Thursday, October 27, 2011

Good Old Corn Chowder

Once again I found myself wondering if I weren't just a wee bit insane.

It was writing time and I was chopping onions with three students, one eye on the clock. In twenty minutes the sixth graders had to leave for their math class and fifth graders from another room would be coming in to have math class with me.

Everyone (except the onion choppers) had writing work in front of them, but their pencils were moving at varying speeds, if you know what I mean. Writing is hard work, and if you're not in the mood, or not sure what to say, it can become near impossible. Which is why normally, I'd be circulating around the room encouraging, wheedling, and threatening. Instead I was standing in front of two pots of melting butter, watching tears stream down the cheeks of three tough boys and answering writing questions from a distance. I felt like a cheerleader on the sidelines.

We were making corn chowder. Corn has been an important part of the standard U.S. diet since long before there was a U.S. Previously we had discussed how all of the ingredients, save the spices, were items New Englanders have been able to grow or harvest for hundreds of years.

Almost everyone got to come and help with one step or another, the ingredients all made it into the pot in time, and one enterprising fifth grader helped me with the dishes as others cleaned up their writing (Thanks D! You can come clean up at my house anytime.) The chowder simmered through math, lunch and recess. Later in the afternoon kids got to try as much or as little as they wanted. Many opted for a small serving in a cup and then came back for seconds. Several started out with a bowl full and then polished off another. Only a few tried it and decided it wasn't for them. One boy did inform me that his father's corn chowder was better, but he said it kindly, as if he were concerned for my feelings.

Thoughts on this food excursion:

-I like working with my students in small groups when we're cooking, but

-doing so means no one (but me) gets to experience the whole recipe start to finish.

-I am still trying to figure out “the best” was to incorporate the cooking part. Managing a whole group while cooking is tricky, but otherwise the cooking can distract from whatever else everyone else is doing in the room.

-Kids are trying new and healthy foods. I am jazzed about this. Even if they don't love what they're trying, they're trying it. And many do truly like what they're trying.

-At the beginning of the year I wish I'd surveyed everyone about what kinds of foods they like, how healthy they eat or think they eat, etc. Then I could track a change in attitudes and habits. I am still mulling over how to best incorporate this into the process mid year. I am especially interested in what healthy and/or adventurous eating is spilling over at home.

- I need to build time into the class schedule in advance of cooking to make them double or triple the recipes. Why pass up the opportunity for a real life application of math skills?

-Eating is social. As I watched students hang out and joke around while they ate their chowder, I wondered if socializing was overpowering the experience of trying something new and absorbing the significance of the foods we were eating. But it is natural to combine eating with being together as a group; I can't imagine making everyone sit at their assigned seats and eating their chowder silently. Instead I wonder how I can structure the eating of what we've prepared so that learning stays at the forefront but the natural inclination to socialize is honored.

Monday, October 24, 2011


Look what came in the mail today!
The Tari Shattuck Education Foundation is a local organization started in memory of a beloved teacher who passed away at age 41 after several years battling leukemia. Among its activities, the foundation awards grants to the schools in our five town community twice a year. Our school and my classroom has benefited from generous grants countless times in the past.

I wrote a grant requesting funds for several items my class kitchen currently lacks including:
  • a two burner stove
  • dish towels
  • utensils (spatulas, whisk, measuring spoons)
  • a digital timer
  • a hand powered food chopper (why not put all that kid-energy to good use and avoid the risk of burning out my personal food processor?)
These items total about $100. I also asked for funding to purchase ingredients. I wasn't able to itemize this list -- some of the units we'll be cooking our way though haven't been finalized and I only have a guess of what ingredients I'll need in January or April.

The generous TSEF board granted my full request, which means in addition to now being able to purchase all of the items listed above, I also have $150 to put toward the actual food we'll be cooking. This grant is making possible something I have already committed to, and for that I am so very thankful.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Eating bacteria -- on purpose

Last Tuesday night, I found myself wondering what my students would say when I told them that yogurt is made by bacteria multiplying in milk. Let's face it, that sounds like a dubious way to make a food product, doesn't it?

I picked yogurt for two reasons:

1) We are studying the U.S. and are going region by region. We've started with New England and making yogurt is a way to celebrate our home state's dairying tradition.

2) This week we had limited time for any cooking project because of the last round of standardized testing and a teacher inservice day on Friday. Yogurt is a quick no-brainer recipe.

My husband and I have been making yogurt weekly for over twelve years. When we first got married we used a yogurt maker, which is a glorified incubator for the warm, cultured milk. It stopped working a year or two and a friend told me how to incubate the milk the old fashioned way, which is what I planned to do with my class.

I started off by asking the kids what they knew about bacteria. I got the responses you'd expect: it can make you sick, they're really small, etc. I explained that not all bacteria are harmful, and that some are even beneficial.

They looked at me with skepticism.

Then I explained how yogurt is made: milk is warmed to just below the boiling point to kill off bacteria that while not harmful, prevent the bacteria we would add to the milk from multiplying. I had done this step as they were coming in about 45 minutes earlier. Then the milk is cooled to about 110 degrees, a temperature that is just right for the bacteria we were going to add. We talked about how if the bacteria doubles, then doubles again, and so on, there would quickly be a lot of bacteria in the milk, and this is what would turn it into yogurt. The last step is to keep the pre-yogurt warm enough for the bacteria to do its job. We checked the milk and it was the right temperature, so we moved from the meeting area to the horseshoe table near my desk.

Usually a demonstration like this is tricky. Can everyone see? Is everyone focused or do some people take the opportunity to stand next to a friend and chat. This time, I knew there was a high degree of interest. Everyone crowded around respectfully and was listening and asking good questions as we proceeded.

I often use my own yogurt as starter, but after several generations we usually buy a new tub of commercial yogurt to get a strong culture. The day before, I stopped at the local general store and the only choice was Chobani. A bit of a risk, since I hadn't tried using it as starter before, but knowing Chobani yogurts are very thick, I decided to give it a try.

We added several tablespoons of starter to a cup ful of warm milk, mixed it in thoroughly, and then poured it back into the pot of milk. As I stirred I reminded everyone that I was spreading the bacteria through all the milk so it could do its job. Then I ladled milk into 8 oz Ball jars, sealed them up tight and put them in a large pot. We poured hot water in up to lid height, covered the pot and then wrapped it in some foam and a towel to keep the heat in.

Five hours later, we peeked to see what was going on. (At home I usually leave it overnight to culture.) Done! The yogurt was solid in the jars. I refrigerated it overnight and at snack the next day I served it with a drizzle of maple syrup. Sixty four ounces of yogurt were devoured in minutes.

A couple things struck me about this activity:

- Yogurt making is a science. And we will explore it in this vein over the winter. Several kids naturally asked, “What if you did...” some step a slightly different way. Yogurt making is totally ripe for changing one variable and applying the scientific method.

- Some basic recipes I have been using for years are completely novel even to adults who work in my room. One of whom has said a couple of times that she plans to try making yogurt at home herself. This recipe is so simple once you see it done, it doesn't even require written directions!

- We didn't really cook. I did a demonstration and the class ate the product. I am not sure how I feel about this, but am making note of it.

For most regions, we will only prepare one dish, but because I want to do something representative of the entire New England region, if that's possible, we are going to make chowder next week. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Salsa Wrap Up

So we made that salsa on Monday. Tuesday, volunteers served it at lunch. Some of them chose to miss part of recess to do so!

One of my students has been in the holiday spirit all week. Don't ask me why. Sixth graders are a strange breed.
At the morning message sign in on Wednesday, I asked everyone to describe how it felt to have the school eat our salsa. And I asked them to use more creative words than "good" or "happy".

I was impressed with their choices : proud, joyful, awesome, confident, caring.

In morning meeting I asked them to explain their choices. Here's a smattering of what they said.

"I was proud that the whole school ate and enjoyed it."
"I felt joyful because a lot of the older kids tried it. I was joyful that they were willing to."
"I felt confident because I knew we made it and it was good."
"I was confident when we were making it. I knew we could do it."

A mystery student signed in that he felt sad about the salsa. I asked the group the reasons someone might be sad after this experience. Some predictions:
"Sad that some people didn't want to try it."
"I went for seconds and it was out already."
I shared that when we cook, we are creating a kind of art that doesn't last like a painting does. I wondered it is might feel sad when you're so proud of something and then it's gone.

Finally, the shy student spoke up. I hope our conversation had somehow made him feel that it was ok to express his feelings, even if they were very different from the rest of the group. He was sad because he wanted to like the recipe, but he didn't like the big clumps of onions and tomatoes. I love that he wanted to like what we'd made.

But in the end, it all comes down to taste. Everyone is not going to like every recipe every time.

No worries. As long as they are trying new (and healthy) foods and recipes, they are expanding their exposure to the world. I can't ask for more than that.

Monday, October 10, 2011


One afternoon last week when there was a warning for a hard frost overnight, this is what I saw when I went in the teacher's room after school:

A parent/co-worker had brought in heaps of tomatoes from her garden. All varieties, all colors, all shapes. A few teachers took a couple, but largely they were just sitting there.

The tomatoes must be used. The tomatoes could not be allowed to sit in those containers and rot. So I started scheming.

I had many ideas, all with reasons not to follow through on them.

Take them home and try oven-drying them to use later? The kids wouldn't get to see them shrivel up and change, so all I'd be gaining was free ingredients to use at a later date.

Make sauce? An ungodly mess anytime I've tried this before.

Freeze them whole to use later? They take up more space than I have in my freezer.

Someone suggested salsa. This seemed like the most practical way to use the tomatoes, but there was a volume issue. We had been gifted A Whole Lotta Tomatoes. How much salsa could we eat? Should I try freezing it to use a little bit at a time?

Then, the moment of inspiration, which I am more and more relying on to help guide me through planning these cooking adventures.

I went to Emily our food services coodinator. “If we made salsa Monday afternoon, could we serve it as part of the hot lunch program?”

“We're having tacos Tuesday, so yes.”

These are the stars-are-aligned moments that give me confidence I'm on some version of the right track. Sometimes you choose the recipe; but sometimes the recipe chooses you.

Emily gathered the other ingredients, gave me a loose starting point kind of a recipe, and let our class take over the kitchen this afternoon after she and her crew had cleaned up for the day. We spread out by using a table in the main part of the gym outside the serving window. Cutting boards were borrowed from several of my co-workers; knives and mixing bowls came from the kitchen.

A Whole Lotta Tomatoes means there was A Whole Lotta Tomato Goop all over the place in the thick of it. As kids finished chopping I just grabbed whoever was closest for whichever task needed doing: rinsing dishes and getting them racked up for the dishwasher, wiping down counters, taking out the compost.

Once the kitchen was back under control, I let everyone know we'd have a quick taste test. I asked them to think about whether the salsa needed more salt, more lime juice, more something else. Many brows were wrinkled in concentration as they tasted their concoction. Overall it got a thumbs up, but the suggestions for improvement ran the gamut from “too salty” (I, of course, thought it needed more salt), to too chunky, to “I couldn't really taste the lime.” And of course there were a bunch of tough guy and gals who insisted it needed more heat in one form or another.

“Remember,” I told them, “this salsa is for everyone in the school. We don't want to blast the kindergarteners with too much heat.” It is interesting, as our whole school focuses on the social skill of empathy this month (as we do every October) that one or two kids couldn't get past what they wanted the salsa to taste like instead of thinking about what others might need. But the wonderful thing about school is that there's always room for growth...

Speaking of which: One area we need to work on as a class is each individual making responsible choices (i.e. if you're done with your job and not sure what to do, ask a teacher instead of running across the gym like a wild person). There was no way to assign all the jobs ahead of time because there was no telling who would finish which task when; each child needs to demonstrate responsibility and some modicum of good judgement to participate in whole class cooking activities. As it is, I sent three kids to take a break in the office because even with a timeout quick discussion with the whole group about this concept, three chose to goof around to an extreme. I am hopeful that as I better learn how to frame these cooking explorations, my students will also improve in this area.

We left the salsa wrapped up in the fridge for tomorrow. Students will have the option to help serving it tomorrow at lunch and I hope that at mid-morning snack, someone is willing to make a small sign naming our class as the producers of this fine salsa. Wednesday we'll also talk about how it felt to prepare food for others and then see them eat it.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Feeding others

Help me finish this sentence:
When I prepare food and provide food to feed others I feel______________.

What word fits best in the blank? (And no, this isn't preparation for a standardized test.)

Lots of words spring to mind for me:

But the word that best describes it for me is one that I almost never use in writing or in speech - beneficient. I had to look it up to confirm that it meant what I thought it meant. It does.
adjective - doing good or causing good to be done; conferring benefits; kindly in action or purpose.

When I prepare a meal for my family, when I bring a dish to a potluck, I feel beneficient. Even if I never use the word, that's the feeling I get about myself.

This week was the next to last week before the class begins studying the regions of the US. That means it's the next to last week of me choosing a cooking project just because it tickle my fancy. (Or because a cooking project chooses me; next week will include two projects like this.) I had gotten the advice to bake biscuits with the class because when we study chemistry over the winter, we can mess around with the ingredients and see what happens. Good-bye baking powder, hello baking soda. That kind of thing. So biscuits now would be the base line.

Su took class into the school kitchen in halves on Thursday afternoon to mix up the dough and form the biscuits, while I worked with the other half to finish their books. Then we switched, so all kids got to do both activities. I popped down the hall to see how the first group was doing partway through, and this is what I saw:
Not bad, you might say. But let's look a little closer.
So what. So there's a little flour on the counter.
Oh, my...Whoah...

I shouldn't have worried. My two angels, Su and Colleen, had the kitchen cleaned up before 3:00. (Colleen is an assistant who works with a student in my classroom.)

After school I baked the biscuits in the already-cleaned up kitchen. Then it was 5:55PM.

People came, people ate.No pictures of grown ups; they are a bit more camera shy. But they ate the biscuits, too!
And by 6:45...
I especially love the jam smeared all over the stick of butter!

Without a doubt, my students liked the biscuits. They loved the home-made-this-summer jam, too. But more importantly, I hope they felt a sense of beneficence. Their efforts allowed others to eat.

Even if they felt this way, did they realize it? I plan to talk with the class about this idea next week. Monday we'll be making salsa for the whole school to enjoy as part of taco lunch the next day. I'll let you know what they have to say about how it feels to feed others.

Friday, October 7, 2011

More my hero than ever

In an earlier post, I mentioned my hero of both writing and cooking, Catherine Newman. After writing that post, I emailed Catherine to tell her about my blog. Look at me, networking.

To my great pleasure, she responded the next day and offered to arrange for my class to get a free subscription to Chop Chop magazine. She is an editor of the magazine and also writes a column about her own children trying out the magazine's recipes.
We receive a subscription at home and my own children have enjoyed many of the articles and recipes that promote healthy cooking and eating to the ages 5-12 set. In the back of my mind, I'd been thinking it would be nice to get a subscription through the school library. But any public teacher will tell you that an offer of anything for free is welcome. The fact that it came from someone whose work I admire made it all the more lovely.

Our first issue arrived yesterday after school. It's a great one; the feature article is about a school group's visit to the White House garden and kitchens, including profiles of the chefs on staff there.

This morning I made a big deal out of sharing this new gift to our class with my students. They were thrilled to see the magazine! However, today was a busy day, with an all-school educational Solar Fest occupying the whole afternoon. (This event was centered around the solar array that was installed last fall on the school property.) It was wonderfully sunny, but with little time to read our new magazine. But I shared it because I didn't want to wait, I was so excited.

I'm looking forward to seeing which recipes capture the kids interest in the coming weeks. I'll report back...

Thanks again to Chop Chop magazine for this free subscription!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Busy, busy, busy

So much to tell:
of biscuits at Open House
and free gifts
and the upcoming first dish we'll prepare for the whole school.

But first...
in recognition of the completion of the first six weeks of school, I decided to do a bookmaking project with the class. I have been trying to figure out the best way to send home the recipes we've made so that there's a feeling of ceremony and celebration to it; copying them off, stapling them, and sending them home at the end of the week didn't quite feel like the way to go. All along I've had in the back of my mind that we would make a book and glue in the recipes along with other related information, but in the busyness of the beginning of the year, I hadn't figured out what the book format would be.

Then I realized that rather than creating one book per student with a collection of the year's recipes in it, it would make more sense to have a book for each unit throughout the year. My school uses the Responsive Classroom model which envisions the first six weeks of school as an important time for setting up routines, establishing expectations, and building community. The cooking we've done so far has not tied into any specific academic curriculum, but it has been an essential part of the development of the classroom community.

I have done workshops on simple bookmaking, and drew on what I've done before to design the books we made this week. There was absolutely NO WAY this project would have been possible, though, without the amazing efficiency of Barb, a classroom assistant. She spends just under an hour and a half in my room each day and accomplishes more in that ninety minutes that most of us mere mortals can do in a whole day! After my room, she's off to three more classrooms for the rest of her workday.

Monday morning I told her what I was hoping to do and she got to work cutting paper for the book pages. Monday afternoon the kids watercolored paper for their book covers and Tuesday morning she cut them up into fronts and backs. And so on. I am VERY lucky to have Barb on my team!

The kids spent their writing time this week looking back at the articles we read about the vegetables we've worked with. Then, on notecards, they wrote out facts and opinions about the foods we prepared. They also sketched these foods as illustrations.

Message from the Wisdom of Hindsight: next time have kids do these cards within a day or two of the food experience.

Yesterday we bound the books blank; today they glued in the recipes I had typed and the writing and artwork they had created.

Tonight they showed off their books at Open House. Tomorrow they'll do the last cards about biscuits (baked this afternoon), and then take the books home. Hopefully they'll try the recipes with their parents.

Here's how the books work. Recipes in the front, their work inside the flaps:

Okay, okay. I'll never be a hand model. You try holding an iPad and taking video with one hand while turning the pages with the other, and let me know how it goes.

Coming soon: biscuits and more. Stay tuned..

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Fruit Salad

Do not ask me why, but in the wee hours of this morning, I dreamed that I was making fruit salad with my students. In the art room.

Maybe I was thinking about the collages they have been working on with our art teacher, inspired by the works of sixteenth century Italian painter Guiseppe Arcimboldo. We were chopping fruit in the art room after all. Not too different from this scene:

But I am inclined to think my dream occurred because this cooking concept is just on my mind. Enough to have invaded my dreams...