Things I Know 284 of 365: We should feed teachers

Tell me what you eat, I’ll tell you who you are.

– Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be making some suggestions of possible sources of gifts for the teachers in your life. Some will be products for purchase. Some will be ideas of things to make. All of them will be meant to help remember teachers as worthy of thanks.

One of my favorite rituals at SLA was the Back-to-School potluck that welcomed 9th grade students and their families to the school. I still remember the first year when Chris was worried we wouldn’t have enough food. Then, families’ favorite dishes started walking through the door.

Food, the breaking of bread, is a fine way to build community.

It’s also a way to show you care.

This semester, I was feeling as though a small group I was a part of in one of my courses wasn’t quite clicking. It was an evening course, and I wanted to do whatever I could to help the group jell.

Each week, on my way to class, I started picking up a snack the five of us could share. It wasn’t much, maybe chips and salsa or trail mix – but it was a way to build community and show I cared for the other members of my group. Two weeks ago, three of us brought snacks to share, and other groups commented on our spread of food.

Not only can food help build culture or welcome newcomers into a culture, food can be how we share culture.

One of my favorite cinematic moments occurs in It’s a Wonderful Life when Mary Bailey welcomes a family into their new home with the words, “Bread… that this house may never know hunger. Salt… that life may always have flavor. And wine… that joy and prosperity may reign forever. Enter the Martini Castle.”

Given the close ties of food in culture in my brain, it should come as no surprise that I suggest gifting a meal to your or your child’s teacher this holiday season.

This is a little trickier, but definitely worthwhile. Here’s how I’d do it:

  • Give the teacher a card or certificate explaining the gift.
  • Ask the teacher to send home a note or e-mail when they would like to redeem the meal.
  • Inquire as to any allergies or dietary restrictions.
  • Let the teacher know how much lead time you’ll need on the preparing the meal, e.g., one calendar week.

The meal can either be delivered to take home for dinner or prepared to be consumed for lunch at school. If it’s the latter, go all out and provide the recipient a real plate, real silverware and a proper glass.

I can think of few ways to show care and respect for the work a teacher does to nourish the lives of students than to offer a moment of sustenance for that teacher.

Food is our culture, and food is how we build culture.

Things I Know 147 of 365: Eating can be more

One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.

– Luciano Pavarotti

I had an excellent meal tonight.

I had a fair meal tonight.

For the past few months, I’ve been watching a storefront I pass on my way to school undergo a transformation. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I was able to tell what was moving in.

A restaurant.

Life in what realtors charitably call a transitional neighborhood often brings new businesses to town.

The restaurant, called Fare, is what Chris is always saying he wants for the graduates of SLA: thoughtful, wise, passionate and kind.

I realize it’s only a restaurant, but stick with me.

Deciding to visit tonight for dinner, I checked online to be certain I could make a reservation.

Forty-five minutes after I made the reservation, I was still examining the website. Short of searching for a menu on some other eatery’s labyrinthine site, I’ve never spent so much time on a restaurant’s website.

They have a blog.

I realize we live in thoroughly modern times and many restaurants have blogs. I’m sure my dentist has a blog.

This was a blog I wanted to read.


From the second post:

When we sat down together and talked about the restaurant and concept, we approached this question from different angles. For Tim, there was only one word, Healthy. For David, there was Local, Organic, Sustainable and Crafted. For me, it was whether we would be a bar that has good food or a restaurant that has a good bar. Not as easy as you think to find agreement by a committee of three. We each hold strongly to our fundamental core beliefs but I have to say that the overlap would make Venn proud.

These were people I wanted preparing my food. Not only that, I wanted to sit with them and eat. I wanted them setting my table and sitting around it.

Plus, any Venn Diagram allusion makes me all mushy inside.

I realize a certain element of passion and thoughtfulness goes in to any restauranteuring venture. Still, there was something else.

This was a thoughtfulness with purpose.

Reading another post about the conscientious choices made in the design of the space took me to a passage from The Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman:

You must learn to enjoy the entire process – the hunger beforehand, the careful preparation, setting an attractive table, chewing, breathing, smelling, tasting, swallowing and the feeling of lightness and energy after the meal…When you pay attention to all these elements, you’ll begin to appreciate simple meals…

I remember the first time I read that passage. I’d been a vegetarian for over a decade, but I’d never stopped to really consider the process of eating until then.

The passage was what popped into my head when another post from Fare’s blog stated:

The food? I can’t tell you that organic is the first and most important criteria followed by local, sustainable and crafted. I fear you would think that I was pretentious if I told you that the food will be clean allowing the natural flavors to show through without disguise from rich saucing.

Tonight’s meal did just that.

No plaque on the wall explained everything I’d read on the blog. The waitresses didn’t explain the eco-friendly flooring or the house-carbonated water. Knowing it all, though, gave me pause to enjoy the experience in a way that meant more than I would expect.

The owners of Fare, the architects of tonight’s meal, changed the world tonight. They didn’t run for office or get a show on a 24-hour cable news channel. Through what I take as their passion they created a thoughtful dining experience that cares not only for the patrons but the suppliers and the food itself. In all of that, there must be much wisdom.

I see the pressure to have our students enter careers in the STEM fields. I understand that pressure.

Assuming not all my students become research scientists or biochemical engineers, I will be equally proud if they thoughtfully and caringly open up a restaurant at the end of someone else’s street.

Things I Know 112 of 365: It’s not enough to have the door open when I teach

An open mind leaves a chance for someone to drop a worthwhile thought in it.

– Unknown

One of the few specific pieces of training for being a teacher I remember was a piece of cautionary advice – Don’t teach with your door closed.

As is often the case with this sort of advice, no one ever really filled in the gap of how to do the opposite of teaching with my door closed. Namely, I received no direct instruction in door-open teaching.

I often read about technology’s affordances for networking teachers with one another. It’s always seemed a bit like showing someone a telephone and wishing them luck on finding useful numbers.

Teaching with my door open is best when it is a combination of the personal and the virtual.

A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail from a fellow SLA teacher linking to a Slate article about movie theaters’ resistance and attempted avoidance of the Food and Drug Administration’s draft rules requiring restaurants to post the nutrition information for the food they serve.

Movie theaters would rather not have their patrons realize each tablespoon of butter they just doused their popcorn with had nearly double the number of calories of a tablespoon of the butter back in their kitchens.

I tagged the article in delicious (long may it live) and stowed it away to use last week in my food class. The students and I read the article and engaged in some pretty fantastic conversation about the economics of movie theater food as well as the cultural implications of the event of going to the theater.

I’ve talked all over the place about this food course. Even before it started, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut about it. I wasn’t bragging, I was just thinking and planning aloud, inviting anyone who read or heard what I was thinking to throw in some ideas.

Thus, the e-mail.

We read the article in Tuesday’s class, whetting our appetites for Friday’s convening.

I remembered about a month ago one of my science teacher friends explaining an experiment to me during my first year at SLA.

Students exposed popped microwave popcorn to a sodium hydroxide solution that corroded the organic matter.

One would imagine that would include everyone one would find in a handful of microwave popcorn.

No so.

I remembered this experiment because it had sounded interesting. Were I a teacher who claimed open-door teaching, but who really only carved a window into the door, I would just have told my students about the experiment.

While, I’m fairly eloquent, me telling can never replace them doing.

Friday’s class, everyone met in my room. Then, we walked down the hall to VK’s room where we donned safety goggles and completed the experiment.

First, we submersed the popcorn to a hydrochloric acid solution so the kids could see what happens in their stomachs.

Next came the sodium hydroxide or lye.

We watched as it ate through the corn and could feel the heat of the exothermic reaction.

When all was said and done, we were left with a white substance at the bottom of our beakers. This, VK explained, was the plastic used to coat microwave popcorn kernels in order to keep them from burning through the bag during the popping process.

More importantly, this was the plastic a person ingested with each handful of popcorn.

Not only had I kept the door open, I’d led the class out the door and down the hall to experience a perspective I wasn’t equipped to provide.

This Tuesday, we’ll return to the article and reflect on the experiment and try to cobble together an understanding of the role of popcorn at the intersection or science, culture and literature.

Had I propped my classroom door open and simply waited passively for technology to bring me something worthwhile for class, it never would have come.

What I wasn’t taught in my teacher preparation, but needed to experience for myself is that teaching with my door open works much better if I’m willing to walk through the door and see what’s out there that I can bring back to the classroom.

Things I Know 100 of 365: Education’s silver bullet is in our stomachs

I spend a surprisingly large portion of my day with adolescents – by choice. Their bodies are all crazy, their brains are all crazy, and I’m supposed to teach them how to read, write, and think.

In an excellent dinner conversation tonight, we discussed the misguided belief of one of the world’s billionaires that education has a silver bullet.

“No silver bullet exists,” we said, as sure of ourselves as we could be.

I’m not so certain.


Food is the silver bullet in education.

Feed the students, and you can teach the students.

That is, feed the students beyond the scope of the federal school lunch program.

Feed them food, real food and you’ll see gains in focus, energy and thinking.

According to Michele Borboa writing for, the 2009 School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study found:

  • Only 50% offered fresh fruit
  • Only 39% offered green salad
  • Only 29% offered orange or dark green vegetables
  • Only 10% offered legumes
  • More than 95% of grain products were made from refined white flour
  • The most common entrées were peanut butter sandwiches, meat sandwiches, pizza with meat, cheeseburgers, and sandwiches with breaded meat or poultry.
  • Dessert offerings mostly included cookies, cakes, brownies, and candy.

Michael Pollan must have spit his locally grown organic coffee.

We know we should be feeding out children better. We know that better food equals better brains. We know this, but we feed our students monochromatic lunches and expect them to be their best.

The schools receiving the most attention right now are those with the highest percentages of students receiving free or reduced lunch. We measure who’s getting what in the lunchroom and then move directly to the classroom as though what our students eat for breakfast and lunch doesn’t have any causal effect on what they are capable of in the classroom. We use free and reduced lunch as a measure of the implied obstacles in students’ lives and then use those same lunches to create new obstacles in their academic lives.

I made a purchase a few years ago. I bought a Presto PopLite Hot Air Corn Popper.

Every few weeks, I stock up on 5 lbs. of popcorn and serve it up whenever my students need a snack. Whenever I can, I buy a bag of apples or oranges and share them around. I try to feed them food.

A half a cup of popcorn can feed a class of 32. They complain I don’t give them butter or salt, but every kernel is eaten at the end of our 65 minutes together. I issue a challenge: Ignore teacher tenure. Ignore collective bargaining. Ignore merit pay. Ignore all of the most contentious of issues in American education. Ignore all of those things and focus on feeding our students well and teaching them what that means.

Do that and the crazy brains and bodies will be smarter, saner places.

Things I Know 47 of 365: I like knowing where stuff comes from

When the shift to push-button telephones happened, my grandparents let me sit at the dining room table with their old rotary-dial and a screwdriver.

I was there for hours.

What the phone did was clear. How the phone did it do it, how the phone came to do it – those were mysteries.

At the end of it all, I had no answers.

I had many more questions.

I wanted to know how it all happened and came together.

These things are important to me. I want not only to know with whom the kernels of my ideas originated, but who jumpstarted my stuff cycle as well.

Friday, the students in my FOOD class will begin watch King Corn, a documentary about the rise and role of corn in American food production. Though I’d seen it before, I previewed it last night. Fascinating.

From high fructose corn syrup to agrinomics to industrial farming, the film traces corn’s role in everyday life.

We’re watching the doc because it sheds light on one of the most ubiquitous ingredients in the American day. I want my students to know what I wanted to know as I pieced apart that telephone.

As I watched the film, it reminded me why it had been hanging in my memory since the first viewing.

“If people only knew where their food comes from,” I irately IMed an unsuspecting friend, “they would be more thoughtful about how they consume.”

I hope I’m correct with that statement.

People buy bottled water because they don’t know about its environmental impact.

Once people read Fast Food Nation, they stop eating at McDonald’s.

When you learned about sweatshops, you stopped wearing Nike.

Or not.

It’s not, right?

People know these things and choose ignorance.

Still, I have to think knowing influences our decisions, at least a little.

Every once in a while, I’ll got back and watch The Story of Stuff to be reminded how connected I am to the rest of the world through the stuff I have and the impact having that stuff has on the world.

While I’m certain King Corn will help my students connect, at least a little, to an understanding of the food they consume, I realize showing a movie about the corn fields of Iowa to a bunch of kids from Philly could just as well be showing them images from the Hubble space telescope.

To combat the disconnect, I’m enlisting the help of Throughout the course of the quarter, my students will select their favorite comfort foods and map their sources and impact. They will see the myriad courses their main courses take to end up on their plates.

Knowing where stuff comes from, the origins of not our universal but individuals existences, forces us to be aware. Try as we might, we can’t return to the cave.

Classy: When food drives the English curriculum

This semester, I’ve taken on teaching a new elective course called FOOD.

We met for the first time today.

Over the course of the semester, we’ll be meeting twice per week to look a the literary, social and scientific intersections of the foods we eat and our relationships to them.

Class today started with my description of one of my top comfort foods – mashed potatoes, with excessive butter, mixed with corn.

Then, I asked students to share their comfort foods.

It’s the opening to the first class assignment. A mentor professor of mine at Illinois State, Dr. Justice, is teaching a similar class for undergrad, grad and doctoral students this spring as well.

She designed the assignment.

From the comfort food discussion, we read Ernest Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River Part I.”

“River” is one of Hemingway’s semi-autobiographical Nick Adams stories wherein Nick returns to Michigan’s upper peninsula on a camping trip after a tour in Italy during World War I.

After making camp, Nick fixes a supper of pork and beans with spaghetti and tomato ketchup.

All along, we’re told his pack has been too heavy, that he’s carry too much around.

Dr. Justice (a leading Hemingway scholar) explained to me Nick is making a camp version of minestra di pasta e fagiole in an effort to hold on to his time in Italy.

Food as memory.

For next class, the students (and I) will be writing personal essays about our comfort foods and how they burrowed into our food identities. Part of the assignment asks them to explain how they would alter the assignment in the same way Nick does to fit the restrictions of hiking and camping.

For many more than I expected, the adaptation won’t be difficult. Several of them proffered comfort foods bought in boxes or bags. I’ll be curious to tally the final real-to-processed ratio of responses. Even more, I’m looking forward to the discussion of what cultural significance that ratio might imply.

I’m thinking of asking the students to research the inspirations for the processed comfort foods and compare the healthiness of the two versions.

Either way, I’m pretty jazzed about where this course is heading.


New Rules

The Gist:

  • For a year of my life I lived by some pretty helpful rules.
  • I’m reviving the experiment in preparation for my next marathon and to apply what some of my students are learning about food.
  • Once a week, I’ll be writing about my progress here.
  • Many of the rules this time around are from Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food.

The Whole Deal:

When I turned 27, I set some rules for myself.

I’d moved to Philly in a whirlwind the Fall before and still hadn’t regained my bearings in life. The rules were social and wellness based. I eliminated high-fructose corn syrup, I pledged to run 27 races within one calendar year, I worked to cut my use of plastics as much as possible, etc.

It worked. I felt better and life gained some semblance of order.

That year, I ran both the Philadelphia and Chicago marathons within a few weeks of each other. That was a mistake.
Chicago was one of the sunniest, hottest races I’ve run. In Philadelphia, we had to be careful at the water stops because the spilt water had created ice patches on the course. I didn’t really run for a year after.

Now, I’m signed up for the Ocean Drive Marathon in my attempt to get to 10 marathons in 10 years.
Add to that the disjointedness of my eating habits since returning from Africa, and it’s time for new rules.

Not one to do anything boring, I’m adopting Michael Pollan’s rules from In Defense of Food:

  1. Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
  2. Avoid food products containing ingredients that are A) unfamiliar, B) unpronounceable, C) more than five in number, or that include D) high-fructose corn syrup.
  3. Avoid products that make health claims.
  4. Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay our of the middle.
  5. Get out of the supermarket whenever possible.

I’ll also be running every other day w/ the ole Nike+ attached to my iPod to keep track of my ramp up to the race (and those that follow).

As of right now, that’s all I’m working with. I’m open to any suggestions.

The plan is to blog once a week on how it’s all working out. I realized it’s going to be a bit of an adjustment when I couldn’t put the pre-shredded cheese on my eggs this morning.

Tim Best and Matt VanK worked with our seniors on a food unit throughout most of the first quarter. I’m hoping to pick up where they left off and explore the applications of what they learned.