Kathleen Walker, Tulsa
In Kathleen Walker’s summer classroom at Kendall-Whittier Elementary in Midtown Tulsa, students are completely absorbed in a variety of art projects. At one station a group of girls is gluing assorted seeds and sparkly things on bright pink mermaid crowns. At another station, students are carefully pouring colorful liquids into molds for soap. A young man at another station is pressing patterns on a paint-covered gelatin printing pad. The resulting printed pages will be cut into the shape of 3-D fish. Walker explains that these activities are part of a water unit which involved swimming one afternoon and art the remaining three afternoons. Today is the last day of the summer session.
During the regular school term, Walker teaches art to students grades PreK-6 at Kendall Whittier. For more years than she can count she has incorporated agriculture into her art lessons.
Although she now lives and teaches near downtown Tulsa, Walker is no stranger to agriculture. Her grandfather raised cattle, peanuts, cotton and hay in southwest Oklahoma, near Oney, and Walker spent summers helping on the farm.
“Granddad’s cows made me cow crazy,” she laughed.
Her "cow-craziness" is reflected in her teaching. At the recent Agriculture in the Classroom national conference in Kansas City, Walker taught participants in her workshop to paint the profile of a cow’s head. After the workshop dozens could be seen in the hallways waving their completed works of art to dry the wet paint.
Besides the cattle, Walker recalls helping her grandparents hoe long rows of peanuts in the summer. “It was so hot, but we still loved being there,” she recalls.
They also helped move irrigation pipe. “We would go out early in the morning, and sometimes there would be skunks and other rodents in the pipes. Our clothes never dried, because we would have to go out and move them every four hours,” she said.
She remembers riding around in her grandpa’s pickup truck. “The inside of the truck was covered with peanut dust, and I liked to lick the dashboard because it tasted like peanuts,” she laughed. Her mother was not pleased.
Asked how long she had been teaching, Walker has to stop and think. “Dirt was brand new, and I don’t think agriculture was even invented yet,” she joked. Thirty years, she finally concludes.
She thinks it has been more than eight years since she first discovered Oklahoma Ag in the Classroom. She has attended several OAITC planning sessions at the Noble Foundation and several summer tours. In addition to the workshop at national conference, Walker has taught workshops at state OAITC conferences, including one called “Dirty Pictures and Wet T-Shirts.” That conference took place at a fancy hotel downtown, and “I was terrified I was going to stain the beautiful carpet with my red dirt,” she said.
Walker's school, Kendall Whittier, is 72-76 percent Hispanic, more than any other school in Tulsa. Walker's students usually come from families with agricultural backgrounds at least one generation back. "Many have families with ranches back in Mexico," she said. Although many of her students have raised vegetables, goats and chickens in their backyards in Tulsa, they are still surprised to learn that their meat comes from animals. “They think it comes from Walmart,” she said.
“They just don’t think about it. It’s just not obvious to them. They don’t think things through,” she said.
Since her students have gardening experience they share what they know about planting. “They might say, ‘I planted a watermelon, but it died.’ The students learn much better from each other than they do from me,” she said.
The Tulsa County Extension office is nearby and has provided invaluable support over the years, she said. Master Gardeners help with gardens planted in the school courtyard, and cooking programs empower her mostly low income students to prepare nutritious food for themselves.
Walker plans her units around social studies and other subjects her students are learning in their other classes. She uses the background provided with OAITC lessons extensively and also makes use of the Ag in Art selections provided in monthly newsletters. Before she took on duties teaching art to preK-6th graders, she taught fourth and fifth grade. She misses the time she had for long-term projects when she was teaching only two grades. Fifth graders studying American history made 10-punch lanterns like those used in colonial Williamsburg. When Oklahoma history was still covered in fourth grade her students painted canvases of scissortail flycatchers and made clay models of bison. The Three Sisters—squash, pumpkins and corn central to Native American agriculture—were a big deal then as they are now. Among other things, they do still life paintings of the produce.
Her favorite lesson is “Red Dirt Groundbreakers,” a collection of short biographies about Oklahomans who have been important in agriculture. Students use the biographies to research the historical figures, then dress up like the characters and introduce themselves to each other in character. Some even write poems. Walker said the information is just the right length for students to read and re-read in order to internalize it. It works especially well with students who have trouble staying on task, she said.
3-D fish decorated with paper patterned and printed on gelatin pads