Monday, December 8, 2008

Tips for Teaching Through Food Metaphors

I’ve been a science and math teacher for over a decade and in my work with middle and high school students I’ve used food to teach everything from erosion to angles.

What I love about using food to teach science and math is that it takes these abstract, foreign concepts and creates experiences that bring them closer to home. Kids may not understand why minerals are important. But when they are given the task to create their own toothpaste using household minerals -– suddenly what lived on textbook pages jumps into their own lives. When I’m teaching something even further removed from their day-to-day, like how the globe is divided into hemispheres, using a tangible metaphor like an orange takes something huge and unwieldy and suddenly brings it down to size, indeed, it makes the concept digestible!

While I believe this is an excellent way to teach and make what the students learn stick – there’s also a rather steep learning curve involved. The successes I experience today were hard earned through more than one food fight and experimental disaster. Here are a few things I’ve discovered along the way:
  1. Make the Link to Instruction Obvious – Your kids will love eating their edible soil horizon cups, but will they also learn something from the experience? Make sure you infuse each activity with lots of questions relating back to the content you’re teaching. Encourage students to ask even more. Consider follow-up assignments that push students to reflect on the experience and its relevance to the topic they’re learning.
  2. Prepare, Prepare, Prepare – As much as possible do all the prep for your lesson in advance. Divide materials, set up stations, clean surfaces, organize steps, and practice directions ahead of time so the lesson flows smoothly. Consider having students do independent work for 15 minutes before the lesson begins so you can double check that everything is in order. But even when you do this, like I did for a lesson involving cupcakes once, remain flexible knowing that regardless of your level of preparation you are bound to encounter factors out of your control. (For that particular lesson, the class arrived with the beginnings of school-wide stomach flu… so I had to change plans quickly in favor of something non-food related!)
  3. Set Clear Expectations – Can students eat the food they’re working with? What happens if edible manipulatives begin flying? When and how should students clean up? Establish your routine ahead of time and introduce food activities at a point in the year when you’ve established a good and trusting rapport with your class. This will ensure everyone gets the most out of the activity.
  4. Keep It In The Classroom – You may be the cool Inspired Teacher making fondue to show state changes in chemistry, but that doesn’t mean the English teacher down the hall wants chocolate and cheese tracked into her room. You can motivate your colleagues to try what you’re doing by showing them how easy it is to manage when clear expectations are set.