Saturday, June 9, 2012

End Of Year Reflections

I survived the end-of-the-year marathon – phew!!

I have been collected ideas I wanted to delve into in a blog post, but by the time I sit down every night, I have been too wiped out to tackle them. The beauty of the lack of snow this winter is that we didn't have any snow days, and I am officially on summer vacation as of yesterday afternoon, which is ridiculously early. Not that I'm complaining.

So here are some of my end of the year thoughts on cooking and other food-related topics. I apologize in advance; this is a long post!

*Food is used to reward and to celebrate. There's lots more to say about that, but I just wanted to get it out there. Why? Is it a good idea? What are the benefits and harms of this practice? I hope to involve my colleagues in dialogue about this next year.

*For the past several years, I have created an end of the year slide show for my students and have shown it on the last day of school. It's one of those one-more-thing projects that are much more fun to work on than correcting the last set of writing pieces or digging into report cards. This year it was no surprise to discover that 60%-70% of the pictures were related to cooking projects. When we watched the slide show the other day, there were several times where I heard things like, “Oh yeah, gumbo. That was good!” 

We had memorable experiences through cooking, and hopefully those experiences impacted both kids' willingness to try new things and a connection with whatever we were studying. I can't know for sure what each child will take away from their year of cooking, but as a teacher, you never do know for sure what parts of the curriculum kids absorb and keep. One idea I am kicking around is some sort of entrance and exit interview about cooking and foods so that I can track changes in kids' thinking.

*You can't talk about food without talking about food-related waste. In the wake of the plate waste project, many ideas have come up for leadership projects our class could take on next year including building a compost pile on school grounds and finding simple ways to track food waste, report on it, and challenge our school community to waste less. But based on an experience that happened at our school's end of year picnic, our leadership may start on the first day of school.

We were off school grounds having field days and a picnic, and I went through the line for barbeque after most of the kids had already been through. By the time I finished eating, most had cleaned up and frolicked off in one direction or another. Another staff member and I hit the trash can at the same time and saw the piles of recyclable milk bottles mixed in with the trash. Another adult said she'd just seen a recycling bin and went to get it so we could pull some of the cartons out. A third adult said she could have used the watermelon rinds for her chickens. Long story short, I soon found myself up to my elbows digging through the trash, sorting out the compostables and recyclables.

One person perfectly articulated what I've always thought about picnics. “It's like we say, 'We're having a celebration! Let's trash the planet.'”

Certainly using paper products is easier than bringing dishes with you to a picnic and then taking them home to wash, but it's something I've started doing with my family. We weren't able to eliminate all the paper waste last Wednesday, but I'm glad I was part of the trash sorting that took place. And today I did exactly the same thing, on a smaller scale, at my daughter's Little League potluck. Melon rinds and hot dog buns in the trash? No problem, I'm going in to get them and popping them in this bag to take home to my compost pile.

Next fall, at the first day of school picnic, my class will be the ones to make sure that before lunch starts, there are bins put out for compost and recycling, so that when kids start their clean up, they'll have the same sorting set up as on every other day of the school year. I hope we can make it our class mission to make sure this happens regardless of where our school community is or what we're doing.

*I am only one player in my students' continuing exposure to new foods. The food program at our school this year was spectacular in its first year – I can only imagine what great things Emily, Doreen and Joyce will do in coming years. They certainly keep me on my toes; last Monday imagine my surprise when the student responsible for bringing snack to the room showed up with a bowl of apple slices and a bag with two coconuts in it.

“Emily said we should make friends with them,” he told me.
“???” I responded.
Then I picked up the phone and called down to the kitchen.
“A little clarification on the coconuts, please?”

Emily laughed and told me she'd ordered some for one of the other teachers (I assume for some sort of a project) and had received more than they needed. So every classroom got a coconut or two to do what they wished with. My students were all over me to crack it then and there, but having never done so before, I wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing first.

Coconuts and slideshow production trump report cards, so after school found me watching this six minute videoon how to open a coconut. First you drain the coconut water. I went home and asked my husband which screwdriver and hammer I could take off his workbench and bring to school to chip a hole in the coconut. When he realized I was talking about pounding a hammer on the top of one of his screwdrivers, his eyes got wide and he offered me the power drill instead. When my students saw the power drill, they were more excited than ever to open that coconut!

It was definitely the tool for the job. We drained off the water and several kids tried a bit to see what it tastes like. Then we popped the hollow coconut in a large ziploc, went out on the fire escape outside my room, and took turns chucking it at the ground until it broke into little pieces and came apart from the shell. Most of us (me included) had never had fresh coconut and enjoyed trying it almost as much as we enjoyed breaking it open.

Emily has been instrumental in work writing a farm to school grant to bring more food, equipment and training into schools in our district and just found out we will have part of the $20,000 awarded to our district to work with next year. Who knows what will be coming next?

*Cooking is fun. Two pieces of evidence to support this statement.

1) Graduation is the night before the last day of school. My sixth graders graduated and I was at school all evening to help make this happen. The next day was a half day, with only my fifth graders there for the morning. What would we do all morning? Room cleaning, snack, and recess only take so long. I had the genius idea earlier in the week to have them help make my potluck dish (thank you once again, Catherine Newman) for our staff lunch that afternoon, thereby saving me from having to make it the night before after an evening at graduation.

Kids came in at 8:00 and didn't even blink when I handed them sweet potatoes to peel and limes to zest and juice. As the smells started drifting down the hallway, adults started popping in.

“What are you cooking today?” they all asked.
“My dish for the potluck, of course.”

At snack time I offered all my helpers a taste of our dish and several had some. But for many kids, the cooking was enough fun, without the reward of the eating. Also, many kids enjoyed individual ingredients (roasted sweet potatoes, squeeze lime halves, crumbles of homemade feta cheese) but didn't want the finished dish. Note to self: next year provide more opportunities for eating single ingredients by way of introduction, and remember that lots of kids don't like their foods mixed together.

2) This was the best moment of the last day of school. Wonderful Colleen, who has been so helpful with every cooking project and so much more, will not be in my class next year. The student she works with has graduated and she's decided to spend time at home with her granddaughter next year. She asked me what I was planning for cooking/curriculum themes next year and when I told her, she asked what time we'd be cooking. I thought she was joking, but later in the day she clarified: she wants to come into my class as a volunteer each week because she enjoyed herself so much and doesn't want to miss out next year.

My cup runneth over.

Colleen and Su making biscuits to share at Open House
So the year is over. How fortunate I am to have the autonomy to make the curricular decisions I made this year; not every school allows their teachers these freedoms. I had no idea what was going to happen when I made that first batch of kale chips with my class this fall. I had no idea I would connect cooking to so many units and develop a support network of adults who would be ready to pitch in as needed. I had no idea that I would be the first person to introduce a student to something as simple as soy sauce or as eclectic as nori. I had no idea I'd start a blog.

Now I have incoming sixth graders who are already plotting homemade bread and cheese fundraisers to pay for the 2013 end of year field trip. I have the promise of two steady volunteers. Our school has a farm to school grant whose implementation will involve my class.

Food and food issues are a growing part of the national dialogue and my students are part of the action. How cool is that?