Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Plate Waste Wrap Up

We are zooming toward the end of the school year at warp speed!

Nevertheless, we have found time to tie up the plate waste project. Kacie presented the five day data to our class last week. Other noted guests were the director of our district's food cooperative, and our head chef, Emily. I appreciated that Kacie put together a slide show presentation that showed students both a) an adult's real life use of the scientific method and b) an adult's real life use of presentation software. The discussion that followed brought to light issues including required serving sizes, our school's continued quest for a permanent composting situation, and how to share what we've learned with the rest of the school community.

In between field trips and other end-of-the-year merriment, students have been working on self selected projects. Two pairs of students made educational posters to put up in the public places in the building, another pair of students are working on a letter to the editor of the local paper. A handful of students are working with our technology educator to create educational brochures about our findings and a group of four students created a skit, which they performed in all school assembly this morning. The moral: Eat the food you take. Finally, one student was inspired by Kacie's presentation and created her own four-slide presentation that she shared after the skit.

As always, there are several tensions with these sorts of projects. The group dynamic, what information to present, a looming deadline. Helping students navigate them is a big part of project-based learning. It's something I am still refining in my teaching. When it's working, a group of students goes off to work for an hour and comes back with a skit that's ready to present, as was the case this week. That focus and independence...that is what I hope to build up in my students. When it happens, it is almost magical.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Food In - Waste Out

Don't worry - this post is not about how I taught the digestive system to my students.

We've spent so much time thinking about the food that goes into our systems, but so far have not touched on food waste. Luckily there are local resources available for this exploration.

This week my students worked with an intern to the food cooperative that runs our hot lunch program. Kacie met with the kids on Tuesday and explained that she'd be helping them collect and weigh all the food that is headed for the compost. Instead of students banging their trays into the huge trash bin that acts as our compost repository, the plate waste on each tray would be separated into four bins. We decided to sort food by main dish, grain, hot vegetable and all raw produce. Students hypothesized about which bin would hold the most waste each day.

Then we signed up for shifts to stand at the sorting station, wearing rubber gloves, and helping every single student sort their waste. I had wondered if students would balk at missing part of the recess or be squeamish at the prospect of touching others' cast off fajitas, but hands shot up to sign up for the first day's shifts. Only one student blared, "You can't make me touch other peoples' garbage!" and then quickly stopped complaining when I agreed with him and he saw his classmates' enthusiasm.

Even on the first day, the sorting process went smoothly. In fact it looked so fun to sort, some of the youngest students purposely took more food than they could eat so they would get to sort it with the big kids! This was quickly squashed.

 Each day Kacie has overseen the sorting and met with three students after lunch to weigh the waste and record the totals. We'll collect data for a total of five days, and then she'll work with the whole class to look at the data and draw some conclusions about plate waste at our school. I'm hoping we can work in a quick presentation to the whole school before the end of the year and that this can be a jumping off point next year for my class. I'd like to see them take on a leadership role  encouraging everyone to make more careful food choices so as little food as possible is wasted.

Friday, May 11, 2012

A Local Meal

After Monday's analysis of my lunch, I decided we needed to cook a well-balanced meal that used as many local ingredients as possible. We haven't done a true cooking project in a while, so that was another incentive to plan something more elaborate than taste testing carrots and apples (which I still need to post about...)

For some reason I quickly decided our protein would be tofu. Costwise it was a more practical choice than local beef or chicken. Little did I know what a big deal tofu would be. But that's getting ahead of things.

I spent a day or so belaboring the rest of the meal, but then realized that I should just prepare a meal that my family eats and enjoys on a semi-regular basis: Catherine Newman's pan-fried tofu with yummy maple lemon sauce, barley, and a local greens salad with craisins on top. At home we use walnuts too, but our classroom is nut-free. I usually dress my salad with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and olive oil, but instead we'd make a balsamic vinaigrette.

So I gathered my ingredients, noting the insane cost of local greens this time of the year. Kids have brought up the issue of how expensive organic food is, and the same can often be said of local foods, organic or not. Surprisingly, the barley that I order in bulk from Pete's Greens is actually cheaper than the bulk non-local barley at the local market I shop at.

Have I not raved about Pete's Greens? Check out his website. That should answer any questions you have. I have been a year round CSA member for about five years and that membership has profoundly changed how my family and I eat.

So in class today: everyone gathered around and noted the nice smell coming from the barley that I had started boiling during math. Three cups water to one cup barley, bring to a boil and simmer until the water's absorbed. Add butter. I have one student who has been not only reticent about trying new foods, but offended by their existence. Today, he was the first to say something smelled good. I showed everyone what uncooked barley looked like and offered anyone that was interested a grain to try. To my surprise, hands stretched out eagerly. Including his.

Next I told kids where the spinach came from (a farm one town over) and showed them how to pull off the biggest part of the stem and tear the leaves up for salad. I also had a bag of mixed greens from Pete's. Our most recent issue of Chop-Chop has a page that identifies which leaf is which type of green, and for kids to that didn't want to cook I offered for them to try and identify which greens were in the bag, using that guide. 

On to craisins. Many kids didn't know what they were and had never tried them. Even in retrospect, that makes me think WOW. I spend so much time with these young people, but easily forget how their exposure to the world of food is vastly different from my own children's. Hands stretched out to try a craisin when offered.

Finally, the main event: the tofu. For some reason, tofu seems to be a loaded topic. It is unfamiliar to many, it sounds and looks weird. I think it still also holds an association with weird, hippie, alternative diets. I had been pressing it to remove some of the water, so uncovering it felt like some big deal reveal. 
Lots of comments about what it looked like; many kids had never seen tofu or even a picture of it. I get my tofu in bulk from the local market, and it is made by Vermont Soy Company, which also sells their product packaged. About half the class tried a small sliver of cold tofu, with my admonition that even if they didn't like it, they should try the cooked dish and see how much it changed. As one child made a dramatic reaction, spitting a sliver of tofu the size of a toothpick into the trash, another one shrugged, unfazed, and said, “It doesn't even have a flavor.” Exactly.

Now it was time to get cooking. We split into self-selected groups: tofu, salad and dressing, and analyzing the greens. 

Again, I was pleased to see that my food-reticent sixth grader chose to cook the tofu with me. This never would have happened in the fall. Kids got to work, but here is where it gets tricky because there's never quite enough for everyone to keep their hands busy, and this causes some kids to lose interest pretty quickly. 

Still focused, making salad

The salad was ready before the tofu, so many kids met in the meeting area to play a group game during the lag time. Time off task, which I generally avoid letting creep into our daily schedule. I have come to realize this is the trade off with teaching through food: sometimes there's down time.

One of the last pictures taken by the photographer du jour. This is the reality of handing the camera to a twelve year old and promptly forgetting about it. You never know what you're going to find on the camera!

Once everything was finished, kids were invited over two at a time to be served the foods they were interested in sampling/eating. More than two thirds of them tried at least a sample bite of tofu, and several came back enthusiastic for a bigger serving, even some of my picky eaters! The barley was a big hit, and many kids asked me to drizzle the sauce from the tofu over it. Lots of salad was eaten. For some reason, this warms my heart.

Salad dressing – a little tangy
Barley – many thumbs shot up as they shoveled it in
Tofu – loved the sauce and it was totally different once it was cooked

Will all my students be eating local, well balanced, low-on-the-food-chain meals made of mostly whole foods starting now? Who am I kidding – of course not. But everyone learned something about local foods, almost everyone tried something new, and many kids discovered that they liked what they tried.

I think my next career will be in nutrition education.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Lesson I Wish I'd Taught

Anyone who has ever taught anyone anything will have had the experience of getting halfway through the teaching of the whatever and realizing there was a better way to do it.

That's sort of what happened this afternoon.

I had adapted a lesson from the Nourish curriculum that got kids thinking about what local foods are available for them to eat. I started by asking them to create a My Plate meal that incorporated proteins, grains, fruits, veggies and dairy. They have lots of experience with this, having created meals this way as part of health curriculum, in social studies, and when voting on student choice meals for the hot lunch program. Today's twist was my plan to have them analyze their meal after they created it, to identify which foods were local or could be sourced locally.

As they worked on their my plates, I put one up on the board. I had gorged on the hot lunch of baked potatoes, black beans, broccoli, salad, grapes, eggs, cottage cheese and milk. I'm still stuffed now, three hours later! And as I put it up on the board, I realized that we could look at the meal through several lenses. I would have created a worksheet to guide kids through this process had I had my realization with enough lead time to make one.

Instead, I had them set their meals aside and we went through my meal and identified which items were whole foods and which were processed. I used one color marker to circle all the whole foods. Then I had kids discuss with each other which foods they thought were local. We discussed as a class and I circled those foods in a different color.  Then we did a little math: two thirds of my lunch was whole foods, and one third was local. One A-hah was realizing that the milk we get is distributed out of Texas. Surprising considering dairy is such a big part of the agricultural economy here in Vermont.

I had the kids look through their meals and come up with rough estimate fractions of how local and unprocessed their meals might be. This part could have been the place where each student really had to get into their meal and do some thinking, but I kept it quick becausewe were running short on time and I hadn't structured the beginning of the lesson in a way that let this happen in a maximal engagement/learning kind of way. Next time, right? Or, possibly, another day. We could come back to this type of meal analysis, which would get kids more in the habit of thinking about their food this way.

I still have some outstanding stuff from last week to share, but that will have to wait for another day....

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Where does our food come from?

I'm back from a Friday writer's conference that reminded me (as it always has) that I am a writer as much as I am a teacher. Too bad I don't have as much time for the writing as I'd like...

That being said, I am taking a break from a gorgeous and sunny Sunday to reflect a bit on what happened in my classroom when we started looking at the packaging on a variety of processed foods (crackers, cereal, bread, rice cakes, and so on).

First off, the focus and interest the group as a whole had while watching the Nourish video clip and analyzing the food systems diagrams, well, it went out the window. I think taking time to delve into what's in our foods is fascinating, but from the behaviors I saw, about half of my students are not in agreement. Maybe it wasn't specific enough for them, although the worksheet I gave them really walked them through the steps of looking at main ingredients, thinking about what plants/animals they came from, and trying to figure out where in the country/world they may have come from. Then I wonder if some of them didn't have adequate background knowledge of something or other they needed to truly grasp the task. We did spend several months on US Geography in the fall and winter, but many kids had trouble accessing information that would help them track their ingredients (Great Plains = lots of corn and wheat farming = possibly where those ingredients came from). Maybe it was just a couple of warm afternoons in May and the collective class focus was somewhere else.

By the time we got to Thursday at 2:30, I was feeling very ready to finish up this exploration. Pairs of kids shared basic information about what they'd discovered about their food item, and we noted that about half of the foods had a corn product listed as a top three ingredient. Almost every product had some sort of sweetener in the top three. No one seemed particularly surprised, interested, or concerned about these discoveries.

A couple interesting things came up:
1) One loaf of bread came in a plastic bag that is recyclable. Raising the question: Why aren't all plastic bread wrappers recyclable?
2) You can email almost any company's customer service to ask about the product. At the request of a few students, I sent emails to ask about where Quaker Rice Cakes are manufactured, where the wheat for Vermont Bread Company bread is grown and milled, and where the yeast in Fleischman yeast cakes is grown/created/cultured. Did you ever stop to wonder where those packets of yeast came from?? I have gotten responses back from all three companies, but I haven't had a chance to share with my students yet. So you'll have to wait too.

Coming soon: The answers to all the questions posed in #2 above, a recap of a double blind taste taste of local v. non-local apples and carrots, and some pictures from the camera I left at school over the weekend.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

What exactly is riboflavin?

All sorts of great questions being asked around here in the past two days:

How much fast food is okay to eat?
What is sorbic acid?
Where does our fruit come from?
If organic food is better for you, why is it so expensive?

I wish I had tape recorded the last two days of science -- I can only remember a small fraction of the amazing things that have come out of my students' mouths.

It started yesterday, when I showed a ten minute section of video from the Nourish: Food and Community curriculum published by The Center for Ecoliteracy. It's available in DVD form, but you can also do a 7 day rental through Amazon for $1.99. Totally worth it.

The room was silent during the screening. And I mean silent like no one was wiggling, tapping a pencil, tipping their chair back in that annoying way they do, none of it. They were rapt, watching the section about Seed to Table. It showed an industrial food system, where corn is grown as a monocrop with the use of pesticides and fertilizers, then trucked to a factory where it's made into a number of food additives including high fructose corn syrup. In contrast, a local food system was highlighted. Heirloom tomatoes were harvested and taken to a nearby farmer's market for sale. After the video, the questions started.

Fast food: I said I wouldn't tell them how much fast food to eat or not eat, but to think about the risks, and talk to their doctors if they have questions. I sometimes feel I am walking a fine line between presenting information to them and preaching a certain lifestyle. I don't want to be accused of crossing the line and telling them what they or their parents do is "wrong." My truest answer would be: try to eat as little of it as possible; try not to make it a regular part of your diet.

One student shared about his father's struggles with diabetes, and how difficult it is living with this disease. So we talked about diabetes for a bit, about how sometimes you just get it, or it runs in your family. But more and more people are developing it early in life, and diet seems to be a primary factor in this new trend. Will you get it from eating fast food once? No. It's one of those things that happens over time. Thinking about the consequences of their actions over time is not natural for many kids of this age. They are in the moment. They are young. My job is to help start them on the path of thinking further ahead than next week, of knowing the long term risks of their lifestyles.

Then the big question: Why is organic food so expensive? To me, that question opens a can of worms that would take more than a school year to answer for fifth and sixth graders. There is so much history, science, nutrition, economics and politics that you need to understand how we've gotten to where we've gotten in this country with our food systems. And I am not nearly expert enough to teach them this thoroughly.

But I am qualified to help them start asking the questions. This curriculum is an ideal medium for germinating the big questions that are getting my students thinking critically about the world around them. Today we analyzed diagrams of industrial and local food systems and started looking at ingredients lists on food packaging. We'll continue this for the rest of the week, and my guess is that more questions will be asked than answered in the next few days.

But that's ok. My students are beginning to act as thoughtful scientists, thoughtful citizens of the world. The answers aren't going to come quickly.