For the past five years, a team of two teachers at Gray-New Gloucester Middle School has been rooting their curriculum in agriculture and nature-based learning.

From math to language arts, Morgan Kerr and Stephanie Enaire have developed creative lesson plans that incorporate the natural world to give their students a better understanding of the food system and community around them.

“It’s really important that students have an understanding of how the world works around them, and food and agriculture is just such a great way to bring them that understanding,” Kerr said. “There is such a disconnect of where food comes from. ‘Oh, you get it from the grocery store.’ And that’s where the thinking stops a lot of the time. Creating those thoughts and a deeper learning is just such an important thing for us to do.”

Kerr and Enaire never thought they’d receive national attention for how they’ve managed to meet education standards from a nature-based approach, but they will be getting that attention in June when they will be honored with seven other teachers from around the country who have been selected to receive the 2017 National Excellence in Teaching about Agriculture Award.

The award is given annually by the National Agriculture in the Classroom Program, a nonprofit organization that works to assist educators in bringing agriculture-informed learning to their students and represents the 50 statewide agriculture in the classroom programs. Kerr and Enaire were selected as a team as the 2016 Maine Agriculture in the Classroom Teacher of the Year Award.

“What you do in your classroom day to day, to think that it’s going to be recognized outside of the classroom, that’s not why we do what we do. We do what we do because we want to engage students and give them these experiences,” Enaire said. “So it’s nice to be recognized for all of the hard work that you’ve put in. It’s humbling, for sure.”

But what this team of teachers manages to do in their classroom day to day is pretty special. By taking history lessons outside to explore public trails for signs of a former sheep farm and using garden design to incorporate science, technology, engineering and mathematics, commonly known as STEM, instruction, Kerr and Enaire are not only giving their students hands on learning experiences, they’re giving them an education that is rooted in their surroundings

Kerr and Enaire teach fifth and sixth grade, instructing about 50 students. As team teachers, Enaire instructs the students in math and science, and Kerr handles social studies and language arts.

While the duo may specialize in different subjects, when they were paired together five years ago, they felt their shared interest in agriculture had a clear place in the classroom. At the time, Kerr had just come to Gray-New Gloucester Middle School from Wolfe Neck Farm in Freeport, where he worked as a farm school educator, an experience that he said inspired him to bring that type of a nature-based education into a traditional school environment. For Enaire, it was her upbringing on a dairy farm that inspired her desire to pass on an understanding of agriculture to her students.

“It was something that started as one unit at the end of the first year we were teaching [together] that was looking at where does food come from and what is available in our local community, and that’s when we really figured, wow, we could really do a full year looking at sustainability and agriculture and all these different components that are connected with it,” Kerr said.

While science is the subject Enaire said most obviously can be formated to incorporate agriculture, the two said nature-based learning can apply to any subject, for instance, in language arts students can read or write about the topic and in social studies students can learn how different farming and agriculture practices influenced history.

Last year in Kerr’s language arts class, needing to apply for a grant to get funding for their school garden, the students wrote persuasive essays to the administration explaining why they felt the garden would be a benefit for the school. This year, his students are learning about argumentative and opinion while writing essays on the best ways to reduce food waste.

“We’re really trying to tie in relevant things that they can connect to,” Kerr said. “The garden was something that was actually happening. Their persuasive writing helped make that happen. So with the food waste we’re looking to bring a composting program to the school. These are really things that are happening.”

In her math class, students have designed the school’s small garden along with figuring out what the project needed for materials and how much of each item was needed. In another design project, students made portable cages, or “chicken tractors,” for the chicks that the students hatched in their science class.

To further expand on the agricultural and environmental themes Kerr and Enaire are incorporating into their curriculum, this year their team grew to include two additional teachers, Jason Herod and Sarah Rudman. Having the additional staffing allows the team to reach seventh graders who want to continue with agriculturally informed learning after sixth grade.

But the students aren’t the only ones who are benefiting from this creative curriculum. Enaire and Kerr said that by watching the ways in which their students have grown through agricultural experiences, they’ve grown as teachers as well.

“[The students] talk about some of the skills they have learned and some of the connections that they have made with each other, and that is really great to see in adolescents, just the way that they talk about learning and those experiences make you really proud,” Enaire said. “It’s rekindled my love for teaching.”