Changing the Middle School Experience at
East Hill Farm School
By KATHERINE P. COX
Photos by AL KAREVY
“I didn’t expect it to be this much fun,” said one middle-school student about his experience at East Hill Farm School at the Inn at East Hill Farm in Troy. He and 22 other students from The Village School in Waldwick, N.J., had been up early that morning to do their farm chores and were finishing up breakfast before heading back out to one of the barns to learn about sheep shearing – and to try their hands at it, as well.
All the Farm Helpers, as they are called, were enthusiastic about their experience – four days and three nights – learning about farming, animals, and the day-to-day effort that goes into sustaining a farm. The Farm School is full-immersion on the 150-acre farm that has cows, pigs, sheep, goats, chickens and horses. It was a far cry from their suburban lives in New Jersey, “and a lot more interactive than being at a zoo,” one said.
Most echoed one student, who said it was fun to be with friends outside of school, in a different environment. They felt they had grown closer and gotten to know each other better. “It’s a lot of fun, but a lot of work,” conceded another. The hands-on activities of feeding the animals and milking the cows appealed to their curiosity and reinforced the lessons they were learning about farming and animal husbandry. “We’re not just sitting and learning,” said one student.
That was the intent, said Dadmara Desantis, co-director of The Village School. “Our field trips are designed to engage our students in hands-on activities and direct learning experiences rather than passively absorb information,” she said. “The practical, direct nature of involvement of the program at East Hill seemed a wonderful match for our school.”
Marilyn Larkin, also co-director of The Village School, agreed. “Along with a challenging academic curriculum, The Village School emphasizes the importance of personal responsibility, the value of cooperative, collaborative work and global stewardship. I think the farm experience provided opportunities to reflect on all those things,” she said.
“We had been searching for a farm trip for our students for a number of years,” she said, and were thrilled to learn of the East Hill Farm School programs. “Most farms are one-day workshops and we wanted the students to have a more realistic experience. We felt it would be an excellent educational experience as well as provide students with a practical, hands-on opportunity to work cooperatively and responsibly on real-world tasks. “
The program provides a wealth of real-world tasks, from cleaning out stalls and milking cows, to feeding animals and repairing fences. Depending on the season, workshops include maple sugaring, forest management, pond ecology, and others. From Cow to Culture teaches students how to make butter or cheese from the milk they have collected from the farm’s cows. The Village School kids learned how to shear sheep and turn the wool into felt.
After a hearty breakfast they all re-assembled in the barn where Bruce Clement, a shearer from Westmoreland, N.H., gave them in-depth background about sheep and their wool and explained how—and why—to shear sheep. The students intently watched Clement as he held a sheep on its hind end between his feet and knees, forelegs firmly in one hand, and with electric shears in the other hand skillfully separated the thick fleece from the sheep. The students clapped and cheered when he finished. After demonstrating the proper technique, Clement invited the students to try their hands at shearing another sheep. None hesitated or held back, eagerly lining up to take their turns. A few touched and felt the fleece that was now lying on the barn floor. “It’s really oily,” said one girl. “I didn’t expect that.”
One 13-year-old girl used a variety of adjectives to describe her experience: scary, intense, interesting, exciting. “It’s something I never thought I would do,” she said. “I will think about shearing sheep the next time I wear wool.”
In the meantime, after the shearing was completed, she and her fellow students learned how to transform the wool into felt in a crafting project that took them through many wet, messy steps of layering wool, soaking it in soapy water, and pounding the layers into a solid form. Each student ended up with his or her own felt square. One boy said proudly, “this is the coolest thing I’ve ever done.”
Then it was back to the dining room for lunch before chores again beckoned in the afternoon. Farm chores are done three times a day in a rigorous schedule that also includes hikes, other workshops, journal writing, and even contra dancing.
But these middle-schoolers—an age where just picking up their rooms is considered a chore—are not complaining. “I didn’t expect it to be this fun,” said one. One 12-year-old boy said his favorite chore was feeding the animals. He said he’d been on a farm before, but never got to shear sheep or milk cows. Not many people can say they’ve milked a cow, he said. “I milked a cow! I fed donkeys! I sheared sheep!” he said, somewhat amazed.
One girl, reflecting on her time at the farm, said it was fun, very new, and tiring, and she would “definitely” recommend it to others. “I’m doing things I’ve never done before.” Farm life, she said, “takes a lot of energy, expense and ability.”
Many agreed they were discovering a lot about farm life, learning to appreciate the work it takes to keep a farm going, and enjoying being outside in the country. “It’s important to see how much work it takes,” said one boy. Another liked “getting in touch with nature. You can see the stars. There’s not a lot of pollution; the air smells fresh.”
One 13-year-old summed it up by saying, “This is the best school trip I’ve ever been on. I love animals. It’s so cool to be around them and take care of them. I’d love to live here.”
Katherine Cox is a freelance writer and former writer and editor for The Keene Sentinel, a daily in Keene, N.H. Her work appears in Monadnock Table, Vermont’s Local Banquet, SO Vermont Arts & Living, Here in Hanover, and Image. Al Karevy is a professional photographer at: karevy.com
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