Sustenance in the classroom

Kathryn Fishman-Weaver, a special education teacher at ASCEND school in Fruitvale, wrote this piece about a recipe writing project her students recently completed. -Katy

photo courtesy of Kathryn Fishman-Weaver

My grandmother used to tell me a Jewish proverb that “worries go down better with soup.” It’s 4:30 on a Friday afternoon. I am talking to my student Isaiah’s grandmother. I am worried about a bureaucratic decision that I think is under-serving students. Just as my own grandmother would have done, Isaiah’s grandma starts baking for me.

In my multicultural classroom, our common love of food is often a point of connection. In fact some of my sweetest memories as a teacher are of eating with my students and their families: Christian’s mom’s surprise strawberry chalkboard cake; cooking Thanksgiving lunch with my students in our community kitchen, slurping up melting popsicles on the play yard with 20-plus extended family members at a spring party; sipping creamy chocolate with seven-year-olds on the morning of Day of the Dead; an eclectic gratitude potluck that included spaghetti, fried chicken, banana bread, enchiladas, the best flautas ever, and orange soda.

Just as I bring apples and honey to share with my students each Rosh Hoshana, I also bring to the classroom a passion for the written word. Our most recent writing project, a cookbook, combines these two forms of sustenance.

“Writing is important,” my student Sindy says, “because it comes from our hearts.” Sindy is a nine-year old girl in my special education class. The title of our most recent compilation, Recipes: From the Heart, is taken from her quote.

This is no ordinary cookbook — for one it is authored by elementary children in my special education class, secondly, its recipes aren’t complete enough to replicate in your own kitchen. I considered having the students interview their families so that we could create a more conventional cookbook. However, once I started conferencing with my first, second and third graders it was clear that the recipes were more illustrative just as they were. So instead our cookbook became a kind of oral history told through student memories of food.

As you read it you can see Frankie and his mom eating pancakes at night; Brianna’s family rushing to the grocery store to get whip cream for their already prepared strawberry shortcake; and Eduardo and his mom enjoying one another’s company over a bowl of steak nachos. Twelve first editions of our cookbook were opened in homes across Oakland on Mother’s Day, a thirteenth copy was sent to the First Lady. Second editions were released to OUSD staff and friends at a party on May 20.

In my classroom we write every day. Just as my students are hungry for meat and potatoes, they are hungry to share their stories and ideas. Writing is the engine of my ever-chugging vehicle for literacy instruction. In addition to learning phonics, grammar, standards and literary genres, it is through writing that my students gain voice and humor. For instance, our cookbook project also includes imaginative recipes for fried shark, friendship, a healthy school, nacho pizza meatball sandwich and hot fries as a pizza topping.
The classroom is a community, established by culture, experiences, and common goals. Like many communities, I believe its strength grows by breaking bread together.

Sharing home-made foods is not unlike good teaching. Both are acts of love.

-Kathryn Fishman-Weaver

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Debora

    Kathryn: Thank you for sharing your story.

    My daughter’s first grade teacher taught geography using bread from around the world. Each week a different student would bring in bread from their family’s country of origin. All the students would learn about the country, how to find it on a globe and a flat map, they would divide the bread by the number of seats at their table, guess at the ingredients and thank the parents, grandparents, neighbors and friends who came in to talk about the bread, the countries and their lives.

    The students learned how to pronounce words in over 20 languages. The colored flags, learned traditions and discussed comparisons. Near the end of the day of the bread presentation, the children wrote what they learned.

    Two years have passed since my daughter was in first grade. I still remember the second grade teacher who marveled at the children’s abilities to label continents, oceans and countries – and the wild discussion of the honey bread from the China, the sour bread from Germany and the pineapple bread from Hawaii and the Polynesian Islands. The bread was tasty, but often an excuse for to get close and really understand one another.

    The kind of teaching, sharing and understanding that you do, makes a huge difference in each family’s ability to work with you and the school for the best education possible for their children.