Monday, October 11, 2010

Food for Thought

Just the other day I received a very kind thank you note from another teacher. I’d sent him a piece I’d written comparing teaching to gardening.  He’d found it helpful in solving a classroom problem he’d run into.  We both teach theater.  I’d written, in part, “There is not much difference between a basket of seeds, a roomful of students at the beginning of a school year or a group of kids waiting to audition for a play.  Hope, possibility, potential.  Another row to hoe.  The threat of slugs, vermin, plagues and pestilence rising to confront you.  Nothing seems more important than to win them over to theater.”  I was delighted to learn that a notion of mine had led him to devise an ingenious solution for his classroom.   

Sunday I picked up the Food Issue of The New York Times Magazine.  My thoughts returned to gardening, food, teaching and sharing.  Several articles caught my attention.  In one, April Bunt, a recent high school graduate who works picking crabmeat with her mother and grandmother on Deer Island, Maine, is asked about her college plans.  Her response, “Going to take courses online.”  The online courses allow her to keep her job, avoid paying rent on an apartment off island, and make payments on her car.  It’s easy to forget that the online option is relatively new.  It’s a choice her mother and grandmother never had.  It opens up the world for April at the same time that it allows her to stay close to her island community and a family business.

Another article in the Food Issue, Growing Together by Christine Muhlke, describes the networks of people who have come together based on shared interests in food:  “…from the grain supplier to the bakery apprentice to the farmers’ marketers and restaurateurs who order the loaves. It’s the schoolteacher who buys bread every week who eventually asks the baker if he’ll teach her students how to make pizza dough.  It’s the cheese maker who trades for baguettes.  It’s the sous-chef who receives the daily delivery and becomes a drinking buddy.”   What these people have in common is their desire to move away from the standardized food found in fast food restaurants, large chain stores, and even in school cafeterias.  For many the move is one of choice.  A “third place” of food, if you will.  But not always.  The move can be one of necessity.  Muhlke writes:  “The strongest example of a food community I’ve seen was in Detroit, where a vibrant farming scene has sprung up literally from the ashes.  In a neighborhood that is a true food desert – there are no national chain grocery stores within city limits; more than 90 percent of food providers are places like convenience and liquor stores – I watched young men and old women socialize while picking collard greens in abandoned lots brought back to life by the Urban Farming organization.  There was no fence, no supervision, no charge.”   A sidebar to the article indicates that urban farmers worldwide produce $500 million worth of fruit and vegetables.  This trend in smaller farms and food artisans is relatively new.  Only in 2007 did the Oxford University Press recognize the word “locavore” in its American dictionary.

Muhlke concludes: “Since these skills are decreasingly passed on by elders, Americans of all ages have been signing up for classes, apprenticing with experts, chatting up farmers and heading online to share their findings.  Friendships are made, networks are formed, and delicious things are shared.”

A third article, Recipe Redux:  The Community Cookbook  is by Amanda Hesser, a regular Times columnist.  Hesser describes how a simple request to readers for their favorite recipes from the Times led to the discovery of a community she wasn’t completely aware of, both in its size and in its enthusiasm.  A community that changed her career.  She quotes Andrew Rasiej, a futurist who told her, “Newspapers think they’re just in the information business, but they’re really in the business of community building as well.”  Hesser developed a new appreciation for a network she’d not totally recognized.  “I began to see that readers had always been integral to the Times food pages…the shape of our food culture, I saw for the first time, did not live in the hands of chefs or the media.  It lived in the hands of regular people -- home cooks, foodies, whatever label you want to give them – who decide what sticks.  It’s not a planet and moons but a large asteroid belt.” Home cooks were of greater importance than she had realized. 

Hesser goes on to describe the convergence of the food movement and technology in the past decade.  A proliferation of food bloggers became food communities.  Hesser and a colleague became curators with their own website, food52. Followers of the site could enter recipes in a contest to select winners around announced themes.  Hesser and her colleague would name finalists and then anyone could vote.  The goal was to take a year and then wind up with about 140 selected recipes, more or less the size of a standard cookbook, a crowd-sourced cookbook.  By the end of the year there were 100,000 or so regulars contributing to the site.  The site continues to evolve. 

Hesser’s article, though typically replete with a recipe, is less about food than about how technology has aided, influenced and shaped a food community.  Hesser finishes her article saying, “Merrill and I have gone from careers of broadcasting our work to collaborating with strangers…we are now total converts to the power of crowd-sourcing.  We trust the crowd.”

What do crabmeat, fresh collards, and veal chops beau sejour have to do with education?  I don’t think it is a stretch to suggest that education in this country is on a path similar to that of these food communities.  Individuals are now able to determine for themselves how, when, and where they choose to learn.  The number and quality of university level courses available to April Bunt on Deer Island, Maine will continue to increase.  Availability and affordability will continue to work in April’s favor.  Even on remote Deer Island, April is able to be an active part of a larger community.  One cannot help but wonder how much crabmeat she would have to pick to pay for four years at Harvard or the University of Maine under what we consider a “normal” four-year college experience.  The opportunity to learn is available and abundant in ways it has never been before. 

In recent TED talks, Jamie Oliver and Sir Ken Robinson criticize standardization in our culture.  Oliver in terms of agribusiness, large chain stores, and fast food dominating our food culture and ruining our health.  Robinson discusses how we are in thrall to linearity and conformity in our education system, a system that moves students in lockstep, resulting in “impoverishing our spirits and our energies as much as fast food is depleting our physical bodies.”  As part of the revolution, yes that’s the word he uses, the revolution we need to change education in this country, Robinson proposes an agricultural model.  “Human flourishing,” he says, “is an organic process.”  We need an education system that personalizes to the people we are actually teaching, so that,  “People develop their own solutions, but with external support based on a personalized curriculum.”  It sounds an awful lot like a community garden as opposed to a factory farm.  Each of the articles in the Food Issue speaks to and about community.  We don’t need a school system, any more than we need a few large corporations to grow and force-feed us corn in ways we don’t need or even suspect.  We need smaller operations that meet the needs of a particular community.  Schools that help build and sustain a community.  Schools where people of all ages can go to learn and to help each other to learn. Think of Geoffrey Canada as an urban farmer, building a sustainable soil, planting seeds, and nurturing crops to maturity.  The movement is beginning.  It will grow because the days of institution based learning, where the institution decides what will be taught, to whom, and when, are waning.  People want to assume responsibility for their own learning just as they decided to grow their own food. 

The change in learning will also mean a change in the role of the teacher.  Teachers, like journalists, will no longer broadcast what they have to offer.  Teachers, like food enthusiasts, will build a network that connects to both learners and to other teachers.  It is already underway.  A place like Twitter is alive with teacher-to-teacher comments, observations and recommendations.  Favorite lessons and favorite strategies, like favorite recipes, will fill the blogosphere.  Curators are already stepping up to lead and to organize the discussion. 

The Food Issue of the Times is titled, Eating Together.  The word “community” appears over and over in the issue.  Food bringing people together, collaborating on growing, preparing and eating food. I look forward to a Times Magazine issue in the not too distant future entitled Learning Together.  The word “community” will appear over and over again.  Learning will bring people together as they collaborate, create, share and savor knowledge and ideas.