The Schoolyard Foodie: Keepin’ it real in the kitchen with middleschoolers

by GEHRY OATEY

Imagine you are 12 years old.  Your body is starting to do new and fascinating things like grow facial hair, smell, and change its voice.  Your emotions are bouncing off the walls regularly and perhaps there is no other time in your life when what you put into your body is of greater significance.

During your 20 minute lunch break, however, you choose an empty stomach vs. a stomach ache because the vacuum packed food served at your school encourages its own emotional response.  After the 6 or so hours of school, your diet has consisted of a small container of whole milk and an apple that was part of the school lunch.  Today is one of the two days that you take cooking class during the after school program; there is a distinct possibility that you will get to eat!

Today it is Tacos de Asada o Pollo (Chicken or Beef Tacos) served with Pico de gallo, salsa, cilantro, and limon.  Another student’s mom will be visiting the kitchen to show the class how to prepare the Asada. As the cooking and gardening teacher, it is my job to facilitate this beautiful chaos. Thankfully, this all takes place in the after school program, which has a completely different set of norms than the traditional classroom.

Here is a running diary of today’s cooking class:

2:20pm

Students line up at the door while the other classes exit—could easily be the platform of a major train station….

14 students pour into the classroom, bombarding me with their energy and voices:

“What are we going to cook today?”
“Can I cook with Maya?”
“Mr. G.! Mr. G.! Are we making tacos today?”

We go over the plan for cooking.  This plan is little more than a rough outline because when you take 15 middle school kids into the kitchen, every class is like a giant art project—you can’t be sure what you’re going get.  Mix the sheer excitement of doing something that is going to feed the body with whatever emotions have been stirred up during the day and the kitchen takes on a life of its own.  Sadly, it is not unusual to hear that most of my students have eaten very little that day.  Or sometimes they don’t have to tell me; when kids are hungry, their behavior changes.

2:30pm

We migrate to the school kitchen to wash our hands… I have 14 officially enrolled in the class but somehow today there are 17 in this kitchen the size of a bedroom.

“She’s splashing me!”
“I need some paper towels!”
“It smells in here Mr. G…”
“What we cooking today, Mr. Gehry?”
“Oh yeah, well, yo mamma is so fat, when she bungee jumped, she took the bridge with her!”
Smiling but trying to keep a serious face… “That’s not appropriate, Andy.” And then: “Luis, Ana, Billy—you aren’t in this class today. Go back to your class.”
“What are you cooking today, Mr. G? Can you write us a note and let us cook with you? I promise I’ll behave! Please? Please?”
“Where are the tomatoes, Mr. G? How do I make the salsa?”
“My stomach hurts, Mr. G. Can I go to the office?”
“Did anyone see where Edgar went? He’s in charge of cooking the chicken!”
“What did you say we’re cooking today?”

2:45pm

Class is spread out, completing their tasks… or are they?

“Ok, Jose, since you don’t want to chop onions, you’re going to round up the ingredients for the salsa and blend it in the blender. You think you can do that?”
“OK, can I add my own spices?”
(Jose is the last student you want spicing anything, but you also don’t want him roaming the kitchen teasing students with a basting brush.)
“Sure, just make sure not to go overboard.”

3:00pm

“Ok, Roxana and Maya—we need green onions from the garden. You know what they look like?  The tall skinny green ones. Smell them before you cut them—ok?”
“Mr. Gehry, what do we do now with all the meat?
“I’m hungry and thirsty….”
“Gehry—they’re speaking Spanish and not telling me what they’re saying…”
“Mr. Gehry, can we bring some tacos to Ms. Andrea and Ms. Emma?”
“Megan—you’re in charge of those tortillas. And you can’t leave, ok? Otherwise we’ll be eating charcoal with our tacos…”
“Ay chingado, you spilled that nasty juice all over me!”
“What we cooking today, Mr. Gehry?”
“We have 20 minutes left of class… who is going to prep tortillas?”

Regardless of what we are making, the kitchen is a remarkable practicing platform for the real world.   The students’ (and my own) tension and apprehension blended with such evident enthusiasm for one of the world’s oldest arts makes it both wonderful and challenging.  Although there are days that push me to the brink of teacher extinction, there are more days when this same chaos reminds me of how important it is to demonstrate not just good eating habits, but good people habits.   Whether it’s improving self-esteem or providing a space for hands-on learning, our school kitchen breathes life into the students and symbolizes a kind of experiential and purposeful learning that our students crave.

Gehry teaches cooking and gardening to middle schoolers at Melrose Leadership Academy in East Oakland.

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16 Comments

Filed under Classroom Reflections, The Schoolyard Foodie

16 responses to “The Schoolyard Foodie: Keepin’ it real in the kitchen with middleschoolers

  1. So what did you cook, Mr. G? ;)

  2. Annie polk

    Great post Gehry. Such a perfect snapshot of what you do. And you do it very well!

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  4. Hello Mr. G,
    just followed the link to this post from comfood. Thought you might like to check out our upcoming jr iron chef vt competition. It challenges middle and high school students to create a nutritious, delicious, school food service and kid friendly dish using at least 5 local/seasonal ingredients (in Vermont, in March). check it out: http://www.jrironchefvt.org

    I am now seriously craving tacos de asada…
    Jean Hamilton
    VT Food Education Every Day
    http://www.vtfeed.org

  5. suzi umbenhour

    Oh this is the most interesting recording you have made thus far as I loved following the language and verbage of your cooking adventure with these young people. Please continue to report directly from the kitchen.

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  7. Alexx

    Hey, great post. I run a similar after-school cooking program in San Francisco with middle school and high school kids in the Tenderloin, so I totally feel you on the crazy art-project chaos that goes on! And the barrage of questions that you get when you’re trying to direct 15 hyper, hungry kids to cook a single meal.

    I’m interested in the stuff you do with your kids that isn’t cooking — more nutrition education, learning about the broken food system. I’d like to do more of that. Got any materials or stuff you’d want to share?

    Peace,
    Alexx

  8. Excited to have checked out this site really found it useful and will return for a further look around when I am not so busy.

  9. It cant hurt. I usually just pick up a few useful pieces of information with any of these diets.

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