Ashley Taylor’s class at École Leila North School has an unusual teaching assistant, and her name is Mrs. Sprinkles.
Mrs. Sprinkles isn’t a regular teaching assistant; she’s covered in feathers and enjoys dust baths in the classroom garden.
Mrs. Taylor, the grade 6-8 Foods and Nutrition teacher, started raising chickens in her class last fall, when an acquaintance of hers had extra chicks to give away. Taylor says the chickens make her students excited to come to class every day, with many of them stopping in every morning for their daily dose of Mrs. Sprinkles even if they don’t have class.
“Yeah, she has definitely changed my perspective on the value that I placed on chickens. She's sweet. She's sassy. She definitely has a special place in our hearts,” says Taylor.
Mrs. Sprinkles was part of a flock of hens the class received last year. This past winter, Mrs. Sprinkles got sick and needed emergency medical attention that left her unable to hatch any eggs. She recovered inside the classroom and, as Taylor describes it, became “part of our family.”
In addition to the chickens, Taylor’s class also has access to beehives donated by AITC-M volunteer Marg Smith, owner of Marg’s Honey Inc. The apiary project came with a partnership with CVE - Sustainable Energy and began four years ago.
Using the beehives, students can learn how to harvest honey, take beehive temperatures, how protective equipment works, the importance of bees in an ecosystem, and more. They also use the beeswax to make sustainable crafts like beeswax wraps and lip balm, and they use the honey in the Foods program.
Taylor says any excess eggs and honey are donated to the community free of charge.
For over a decade, Taylor has been teaching her students about the importance of farming and agriculture using Agriculture In The Classroom – Manitoba (AITC-M) resources. She says the Little Green Thumbs classroom gardening program is what got her started in ag education and “the rest is history.”
“It just got my thinking kickstarted in a way. I started thinking like ‘ok where does this food come from?’ and ‘ok so this is what happens when we plant this seed and nourish it’” she says.
And according to her, the kids love it.
Taylor says her students are always actively involved in the classroom activities; they learn how to care for the hens, what they should and shouldn't eat, the anatomy of a hen, the parts of an egg, and more. She also says the students observe the hens’ personalities and are taught to be mindful when caring for them.
“The hens teach our students about responsibilities and empathy for animals, these are powerful and important lessons,” she says.
She says the hens also tie into the food waste and sustainability portion of the curriculum. The chickens are fed food scraps, which they turn into more eggs, and their fertilizer is used in the classroom garden.
“It’s all interconnected,” says Taylor. “Every step of it branches off to another subject.”
Taylor says her students are just now finding out where their food comes from, and she loves to watch them have an “ah ha!” moment when they discover new things. Last year, one of the students told her they had no clue carrots grew from the ground – they thought carrots came from the grocery store!
Whether the kids are making sushi, planting sunflower seeds, making omelettes from the class eggs, or harvesting honey from the classroom bees, Mrs. Taylor’s students are always up for the next classroom adventure. According to her, the kids are proud of the work they do and of the things they create.
“There’s a sense of ownership from the students, right? Like ‘I planted that, and now I get to eat it,’” she says.
Taylor says she had no experience using a classroom garden prior to using AITC-M materials but calls the staff AITC-M “phenomenal” at helping her navigate the new equipment.
Pam Godfredsen, the Phys-Ed teacher at École Leila North School, says the programs have really helped international students navigate the Canadian agricultural world, which is often different from where they were born.
“I think it’s really amazing that we can show them what we value here and how animals and plants sometimes have different meanings than back home,” says Godfredsen.
Kira Rowat, Program Manager at AITC-M, says she applauds Taylor’s achievements in the classroom.
“She gives her students a full cycle adventure with our indoor gardening program, from students growing their own vegetables and greens, to creating meals with them and then vermicomposting the waste,” says Rowat, “she has a passion not only to teach but also to live what she teaches.”
Rowat says she remembers one of their Little Green Thumbs teacher workshops where Taylor attended with her baby in a carrier – a dedicated teacher!
It takes a whole community of people to raise animals at a school, and Taylor says she would not be able to do it without the help of every single staff member, student, community leader, and volunteer who help take care of the hens on weekends and holidays.
“It really does take a village,” she says.
Since her first foray into the world of AITC-M resources and programs, Taylor has implemented many forms of agriculture education in her classroom. Her students have both indoor and outdoor gardens, beehives, chickens, and hopefully in the near future – goats.
Mrs. Taylor hopes to introduce goats in her classroom one way or another. She says she has plans for goat yoga, goat milking, and more!
Follow Mrs. Taylor and Leila North School on Instagram to see all the other cool projects they are working on!