Thursday, October 30, 2014

Cooking Class

If I were to detail the minutiae of my teaching – or pat myself on the back for every class, I would have bored you a long time ago. I hadn't intended to write about this particular lesson until my conspirators and I were chatting, last week. While regaling them with the week's classroom doings, amid bursts of laughter, one of them gasped: “You're going to have to write that one up!”

And here I am, doing just that.

Now in my 5th year of teaching I find these students perpetually interested in just a handful of topics: food, fashion, music, movies and how to lose weight. These aren't the most dazzling of subjects and there is only so much excitement one can generate and interest to be found in them. Furthermore, this is the second year I've had these students, and they were interested in the same subjects last year. How to find and present new aspects to the food culture of the west was definitely a challenge.

Another facet to teaching sophomores in general is that these students are overwhelmed. In just a few months they are to sit for their career determining TEM-4 exam that will test their English proficiency. Although I've been given no doubt as to my success in the classroom, more often than not they focus on their study materials while I lecture away. Trying to keep them engaged is a near impossible feat. 

Last year, to complement the slideshow I had prepared about food and cooking differences between China and the west, my session  consisted of bringing various tools commonly found in kitchens in the west: spatulas, knives, and a cast iron skillet. I had to explain the difference between spatulas in China – with a rounded blade to better fit the curve of a wok, versus a flat bladed one for typical skillets. And I prepared food to bring to class: deviled eggs – eggs here are eaten either hard-boiled or fried; pasta salad – here, noodles can be in soups or fried, but always served hot; and brownies.

The eggs did not transport well, the pasta salad went largely uneaten and the brownies flew off the plate. I can't say my assays into western food went over well in previous classes, so I did not want to prepare the same menu this year. I still wanted to present foods that feature in my slideshow, so eggs would feature. I would substitute mashed potatoes for noodles and serve a fruit cobbler for dessert.

I would have been happy to serve brownies again but they are so expensive to make over here, and one batch only gives each student a small bite. But a cobbler... a cobbler could be made to fit and everyone could have a generous scoop.

And then the logistical nightmare of transporting 2 cobblers, 2 bowls of egg salad and 2 bowls of mashed potatoes! I have 2 back to back classes on both Wednesday and Thursday, with the Thursday classes in a building on the other side of campus. And then there's the small matter of keeping mashed potatoes warm. And transporting the plates, chopsticks, napkins, trash bags...

But wait! Why transport finished dishes? Why not measure out cobbler ingredients, bring a jar of mayo and some boiled eggs, and let the kids make the food in class? It would be a simple matter of carting my toaster oven and the raw ingredients. Then, all I would have to prepare would be the mashed potatoes. And, I was sure to get buy-in for the lecture if the kids could smell the cobbler baking, and if I asked for volunteers to help make and serve the egg salad.

Super-excited at the prospect of doing something completely unexpected, I dashed to the kitchen, measured, bagged, tagged, prepared everything. A quick stop into my office to modify the presentation just a bit, and I was ready for class!

I hope I've not given you the impression that transporting all of that was easy. The handcart I had did not have a tongue long enough for the oven, so I had to strap it to the cart. And then, I loaded the case with the rest of the stuff on top of the oven. Because the cart's base was so small, the top-heavy load made it precarious to transport. I still hadn't figured out how I was going to get the works up the stairs to the second floor. Luckily a helpful student lugged it with me, a kindness she most likely regretted because it was pretty heavy.

But it was worth it to hear the kids gasp in surprise and delight. As I set up I had to keep fending students off who wanted to examine everything while I laid kitchen tools and foodstuffs out. And then, there were those that wanted to help but only succeeded in getting in the way. I was glad for their enthusiasm and attention.

I asked for a volunteer to help make the cake. One lucky student donned the apron while the rest took out their phones and snapped pictures. It is not uncommon for them to photograph during lessons but today... today I felt like I was in the middle of a media storm for all the camera-phones pointed at me!

While the cobbler baked and the mashed potatoes sat atop the oven to keep warm, we played games such as: Name that Tool! Each team of 6 students got one kitchen implement and I challenged them to name it and determine its function. Another game: an egg slicing contest. One student had a knife and the other an egg slicer. We determined that using an egg slicer was by far the faster, neater way to cut an egg up. Once all the eggs were cut – by various kids using the slicer, we made the salad and, surprise! Everyone liked it! My last few attempts to get people liking egg salad did not go over so well. I'm guessing that, because the students made the salad themselves and knew what went in it, they were more open to eating eggs in such an unconventional (for the Chinese) way. 

From there we moved on to the mashed potatoes, the only dish I prepared at home. They did not go over so well, and I admit I hate having wasted all those potatoes. And butter, and milk.

Just before the session ended we served up the cobbler, which unfortunately did not turn out exactly right. The recipe was simple: 2 cups of flour, 2 cups of sugar, 3 cups of fruit with juice. The bottom was still floury but the kids didn't care. They ate it anyway.

Now to pack up, clean up and head across campus. My male students offered to help me transport everything. Thanks, guys! Arriving at Building 1, the strongest boy snatched the cart up and leaped up the stairs,  2 at a time. Unfortunately, in his unbridled enthusiasm he forgot that there was a full bowl of mashed potatoes... that promptly smashed, splotching yellow, gooey spuds everywhere. I had put the only 2 decent sized bowls I had into service, one for each class. Both bowls gone! Poor kid was immediately contrite, even though I assured him I could easily replace the bowls, and I had an explanation ready for my next class as to why they would have no potatoes to sample.

Other funny things:

everyone fell in love with the egg slicer and each wants one for him/herself.

My rubber spatulas were determined as being 'student beating tools'.

One boy fell in love with the potato masher and refused to surrender it. He held on to it all during class even when he took part in the egg slicing contest.

The crackers I had brought to serve the egg salad on got eaten before the egg salad was made. The last class I had, I just let them pig out on the crackers before class even started. 

The paper towels were a subject of awe: I wet one and pulled on it to demonstrate its strength.

Gone missing: my only 2 oven mitts, my can opener – a small, military P-38 model, and the rest of the  roll of paper towels. No problem: I can replace them all when I buy more bowls, and I have a spare P-38.

It was exhilarating and exhausting. The kids really enjoyed the class and the new experiences and I fed off their delight. It was high energy lecturing: leaping about, hopping all around class, laughing when the kids did.

Moments like that are all too rare in the average teacher's career. How lucky am I to have had such fun, such joy, such a way to bond? How fortunate that I have so much leeway in my classes that I can offer my students such experiences!              

How am I going to top that lesson???

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