Award-winning Janesville teacher brings a heritage of agriculture to her classroom
Walking into Carmen DeKok's Roosevelt Elementary School classroom in Janesville, you'll see little touches of Wisconsin agriculture in every corner.
Amid fourth-grade students hard at work, there are posters the class has made studying things like corn, oats and soybeans. Books highlighting Wisconsin maple syrup and cranberry farms line the shelves. They hone their research skills studying livestock and animals native to Wisconsin, and write essays on different aspects of Wisconsin agriculture.
"It's just always something I've included in their education," DeKok said.
In recognition for her efforts to teach kids about the world of agriculture around them, Dekok recently received the Wisconsin Farm Bureau’s Ag in the Classroom program’s Outstanding Teacher Award.
The over 35-year veteran teacher is honored, and is now being put forth as the Wisconsin nominee for the National Excellence in Teaching Agriculture Award.
Sheila Everhart, former Ag In the Classroom coordinator, said she couldn't think of someone more deserving.
"She is kind compassionate and caring," Everhart said. "She innovates and adjusts her curriculum so that she meets the needs of her students wherever they're at."
Bringing heritage into her classroom
The product of Wisconsin dairy farmers, DeKok grew up loving farm life. She especially loved the pigs kept on her grandparents' farm in Mindoro, Wis., marveling at how cute and smart they were.
"It was wonderful ," Dekok said. "Because we lived in a ranch home right next to my grandparents who had a big farmhouse. My cousins would come and stay during the summer with Grandpa and Grandma and we'd all pitch in."
She was the first of her family to attend college. Her husband, also a teacher, taught science at Beloit Memorial High School for 33 years.
DeKok earned her Bachelor of Science degree in elementary education from Winona State University, and returned to Wisconsin to earn her master’s degree from University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
She then taught fifth and sixth grade at Harrison Elementary School in Janesville for 21 years before moving to Roosevelt Elementary in 2008. Despite a couple of moves, she always kept agriculture as a part of her curriculum.
Former principal of Harrison Elementary School, Wayne Flury, hired DeKok for her first teaching job. As a longtime farmer, he saw immediate value in DeKok's desire to bring agriculture into the classroom.
"All of agriculture is what it produces and sustains life," Flury said. "And I guess she was trying to get a basis there for her kids to know where their food comes from."
The kids, DeKok said, loved hearing stories about her life on a farm —and that hasn't changed through her long teaching career.
"I still remember my first year of teaching... the kids loved [agriculture]," Dekok said. "I felt like they needed to know my life, and a big part of Wisconsin history and heritage is farmers."
Dekok has taken her many classes all over southeast Wisconsin.
They've floated cranberries, made lip balm out of soy oil and tapped maple syrup from trees. They've visited all kinds of livestock and crop farms, climbed on John Deere tractors and some students won essay contests with works based on their experiences.
DeKok's students have also learned about the supply chain, and how, as Flury put it, that "their hamburgers don't grow at KwikTrip."
"Carmen has, over the years, worked with me very closely to ensure that our students in Rock County become better consumers, who possibly will be future farmers," Everhart said.
DeKok said she also hopes her students learn about how multifaceted the field of agriculture is — it's not just growing crops or milking cows, but you can code for farm technology or you can write about agriculture for a living, among many other career options.
"Most of all, I want to show [the students] that hard work pays off," DeKok said. "Farmers have an incredible work ethic... You're gonna get out of life, what you put into it."