As of January 2020, FFA was thought by many to be a hands-on, in-the-classroom-only organization. However with the last few weeks, we quickly realized the need to transition learning environments online due to the spread of the coronavirus. One chartered FFA chapter in Arkansas was already learning online in an unique way. The Arkansas Virtual Academy FFA Chapter has been providing students the opportunity to be a part of the National FFA Organization since 2018.
Now you may be wondering how exactly a virtual chapter works. There are obviously differences between a virtual chapter and a brick-and-mortar chapter, but more importantly are the similarities in the two types of chapters and its members. The 11 members of the Virtual Academy FFA Chapter work just as hard and have the same passion for agriculture as any other FFA member.
Brittany Lawrence, the FFA advisor and agricultural teacher for the Arkansas Virtual Academy, might not have a typical classroom setting, but she says it is perfect for students in unique situations. Whether her students perform better in a different learning environment or just need the flexibility, the differences are what make this FFA Chapter work for her students.
One obvious difference in a virtual classroom is the lack of face to face interaction. However, as the world has come to realize during the coronavirus and shelter-at-home requirements, it is not always necessary to have face-to-face interactions for success. Lawrence and her students connect often via Zoom, FaceTime, email, text, and other forms of communication. Since this is their primary way to communicate, Lawrence connects students with specialists all across the country and introduces them to even more resources.
The other advantage of virtual learning is the flexibility it allows for students. Whether it is the FFA member who is constantly traveling to livestock shows and sale barns or the one who needs an alternative learning experience, the students are able to receive a public school education from virtually anywhere.
Lastly, how Lawrence conducts her classroom is also different. She is able to utilize Ag Experience Tracker (AET). This allows students to develop a profile, track Supervised Agricultural Experiences, and FFA activities on their smartphone or desktop. In addition, Lawrence gets to FaceTime her students to see the animals and keep up with their projects.
Even though there are differences, it is the similarities that allow students to relate to each other. As the first chartered virtual FFA chapter, they have to follow the same rules and regulations as any other chapter. The Virtual Academy FFA Chapter still has meetings, officers, and a strong ag curriculum. The only difference is their meetings happen virtually. If anything, they meet more often since they cannot communicate in the hallways or on a bulletin board.
cSadly, one similarity between all FFA members this year is the unknown when it comes to state Convention. The Virtual Academy FFA Chapter was ready to participate in its first state convention this year, but the coronavirus interrupted that. While the Arkansas FFA Association is doing everything it can to keep members and advisors in the loop, there is still an unknown for the future. The state convention will happen one way or another, but there is a chance it will be a virtual convention — something these students are used to.
With these resources and online teaching skills, Lawrence has also stepped up to help her fellow teachers and community members. During this time of transitioning brick-and-mortar schools to an online learning environment due to COVID-19, Lawrence has some advice for those teachers trying to make that transition. “You can do this. You just have to change your mindset. Prepare for there to be problems initially,” Lawrence said. But she said the technical difficulties are worth it. “Even though I don’t see my students face to face, it provides that connection that students and teachers are both missing. To feel like you are helping and to feel worthwhile — that is still there. Once you get in the groove of it, it becomes second nature.”
Like any new program, the Virtual Academy FFA Chapter is still learning and adjusting the program to better reach the needs of its members. While a virtual chapter may not be for everyone, it allows everyone to be in FFA and thrive in their own way.
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