Inspiration beyond the classroom: Teacher fosters unique, uplifting atmosphere in Hardin County classroom

Sophomore Alex Mateo-Tomas and teacher Stephanie Jolliff weigh a baby chicken in her Ridgemont High School agriculture class in Hardin County. Jolliff was recently named Ohio Farm Bureau’s Educator of the Year.

In just one day in Hardin County Farm Bureau member Stephanie Jolliff’s classroom, her Ridgemont High School students have touched on everything from the science of corn to robotic engineering, to livestock care and current events.

They’ve blogged about the study of agriculture taking place in their classroom, helped take care of a sick baby lamb one of the students brought with her to school and checked on the status of a compost project.

And that’s just for starters.

On this particular day, students also had the opportunity to ask questions of a visitor from Israel. The visitor is working with a local farmer on a corn-growing project, and Jolliff’s students are helping do the research by growing the corn inside their on-campus greenhouse.

Robotics students have designed, refined and constructed autonomous agricultural equipment like the baler above. Joliff leads the robotics and archery teams at Ridgemont.

Their visitor was unexpected that day, Jolliff said. Yet his updates on the progress of their collaboration were just as welcome as his insight into living just 50 miles from the Gaza Strip. Students paid rapt attention and asked questions about both topics.

Such is the atmosphere of learning created in the classroom of Ohio Farm Bureau’s 2015 Cooperative/Agriculture Educator award winner. Jolliff calls her teaching approach “situational ag” and, given the fluidity of this one day in her classroom, the moniker fits like a glove.

Her credentials are impressive enough —Jolliff has led the Ridgemont FFA to back-to-back titles as Ohio’s No. 1 FFA chapter, as well as being National FFA Model of Innovation winner in the National FFA chapter contest. She has secured more than $250,000 in grants to extend her agricultural education program and student experiences. She is president of the Ohio Association of Agricultural Educators and has been named Ohio Agriculture Woman of the Year, Fuel Up To Play 60 Program Advisor of the Year, Ohio VFW Teacher of the Year and a Girl Scout Woman of Distinction.

Freshman Jackie Ramsey checks in on the status of plant growth under the supervision of Jolliff in the school’s attached greenhouse. The new K-12 Ridgemont school opened in September 2015.

She leads the school’s archery and robotics teams and was on the committee that helped design the new K-12 building all of Ridgemont’s students moved into in September 2015. The building leaves room for both physical growth and idea generation with its open-space concept.

One of those design elements sits between her classroom and the adjacent greenhouse. The “shop,” as Jolliff calls it, provides her students with hands-on experience in an entire gamut of STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math). Lots of learning happens here, just beyond her classroom. For example, if a piece of equipment breaks on one of her students’ family farms, there is a good chance they’ve already learned how to weld it back together in the shop at school.

Appreciating and applying in real ways the nuances of working with all aspects of agriculture is something Jolliff’s students participate in every day, and they said they appreciate what is taught both inside and outside of their classroom.

Learning about agriculture online and sharing their knowledge through blogging is a key part of the agriculture students’ curriculum. Here students, from left, Alexis Elliott, Amaya Cummins and Lexi Lingel, make use of that technology.

Sophomore Alexis Elliott, whose family used to own the property where the new school sits, said Jolliff has “influenced my career path and raised public awareness of agriculture and how it affects everybody. She’s broadened my horizons on careers I’ve never even heard of, like food scientist.”

Under Jolliff’s direction, students have gained insight into more than their course of study.

“My freshman year in ag, I was a shy person,” said junior Shaye Creamer. “She helped bring me out of my comfort zone.”

For her part, Jolliff is more modest about her accomplishments and the award she accepted at Ohio Farm Bureau’s annual meeting last December.

“It was a surprise,” she said. “To be recognized by the premier agriculture organization in Ohio is awesome and the value placed on education and agriculture in Ohio adds more validity to our program.”

Jolliff supervises juniors Alex Ramsey, left, and Nathan Stacklin as they change a saw blade on the table saw in the shop at high school. Ag students in Jolliff’s classes learn how to take care of their farm equipment as well as crops and livestock.

She deflects praise from herself to her students and how they take advantage of the opportunities she’s able to provide them.

“I align my kids with experts because I’m not one,” she said, with a laugh. “(My motto) is I don’t ever say ‘no.’ Say ‘yes’ and figure out the answer as it goes along.”

She may not be an “expert,” but students agree the atmosphere she creates in her classroom makes them all feel like they are well on their way to becoming one themselves.

“She undersells herself,” Elliott said. “The environment she creates, it’s like we’re all in an enchanted forest here.”

An enchanted forest that exists to help agriculture students reach their highest potential.