Sandra Berry did not grow up on a farm. She grew up in the small southwestern town of Fort Cobb, and “When you’re from a small town, you’re cheap labor for everyone else,” she said.
She helped moved irrigation pipe, hoed peanuts and cotton and rode a motorcycle to nearby Oney to help plant sweet potatoes. She rode her horse or bicycle to help farmers move their cattle down the road.
“It was just five miles, but we felt like we were on a big cattle drive,” she laughed.
At age nine she was already driving a big tractor trailer.
“There were no video games back then,” Berry recalls, so it was something to do and a chance to spend time with an older person, a farmer.
“Then they invented herbicides, so they didn’t need us to hoe anymore, so I got a job in town,” she said.
Berry is an art teacher, starting the school year at a new school, Eisenhower Middle School in Lawton. She will be teaching art and life skills to students in grades 6-8. Previously she taught at Clinton High School and for the past 31 years has taught in schools around southwest Oklahoma. “Every time I moved, I moved to a larger school,” she said. She is pleased to be teaching in Lawton now because it is closer to the farm where she and her husband raise cattle.
Berry infuses her knowledge of agriculture into her life skills and her art classes. Although she has only been teaching in Lawton for a week, she has already determined that most of her students do know where they get their food. Only a handful are farm kids or live in the country. About 17 percent of her students are military kids whose parents are associated with nearby Fort Sill.
In her life skills class, Berry teaches that there are three essentials in life—shelter, clothing and food. All three come from agriculture. Her classroom philosophy is summarized in a list of rules influenced by agriculture. She calls it “Learn Like a Farmer. Live Like a Cowboy.”
In her art classes she uses materials from agricultural products like wool, cotton and leather to teach fiber arts from natural fibers like wool and cotton. As her students work on their crafts, she discusses the sources of the materials they are using—how cotton is grown and harvested and how to clean wool.
Her students learn to weave scrap yarn on pin looms that Berry makes herself with plywood and nails. They create different textures with plain weave and sew the pieces together for placemats. One student last year made a blanket, she recalls.
She likes helping her students understand responsible animal husbandry as she teaches fiber arts. During one of her units with wool, a students expressed concern because her Uggs (boots) were made from sheep skin. “Is that bad?” she asked Berry.
“Do you like my cowboy boots?” Berry asked, “because they are made from cow hide. What’s the difference?”
She explained the life cycle of a sheep, that it gives wool every year and then is harvested for meat and its hide. “Every part of the animal is used,” she explained.
Her students especially like leather braiding. Sometimes the boys are reluctant to get involved because they think braiding is for girls, but then she explains that cowboys on the old cattle trails braided leather to make tack for their horses. She discusses the history of cowboy culture and explains that most of it, including the tack used for horses, was introduced by the vaqueros, cowboys from Mexico. The history is interesting to them, she said, especially to those with Mexican ancestry.
Berry learned about leather braiding from a class she took at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Center in Oklahoma City. The class was taught by world renowned braiders, Leland Hensley from Texas and Nat Wald from Montana.
Her students also do some leather carving, some painting, pencil and ink drawings and work with clay. She teaches native beadwork, which is mounted on leather. Unfamiliar things like beadwork get her students’ attention and she uses it as a motivator for positive behavior.
“I likes good craft projects, especially during testing, she said, “because they keep students’ hands busy and rest their minds.” She believes crafts provide a pathway in the brain for further learning.
Berry’s latest craft project with an agricultural product is horse hair hitching, knotting horse hair into patterns. She is eager to share this new craft with her students, as soon as she can find a good source for horse hair. “My husband always says my hobby is getting new hobbies,” she laughed.
Berry only formally came to Oklahoma Ag in the Classroom in the past year. She has always used agriculture in her teaching but just "did her own thing." Then she saw a notice asking for workshop proposals for the Agriculture in the Classroom National Conference in Kansas City and sent in a proposal. She didn’t get to teach a workshop there, but the national organization alerted state coordinators in Oklahoma who contacted her to find out who she was. Berry was able to attend the national conference through a grant from Oklahoma Ag Credit. Since then she has been on an OAITC summer tour and taught a workshop at the OAITC state conference based on her life skills program: Learn Like a Farmer; Live Like a Cowboy. (See below.)
“Every school year is like a crop, “she says. “Some are good and some are not so good, but you always get a harvest.”
Learn Like a Farmer!
Frame of Mind
It is my hope that each student comes to class, be it mine or any other teacher's class, in the frame of mind to learn, to be open to new ideas, and to have a cooperative attitude. Setting one's frame of mind to a task is the first step in conquering something!
Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference. I hope my students come to class with a cooperative attitude and a willing heart to learn art.
I hope to impart the importance of respect to my students - Respect for others in their ideas, their self, and their feelings; Respect for authority in that there will always be someone who you need to answer to, either another being or yourself! Respect for yourself is to make good choices to further you in life and not undermine your destiny through poor education or bad choices with drugs or alcohol.
Farmers have to change with the technology, regulations, and new methods of farming. If something is not working for you, change the way you approach it or do it. If you are struggling in a class and you have studied the same way you have always studied, maybe you need to change your approach!
Farmers have to love what they do because a lot of times, the pay isn't that great. It is my hope that students come to class enthusiastic to learn art! No matter what you are doing, even if it is a chore that you don't like to do, if you approach it in an enthusiastic way with energy and spirit, not only will it get done sooner, but you might enjoy it a bit! Sometimes school can get you down but if you put a smile on your face and you lift up your head, it will not seem so bad.
Resilience means to overcome after something bad happens. Bad things are just going to happen, that is just life, but the ability to bounce back after those events are the mark of a strong person. Like a FARMER after a bad crop year, he doesn’t just quit, he plants a crop the following year and does not give up! Students today need to learn this trait.
Much like a farmer prepares the ground to plant the seeds in the Fall that will grow and be harvested in the Spring, students need to be vigilant in preparing themselves, learn and practice good habits to insure success in their future! Failure to prepare is preparing for failure! I want all my students to be ready to contribute to society in a postive and knowledgable way!!!
Live Like a Cowboy!
Live like a Cowboy means honoring the Code of the West.
Live Each Day with Courage!
It is my hope that my students are prepared enough to be courageous and confident to live their best lives.
Take Pride in Your Work!
Whatever you may have as a task in front of you give it your 110%!
Always Finish What You Start!
Be responsible with your school work and complete it to the very best.
Do What Has to be Done!
If it is your responsibility, grit your teeth and get it done. Sometimes life brings things we don’t really want to do but once you finish that task, it feels so much better to have it accomplished.
Be Tough, But Fair!
Being easy on students does not push them to be their best. My favorite English teacher was the toughest teacher I ever had because he challenged me. I shared the story of the thicker library books with my class.
When You Make a Promise, Keep It!
No one likes to be lied to so if you say you are going to do something, make sure you keep your word. Other people are depending upon your trustworthiness!
Ride for the Brand!
That doesn’t mean blindly follow but do what is best for the whole group or the institution of which you are a part!
Talk Less, Say More!
People usually listen to those who are wise enough to listen to others before they make an informed statement!
Remember that Some Things are NOT for Sale!
Integrity is important. Don't do things just because it is the easy way out or the easy money.
Know When to Draw the Line!
Enough is enough! Some people will push until they break you. Stand strong in your beliefs and character.