Food for Thought: Creating Educational Experiences

Creating an educational experience for young adolescents is a demanding and rewarding experience. As this column continues to suggest, it is an artful, savory labor founded on a shared understanding in which many ingredients, hands, minds, and hearts interact to make great learning happen—and that we commit to this pedagogical cookery to serve all students in the middle grades. It’s not easy work. However, a common language in the kitchen can support and refine our recipe of educational excellence. That’s where the 16 Characteristics in This We Believe come in, and that’s where we’ll focus our attention from now on. How is each of the characteristics like a food within itself, and how can we use that metaphorical understanding to reach every young adolescent?

Under the umbrella of “Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment,” the first two characteristics state that a successful middle grades program or school has “educators [who] value young adolescents and are prepared to teach them” (pp. 15–16) and “students and teachers are engaged in active, purposeful learning” (pp. 16–17). There is a reason why these two are first, in my opinion: we have to know who we serve and how best to serve them. That is paramount. In our educational restaurant, we should actively understand who walks through our doors every year, every month, and every day—and use that knowledge to knead and shape the pedagogical menu accordingly. We cannot simply pull out last year’s laminated menu and dish out the same old packaged meal. Differentiation and new, exciting, purposeful learning activities are the keys to providing support, gaining interest, and keeping edu-diners engaged.

We must acknowledge that our students bring wonderful experiences, values, and insights that can inform our teaching and curriculum menus. Instead of docile patrons or empty bowls, our students should be our sous-chef, and through tools like interest/learning inventories, inquiry, and relationships, they should be connecting their lives to content area menus to help create great learning meals for themselves and others. If we value our students as critical thinkers (not just consumers), we must give them chances to join us in the kitchen and be critical about why, what, and how they are learning.

This also means that we must be bold in our approach and perspective in the educational kitchen. We must value and involve our students in their learning, but we must challenge ourselves and our collaborative sous chefs to use a “curriculum [that] is challenging, exploratory, integrative, and relevant” (pp. 17–22). While it is important that we know their interests and learning styles to make the learning menu relevant and palatable, we must also introduce new flavors, stimulating ingredients, and bold culinary flashes to inspire and challenge them! If we simply plan by their “established” interests and our prescribed content guidelines, our students’ learning lives won’t be expansive and rich with novelty.

If we want our young adolescents to be thirsty and ready for anything, we must integrate uncommon ingredients into the learning menu. Use a painting in science to demonstrate covalent bonds. Use math in language arts to graph a character’s development in a story. Play jazz music in social studies to show how music influenced the Harlem Renaissance. Such interdisciplinary ventures are essential because they spice up the learning menu for our young adolescents, and these effort challenge them (and us) to understand how all curricula are ultimately connected. Perhaps that is one of the most important lessons we have. The kitchen of life is not separated by content area; rather, it is a supremely rewarding space built on connection, collaboration, and critical thinking.