome farm-specific fears such as “…to touch a full grown cow,” many enumerated goals related to positive social behaviors, such as teamwork, cooperation, hard work, and respect. Examples of these aspirations included:
“Work as a team, go for the job you think is hard, never quit.”
“I want to be the girl that helps everybody on the farm.”
“Work hard on every chore, never quit, stay healthy and have fun.”
By the second and third days, most of the students seemed to be getting the hang of the chores, getting comfortable with their rural surrounding, getting to know each other, and settling into the farm routines.
Overcoming fears and getting comfortable
Many students overcame their initial fears the first time they got into the barn for chores. As one student wrote, “I was nervous about cows and bulls…but when I did those chores and experienced those things I never got nervous anymore.” A staff member reported that “[Student] said she had overcome her fear of chickens by coming to the farm.”
During their first day on the farm, students were observed shrieking and shouting when they first encountered fresh cow manure. According to observations made later by the farm staff, many students overcame their anxiety about manure:
One night following chores, I had a group of kids walking behind the dairy barn, where it is wet, muddy, and full of manure. One boy decided to walk right through the deepest, worst part of the mud, and [student] followed him. Her boot got stuck in the mud and she got mud and manure all over her foot. When I asked her how her foot was, she said, ‘Fine.’ I was shocked that kids who were timid about manure at the beginning of the week had no problem walking through probably the grossest part of the farm and enjoying it. That was their way of saying, ‘Hey, look at me, I’m not afraid to get dirty!’
Another staff member told of a student falling into heaps of manure in the heifer barn and still finishing the job.
Enjoying the farm and gaining skills
In their journals on the second day, students wrote about how they had enjoyed their chores, including feeding the calves, milking the cows, harvesting zucchini, onions, and potatoes in the garden, and making cookies in the kitchen. On the third day students described other new experiences like cleaning out pumpkin seeds, making salsa from fresh garden ingredients, picking flowers, and collecting eggs.
Prompted to write about what they had learned during the day, students related basic farm knowledge such as, “Pigs don’t like orange peels,” “Cows eat with their tongues, but they don’t eat your hand,” and deeper lessons like, “I learned to be gentle with farm animals because they have feelings too.”
Some students reflected on their roles as farmhands that day, writing, “If there are no kids or a lot of farmers around, the animals won’t get the love, care, and respect that they need,” and, “It is good to work hard, finish chores, and follow directions.” One student was overheard saying, “Being a farmer is hard, but fun.” Two other students agreed.
A staff member observed students getting comfortable and confident with the work, noting that “Every time they feed bull calves out of the bottle I’ve told kids they were doing a great job and they say, ‘Yeah, I know,’ or ‘I thought it would be harder.’”
The PS 233 group was lucky enough to witness the birth of a new calf. The students were full of questions like, “How do you know when a cow is ready to have a baby?” and “What is all that other stuff coming out of the mom and what is it for?” One asked, “Can we sleep here with Frances (the new calf) tonight to make sure he’s OK?” Other students remarked, “I can’t believe he can stand up so soon,” and, “I didn’t know that a mom licks her baby to clean it.” This dramatic and novel experience clearly prompted awe, wonder, and reflection, and left a lasting impression.
Making friends, working together
Teamwork is an integral part of the farm experience, and the staff observed numerous instances of the students working well together. As a chronicle of this type of cooperation, staff recorded the following student quotes:
“It’s easier if we work together.”
“Here, [student], let me help you.”
“Hey [student], it’s easier if you do it like this.”
“I’ll push the wheelbarrow if you keep making a pile while I’m gone.”
Another staff member noticed students helping each other with physically demanding chores, writing, “Many kids tried to pick up a hay bale by themselves but couldn’t lift it over the bar to throw it down the hole. Once others saw their teammate struggling, they rushed to lend a hand.”
Similarly, one of the teachers related a story about two students working together (pseudonyms have been used for confidentiality):
I was looking at T today at the table where they were doing their work, and M--he’s in Special Ed.--he’s a little slower. T just decided, ‘I’m going to help this kid.’ And I didn’t get involved, I just listened. And I heard him, he’s like, ‘No, no, no, no, watch, watch. You gotta do this. Okay, here…no, no, no, don’t stop, you’re doing it right. You’re doing right.’ So M kept going, and finally when he finished whatever it was that T showed him, T turns around to him, and says, ‘Okay, now the next thing you have to do is this.’ And he was just taking it very calmly, and whispering like he didn’t want anyone to know, but he took it upon himself. M didn’t ask him. T just took it upon himself to help M get the job done.
When asked if that was a dynamic the teacher had seen before, she responded,
No, no, not at all, not at all. And unlike M even, to be responsive to it, because he’s usually the child who, when you help him, he’s like, ‘I know, I know. I got it, I got it.’ And it was great just to see these two completely different personalities. They just meshed. T decided to help. M knew he needed this help, and he accepted it. And together they got it done.
According to the teacher, working and living together on the farm establishes new friendships among students, and improves and deepens relationships between students and teachers, as illustrated in the following comments:
When they come here, there is no clique. Everybody is friends and they go back to school, and they continue their family tie, that brotherhood and sisterhood that they establish here…Children who don’t even know each other’s name, because they’re not in the same class, they are interacting as if they’ve been friends forever.
It really gives them a chance to see the teachers outside…not acting like a teacher. They still respect you as a teacher, but they can see you as more of a friend than they did at school. And it just lets us let our hair down and enjoy the kids on a different level. I think they open up to us more, in a more private and personal way…. I find that the ones who come here, they always feel so much closer to the teacher.
The farm staff also observed examples of students expressing appreciation for each other:
In the kitchen a couple of the boys were talking about a game they played. One of the boys and another girl tied and both got a prize. Two of the boys were saying how much she ’really deserved’ her prize and how good she had done at the game. They were really praising her, without any prompting.
As the week progressed, the students developed a constructive community, working together, looking out for each other, and persevering to get their jobs done.
Looking back on the week
On the eve of their departure from the farm, the students were clearly comfortable, well adjusted and thriving at the farm. Many students had come to favor certain chores, and it seemed that all had bonded with a specific calf. Many knew the names and traits of all the calves. All the students were deeply impressed with witnessing the birth of the new calf, and one student remarked that “The most important thing I saw was the birth of a calf. It was good, kind of shocking. That was my first time seeing anything being born.”
During the end-of-the-week interviews, students were reminded of what they had said they would miss during the beginning-of-the-week interviews, and were asked how that went for them. One student said that he was ready to see their parents, but that he felt good about being away from home for so long. Another student said she was ready to go home because “I am missing my show right now.” For the most part, however, students did not seem to care that they had missed any of their favorite shows. “I would rather do stuff on the farm than watch TV,” one student said.
This sentiment was echoed by the majority of the students, who expressed great interest in staying longer at the farm. When asked how much longer, enthusiastic responses included: “A year!” “Two years!” “I’ll say five months,” and “Nine months.” One student felt sure that she “...could handle missing my family if I stayed a long time. I’d talk to my mom on the phone.”
One student expressed hopes of returning, remarking, “I hope that other grades get to do this. I’d like to come back again. I’ll be even stronger.” When asked what had been the hardest activity of the week, students spoke confidently about their physical efforts. “Nothing was hard!,” exclaimed one student. Many students remarked about the dirty and challenging task of shoveling manure out of the heifer barn. Completion of these tasks left the students satisfied with their accomplishments. “At the end you felt good about yourself,” said one student. Another added, “I know I can hike. It feels good knowing that.”
Asked to reflect on whether the farm experience had changed them at all, or what they had learned about themselves, the students had a variety of answers, including:
“I changed my selfishness. I share more.” (friends expressed agreement)
“I changed how I work in a team. It felt funnier before, not as comfortable.”
“I think I got stronger and faster.”
“I got to know people and make new friends.”
“At first I was afraid of big animals, and afraid to look at a cow, but I did it.” For many of the students, the farm week was an unfamiliar and demanding, but skill-building and rewarding experience. Faced with new challenges but guided toward success by their teachers and the farm staff, the students seemed to grow personally in many ways, ranging from how brave they felt around animals to how much stronger they felt they had become.
Healthy choices: food and exercise
Another theme that evaluators explored during the PS 233 week was the students’ knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors about food and health choices such as exercise. Several survey questions and the student interviews briefly explored these topics with the students.
Between the question on the written survey and what students reported during interviews, the group seemed to generally be enjoying a healthy diet prior to the farm experience. While fried foods were mentioned by some, when asked about their favorite foods and foods they would enjoy eating, the majority of students offered such things as “curry chicken and white rice,” “veggie burger, mashed potato and Sprite,” and, “a nice creamy clam chowder with a little bit of spiciness.” Asked the same question at the end of the week, answers were similar.
While it does not appear that the farm experience changed students’ attitudes about food choices, a number of positive things were observed during the week by the farm staff:
Students tried new foods and reported being more willing to try new foods.
Students appreciated eating fresh foods directly out of the garden, such as tomatoes with basil, and sunflower seeds right from the flower.
Students better understand how much work it takes to make food.
Students were eating fruit during meals.
Farm staff also overheard the following remarks from students:
“This is the best food I’ve ever had.”
“This is so much better than school food.”
“It’s great! [the pizza] And the vegetables are from the garden.”
“Farm food is good. I wish school lunches were this good.”
“My mom never lets me in the kitchen. I’m really enjoying getting to cook.” All of the students reported that it was fine not having any junk food during the week, but most were looking forward to particular treats such as potato chips, sugar cereal, and pizza. As one student summarized, “We have to eat fast food and unhealthy food once in a while!”
When asked how they felt about all the exercise they had experienced during the week, all the students felt that it had been a positive experience. Some were ready for a break, saying that they had “…enough hiking this week,” but others appeared to be energized by the vigorous activity:
“In high school if they have track and field I might join.”
“The racing was fun.”
“I’d like to have a big hill at school to run down.”
“When I was younger I used to run fast, but then I lost my will to run. Now I got it back.”
“I feel stronger and faster.”
There is little doubt that the students physically benefit from a week of ample exercise, healthy meals, plenty of sleep, and fresh air. Indeed, many students expressed appreciation for these healthful elements of the farm trip. The data, however, do not suggest that the experience had significant impact on the students’ attitudes and behaviors about food, and students seemed to be about evenly split with regard to their feelings about exercise.
Agriculture and the environment
The pre-post survey indicated that students had made only small increases in their ability to list foods that come from a farm, foods that come from milk, and phases of the life cycle of a dairy cow. Students made greater strides in their understanding of the steps that take milk “from the cow to the cereal bowl.”
In the pre-post interviews, as one measure of their attitudes toward the environment, students were asked how they felt about insects and what they thought the value of the forest might be. Predictably, the students had a generally negative view of insects upon arrival to the farm, with comments such as “hate ‘em,” “despise ‘em,” and, “nasty.” During the later interviews, the students had a more moderate view of insects, calmly commenting that they had observed many insects at the farm, and describing how they had learned more about the benefits of bees.
The students demonstrated impressive knowledge of forests during the arrival interviews, listing what they knew about renewable and non-renewable resources, and the ecological and economic values of forests. One student expressed concerns about the possibility of wild animals in the forest. Another optimistically hoped that “Even though on the farm there is a lot of cow manure, maybe the trees will give us a fresh scent.” In the later interview, students demonstrated new knowledge about the production of maple syrup, and the uses of timber in the local economy.
Though not a typical entry, one student wrote in her journal, “I learned that nature is important because without it you won’t get the smell and sound of forests.” Another was overheard remarking that, “…people should come here to the farm to see all the rocks – they are beautiful.”
Overall, this group of students made relatively small gains in their knowledge of agriculture and the environment. Some students seemed more disposed than others to appreciate the natural setting of the farm.
Back in Brooklyn
When asked how the farm experience had translated back to the classroom for the numerous groups she has accompanied in the past, the PS 233 teacher explained,
It does, a lot of them become more positive…children who were afraid to answer in class, all of a sudden their hands are up. It carries over in their attitude. We had a little boy last year, who was a bit of a behavior problem, consistently, from Kindergarten up. And after being here, this little boy was just a whole new person. Once in a while when he kind of slid, I said “remember the farm.” And that was all I had to tell him. It was like, “Okay.” And he stopped.
She added that,
…other teachers have noticed a difference in their students when they come back from the farm. It’s not just the teacher that they bonded with here, they carry over the new personality and attitude back into the school and the teachers really see a difference.
Asked again seven months later on the written survey specifically about the case study group, the same teacher wrote “Some who lacked confidence in their academic abilities seem to be trying harder and seeing themselves make positive strides.”
The pre-post student surveys administered before arrival at the farm and the night before leaving did not demonstrate statistically significant changes in most areas of the students’ personal and social skills, but these quantitative data do suggest that students felt they had improved in their teamwork and conflict resolution abilities.
The PS 233 students also completed a survey seven months after their farm trip as part of a larger effort surveying all the students that came to the farm in 2005. Their responses are incorporated into the analysis of those surveys, and a brief snapshot is offered here to give a sense of what their impressions were months later.
Almost all of the students described working with the animals as the most important lesson they had learned on the farm, and most listed various animal husbandry skills as new talents they had discovered at the farm. Students listed overcoming fears, helping more with chores at home, and the new found ability to survive without electronic entertainment among the ways the farm experience changed them. Overall the group did not observe much change in their relationships to each other or their teacher, but most remarked that everyone got along well before the trip and had a positive view of their teacher. The students uniformly expressed pride in what they had accomplished during the week, and the majority reported that they had increased their teamwork, cooperation, and conflict resolution skills. The following are some representative quotes from the survey:
“The simple life is really fun.”
“I learned how to take care of animals and not to be scared and try new things.”
“Farming covers a lot of school stuff like social studies, math, and more.”
“At the farm nobody was better than anybody else because we all did the same things for the week.”
“I feel good because I got a special chance that many may not get.”
“We all learned to help out when someone is in need of it.”
“Yes, [resolving conflicts] is easier because we know how to act and work together.”