The National Agriculture in the Classroom Organization (NAITCO), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Farm Credit partner each year to honor teachers in kindergarten through 12th grade from around the country for the innovative ways they use agricultural concepts to teach reading, writing, math, science, social studies, STEM, STEAM and more. This year, Johnnie Keel, Gifted and Talented teacher at Truman Elementary in Norman, Oklahoma, and seven other teachers from around the country have been selected as the 2019 National Excellence in Teaching about Agriculture Award winners. 

Johnnie Keel was once quoted as saying, “It’s so important for us to know where our food comes from.” However, the elementary school teacher with 23 years classroom experience doesn’t stop at the “where” of agriculture. Through her Oklahoma Ag in the Classroom (AITC) activities she shares with her students about “who” the individuals are that devote their lives to provide food and “how” those individuals take care of not only people, but the earth.

Keel, who has taught for 13 years at Truman Elementary in Norman, has such a solid reputation for teaching AITC curriculum that she has presented multiple times at the state AITC conference, as well as the national AITC conference. In 2018, she was selected as the Oklahoma Ag in the Classroom Teacher of the Year.

Why is Keel so good at teaching these lessons to those from primarily non-agricultural backgrounds? Possibly because Ag in the Classroom is how she learned about agriculture. “My ag story doesn’t begin with life on the farm, visiting grandparents as they care for the ranch or helping family plant and harvest the crops,” Keel said. In 1995, Keel switched careers from an office job in the oil business to an occupation she had desired to pursue for years, teaching. She made this transition with the goal of being “the best educator possible.” So, Keel attended the Ag in the Classroom workshop at the Cleveland County fairgrounds where Jamey Allen, former AITC State Coordinator, was the presenter.

“Her (Allen’s) enthusiasm and professionalism were contagious,” Keel said. “I was plowed over with ideas of ways to integrate agriculture into my curriculum, with a harvest of lesson ideas that were relevant and meaningful, bountiful with fun activities to engage students.” The seed planted in that first workshop yielded so much more. Keel’s third, fourth and fifth graders research farm equipment designs online and build miniature versions of this machinery using Legos and participate in a STEM Day to learn about chemistry and genetics in agriculture, among other projects.

As a way to increase interest in agriculture and STEM in young girls, Keel recently created GLAMS (Girls Learning Agriculture, Math, and Science). Currently, 21 fifth grade girls meet every two weeks and complete a variety of STEM activities. GLAMS meets during an extended lunch/recess time so all the girls may attend, with no worries about transportation. The GLAMS have participated in Tomatosphere, planting and gathering data from seeds that have been in space. They are also participating in the American Farm Bureau Foundation Pollination Project and are painting bee homes for a local beekeeper. Female mentors from STEM fields come in as guest speakers. On February 11, they had the opportunity to Skype with a girl’s agricultural group in Italy as part of International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

 “We are proud to honor these teachers who use agricultural concepts to deliver important reading, writing, math, nutrition, science and social studies lessons to students,” said Dr. Victoria LeBeaux, the National Agriculture in the Classroom Program Leader for USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), which provides federal leadership and annual funding for NAITC. “The real-life connections teachers make by using items students use every day resonates with these students.” 

“We applaud these teachers for the innovative ways they use agriculture to teach students about this important industry,” said Will Fett, president of NAITCO and executive director of Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation. “We honor them for the strides they make in agricultural literacy in their classrooms every day.”  

This year’s other winning teachers are:

 • Rachel Chastain, a special needs teacher at the Helen Keller Campus of the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind in Talladega, AL, whose students learn about agriculture and animal husbandry by rearing chickens and other small farm animals on school grounds. 

• Andy Klatt, a physical education teacher at Grandview Elementary in Windsor, CO, who uses a school garden and an after-school garden club to teach students throughout the school about the importance of healthy eating and exercise.

• A team of five teachers – Dawn Chehab, Joshua Garrett, John Martinez, Erica Roberts and Nicholas Zebroski – at Millennia Gardens Elementary School in Orlando, FL who established ‘Eco-Club’ to teach students in third through fifth grade about growing food in raised bed gardens and hydroponics towers, protecting the environment and being good stewards of the land with a wildlife sanctuary and developing alternative energy sources with a ‘PedalA-Watt’ bicycling station that powers the school garden irrigation system. 

• Beth Sletta, a STEM teacher at Jefferson Elementary in New Ulm, MN whose students design a winter seed sowing system to grow vegetables when it’s too cold to grow them outside and use a 3-D printer to design longer lasting plant stakes, among other initiatives. 

• Dawn Alexander, a fifth-grade teacher at Tom McCall Elementary in Redmond, OR, who uses bees and a project called ‘Please the Bees’ to educate students about agriculture and the environment. 

• Brad Hendershot, a science teacher at Excelsior Academy in Salt Lake City, UT, whose sixth, seventh and eighth graders participate in a special class called ‘Greenthumbs’ where they work in two schoolyard greenhouses to grow, harvest, market and sell their fruits, vegetables and ornamental plants.  

• Chris Kniesly, a life science teacher at Twain Middle School in Alexandria, VA, whose students grow lettuce hydroponically, raise crayfish, cultivate mushrooms and produce ‘hot’ compost to learn important plant biology and aquaculture lessons. 

Keel and the other educators will be honored at the National Agriculture in the Classroom Conference “AgVenture in the Natural State” June 19-21, 2019 at the Little Rock Marriott in Little Rock, Arkansas. NAITCO is a non-profit organization representing Agriculture in the Classroom programs in most of the 50 states across the country. Its mission is to educate K-12 teachers and students about the importance of agriculture by providing them with web-based materials, workshops and awards programs that demonstrate how agriculture can be used to effectively teach core subject areas. 

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Please contact Lisa Gaskalla at (352) 745-0246 or