Thursday, May 17, 2012

Tasty Teaching

Quick, what was your favorite food when you were a little kid? What did your grandma cook special for you? What meals did your family have for favorite occasions and where did you like to go out to eat?

For most of us, food conjures up powerful memories. I remember drinking rich chocolate milkshakes at the Michigan Union when I was a preschooler, eating vanilla ice cream cones with my cousins on summer evenings in my grandparents' huge backyard, and spending all my high school lunch money on Fudgesicles and french fries. 

Are you sensing a trend here? I'm a little bit fond of ice cream.

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That is a delicious truth about me. But that is not my point.

My point is that food creates a powerful place in our brains for making memories and locking them down into long term storage. A brain physiologist could probably give you a proper explanation for why that is so, but I'm sure it's true.

So when my teaching partner, Heidi, and I planned out our classes, we always included an element of food. 

Sometimes, the connections were obvious.

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For example, when studying the countries of the world in a geography class, it's a no-brainer to have our students cook recipes from local cuisines. Likewise, links between literature and food are usually quite obvious - almost every story includes a scene or plot line that is related to food. Jay Gatsby hosts his extravagant cocktail parties, Mockingbird's Scout references Lane cakes, and little Hobbit Bilbo Baggins devours his honey-cakes. In our presidents' class, we served the chief executives' favorite meals. We took advantage of many such connections to put food in our students' mouths and memories into their brains.

Other times, we had to work a bit harder to make the link between content and food. Using food to count and measure in lower level mathematics is fairly straightforward but upper level algebra classes require a bit more creativity. I found that a piece of red licorice offered for class participation could entice my students to more or less knock each other down in their eagerness to answer questions.

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Another fun and creative approach is to use food to make a model or otherwise demonstrate a concept. For example, we once made a cake to demonstrate the damaging effects of partitioned countries on their citizens; another time, we used a bag of flour and yellow M&Ms to simulate a South American gold mining operation. Chosen wisely, food can usefully serve as construction materials as well as a delicious classroom snack.

These past successes were bouncing around in the back of my brain as I prepared this week's history lesson. Drawing from critical worldwide events during the 1960s and 1970s, the reading material for the week was challenging. We covered four separate and meaty topics; each one alone was enough to tax my poor young students' patience for complex details and cognitive ability to absorb patterns of events. In short, I was desperate for a way to make the complicated seem simple.

So I turned to food. After several tweaks of my original plan, and twenty minutes of wandering around the grocery store, I came up with a straightforward approach. For each story, I chose one basic food item to reinforce the main ideas and build a simple analogy. For aesthetic purposes, I used snack foods that looked fairly similar and were, from a kid's point of view, similarly yummy.

Here's how it all went down.

The Vietnam War, fought in the tropical jungles, was notable for guerilla fighting. It also dragged on for eight long years, the longest war ever fought by U.S. forces. Dried banana chips help lock in those key points: bananas grow tropical jungles, they are a favorite food of gorillas (gorilla = guerilla...see what I did there?), and their dehydrated state reminds us of the long, long war.

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At a time when most Arab leaders were at violent odds with Israel, Anwar Sadat dared to be different. Working through a long, protracted process, he eventually signed a peace treaty with that country, and brought a new hope to the region. Dots candy takes a long time to chew, its colors are as bright as the hope of peace, and they even sound like the Egyptian leader's name...Anwar Sa-DOT. Get it?

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How to describe life in the Soviet Union? Because government officials stripped much of the freedom and variation from the citizens' lives, many ordinary people felt that their existence was bland, colorless and boring. Kinda like an oyster cracker.

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At the 1972 Olympic Games, held in Munich, Germany, terrorism reared its ugly head on a highly televised stage. As the world watched in horror, members of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September captured, held hostage and ultimately killed a number of Israeli athletes and coaches. To represent this "hot" act of violence, I chose red hots, the chewy cinnamon candy that creates either a pleasing warmth or burning stinginess on the tongue, depending on your point of view.


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It's too soon to tell if my students will hold on to these lessons in the long run. But as we talked over these stories, and nibbled on the symbolic snacks, I could sense that they were grasping the key ideas and experiencing the 'aha!' moments that every teacher dreams of. I have great confidence that these tasty treats have taught my students well.

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