Northeast Jones FFA Gets Creative After Disruptions
NJHS senior FFA member Dalton Breland works on a sewing project while learning about agricultural business and fiber production in the past academic year. NJHS FFA members completed a variety of sewing projects for fundraising and presented local first responders with gifts of appreciation.
Bri Fenton, a NJHS senior and FFA member, holds up a completed window cover. Students made the covers at the request of teachers.
NJHS sophomore and FFA member Adyn Myrick cuts a piece of wood to complete a cornhole board project in the past academic year. Though they could not travel to events, club members built custom cornhole boards to raise money for the future.
Mantachie High School FFA members team up for a group activity during the 2021 state FFA convention. Pictured (left to right) are senior Trevor Strickland and juniors Jacob Jaggers, Caden Graham and Wesley Umfress.
Northeast Jones High School (NJHS) FFA members are pictured giving out presents on the last day of school before Christmas break in 2020. Pictured (from left to right) are sophomore Emillee Hembree, graduate Kennedie Clark, graduate Jamie Mayo, senior Bri Fenton, senior Brooke Moore, senior Bri Middleton, senior Kendall Myrick, senior Karley Cotten and graduate Ethan Cook.
Alcorn Central High School FFA members mingle in the grand foyer of The Mill at MSU conference center as they wait to take their seats for one of the main sessions of state convention in June. Pictured (left to right) are freshman Elle Clayton, sophomore Mattie Mynatt, senior Faith Marvel, sophomore Lynden Markle and junior Harley Markle.
Faith Sullivan (standing), a Mize Attendance Center senior and former Mississippi Junior FFA Association state reporter, facilitates a leadership workshop for FFA members at the 2021 state convention.
Katelyn Walters (left), a Wayne County High School graduate and FFA state reporter, and Newton County High School senior Regan Hand (center), who serves as FFA state treasurer, brainstorm ideas with their group members in a leadership workshop at the 2021 Mississippi FFA State Convention in June. This was the first in-person convention since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Former National FFA Organization Western Region Vice President Jason Wetzler (center) joins Mississippi FFA members as a keynote speaker and workshop facilitator at the 88th annual state FFA convention held in Starkville.
For many Mississippi FFA Association members and advisers, spring is typically filled with preparation. They use this time to study, practice and perfect their knowledge and skills; they have hopes of progressing to compete in career-development events and leadership-development events at the annual Mississippi FFA State Convention in early summer.
Spring 2020, however, was not your typical season.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began impacting education, decisions had to be made about how to provide modified educational opportunities while keeping students and teachers healthy and safe. With the National FFA Organization being intracurricular to agricultural education, local advisers sought guidance from Mississippi FFA leadership within the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE).
“It was challenging for the advisers who wait for the state office to offer events,” said Jill Wagner, the MDE program supervisor for agricultural education and state FFA. “There was a period where no state-level events were offered in person.”
One of the biggest challenges for Wagner was deciding how to handle the 87th-annual state convention, the organization’s largest state-level event, which at the time had never been canceled or held virtually.
“In considering that we didn't even know if schools would go back into normal classes, the hard decision to host a virtual convention just had to be made,” she said. “It came down to celebrating members and their achievements virtually or doing nothing. People underestimated the expense and work that goes into a virtual event, but it was good to see there are options.”
Even though it took Mississippi FFA longer to adjust to the virtual event platform than other state associations that already had such technology infrastructure in place, agricultural education and FFA leaders from across the country came together to share knowledge on making the transition.
“Changing to virtual was a completely new experience,” Wagner said. “It was hard not to focus on the what-ifs and just decide. There came a point that the board of directors and I could no longer worry about the unknowns so decisions could be made about what we knew. State FFA staffs across the country were making the same decisions and sharing a wealth of information at every step.”
The rapidly evolving pandemic and onslaught of event cancellations led many local advisers to get creative with their plans to keep students involved. Wagner said she was impressed with the response of ag teachers across the state and their willingness to be classroom innovators by adapting FFA activities to be compatible with a new environment of modified class schedules, mask wearing and social distancing.
“It was exciting to watch local advisers figure out what they could do given the specific parameters of their school,” she said. “Ag students spent an enormous amount of time in the shops, greenhouses and outdoor learning spaces. Ag teachers were also innovative in making videos and offering one-on-one or small-group lab time for those students experiencing virtual learning.”
At Northeast Jones High School’s (NJHS’s) FFA chapter, agriculture teachers and FFA chapter advisers Ashley Ivy and Logan Dale did not let the pandemic slow down their program of activities. When the pandemic first began, they faced the same uncertainties as other educators. There was always the looming question of how they would make FFA activities work, and they both knew how hard it would be to see the plans come to fruition.
“It was really a struggle to figure out how we were going to adapt to this new schedule,” Ivy said. “We were all kinds of scared coming back because we didn’t know what all was out there.”
Whether they had students in the shop, the greenhouse or the classroom, there were plenty of fun projects happening all the time. With mask usage now common, Ivy decided to introduce sewing activities to her agricultural fiber production and agriculture business students. After reaching out to her community on Facebook, the group had local supporters donate sewing machines so students could get in touch with their creative side while learning about agricultural fiber and the textile industry.
Students started out by using simple sewing patterns, eventually finding out what types of projects were easy to learn. They made window covers for teachers, stuffed animals and pillows. The students even worked on a special project in which they made pillows for local first responders.
“We had a community member donate fabric, and I thought it would be great to make some pillows to present to our law enforcement,” Ivy said. “We made a pillow for a firefighter and one for our police chief, and the kids all wrote thank-you cards to show our appreciation for their service. This was a really fun activity that got the kids to be creative while learning and giving back to first responders.”
While many schools held fewer activities, the NJHS group forged ahead. The agriculture teachers stayed on top of pandemic-related developments, made changes when necessary and, above all, stayed flexible. Even though trips to FFA events were canceled, Ivy said that did not stop them from raising money. In fact, the chapter had one of its most successful fundraising years ever.
“I know some schools had tighter restrictions, but our program was fortunate to have never really shut down,” she said. “We were able to do a lot, and we never stopped fundraising. We decided that if field trips would not be possible, we would keep raising money to get a head start for funding the next year’s activities.”
To raise money in preparation for future in-person FFA activities, NJHS FFA members got busy. One of their popular items to make and sell was a set of cornhole boards, and with their new sewing machines, they also made beanbags to go with the game boards. Students also raised money by building custom belt buckle display cases, many of which were given as prizes at area livestock shows.
Though limited in what they could do and where they could go, NJHS FFA members stayed motivated as they navigated the changes that came with the pandemic. They remained active in the classroom and their communities, continued building up the chapter’s finances to save for the future and were ultimately rewarded at the culmination of the 2020-2021 school year.
After dealing with all the impacts of the pandemic on FFA activities, the 2021 state convention made a remarkable return as a face-to-face event. The 88th-annual convention was held in June, and FFA members, advisers and supporters were surprised with a venue change as well, with the event taking place at the Mill at MSU in Starkville. Wagner said although difficult to plan, it was important to make this a special event for FFA members' return.
“It was incredibly challenging to take a group of state officers who had only been together one time prior to convention prep and pull this off,” she said. “We were committed to making this happen for the members and making it memorable. The venue was perfect for meeting the need in a short period of time and showed the officers and advisors that it was OK to do things differently.”