Cooking with Students

Years ago, long before the No Child Left Behind Act was even a gleam in a politician’s eye, a fifth-grade teacher told me she reached her summer school students’ hearts through their stomachs. Those were her words, spoken as her 10-year-olds worked together to whip up their concoctions. That teacher eventually retired as an elementary school principal and now spends her days traveling and camping out with grandchildren, but that remedial math lesson I visited so long ago has always stuck with me. Kids will learn math when it entails cooking and eating.

Years of NCLB-driven expectations choked much of the creativity out of classrooms as teachers plowed through reams of curriculum and cruised through academic skills while children hung on by their graphite-stained fingernails (although I’ve always believed a truly creative person can’t be contained by the tyranny of establishment.) With the introduction of Common Core standards, we’re already seeing teachers bringing exploration back into the classroom. One of the tenants of Common Core is that students need to be able to transfer the academic skills into real-life situations rather than just answering multiple-choice questions with right or wrong answers. Which brings us to cooking in class.

Educational research is full of references to elementary school students cooking to learn math skills, to explore other cultures, or to learn the importance of sanitation. The research is a bit scarce for high school students, but teachers at Franklin High School in Elk Grove, California are showing that it can be successful.

Special education teachers Pat Peak and Ann Johnson incorporated cooking into their classroom this past school year to address the kinesthetic part of learning, and to make math and science concepts clearer to struggling students. Ann has also co-taught in general education with a teacher who has an intervention Algebra I class. That teacher has taken to cooking with the kids as well.

In Pat’s earth science class, students learned about the processes of the rock cycle, with its erosion, heat, pressure, uplifting, time, weathering, and cooling, by making fudge. Each step corresponded to the rock cycle. Students had jobs to do which represented nature’s work in the cycle. They had graphic organizers to help compare the fudge cycle with the rock cycle. They made their fudge on a Friday and had to wait until Monday for the fudge to set, an abbreviated timeframe in the rock cycle, but an eternity for high school students wanting to eat chocolate.

Ann’s Algebra I students, who typically struggle with fractions, made cookies from scratch, doubling the recipe. Students worked together to convert the fractions with varying degrees of success. When the cookies emerged from the oven in the nearby science building, the question of what difference fractions make had been graphically answered.

“I think somebody, years ago, mentioned (baking) was a good way to teach fractions, and I just rolled with it,” Ann explained. She planned to send her students into summer vacation with another fractions lesson. On the last day of school, they were going to make ice cream.