Editor’s Note: Sarah Anderson is fieldwork and place-based education coordinator at the Cottonwood School of Civics and Science in Portland, Ore., and author of Bringing School to Life: Place-Based Education Across the Curriculum. The school incorporates a local approach while also linking students to global issues.
For middle school students, who are in the midst of growth spurts and identity-building, one of the best hooks for global concepts is to start close to home ... on their dinner plates. Food offers a wealth of opportunities for multidisciplinary education. In social studies, students can learn about the history of global trade and colonization in addition to the basics of economics. Looking at how food is grown and issues around small-scale versus large-scale agriculture is just one of many links to science education. Sourcing ingredients provides options for mapping and geographic learning. And sharing personal food cultures allows students to better understand and appreciate the diversity of their own classroom.
This winter, the 7th and 8th grade students at the Cottonwood School of Civics and Science explored the question: “What can we learn about the world by looking at our food?” These explorations allowed students to learn about globalization through all of the disciplines mentioned above, leaning heavily upon personal and local connections. Emily Conner, the 7th/8th grade humanities teacher (and creator of most of the activities below), pulled in guest speakers, books, and other resources to create an interdisciplinary unit that additionally incorporated language arts, technology, visual art, and career skills. Below are elements of the unit, any of which can be led in a classroom as a stand-alone activity.
Making Personal Placemats
This activity was shared by Jasmine Love and George Zaninovich during the Traverse Conference at Catlin Gabel School in Portland, June 2018.
Students each receive an 11 x 17 piece of paper. They are asked to think of it as a placemat and draw a meal that has personal significance to them and/or their family. They add dishes, utensils, and food to the page with colored pencils. In Conner’s classroom, students created their placemats on a large piece of butcher paper that covered the entire table. Their placemat then became their assigned seat at the table for activities over the next few class sessions. Using the placemats as a jumping-off point for discussion, students can talk with others about their meals and why they chose them. It is interesting to note not only the range of food and food origins, but also the different ways food is eaten: Some food requires a fork, others use chopsticks or skewers, and others only need fingers. With proper scaffolding, such as intentionally creating a safe environment for sharing and active listening, this activity can be a great platform for exploring and celebrating cultural diversity within a classroom. It can also be a useful activity to introduce a larger study about food or as a lead-in to the following writing activity.
Narrative Writing: The Personal Meaning of Food
Students compose a short piece of writing (350-500 words) that explores how a food/dish is significant to them. Within this piece, students are encouraged to describe the particular food or dish in detail while sharing the importance to their life, their family, and/or their experience. Questions to help students brainstorm:
- What is a memory you have that includes this food/dish?
- Who usually prepares this food/dish? How do they prepare it?
- What/who does the food/dish remind you of?
- What do you like most about the food/dish?
- What is something that no one else would know about the food/dish?
In addition to standard writing elements, students are especially evaluated on their use of sensory details and action verbs. To accompany their written piece, students can create a culinary portrait.
Because the topic is meaningful, our students took care with both their written pieces and portraits, resulting in some beautiful work. Dishes honored included a roast-duck recipe from Slovakia, grandma’s cookies, ramen soup, macaroni and cheese, and challah.
Research Paper: How What I Love to Eat Got to My Plate
Students compose a research paper about three or more of the raw ingredients in the food that they chose for their food narrative. For this essay, students find out where the food was originally grown or cultivated, the significance to that culture, and how and when the food got to North America (if applicable). For extra credit, students can research and write about where the actual dish originated. Evaluation focuses on research skills and content that accurately explains the histories of the three ingredients. Uncovered stories can connect students to the Silk Road (cinnamon), the Age of Exploration (tomatoes), or ancient cultures such as the Aztecs (chocolate).
Our students needed to use at least two reliable sources, and one of them had to be an actual book. On a trip to the local library, each student checked out a book about food and food origins and brought it back to the classroom, creating a topic-focused research library for everyone to use. For some students, it was a challenging learning experience to use a book as a source!
Mapping Foods: Discovering Food Geographies
Students choose a food that has a label: something packaged or processed. They then work to become “food detectives” by identifying and mapping where the food is sourced. This can either be done by looking at individual ingredients and making educated guesses (using research) about where each ingredient came from or by mapping the place where the product was manufactured. The second option can open up discussion about food factories and the impact the industrial system has on the Earth, as well as on human health. This activity also provides a visual that demonstrates how we are all interconnected through national and international trade.
Podcasts: Investigating Local Connections
For a more involved, hands-on exploration of local-global culinary ties, students can craft their own questions, survey classmates, and conduct interviews with local business owners. Our 7th/8th graders were tasked with creating a short podcast (3-12 minutes) about a food topic of their choice. Because they were also required to interview people in person, the assignment was naturally grounded in our local community. Students worked in groups of four to investigate questions such as: “What’s better: local, small-batch ice cream or ice cream from a large producer?” “What are the global connections of a local coffee shop?” and “What are the environmental impacts of candy consumption?”
Throughout the project, guest speakers visited the classroom to talk about either their experience in the food industry (e.g., a coffee roaster came in and set up a Skype meeting with a class of students in a coffee-producing town in Uganda) or their experience with podcasting (e.g., a podcaster came in to talk about the “dos” and “don’ts” of good production). Students also had the opportunity to visit a local grocery store to talk to the manager about sourcing decisions and to travel to a pod of Latin American-themed food carts for lunch and interviews. Using the city and school as the context, students were able to make meaningful connections between the food they eat every day and a larger interconnected system. They also gained confidence and competence as collaborators, technical producers, and public speakers. For the culminating project, students submitted their final podcasts to the NPR Student Podcasting Challenge, which also served as a motivator for creating quality products for a real-world audience. You can listen to three of the student podcasts, as well as hear them interviewed on a Portland radio station here.
The common thread woven through all of these activities is that they originate somehow with student experience. By highlighting the personal and local connections of a global story, we make the learning more relevant and, therefore, more lasting.
- Bigelow, Bill and Bob Peterson. 2002. Rethinking Globalization: Teaching for Justice in an Unjust World, Rethinking Schools Press, Milwaukee.
Coblyn, Sara. 2001. French Fries and the Food System: A Year-Round Curriculum Connecting Youth with Farming and Food. The Food Project.
- Pollan, Michael. 2015. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: Young Readers Edition. Dial Books.
- Schlosser, Eric and Charles Wilson. 2007. Chew on This: Everything You Don’t Want to Know About Fast Food. Houghton Mifflin.
- Asia Society’s Follow the Food provides lesson plans for global cooking with youths. A quick sheet gives additional example learning units.
In Defense of Food, from PBS LearningMedia, provides interactive resources on healthy eating for youth.
- Nutrition Detectives, from the Yale-Griffin Prevention Resource Center, helps elementary students make healthy choices.
Image of student work taken by author and used with permission.
The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.