Chickens in the Classroom: A Lesson in Multi-Ethnic Place-based Education

Angela McGregor, an educator with Shelburne Farms' Sustainable Schools Project, was teaching Lawrence Barnes first graders a lesson about chickens when something unexpected—and extraordinary—happened: a little chicken leapt across a cultural divide.

Ms. Julie Benz's class was in the middle of a six-week unit entitled "Food Cycles in Our Community," developed in collaboration with the Sustainable Schools Project. Grounded in a philosophy of place-based education, this unit utilizes real world experiences as a catalyst for learning about food and animal life cycles, and our place within them.

On this Thursday morning, Angela and the class were studying chickens. They made a detailed list of chicken-related words and pictures, dressed up one student like a chicken to demonstrate the bird's different body parts, and discussed meat versus egg-laying chickens. Angela settled the students at their desks to quietly draw pictures of chickens, then snuck out of the classroom to retrieve a promised special guest—a real chicken called "Speedy." Angela had planned to take Speedy around the classroom for students to touch, and was expecting excitement and enthusiasm from Barnes' bright-faced students.

What she was not expecting was the flood of stories that erupted from the Somali Bantu students, whose eyes lit up when Speedy entered the room. To them, seeing this chicken was like seeing an old friend, as they eagerly explained. One Bantu boy spoke of how Speedy reminded him of the chickens he was responsible for in the refugee camps. Another told how Speedy was different from the chickens in Africa, who would sometimes be eaten by lions. The entire classroom was captivated, as these sometimes timid newcomers began to speak about their lives in Africa. One could sense how chickens must have provided stability and companionship for these children during an unbelievably stressful time in their lives. A little chicken was a bridge for these children that spanned continents and life experiences.

Since 2003, Burlington has served as one of several U.S. resettlement sites for Somali Bantu refugees, victims of Somalia's civil war in the 1990s. About 50 Bantu students are enrolled in Burlington schools, many of them at Barnes. They arrive facing many challenges: they know little or no English, and are not used to the weather, the food, the customs, or the classroom. Most divide their time between English as a Second Language classrooms and conventional classrooms. 

To help these students flourish, educators must develop lessons that speak to what these children already know. Chickens turned out to be one such lesson. As the Bantu children showcased their knowledge to the other students, a palpable sense of pride and awe filled the room. Food is a great connector, a common denominator at the heart of all culture, and by highlighting a food source with which the Bantu children are intimately acquainted, an educator validated their experiences and personal histories, encouraged learning and growth, and fostered cultural affinity in a multi-ethnic classroom. At its best, place-based education contains universal lessons like this that are yet grounded in the specificity of a child's own experience. 

Project City Burlington
Project State Vermont
Project School Lawrence Barnes Elementary
Pedagogical Area
  • agricultural/ food education
Subject Area
  • social studies, geography, global studies
  • agriculture, plant and soil science, food systems
  • cultural history, folklore, racial studies, community studies
Participant Area
  • student
Age Area
  • elementary (6-11 years old)
PEEC Tags
  • Sustainable Schools Project (SSP)