Lessons - and eggs - from raising chickens at school

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Maggie Fickensher, 8, looks to see whether the egg can be classified a medium or large egg by way of an egg scale.

Most American 8-year-olds are intimately acquainted with chicken fingers. That breaded-and-fried staple is "kid-friendly" at least in part because of its detachment from the actual chicken - there're no bones or skin or anything that calls a bird to mind.

Some people believe bringing farm animals to the kids will actually make them better eaters and more informed food shoppers down the line. And the third graders at Friends School Haverford are more connected to chickens than most kids. There's a mobile coop stationed on their otherwise manicured Main Line campus. During recess and at a few other times during the school day, there are students standing by, feeding the hens, cleaning the coop, and collecting the eggs these birds lay.

"Sometimes, we feed them grass and pet them," says Torsten Fras, 8. His third-grade teacher, Jen Nates, is the mastermind behind this schoolyard-meets-barnyard project.

Several years back, the head of the school wanted each grade to have a signature program, recalls Nates. "Something to get the kids really excited about going into a new grade," she says. Some parents suggested it might be fun to have hens on the campus, and Nates mentioned offhandedly that backyard chickens had always been an interest of hers. She thought she'd like to have a few one day. "The next thing I knew, it was written down: Jen was getting the chickens for third grade."

She thought it would be a great chance to get the kids engaged with the subjects of food, nutrition, and the history of agriculture. She decided they'd run a small business as well, selling the eggs to members of the school community and then donating the proceeds to Heifer International at the end of each year.

The plan sounded great to Nates except for one major issue she didn't want to take on with her class - death. "I had heard there are a lot of foxes in this area," Nates says. She researched coops until she found a special model designed to protect birds from their predators. She ordered it from England. The next hurdle she faced was the unexpected arrival of her first chicks.

"They came a month early, peep-peeping in a box, one day old," she says. She had to scramble to get set up, borrowing a heat lamp from the science teacher, but from day one, the students were in love with the chicks-that-would-be-hens, and the social studies unit they tie in with. Now in its sixth year, the program is a major success and a highlight of the third-grade experience at Friends School Haverford.

The breeds in the schoolyard were selected for their gentle disposition and hardiness in cold weather - not their egg-laying capacity. "They lay only about one egg a day," says Nates. So it can take a week to fill an order. Daily, the kids check the coop for new eggs, feed the chickens, and clean up after them - a task euphemistically known as "helping hands."

"I hate helping hands," says Maggie Fickenscher, 8. "That means you have to clean up their poop."

Chicken dirt aside, the kids genuinely love the tasks involved with maintaining the hens, especially the sorting and dating they do about once a week. Each egg is weighed to determine whether it's small, medium, or large, and tucked into a familiar egg carton.

"That's my job! That's my job!" Maggie says when Torsten reaches for an egg to set on the scale to show how it's done. (With a little coaching from Nates, the kids take turns.) Minor squabbles over dividing up the duties seem a small price to pay for helping these students form a strong connection with their food.

"We live in a world in which students think the food on their plate comes from the supermarket, without any connection to the natural world," says Michael Zimmerman, head of school. He has watched the students gradually come to understand that they need to wait patiently for the hens to lay eggs and that it's chickens like these that become the nuggets and fingers they like to eat with ketchup.

"If you eat meat, at some point an animal has been sacrificed to that reality," says Zimmerman, who believes a concrete understanding of this often-overlooked fact is a central part of being human.

And as much as Nates wanted to shield her students from the animal deaths inherent in food production and farming, she couldn't. Most of the birds have died off-site of old age and natural causes, but in one particularly sad case, a hen had a tumor that could not be treated. After talking it over with her students, "they agreed unanimously to have her 'put down.' " Nates makes these conversations part of her lessons; it underscores the fact that much of our food comes from very real living beings.

In addition to that valuable sense of connection, the kids also learn about factory farming, seasonality, and the environment. "What are the real costs of having strawberries in January? We have to get them from South America. What does that mean for the planet?" These are the questions Nates explores with her students during the course of the year.

The egg project has made at least two students more enthusiastic about the eggs on their breakfast table. Maggie and Torsten say they like eggs more now that they understand exactly what goes into producing them.

"I like scrambled eggs on top of my pancakes," says Torsten, which causes Maggie to burst out laughing. "I like them with toast," she adds.

Regardless of how the kids best like their eggs, they are all more likely to think more about where their breakfast - and everything else they eat - comes from, thanks to the feathery mascots of the third grade.