Skip to main content

Greenville & Hockessin Life

The teachers in the barn

Jan 05, 2015 07:54PM ● By Kerigan Butt

(Editor's note: This article first appeared in our Winter 2013 edition.)

By Richard L. Gaw

Staff Writer

On a recent November morning, in a renovated barn on the campus of the Centreville School, Margaret Leardi, the school's director of advancement, stood before a  small group of wide-eyed first graders and began talking about horses' hooves.

To demonstrate, Leardi held up the bones of a horse's hoof, one that still had a horse shoe on its underside, and while the children tapped on it, testing it for hardness and durability, the great idea by the school to link agriculture with their eductional mission introduced the children to a horse's need for traction, the purpose of the horse shoe, and its importance in allowing the horse to pull a tractor or walk on pavement. Leardi pointed to where the nails in the horseshoe had been inserted, and about what happens when a horse breaks its toe.

“They get really sick, because they can't use a crutch or some ice, or ask their mom to bring them a cookie and make them feel better,” Leardi told the children. “They're on their feet 22 hours a day, so their feet are very important.”

Among the many upraised hands were an equal number of questions, but one stood out above the rest: Is the hoof real?  Leardi tapped the bones of the horse's hoof once more. Of course it's real, she said, and it's just like everything else in the new Animal Science Program at the Centreville School.

New this year, the program has already begun to introduce Centreville students to a world in which many children their age are unfamiliar, only the classroom is not filled with books and pencils and computers, but a Shetland pony, two pot-bellied pigs, four sheep and a few goats.   

In many ways, the five classes Leardi teches every Friday are reflective of the basic curriculum at Centreville, which encourages learning through touch, sense, sound and experience. By being able to reach out and touch the animals, students are introduced to comparative anatomy between livestock and humans, as well as begin to understand the impact farm animals have made on the agricultural and industrial progress of the United States since the 1700s. As part of these classes, students are asked to make journal entries about what they learned in the program. In addition, guest speakers and demonstrations like sheep shearing compliment the program.

"These classes are trying to engage all different areas of learning, whether its working on receptive and expressive language skills in talking about the animals, or bringing in some basic math in the form of doing tape measurements on ponies and transferring the numbers to kilograms and pounds," said Leardi. "It's a different venue for learning, and when kids get a chance to have hands-on learning opportunities, they really thrive."

The program began as an offshoot from Susan Hendricks, a teacher at the school, who had borded her horses in the barn stall. Through donations by several animal rescue agencies in the area, the horses were eventually joined by two sheep, followed by four additional sheep that the school adopted. Personal Ponies, a national program whose director had Shetland ponies at Carousel Park in Newark, approached Denise Orenstein, former head of school, with the idea of donating the animals to the school. Orenstein agreed, and the genesis of the Animal Science Program was formed.

For Leardi, the teaching she does is by no means her first foray into the world of animals. As a child growing up in nearby Delaware County, she took an active interest in farm animals and horses, and before she arrived at the Centreville School, she was an environmental educator at the New York State Living Museum in Watertown, N.Y., on the Canadian border, where she worked with rehabilitated wild animals.

In its short life, the program has already been helped along with grants from the Crestlea Foundation and Chichester DuPont Foundation -- which have paid for the creation a pathway to the barn, as well as air conditioning and heating in the barn. Donations of materials and teaching tools have been made by animal treatment facilities like the New Bolton Center, but Leardi said there are many more opportunities to supplement the program's curriculum -- such as more animals.

"All of the kids would love to see us have some chickens, which may be a big commitment because we have a resident fox living in the area," Leardi said. "We have access to people who have birds, birds of prey, turtles and snakes, and we could see a retired milking cow and alpaca here soon -- animals that will engage the children and allow them to learn from them."

The Centreville School is not alone in its recognition of the importance of agricultural education. Across the nation, several schools and foundations are championing such classes. The American Farm Bureau for Agriculture, gives grants for agricultural literacy projects. The National Agriculture in the Classroom Organization works with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to support state programs that gives opportunities to improve agricultural literacy in schools, from Pre-K to 12th grade.

"For a lot of our students, it's their first time touching a goat, or their first time watching a sheep being shorn and feeling its wool," Leardi said. "There are animals on every continent just like there are people, and even though our cultures may be different, a sheep is a sheep, no matter what the continent. Making connections between the animals and people is really imporant, becuase kids need to learn a little about empathy, and one of the lessons that we hope will carry through for them is that we all need to care for each other."

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail [email protected].

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to Greenville & Hockessin Life's free newsletter to catch every headline