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New York Agriculture in the Classroom

Agricultural Literacy Curriculum Matrix

Lesson Plan

Sorghum at School: The Sorghum Story

Grade Level
3 - 5

Students will investigate sorghum, including the stages of plant growth, production in the United States, health benefits, geography, and positive environmental impacts. Grades 3-5

Estimated Time
1 hour
Materials Needed

Activity 1: Growing Sorghum

Activity 2: Tasting Sorghum

  • MyPlate Image
  • Super Star Sorghum! Poster
  • Learning About Sorghum activity pages
  • Cooked whole grain sorghum
  • Berries, pineapple chunks, banana slices, or other cut fruit
  • Vanilla yogurt
  • Cinnamon, pumpkin pie spice, or other flavorings
  • Small cups
  • Spoons

Activity 3: Mapping Sorghum

  • World map
  • United States map
  • Learning About Sorghum activity pages



carbohydrate: an organic compound that is the main source of energy for the body; composed of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen atoms

copper: an essential mineral that assists in the development of red blood cells and helps with iron absorption

fiber: isolated, non-digestible carbohydrates that have beneficial physiological effects in humans

grain: the edible seed or seed-like fruit of grasses that are cereals (such as wheat, corn, and rice)

iron: helps transport oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body

magnesium: a nutrient that aids in calcium absorption and supports muscle function

manganese: a trace mineral necessary for many chemical reactions in the body, such as processing carbohydrates and glucose

MyPlate: nutritional guide published by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA); icon depicting a place setting with a plate and glass divided into five food groups

niacin: one of the eight B vitamins; helps release the energy from food

nutrient: a substance that provides nourishment essential for growth and the maintenance of life

phosphorus: a chemical element that is found in bone and teeth and is also important to chemical body processes

protein: an essential nutrient responsible for building tissue, cells, and muscle

selenium: a trace mineral that helps protect cells from oxidation and promotes a healthy immune system

thiamin: one of the eight B vitamins; helps release the energy from food and plays a role in maintaining a healthy nervous system

vitamin B6: one of the eight B vitamins; helps release the energy from food, promotes brain development, and has a role in maintaining a healthy immune system

whole grain: contains all three edible parts (the endosperm, bran, and germ) in the same proportions as the harvested grain seed before it is processed

zinc: a mineral necessary for immune function, healing, taste perception, growth, and development

Did You Know?
  • Sorghum goes by different names in different parts of the world. In India, sorghum is often called jowar and in the US, some people call sorghum milo.
  • Sorghum was introduced to America in 1757.12
  • Between 30-35% of domestic sorghum goes to ethanol production. Sorghum produces 2.7 gallons of ethanol per bushel.12
Background Agricultural Connections

What is sorghum?

Sorghum is an ancient grain that is gaining popularity with American consumers as a nutrient-rich, naturally gluten-free whole grain. While there is no precise definition of the term "ancient grain," The Whole Grains Council describes ancient grains as those that have been essentially unchanged for at least the last several hundred years.1 Genetic material from an archeologicical dig near the Egyptian-Sudanese border dates sorghum to 8,000 BCE.2 Sorghum has a neutral, nutty flavor and can be used in both sweet and savory bowls, baked goods, entrées, soups, breading, salads, and even popped as a snack. Various forms of sorghum are also used worldwide for animal feed, biofuel, building material, fencing, pet food, and even floral arrangements.2 Sorghum grows and matures quickly. Some varieties have as few as 100 days from planting to harvest. It likes warm soil and sunshine, so it is usually planted in the late spring or ealy summer and harvested in the fall.


Sorghum has a rich nutrient profile. A complex carbohydrate which is naturally gluten-free, sorghum contributes a wealth of nutrients to the diet, including protein, iron, zinc, fiber, niacin, thiamin, vitamin B6, copper, magnesium, phosphorus, selenium, and manganese.3

Research on sorghum in human health also highlights many plant-based compounds that contribute to blood sugar control, cancer prevention, and a reduced risk of heart disease.4 Sorghum grain is considered a functional food because it includes phenolic acids, flavonoids, and phytosterols, which are plant-based chemicals being studied for their anti-inflammatory and health-promoting effects.4,5,6

The dietary guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 reports that while most Americans eat plenty of refined grains, 98% of Americans currently fall short when it comes to whole grain intake.7 Whole grain sorghum and whole grain sorghum flour can help to close that nutrition gap. The USDA MyPlate food guide recommends making half of the grains consumed whole grains, and includes sorghum in the MyPlate whole grains gallery.8

The USDA recently approved whole grain sorghum and whole grain sorghum flour for school meal programs.9 As a result, students may see sorghum in their cafeteria meals and after school snack programs. Acceptance increases when students have the chance to taste and learn about new foods.10

History and Geography

Sorghum has long been an important grain for humans and continues to be a dietary staple for 500 million people in 30 countries in Africa and Asia.11 As an ancient grain, people have eaten and used sorghum for millennia in Northeast Africa. The earliest known record of sorghum comes from an archeological dig at Nabta Playa, near the Egyptian-Sudanese border dated 8,000 BCE.

Sorghum spread throughout Africa and along the way adapted to a wide range of environments from the highlands of Ethiopia to the semi-arid Sahel region of North Africa.2

The first report of sorghum in North America is attributed to Benjamin Franklin's 1757 writings about "broomcorn," a variety of sorghum used in broom making.2

While not indigenous to the Americas, Native populations in the Southeastern United States have long embraced sorghum as an important crop, utilizing all parts of the plant with a particular emphasis on the production of sweet syrup from the stalks. The Caharie tribe in North Carolina has relied on sorghum as a staple subsistence crop.12

Modern-day sorghum production is firmly centered in the United States, the world's leading producer and exporter of sorghum. The Sorghum Belt extends from South Dakota to Texas. Kansas leads the nation and world production with nearly six million acres devoted to growing sorghum.2

Environmental Science

Sorghum is a sustainable agricultural crop that thrives in challenging environments while giving back to the soil and ecological systems.13

  • Water Conservation: Sorghum can be grown in drought conditions and generally requires 30% less water than similar grains. Rain is the primary source of water for 91% of the sorghum acres in the United States, thereby minimizing the strain on stressed water systems.
  • Soil Health: In addition to conserving water, sorghum uniquely builds and improves soil health during its growing cycle. The sorghum plant regenerates soil by retaining nitrogen and other soil nutrients. The stalks purposely left standing in the fields after harvest add nutrients, reduce soil compaction, capture moisture, and reduce wind erosion.
  • Carbon Sequestration: Sorghum removes harmful carbon from the atmosphere and stores it safely in the soil, cleaning our air and helping to fight climate challenges. Sorghum farmers who reduce their soil tillage as a conservation practice ensure that carbon stays in the ground.
  • Wildlife Habitats: Sorghum helps wildlife populations thrive, providing a preferred food choice for quail, pheasants, and many other species of birds and deer. The leaves and stalks left over after harvest provide protection from the elements during harsh winters and extreme summer heat for wildlife.
  1. Ask the students whether they have heard of sorghum. Ask whether any of the students have eaten sorghum. Encourage the students to share their experience seeing or eating sorghum. For students who are unfamiliar with sorghum, ask how likely they are to try it.
  2. Point out that sorghum will sometimes be served in the school cafeteria. Encourage the students to choose sorghum dishes when they are served. (If possible, coordinate with school foodservice personnel for this lesson to occur on a day that sorghum is served on the school breakfast or lunch menu.)
  3. Explain to the students that, in this lesson, they will be investigating sorghum—what it is, how it is eaten, how it tastes, how it grows, and where it grows.
Explore and Explain

Activity 1: Growing Sorghum

  1. Display the Super Star Sorghum! Poster and discuss the parts and functions of the sorghum plant. Ask the students if they can identify the part of the plant we eat. (the seed or grain) 
  2. Pass around the package of whole grain sorghum so they can see the grains. Ask the students if they have heard of a whole grain and if they can describe what that term means. Discuss that a whole grain is when the entire seed or grain is eaten (i.e., the "whole grain"). Refined grains have part of the seed removed (bran and germ) and do not provide as many nutrients as whole grains. Whole grain sorghum and whole grain sorghum flour are both examples of whole grains.
  3. Provide each student with the Learning About Sorghum activity pages. Using the poster as a guide, have them label the parts of the sorghum plant on page 1.
  4. Show the Sorghum Growth and Development Poster and explain how it shows the stages of growth and advises farmers on how to manage sorghum during each stage.
  5. Organize the students in small groups. Using the Sorghum Growth and Development Poster, have the groups answer the following questions from page 2 of the activity pages on a separate sheet of paper.
    1. Describe the stage of growth pictured on the labeled diagram pictured on page 1 of the activity pages.
    2. The first six stages of growth of a sorghum plant are known as "vegetative." What is the term for the next four stages of growth?
    3. What does stage 0 refer to on this poster?
    4. About how many days does it take for the plant to reach the boot stage?
    5. How does the information listed beneath each plant stage help the farmers who grow sorghum?
    6. How can you tell when sorghum reaches stage 9 (maturity)? Hint: Look closely at the sorghum grains that your teacher shared with the class.
  6. Ask the students if they can explain what a seed needs to germinate and a plant needs to grow? Acknowledge their replies and briefly review that a seed needs warmth, moisture, and air to germinate. A plant is alive and needs nutrients (typically from soil), oxygen, light (typically from the sun), and water to grow.
  7. Set up an area in the classroom with potting soil, a scoop or large spoon, small pots, and tape for labeling.
  8. Work with students in small groups to fill their pots with soil and ask them to pat the soil flat.
  9. Press 2-3 sorghum seeds 1/2-inch deep in each pot and cover with soil. Ask the students to predict what will happen to the planted seed. Introduce the concept of germination, which is how the seed changes and develops into a small plant known as a seedling.
  10. Use the tape to make a label with each student's name and the date of planting.
  11. Lightly water and place in a lid or tray to catch the water drips.
  12. Place in a sunny window or under a grow light. Seedlings should emerge within 4-10 days.
  13. Continue to water until just moist and monitor the progress of the plants by measuring the height or counting stalks. Use the Sorghum Growth and Development Poster to recognize and track stages of growth. Ask the students to thin to one plant per container.
  14. If it is the warm season, students can transplant their plant to their home or school garden.

Activity 2: Tasting Sorghum

  1. Display the MyPlate Image.
  2. Ask the students whether they can identify the placement of sorghum on the MyPlate food guide. Point out that grains provide energy to the body and whole grains, such as sorghum, provide nutrients including protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals to help bodies grow and stay healthy. The Super Star Sorghum! Poster includes a list of some of the key nutrients found in sorghum.
  3. Explain that sorghum is also a gluten-free grain. This is important for people with celiac disease, a condition where gluten from wheat, rye, and barley damages the small intestine. Some people are also intolerant to gluten and find that a gluten-free diet helps them feel better.
  4. Set out the cooked and cooled sorghum, fruit, yogurt, flavorings, cups, and spoons on a clean table. Place a serving spoon or tong with each ingredient.
  5. Ask the students to wash hands and then invite 3-5 students at a time to assemble their parfait, layering the sorghum, yogurt, fruit, and flavorings in their cup.
  6. Ask the students to describe the taste and texture of sorghum. Point out that sorghum has a neutral, nutty flavor, making it ideal to combine with both sweet and savory ingredients.
  7. Ask the students to brainstorm other ways to enjoy sorghum. Point out that sorghum works well in many dishes as a substitute for other grains such as rice or barley.
  8. Have the students complete section 2 of the Learning About Sorghum activity pages.

Activity 3: Mapping Sorghum

  1. Share the "Environmental Science" section of the Background Agricultural Connections section of the lesson.
  2. Explain that sorghum is a staple food for 500 million people in 30 countries. Leading consumers of sorghum include India, China, and several countries in Africa, including Sudan, Nigeria, and Ethiopia. Ask the students to help locate these areas on the world map.
  3. Ask the students if they are familiar with the term "archeology" and define as needed (the study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains).
  4. Explain that the first evidence of sorghum consumption was found at an archeological dig at Nabta Playa, near the Egyptian-Sudanese border. Based on their findings, archeologists determined that people were eating sorghum over 8,000 years ago. Ask the students to locate Nabta Playa on the world map.
  5. Discuss how the United States is the world's leading producer of sorghum. Show the students the U.S. map and ask them to identify the six state that grow the most sorghum—Kansas, Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Nebraska. Clarify that Kansas is the leading producer, with over three million acres of sorghum.
  6. Have the students complete sections 3 and 4 on the Learning About Sorghum activity pages.
  1. Complete section 5 of the Learning About Sorghum activity pages.
  2. Show the students the Sorghum at School video from the United Sorghum Checkoff Program.
  3. Invite the school foodservice director to your classroom to discuss how sorghum is being used in the school foodservice program.
  4. Brainstorm ways that sorghum can be included at breakfast, lunch, dinner, or snack time. Discuss various dishes as possibilities for incorporating sorghum. 
  5. Encourage students to try sorghum at school or at home. Send home the Starring Sorghum family handout with each student.

After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following key concepts:

  • Sorghum is an ancient grain.
  • Whole grain means that the entire grain or seed is eaten.
  • Seeds need moisture, air, and the proper temperature to germinate.
  • Plants need nutrients, water, light, and air to grow.
  • Sorghum is grown in the United States.


Sorghum Checkoff
Sorghum Checkoff
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