Sunday, November 24, 2013

Lessons for Foodies

Like most teachers in New England I start the school year off sprinting and then lose energy at the same time the students do, right after high school playoffs and Halloween.  Our first report cards are sent home at this time and I only mention this because it is also timed well with our third annual haunted high. Kids scare the pants off each other and scream a little too loudly. It seems that they are not so much as frightened as they are releasing steam. Are they screaming at teachers? Screaming at low grades? Or is is teen angst, Nirvana style? What is important is that this tradition continues because it is engaging.

Jumping off such enthusiasm is hard and "where to go from here" is constantly on my mind.  In my 20 year career I have seldom had an easy year. Every new administration has pushed for reforms that add hours to my work day. I am one of those educators who follows the rules and works as much as can be expected.  This push to prepare for the Common Core would have seemed overwhelming if not for the sage advice of a veteran mentor. This literacy specialist showed me the values of routine in an ever changing world and for that I am grateful. I took my favorite unit on commodities , adhered to my established classroom routines and then revamped it to fit the Common Core. I'm quite pleased after one evening of multitasking and catching up on episodes of Scandal ( app).

Every November I teach students about long distance trades and the changes that resulted when commodities were exchanged. Students are invested in this and are naturally interested in discovering the cultural histories of common items like the potato or exotics like vanilla. This time of year with families coming together, sharing traditional dishes or trying new recipes, I credit students who admit to sharing their research with family during their holiday break.  Prior to their break I use class time for diet analysis. Students list food items and food ingredients they have consumed.  I present a list of foods and their origins in a New World (America's column) and an Old World (Africa, Asia, Europe column).  Students chat and shout out ingredients and annotate their lists with N or O or ?. They calculate the # of Ns from their list total and determine the percentage of their diet based on the total items consumed.  This lessons serves the purpose of taking the difficulty out of a breaking down data into meaningful conclusions, meeting the emphasis on analysis in the Common Core. It also serves the purpose of demonstrating the ease of analysis is when the outcomes are of personal interest.

My research projects are supported by the genius in our high school library.  Librarians created a pathfinder from their page to the Pearson database and to the shelved books. This organization gives all students guidance through the research process while giving them that safe pathway for independent research.  I also like that the Pearson primary and secondary sources already have sources cited.  Students choose their articles and send me the citations which I try to check. This fulfills the criteria for using credited sources.

This year I want to emphasis geo literacy skills as they have been updated by National Geographic.  I clipped the following ideas for the front page of my unit:
Geo-literacy is the understanding of Earth systems and interconnections that we all need to make good decisions. Whether we are making decisions about where to live, what precautions to take for natural hazards, or how to set up a manufacturing supply chain, we are all called upon to make decisions that require geo-literacy throughout our lives. The three components of geo-literacy are:· Interactions: How our world works.
Interconnections: How the world is connected. Interconnections: A geo-literate individual is able to reason about the ways that people and places are connected to each other across time and space.Implications: How interactions and interconnections determine outcomes of actions.

I thought it would make sense to have the students begin to informally debate how the value of a product or commodity leads to unforeseen consequences.  And behold! a fantastic interactive online survey from  I placed a QR code near the entrance to the classroom. Students entered, scanned it with their iPads and were immediately engaged in meaningful conversations instead of the usual.  The arguments following the survey helped me convince students that analysis is best when we not only critique our sources but wonder what other research should be done to counter ideas presented.  Students are hooked.  I supply classroom lectures on 17th century long distance trade, they supply the rest.

I have fallen in love with many authors who have presented a history of change over time through the exploration of silk or perfume or salt.  I love Mark Kishlansky 's picture book on Cod and I make time to read this with my high school students. They love knowing that a picture book is the perfect vehicle for deep contextual knowledge. More so than a textbook.  Several students will present their research in a similar form which is much more fun and yields better results than a traditional five page paper. Years ago I read Alfred W. Crosby's essay (which is now online) on the Columbian exchange it forever changed how I perceive history, leading me to Daniel Boorstin, Michael Pollan, and the McCormick website.   Several museums have curated exhibits around chocolate, tea and coffee which still have active links.  Students are often inspired to curate their own virtual museum.  I love the transformative experience that the digital classroom offers when we take a second glance at the common products that surround us, asking the question, how did this get here and do I really need it?
No textbook had come close to presenting the implications of commodities exchanged and there is so much unchartered territory. 

New World
Old World
avocado                  turkey
peppers                  red squirrel
squash                   guinea pig
maize                       pinto beans
potatoes                 chocolate
tomatoes                 quinoa
pineapple               peanut
sweet potato         vanilla
bannana        beef
citrus            chicken
olives           pork
sugar beets  sheep/goats
rice              soybean
wheat          millet
coffee          tea
mango        pepper, cinnamon
nutmeg         apples
pear             grapes
dairy           yams

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