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Shoptalk: Belly Up To The Salad Bar, Kids

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ALTHOUGH THE SKIES ARE NOT cloudy all day, home on the range isn't always what it's cracked up to be, says Joan Baxter, a teacher in rural Richards, Texas (population: 1,000 and holding). "Richards,'' she explains, "isn't on the way to anywhere.''

Still, Baxter says she likes the country life and teaching at the town's elementary-secondary school (combined enrollment: 140). But, for the young people growing up on the farms and ranches around Richards, isolation means they don't have the opportunity to develop many of the social skills that their mall-crawling counterparts in the suburbs take for granted.

The nearest restaurant, for example, is more than 25 miles away. "To eat at a restaurant is, for these children, always a special occasion,'' says Baxter. "It's difficult for them to sit down and read a menu and figure out prices, taxes, and gratuities. They're very timid and shy, a little bit leery about ordering from a waiter. They'll always select something they're familiar with because they know how to say it, and they know what it is.''

To help her 7th graders overcome their timidity, Baxter teaches a unit called "Survival Skills: Eating Out.'' She gives them copies of real restaurant menus to study and teaches them how to compute the bill--tax and tip included. Along the way, they also get a health lesson about the nutritional content of foods and the need for a balanced diet. Baxter makes it clear, for example, that a hot-fudge brownie sundae is not one of the major food groups. Afterward, they role-play a night on the town, with some students acting as waiters and others as customers. The waiters "serve'' pictures of food, cut out from magazines, and the customers pay for their orders with play money.

Baxter's unit closes with a lunchtime day trip to a restaurant, which the students choose based on their appetites and their limited budgets-- $5 to $7 a person, typically earned by doing chores.

"Last time, we went to a pizza place, a small chain in our area,'' Baxter says. "I steer them away from fast food. Three or four teachers take their cars--there are only 12 or 15 kids in a classroom--and we drive over and have a nice, leisurely meal.''

Baxter, it must be said, already has plenty on her plate: She teaches reading to 7th graders, English to sophomores and juniors, as well as accounting, and typing. But, she says, students do not live by book reports alone. They need coping skills, too.

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