Differentiating Deliciously

The Food Technology room at Marling School in ...
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No, I’m not talking about the social bookmarking site.

I’m talking about education and food. That’s what this blog is supposed to be about and in a Twitter response to my last post, @ToughLoveforX remarked that high schools should have teaching kitchens.

I disagree.

All schools should have teaching kitchens. Maybe even all classrooms.

The earliest lesson that I remember from my schooling was when, in first grade, we shook heavy cream for what seemed like forever to make whipped cream and butter.

The next lesson I recall is when we made applesauce.

There was a time not that long ago when most high schools and middle schools had classroom kitchens. Most were removed shortly after Russia’s first space shot galvanized American educators to get serious about science and math because we had to put a man on the moon.

Been there. Done that.

Now its time to reexamine that decision to remove those kitchens.

Kitchens are the perfect venue for teaching middle and high school students.

Those students have an abundant interest in food and eating, so there is incentive to show up for class.

Each of the major disciplines can be addressed in the process of completing the task of planning, preparing and reflecting on the flavors of a menu.

Researching dishes to include on a menu involves language arts, social studies and nutrition science,

Scaling the recipe of a dish for a smaller or larger number of servings is measurement math and multiplication or division.

Costing the price of the ingredients, creating a budget and doing the purchasing incorporates various math concepts and skills.

Cooking and baking involve chemistry, physics and nutrition science.

Invitations, dish descriptions and critiques all involve writing.

And so on.

And why stop there? Sewing classes, woodworking shop, and other venues of practical skills are rich with academic possibilities.

Every day I have students coming to me and asking for food. Every student in my school is eligible for free breakfast and lunch, but I hear stories about how mom works two jobs and doesn’t come home until midnight and then starts to prepare supper.

It is a long stretch between an 11:30 or noon lunch and a midnight or 1:00 AM supper. Even if there were no academic benefits to having teaching kitchens, doesn’t it make sense to give these students the ability to prepare a nutritious meal or two?

There is a big push right now to introduce more and more technology into classrooms and I’m all for that. But the technologies most classrooms need are not interactive white boards or hand-held computers; what classrooms need are stoves, ovens, chopping blocks and refrigerators.

The investment for a classroom full of computer-based technology and a teaching kitchen are roughly the same but kitchen equipment is far more durable, more easily maintained and far less likely to become obsolete within a few years of purchase.

Critics of my proposal, and I expect there to be many, will say that classroom kitchens don’t teach 21st Century skills, or that I’d just prepare kids for flipping burgers.


Writing a recipe is pure concept mapping.

Planning a menu requires the accumulation and integration of information from a variety of sources and the creation of a cogent new document. Its a process of planning, drafting, gathering feedback, revising, proofing and publishing. Sound familiar?

Well run kitchens require collaboration, planning, critical thinking, problem solving, adaptation to changing circumstances, the ability to gather and evaluate information, mutual respect, attention to detail, and the ability to apply principles learned in the synthesis of new concepts.

Those sound like 21st Century skills to me.

Is there some risk in giving your average high school student a cleaver and 10″ chefs knife? Absolutely, but far less than giving that same student a car.

The fact is, the technology most classrooms need is not an interactive white board or hand-held computers; what they need are stoves, ovens, chopping blocks and refrigerators.

OK, maybe a computer or two to access recipe sites and to write the class blog.

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No Education, Just Plate

Assorted wine corks
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I call this blog Education On The Plate, but so far it has been almost all education and very little plate.

Today will be different.

Yesterday was Thanksgiving. As I make every attempt to be thankful for all the good things in my life every day, yesterday was mostly about food.

And wine.

If anyone ever tells you to try a sparkling Shiraz, take his or her advice. If they really know their stuff they’ll tell you to drink it VERY cold (yes, cold red wine) from red wine glasses, not champagne flutes. Listen to them.

I go to a great wine store in Orangeburg, NY and they introduced me to Bleasdale Vineyards The Red Brute Sparkling Shiraz, a deep purple liquid with an abundant share of all the typical Shiraz berry and chocolate flavors, plus bubbles. Festive and perfect with turkey.

My brother-in-law’s table groaned with turkey, cornbread stuffing, roasted sweet potatoes, carrot-parsnip puree, red cabbage, and two cranberry-based dressings. My wife’s concoction involving cranberries, tequila, jalapenos and some other stuff was a big hit.

My contribution to the meal, aside from my appetite, was cranberry chutney made from a recipe belonging to a food writer whose pen name was Vladimir Estragon. I clipped it from the Village Voice in 1982.

Here’s the recipe:

Two cups cider vinegar

1-cup water

1 & ½-pounds light brown sugar

1 & ½-pounds fresh whole cranberries

½-pound currants (substitute white raisins if you can’t find currants)

½-pound seedless raisins

2 ounces fresh ginger, sliced very thin

1 medium head of garlic, peeled and chopped fine

2 large lemons, chopped fine (remove seeds, but include peel)

½-teaspoon cayenne pepper

Bring vinegar and water to boil and then add the sugar. When all the sugar is dissolved, add all other ingredients.  Bring to boil again, and then simmer two hours or so.  Stir gently from time to time, adding more water if necessary. (You may want to use a heat diffuser under the pot to help prevent scorching.) It’s okay if it seems a little thin; it will gel when cooled. Put in jars and seal.

I usually make a double batch so I have lots to spread on leftover turkey sandwiches. It is also good with pork, chicken, and cheddar cheese. It lasts for months in the refrigerator.

I’m probably not going to be posting a lot of recipes here, but I hope to do more writing about food and drink now that my food writer/restaurant critic newspaper gig has come to an end.

School lunch, anyone?

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The Student Who Knew Too Much

Food coloring spreading on a thin water film.
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I’ve never really understood calling someone “too smart for his own good.”

Today it was explained to me and now I get it. It has to do with standardized testing.

I spent today in a cool science professional development session at the NY Hall of Science. For anyone thinking about becoming a teacher, science PD is way more fun than social studies PD.

This PD dealt with the chemistry of water and there’s a whole lot more to it than I would have guessed.  Then again, chemistry is the only class I failed in high school. It was political.

The teacher required the memorization of the Periodic Table of Elements. I refused.

I probably could have gotten away with just not doing it if only I hadn’t condescendingly pointed out to the rookie teacher that the whole point of assembling the Periodic Table of Elements was so that poor schnooks who happened to have rookie chemistry teachers wouldn’t have to remember all those details about how many electrons Gonzonium has (names of elements have been changed to protect the innocent).

I have a lot more sympathy for rookie teachers, even rookie chemistry teachers, these days.

In today’s PD  session we counted how many drops of water could be dripped on a penny before it overflowed (a lot) and why (surface tension caused by bonds within the molecules), why detergent weakens those bonds (it has a hydrophilic head and a hydrophobic tail).

We also observed how food coloring dripped into water diffused differently depending on the temperature of the water (in hot water the blue food coloring spiraled like a hurricane) and I learned a new word:


Miscibility is the ability of two liquids or gasses to mix.

Sounds innocent, right?

Well, miscibility is a very dangerous word.

Its dangerous because using it properly on the NYC or NYS science tests could get the answer marked wrong and lower the student’s score.

Yes, you read that correctly. Using the word properly could reduce the student’s score.

Here’s how:

The teachers who grade the science exams are not required to be science teachers. They could be math teachers, English teachers or, worse, social studies teachers.  Each grader is given an answer key and rubric. The answer key has a list of the words expected in the answer.

According to some of the science teachers in our group who have graded the science exams, the expected words for this concept of how two liquids mix include diffusion, mixing, combining, and blending.

Miscibility is not one of the expected words.

If a student uses miscibility to explain what happens when food coloring is dripped into water and has the bad luck to have a music teacher grade her exam, she will likely have her answer marked wrong.

Some teachers in our PD said they actually warn their students not to use the word at all because using it makes them “too smart for their own good.”

Imagine that, a student too smart for the exam.

Its a good thing we have teachers ready to prevent that from happening.

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Learning Not To Drown

A life preserver, or toroidal throwable person...
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Once again I’m feeling like a fish out of water.

I’m a special education teacher teaching two general education social studies classes.

I’ve told you about my struggles with my eighth grade class. It is just the opposite with my sixth graders.

I teach in three different classrooms. I have one room for my Read 180 remedial reading classes for special education students.

I teach my 8th grade general ed class, and most sessions of my sixth grade class in a room I share with three other teachers.

But on Tuesdays I teach my 6th grade group in their homeroom because the shared room is otherwise occupied.

My sixth graders, N61, are deeply involved in group-studies of how the geography of different countries affects the way people in those countries live.

Normally the homeroom teacher leaves when I come in to teach her class but today she stayed in the room for a meeting with our principal.

There are 28 students in the class, divided into six groups.

One group wanted to use the computers in the classroom to show me two videos they made as part of the project.

Four groups wanted to go to the school’s library to do research or to use the computers there to assemble PowerPoint or more technologically advanced presentations.

The final group wanted to go to my Read 180 classroom to work on the one Internet-capable computer there.

I know the school rules. I’m not supposed to send large groups to the library without supervision.

I’m absolutely not allowed to let students be in a classroom unsupervised.

None of that stopped me. I sent 18 students to the library and five into my other classroom unsupervised while I watched the two videos.

Then I remembered that my principal was in the room.

Uh oh.

I was running from one classroom down the hall to the other and back (did I mention that today was my first day not using a cane since I injured my knee in early September?)

Finally, my principal finished his conference with the other teacher and called me over.

I was ready to try to defend my decisions about letting students work without supervision and I was ready to get chewed out.

“I see you’re giving these students a lot of freedom. This class can handle that independence. If you try this with your 8th grade class you’ll need to keep a much closer watch on them.”

“There’s one thing I always have to teach special education teachers who move into general ed classes; the classroom management is totally different”

“Its much easier to get the attention of 12 students than when you have nearly 30. I’ve watched other special education teachers yelling at their general ed classes to get them settled. That doesn’t work, and you’re not a yeller.”

Then he taught me to use a procedure that apparently every general ed teacher in the school uses.

By that time most of the students had drifted back into the room and were noisily chattering about the work they’d done. The din was considerable.

I tried the technique.



Before I got to three the room was almost silent.


The students clapped twice and were quiet.


It works.

Why has this secret been kept from us special ed teachers?

So though I felt like a fish out of water again, I was starting to develop lungs and learning to breathe.

It was very quiet.

And the air was very, very sweet.

And I sit here wondering…

Will this work tomorrow in my 8th grade class?

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The Bulletin Board Paradox

Simple cork
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Some teachers look at a blank bulletin board and imagine a dazzling educational display. They revel in cutting, pasting, crimping and primping; glory in getting everything placed-just-so, and otherwise happily go about making eye-catching, colorful, creative and highly attractive displays.

I am not one of them.

I, the oldest of four children of a writer and an artist, seem to have gotten just the former’s set of talent genes, and not many of them at that.

I’m so non-artistic that when I was a student teacher in a second grade classroom, my host teacher forbade me using scissors lest some child copy my technique.

I can’t draw a straight line even with a ruler.

I have done exactly one good bulletin board in my five-plus years of teaching. It occurred in my third year for what was then and remains my best extended bit of teaching: The Pizza Project. Even then my students actually hung most of the display.

When it comes to creating bulletin boards I am a conscientious objector.

But no matter how conscientious I am about objecting I am still expected to produce them, a situation that leads to one of the most ridiculous teaching practices I know of: creating assignments solely for the purpose of having something to hang on a bulletin board.

I am teaching my students to use a Ning; to create Wordles, to podcast and to develop stunning multi-media presentations by exercising those vaunted 21st Century skills using 21st Century tools.

Its good for them and it is far easier for me to demonstrate those sorts of things than it is for me to hang papers neatly.

But hang I must.

The school hallways are lined with bulletin boards and they cannot be left empty. After all, they provide the evidence that students are doing something besides enduring rolling waves of diagnostic, predictive, practice and other versions of standardized exams.

It is a frustrating paradox.

Everyone wants students to learn new skills but, because my and many other schools are not set-up for demonstrating and displaying learning using those skills, we continue to have students practice the same kinds of skills used to produce billboards in the 18th Century

I know I teach history, but…

Meanwhile, the billionaire Mayor who runs our schools seems to have given up on my students and others like them.

There’s no money to buy bookcases so I can display the books in my sole-purpose reading classroom, but there is money to lobby for and open new charter schools.

For the past three months there’s been a brand new exterior display sign leaning upside-down against the wall outside our main entrance. There was money to buy that, but none to put it up.

Some schools get document cameras, GPS units, video editing programs and the cameras to feed them material, but I have to buy my own backing paper for those damned bulletin boards.

My students are capable of creating documentaries but I might as well assign dioramas.

A couple of decades ago the United Negro College Fund ran ads with the message that “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

It still is.

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Teaching Is Starting To Be Fun Again. Finally.

Alexej von Jawlensky. Abstract Head, c.
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I’ve spend most of my teaching career trying to push, pull, and otherwise motivate students who have failed so often that they have all but given up on the idea of school.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think that giving up on school is always a bad thing, just that there are sometimes better reasons for giving up than others and believing that you can’t learn is not one of the good ones.

When people who don’t teach find out what I do for a living they sometimes look at me with incredulity or awe, both reactions based on the assumption that I daily look chaos and mayhem in the eye and manage not to blink.

Anyone who teaches middle school – whether or not they teach inner-city special education students – knows that what I do is nothing special. All teachers face down chaos and mayhem.

But that’s enough about dealing with the inanities of local school boards and state education departments. I want to talk about students, the ones I don’t mention much but who provide most of the fun I have at work four days a week.

I work five days, but I don’t see my 6th grade general education social studies class on Mondays.

This class is very different from any other group of students I’ve taught. They are eager, driven to learn and they’re driving me to become a better teacher.

On the NY State and City exams you get scored from 1 to 4, four being the high score. Most of the students I’ve taught have been ones and twos, with the occasional low three thrown in. These kids are all mid-to-high threes with some fours thrown in.

When I ask questions these kids have answers. Even better, they have questions. Real questions, not just ones about how long a written assignment need be to meet muster.

What I enjoy most about these students is their willingness to speculate, to take the risk of hazarding an answer when you don’t know for sure if what you’re going to say is the right answer.

They even understand that most of the questions worth asking don’t necessarily have right answers.

At those too frequent times when I have to fiddle with the technology and I’m used to having things fly around the room, these kids toss around concepts and discuss books they’re reading.

I have had to totally relearn how to teach.

Instead of breaking things down into small, easily handled chunks I now have to come up with bigger ideas. I have to break my habit of trying to make everything concrete and learn to introduce more abstractions.

Last May, when my principal told me I’d be teaching general ed classes this year I was not happy with the idea.

He said I’d enjoy it.

I’m starting to.

Very much.

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