MARINGOUIN — Most children in South Louisiana prefer their crawfish with claws closed and tails tucked, usually with a side of boiled corn and potatoes.
However, today, at Valverda Elementary School in Maringouin, in Iberville Parish, a group of fourth graders are handling their crawfish pre-boiling pot; live, active and somewhat agitated. Catherine Olinde’s students are understandably somewhat apprehensive.
“These are live creatures,” Olinde reminders her students. “Remember what I said. If you know that you’re scared to pick these crawfish up, don’t do it. Let your partner pick it up.”
Therein lies the dilemma. In some cases, both partners are scared.
“Someone’s got to handle them, so make your decision,” she urges her students. Students point to one another as “You do it,” reverberates across the classroom. There’s laughter, but it’s cautious.
As the Louisiana Farm Bureau’s Ag in the Classroom teacher of the year for 2014, Olinde knows there’s only one way for her students to learn about crawfish and the impact the crustacean has on both the state’s economy and its cuisine.
“You’ve got to get in there and really see what the crawfish looks like and what he’s all about,” she continues. “If you pick them up from the center of the back their claws can’t reach you.”
Some students beg to differ. Some crawfish are larger than others and the “big daddies” as they’re called, have claws that can really reach back. But one by one the students overcome their fears. Once in hand the crawfish are captive and, for the most part harmless. Now the fun really begins.
As part of this biology lesson, incorporated into one of the Farm Bureau’s Ag in the Classroom lesson plans, Olinde’s students are measuring the crawfish, counting the spinnerets and determining weight, size and even age of the bayou bounty. Louisiana is the only state in the nation that produces crawfish for primarily domestic consumption. For Louisianans, spring and summer wouldn’t be the same without crawfish boils and the revenue generated by a small swamp creature others use for fish bait.
It’s these hands-on lessons that take her students beyond the confines of the textbook, Olinde says. Reading about crawfish is one thing, but seeing them, handling them, even smelling them, brings the lesson to life.
“I like to see them engaged in something,” she says. “If we just did worksheets all day and I’m just grading papers, it’s just repetition. But when you can challenge your students, really excite them with something the lesson they take away is much more effective. They remember it. You can see by the looks on their faces that some of them will always remember handling that crawfish.”
In the spring Olinde was chosen Louisiana’s AITC Teacher of the Year from dozens of teachers submitted by school systems across the state. For the last 14 years the Farm Bureau’s AITC program has recognized outstanding educators who incorporate agriculture in their daily lesson plans. The Farm Bureau program has provided thousands of teachers across Louisiana with free learning materials that use agriculture as a learning tool, all which meet state educational requirements outlined and approved by the Louisiana Department of Education.
Olinde’s selection marks something of a streak for Valverda Elementary. Last year her sister, JoAnn Hebert, was named AITC Teacher of the Year and was named the national AITC Teacher of the Year by the USDA in 2013. The two veteran fourth grade teachers consult one another on lesson plans and work to encourage school administrators to continue the success of the AITC program.
“They constantly speak to one another about the lessons they teach their students,” said Lynda Danos, the Louisiana Farm Bureau Ag in the Classroom state coordinator. “It’s exciting to see teachers working together to better educate not only their students, but an entire school system. We’ve seen teachers take these initiatives and changed the way school systems look at agricultural literacy and ag education. Louisiana remains a very rural state and agriculture is the No. 1 economic engine driving our economy. It’s important that students know that.”