Rooted In Education by Stephanie Case

Imagine walking into a classroom to find students intrigued and engaged in cooking. Students are so engaged they do not notice your presence. Welcome to a day in Todd Willis’s classroom.

Through his award-winning class, kitchen, and garden at Pleasant Hill Elementary School in Olive Branch, Miss., Willis’s students learned and continue to learn from local experts. Last year, after the class raised rice, Debbie Ahrent-Wisdom, an agronomist at the University of Arkansas, visited the school’s farm and delivered an educational presentation on rice. It included a taste test in which students compared long, medium, and short grain rice to aromatic and black rice. After Willis saw the extent to which his students engaged in the lesson, he created a spinoff math cooking recipe in which each student cooks one tablespoon of rice each day. This recipe involves third grade math skills, such as calculating fractions, elapsed time, volume, and mass.

In addition, Willis offered his students another special learning opportunity. In October 2016, Willis was among 10 teachers in the nation who received a personal invitation to bring two students and a chaperone to Washington D.C. to participate in Michelle Obama’s final harvest. Willis had one hour to decide whether to accept the invitation. Jokingly, Willis stated that he did not need one minute to decide. He wanted his students to have this opportunity and experience. In a matter of weeks, Todd Willis, his teaching partner (me), and two Pleasant Hill Elementary School Farm Club members, Sydney Campbell and James Morgan, were on their way to Washington D.C. While at the White House, Sydney and James spent hours with the first lady harvesting tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, and eggplant in the White House’s 2,800 square foot vegetable garden.  

Folks often ask Willis how he funds the garden for his students at Pleasant Hill Elementary School. To date, the expenses largely consist of initial startup costs. Pleasant Hill has been fortunate to receive grants and other funding support from several organizations. For example, DeSoto Excellence grants, Mississippi Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop grants, and Look at Agriculture ... Organically! grants have all played an integral role in establishing and maintaining the garden. Grant funding helped Willis purchase pots, soil, seed, fertilizer, and plants. In addition, grants made it possible for him to purchase fencing, feed troughs, feed, medicine, and other livestock supplies. Grants from the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi and gifts from community organizations and local businesses such as the Lions Club, Desoto County Master Gardeners, Hernando Garden Club, and DeSoto Family Dental Care have contributed to the success of his garden. Corporate sponsors such as BankPlus and Iron Mountain, as well as private donors, Matt and Tara Greene, helped raise nearly $5,000 for James and Sydney’s trip to Washington D.C.

Incorporating agriculture adds a new and beneficial dimension to the traditional classroom setting. Students harvest practical knowledge and great memories from their hands-on agricultural experience in Willis's innovative classroom.