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Virginia Journal of Education

Recipe for Success

"Everything I need to know I learned while teaching cooking," says a Bedford middle school teacher.

by Kristina J. Karnes

Luckily, I’ve always had a high tolerance for burnt toast and canned tuna—not out of preference, but necessity. My mother, who has the most natural talent for all things domestic, somehow raised me, the girl who probably would’ve starved to death in college if not for the realization that uncooked spaghetti really can be eaten in a pinch. Last year she, the former home economics teacher, expressed concern and even laughed a little more than appropriate when I, a fairly decent English teacher of eight years, was asked to teach an after-school cooking class for my middle school. Honestly, I couldn’t blame her. But I assured her it would be fine, nothing to worry about. I was simply going to be teaching a little enrichment class after school, which I had cleverly entitled “Cultural Cooking for Beginners.” Mom mentioned that I might need to emphasize the word beginners.
But the lessons I learned while trying to instruct between 12 and 20 middle school students each week in the art of culinary concocting are lessons that I discovered transcend development, academic department, and even levels of domestic competence. There are simply certain universal truths about good teaching, whether the instruction takes place in a high-tech classroom, on a college campus, or in a makeshift kitchen in a middle school. And fortunately, these five lessons weren’t all taught by me; I probably learned just as much from my students as they did from their teacher.
Lesson 1: Preparation is priceless, but even the best preparation can’t prepare us. It might be embarrassing to admit that at 28 years old, I had never made real mashed potatoes, but that’s just the truth. Teaching English full-time, completing a master’s degree, volunteering weekly, and holding down at least one part-time job led to many meals relying on “instant” or microwavable products. But I was determined when I first set out to create the cooking class that we would make things from scratch. And since potatoes were inexpensive and versatile, and even a little cultural, I set my sights for the first week on making mashed potatoes. The kids would have to wash, peel, slice, chop, mash and cook the potatoes—all steps that I would teach them as prime beginners.

Before I could teach them, I had to know how to do it myself. What seemed simple to everyone else I asked was daunting to me. Have you ever tried asking someone for a recipe for mashed potatoes? Trust me when I say that it’s a humbling experience.  “Just add a little butter and milk,” advised my mom. But no; I needed to know how many potatoes, how much milk, how much butter, how long to mash; I needed to prepare for the advanced students and the very lowest-level learner—little did I know, the latter was probably me. By the end of the weekend, after four different consistencies of runny, soupy, lumpy and fluffy mashed potatoes, I was more prepared than anyone ever could’ve been.  I timed each attempt in my own kitchen, down to the minute, and even multiplied by two since I knew they would be slower. My preparation was priceless!

But that very first week was when I learned lesson number one of teaching: Even the very best preparation never fully prepares us for what will happen. Surely we’ve all seen this in the classroom! The most rigorous student-teaching programs or most practical seminars are never perfectly preparing. The true mark of a prepared teacher is what happens when his or her preparation isn’t enough. What happens when the kids take 40 minutes to figure out how to peel potatoes and the class is only an hour long? What happens when the fire alarm is set off from the worn-out oven blowing a fuse and most of your time is spent outside on the lawn instead of working in the kitchen? And what happens when students either don’t understand what we’ve only allotted one day for teaching or master everything at breakneck speed and we still have 20 minutes to fill? 
After eight years of teaching English, I had each day planned out practically to the minute. Teaching cooking to 12-year-olds reminded me that some of our very best, most creative moments come after the plans go up in smoke—in the case of cooking, that’s partially literal.

Lesson 2:  Attitude is almost everything. I must admit that my attitude when I first started teaching cooking was not incredibly positive. I was excited for what I thought the students might learn, and certainly I wanted to do well, but if anyone had seen me reading through pages and pages of recipes, intricately preparing for each week’s lesson—preparation time that actually surpassed my entire week’s English lesson plan creating—or grimacing every time I tasted a recipe gone wrong, my expression would not have been evidence of a great attitude. It had to be a conscious effort on my part to display a positive attitude in my middle-school kitchen, and I know for a fact that my excitement—even if feigned, at times—determined the direction of those cooking sessions from the very beginning.

Isn’t it the same in our classrooms? Whether our workload is too heavy, our planning time too short, our meetings too long, or our personal lives too hectic, our bad attitude can never carry over to the classroom. We wouldn’t allow our students to dredge up negative attitudes during science or art, so expectations for ourselves can be no different. I do think it’s important to be honest and even share with our students certain things that come up in life, but no more than we would while fixing a meal together in someone’s kitchen. Some people might call it “professionalism,” but after teaching cooking, I call it good kitchen etiquette: less bitterness, more sweetness.

 Lesson 3:  Collaboration is crucial. After the first semester of teaching cooking, I have to be honest and admit that I was burned out. It wasn’t a natural ability for me, I was ruining most weekends worrying about every detail and buying more groceries than ever in my adult life, and I just didn’t feel like I could do it during the second semester. But I had committed to, so I knew quitting wasn’t an option. It was during this time that I learned lesson number three:  collaboration is crucial. I needed help!

One of the easiest ways to enlist help in the kitchen is through the yummy scents that our sometimes-successful morsels made. Luckily for me, sometimes the aroma would waft into a nearby classroom, and the teacher who worked there was quite a natural in the kitchen. He agreed to help teach the second semester class with me after school, which was quite fortunate, because the program had become so popular that the size of the cooking group had doubled! I could not have continued teaching the class safely and successfully without his collaboration. Then I realized that too many times in our actual classrooms, we are too hesitant, too proud, too embarrassed to ask for help. What would happen if instead of everyone trying to fend for herself, we actually worked together? To continue thinking about cooking, think of Thanksgiving dinner:  does one person prepare every single food item, or do we each provide a portion of the feast? How much easier would teaching be if we simply collaborated, each diner bringing his or her “best dish” to the table?

The same is true with students. So many teachers grow frustrated with their kids working together in groups that they simply cannot stand it and move them all back into their quiet rows to continue individually. But something is wrong here and I’d suspected as much before, but teaching cooking made me completely certain of it: collaboration is key!  Think of it: if everybody tried to use the same tools and the same products at the same time, nothing would ever get done and the place would be a wreck! But, once I split up jobs, ingredients and duties to each student—which I did via little numbered slips of paper that I randomly distributed to each small group—everyone had a job, everyone was responsible for an important part of the recipe, and everyone felt successful. If it works with sixth graders in a crowded kitchen, then it has to work in the history classroom, right? So facilitating guided collaboration is crucial to successful interaction, whether it’s for making family meals or research projects in English.  

Lesson 4:  Everyone is unique and valuable. There were so many different levels of cooking abilities in my little class. One girl used to bring in recipes that even I found way too complex, and then there was the boy who it took me three straight weeks to teach how to grate cheese! Certain students were picky eaters and refused to try anything that even they had created, and then others would shovel the finishing product into their mouths so fast that they consistently burned their tongues. How strange it was to witness boys who would fight for the “privilege” of washing dishes or taking out the trash! But the truth was, each one of them had different preferences, abilities and even unique senses of humor.  Some of them were serious in the kitchen and measured each ingredient to its exact proportion while others would make faces out of their pizza toppings or stick utensils in their ears to look like aliens. Ironically, there were no “cookie-cutter kids” in that cooking class!

Isn’t it the same in our classrooms? Maybe we don’t give them recipes for homemade dough and become baffled by just how different every single pizza turns out, but don’t we see on a daily basis how very diverse our students’ abilities, efforts, gifts and even their responses are? We probably never forget that each one of our students is unique, but teaching the cooking class certainly reminded me that each of their differences is also quite valuable. It’s a shame that I even needed a reminder, but at times we do. When expectations for higher and higher test scores and pressures from the state could so easily lead us to see the masses instead of the individual, the lesson I learned from teaching cooking is that each student’s recipe is going to taste different, and each one is unique and valuable.

Lesson 5:  The best creativity comes outside of our comfort zone. The funny thing about teaching cooking is there really are no textbooks. There’s no way to be in a comfort zone, to settle in to doing things the same-old-way. With only a couple hours per week to impart culinary wisdom, as well as subconscious remediation in reading and math (it’s actually quite amazing how much math can be taught through cooking, for the record), I had to be on top of my game every single time. For me, there simply was no comfort-zone. None. Part of me fears that there still won’t be when I teach it again this year. But oh, how creative I had to get! I spent more energy researching, creating, practicing and perfecting my cooking lessons than I’d spent on much else in years. It was like I was a first-year teacher all over again, except with a little less crying.

I’m proud to say that my exploits in the kitchen and the excitement I felt when or if things actually worked was excitement that carried over to my English classroom, as well. What I learned while teaching cooking is that we as teachers can never get lazy. We can never allow ourselves to get too comfortable. I’m not saying we must set out to entertain, but certainly creative, engaging lessons take work. Just as the best meals are made with the best ingredients, so must our classroom lessons reflect the best teaching practices. There are no “worksheets” in cooking, and there’s something to be said for the phenomenal gains made by hands-on, practical interaction that students found pleasurable.

Struggles can lead to learning, but guided struggles lead to success. My ultimate goal for this school year is not to leave behind these lessons in the kitchen. After almost a decade of teaching in my content area, teaching cooking was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was uncomfortable, scary and probably even dangerous at times—have you ever considered a room full of teenagers with sharp knives? But my hope is that the mistakes I made, and even the mistakes my students made, simply led us to deeper learning, and ultimately to success. As teachers, it’s sometimes good to let our students make mistakes or learn the hard way—sometimes leaving the baking soda out will cause our product to fall flat. Our real job as teachers is to guide our students through their struggles, remembering the fundamentals of effective instruction along the way. After all, maybe it’s not too many cooks who spoil the broth but several side-tracked chefs which can lead to a nasty mess!

Karnes, a member of the Bedford County Education Association, teaches English at Staunton River Middle School and is an adjunct faculty member at Hollins University.


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