A Taste for Learning
Food Lit class challenges students to view world through the lens of food
As an intercom tone signals the end of second period at Fern Creek Traditional High School, instructor Joe Franzen reminds a group of students — raising his voice above the growing din — that their pizza dough should be in the classroom freezer for storage over the weekend.
As he tries to share a story about the class’s recent creation of oxtail soup, several students interrupt “Franz,” as they call him, with questions about related assignments. Answering their questions while directing them to the auditorium for a presentation, the oxtail soup story is never told, though Franzen starts another about the school’s backyard garden.
“We’re all hoping the weather will change soon,” Franzen said, remarking about the day’s cold and the forecast for snow the following Sunday. “There’s a lot of [student] interest in the garden.”
Though one might assume the class is “home ec” or a culinary school primer, it’s Food Lit, a course Franzen co-teaches with Brent Peters. The men use food and food issues as a tool to teach students to think critically and write creatively. The pioneering course grew out of a cooking club started four years ago by Peters. “We saw there were tons of students interested in cooking and working in the school garden, and who wanted to know where food came from,” Peters said. “That there were tons of kids staying after school made a case for the class.”
Peters and Franzen brainstormed how they could blend food and literature into a collaborative and hands-on class, and pitched the idea to Fern Creek’s principal at the time, Dr. Houston Barber, who approved the experiment.
Three years later, the course has garnered peer approval nationally, and Peters has shared the idea with his graduate school colleagues at the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College in Vermont. His presentations led to a collaborative effort with the Navajo Nation in Arizona, where he and Franzen traveled with a student delegation last year.
“A lot of school curriculum is detached and doesn’t connect to what you’re seeing in the real world,” Franzen said. “Everyone assumes kids have critical thinking skills, but they don’t always. So, through approaching topics holistically, we encourage them to learn those skills and investigate issues at a deeper level.”
As veteran teachers, Franzen and Peters view food as a common denominator all students relate to easily.
“Not everyone is a math person, but everyone is a food person because everyone eats,” said Franzen, officially the school’s environmental and food educator. “It’s applicable to every kid’s daily life regardless of whether he’s on food stamps, dealing with obesity or diabetes, or a kid interested in animal rights.”
In addition to engaging students’ minds and mandibles, Food Lit requires students to get dirty in the school garden or in its kitchen, preparing meals onsite for their families.
Students have made large meals of pasta tossed with basil pesto and tomatoes from the school’s garden, and a burrito and taco dinner that drew on Peters’ experience as a longtime cook at Mayan Café. Franzen said the class butchered and prepared ducks for a Thanksgiving meal served to 45 friends and family. They even served breakfast to 125 alumni.
The teachers approach the class “like a meal: a dialogue that is happening just like at a dinner table. All voices count and all voices are part of the discovery,” said Peters, who teaches English as well as food literacy. That context enables students to form a community that’s interested and invested in each other, he added.
“Compassionate learning happens and that enables a lot of care,” Peters said. “But it’s also an environment in which students embrace challenges by reaching for things and ideas they wouldn’t otherwise.”
Food Lit seeks to turn students into researchers of themselves (by reflecting on their food opinions, food memories, likes and dislikes) and of the outside world through research of news, socio-political issues and literature. That all begins with what Peters called a “food map,” which encourages discussion.
“We want students to share their food stories about the holidays, embarrassing food moments and guilty pleasures, because it knocks the walls down,” he said. Though students’ food maps seem wildly different from their peers’, as discussions deepen “we start to see how they overlap and how many are shared experiences.” Students also examine food and drink packaging for messages about ingredients, what that branding says to consumers, and what those messages say about an entire culture.
“We get them to look at advertising and ask, ‘What messages are happening here?’” Peters said. “It’s literacy as a result of production and consumption.”
As their critical thinking skills are refined, students take on larger projects, like creating a food map of the school’s lunches. They research menus, those foods’ nutritional components, and then ask fellow students whether those foods are satisfying and energizing. They also ask cafeteria workers for their opinions on what they serve, and ultimately they report those findings.
“They get the experience of writing with the dirt of research under their fingernails,” Peters said. Students commonly write their research papers while sitting in the school garden and looking at the school building. “Writing now becomes a lot like making a good soup. They have to ask themselves, ‘What am I going to put into this report that has the most impact?’”
Student Lucas Hill said he’s never had a class so engaging.
“You don’t even realize you’re learning as you’re doing it,” Hill said. “And then you have this entire arsenal of weapons to use when you write.”
Another student, Stephanie Laun, said she never expected to discover so many issues related to food and how considering them in light of others’ views would make her rethink so much.
“You begin to question more things, like how something relates to something else,” she said. “You’d never do it on your own. You’d have to have more knowledge about it.”
Not surprisingly, her classmate Hunter Murphy said Food Lit is “not like most English classes, where you just write or sit inside doing your work. Going outside and discussing things makes it really interesting.”
Last year, the class took going outside to the extreme with the trip to Arizona. That idea spilled out of Peters’ summer grad-school work at Bread Loaf, where he and his colleagues considered the question, “What can a classroom really be?” “We saw we had a lot of opportunities that extend beyond a traditional classroom, a city or even a state,” he said.
A discussion with Bread Loaf officials about working with the Navajo Nation led to a meeting at the Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian couldn’t fund the trip, but it said it would cosign grants for it if necessary.
With the support of many Fern Creek donors, Peters, Franzen and Paul Barnwell, who teaches digital literacy at Fern Creek, took about a dozen students to Arizona in February 2013, where they worked with students from four different high schools.
The groups wrote together, prepared and ate meals together and discussed issues of food equity, food access and food-related diseases. Last October, a group from the Navajo Nation visited Kentucky to further the interaction.
Peters and Franzen reported a striking change in those students’ self-confidence, and that some in the group who hadn’t considered going to college are now pursuing it actively.
“That expanded what all of us thought an educational experience could be,” Peters said. “It taught them to become critical consumers who read the word and the world, and that when you read those two together, you can never be bored.”
Steve Coomes is a former chef and freelance writer in Louisville.