Monday, March 14, 2011

Food for Thought: St. Patrick's Day Learning

Today is St. Patrick's Day.  To say that I love being Irish is to underestimate how much I love being Irish.  It's like saying David Bowie is just a singer or that William Shakespeare wrote some cool poems.  I love being Irish, and I love celebrating the history and culture of my people.  Each year I take time to make a few Irish dishes for friends and family.  I love to tell them the history of my people and why these particular dishes are significant to Ireland.

To me, being Irish is a great special gift that not everyone can share, but everyone should know about.  I am proud of the good and the bad that is my Irish ancestry.  I love celebrating today, to tell everyone around me about the Irish.  I also do it every other day of the year, if someone will let me -- but today I get to go a little overboard, and I'm okay with that!

Learning about a new culture and really appreciating it can feel overwhelming and distant.  What I mean by distant is that reading a textbook or watching a film probably isn't going to make a culture or country come to life for anyone.  It also won't present a way in which to make a lasting connection with the viewer (unless the story already holds a personal connection).  I know this to be very true from my own personal experiences.  This is also the reality that faces our students.

This is a huge world filled with over 200 countries, each with its own unique culture, people, and history.  As global citizens, each student should learn about these different cultures as best they can.  By having an understanding, and thereby an appreciation, of other people, global citizens can have more compassion and awareness of the world around them.  It can be difficult, however, to really learn about these cultures and countries simply from a textbook or a website.

In many elementary schools, students complete two big social studies projects on a state, followed by a country project.  And while those projects are really good, there isn't much after that, which is unfortunate.  To me, a great opportunity is missed when we don't take the time to learn about a country's cuisine.  For my part, I know quite a bit about Ireland, and understanding the local and traditional dishes of the Irish has given me a deeper knowledge and appreciation of the culture as a whole.  For example, why is it that potatoes, cabbages, or root vegetables seem to be in nearly every meal?  Due to the rocky moist soil and the longer growing time required -  these types of vegetables do well there.  Plus, root vegetables are less expensive to grow and keep longer in storage.  When Ireland was developing as it's own country, money wasn't very plentiful - so you needed to eat and eat items that weren't expensive to grow or tricky to harvest.  There's no way an orange would grow or last long on the cold, rainy, windy island of Ireland.  So, by learning about the foods that come from Ireland, I am also learning about the country and culture of the Irish.  Seafood is very common in Irish dishes too; and why is that, you ask?  Well, Ireland is an island.   And seeing how after an initial investment in fishing tools, it is very inexpensive to fish - it makes economic sense to fish.  Again, by examining the food of my people I am better equipped to know them.  I can also teach someone that the limited food ingredients that the Irish had to cook and eat with was in large part due to the restrictions placed on them by the English sovereignty.  This type of analysis can be applied to any country. 

Now, to bring this concept into the classroom may be a little tricky at first, but it is possible at any level of school.  What about having a food party at the end of a unit?  Each student or group makes a dish, does a little write up explaining what the food tells us about the culture, and presents it to the class.   While the groups present their dishes, the remainder of the class writes and takes notes on the presentation, and is required to ask at least three questions during each presentation.  Afterwards, the teacher can take all the recipes and make a booklet for each student. The recipe book would also be a great computer lab project for the students. You could have students type up their recipes, and then merge the files into one document for printing and copying. You could even have student editors in charge of proofreading the recipes and merging the files. Your colleagues might even enjoy receiving copies of the finished product!  This can be done at any grade level; and could really be a great deal of fun for older students, who don't get as many creative opportunities to learn.

This may seem like a time-intensive project, but it doesnít have to be, and the learning benefits are huge.  At the minimum, students could research a dish and print an image of it, and then continue on with the abovementioned report presentation. You could also involve parents in the project. 

As educators, we should be looking for ways to bring the curriculum to life for our students.  Child or not, who doesn't want to have their learning be more interesting?  I don't know a single person who feels fulfilled by reading a textbook alone.  As teachers, we want our lessons  to be meaningful, and for students to retain what they are learning.  By talking and learning while eating foods from various cultures, we can allow for learning that expands our students' worlds, and lasts a lifetime.

Erin Go Braugh!

by Rosshalde Pak

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  1. Interesting and motivational blog. So true that we want education to be "meaningful, and for students to retain what they are learning." Thank you. Carolyn

  2. I teach grade 6/7 in Ontario and one of my social studies units is Canada and Its Trading Partners. I usually have groups study the economics and resources of particular countries, but my absolute favourite part is our "International Luncheon" at the end of the unit. Each group is responsible for bringing in 2 - 3 dishes, and we make little flags on toothpics to place with the dishes. We put tablecloths on the groups of desks and students make tissue paper flower centrepieces. I always invite parents who are able to come. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE that the students (and myself) are exposed to so many cultures. I make sure I always try everything ... last year I had to sample beef tongue ... hmmmmm ... (may have to rethink that "try everything" prerequisite) ;)

  3. Thanks for the feedback teachers!

    An international luncheon sounds a lot like Rosshalde's idea - fun times.

    As more and more pressure is put on educators to focus on testing and to take the creativity out of learning -- it makes us yearn for fun lessons that are still standards-based.


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