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05.09.2013
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Everything I Need to Know I Learned While Teaching Cooking

Everything  I  Need  to  Know  I  Learned  While  Teaching  Cooking 

                                                             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  twelve  and  twenty  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.

 

#1.    Preparation  is  Priceless,  but  Even  the  Best  Preparation  Can’t  Prepares  Us.

It  might  be  embarrassing  to  admit  that  at  twenty-­‐eight  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.

But  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  better,  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  have  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  forty  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  break-­‐neck  spend  and  we  still  have  twenty  minutes  to  fill?

After  eight  years  of  teaching  English,  I  had  each  day  planned  out  practically  to  the  minute.    Teaching cooking  to  twelve-­‐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.

#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.

#3.    Collaboration  is  Crucial.

After  the  first  semester  of  teaching  cooking,  I  have  to  be  honest  and  admit  that  I  was  burnt  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  by  the  yummy  scents  that  our  sometimes-­‐

successful  morsels  made.    And  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  doubled!    I  could  not  have  continued  teaching  the
class  safely  and  successfully  without  his  collaboration.    And  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:    group  work  does  NOT  work;  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?
Groups  are  not  natural;  leaders  and  followers  are  natural.    So  facilitating  guided  collaboration  is  crucial
to  successful  interaction,  whether  that’s  for  making  family  meals  or  research  projects  in  English.

#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  little  boy  who  it  took  my  three

straight  weeks  to  teach  him  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  burnt  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!

But  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  often  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.

 

#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

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