STOP! WE'RE not Frisbeeing this bread."
If you take an 8-year-old and put him in a kitchen with a discus-shaped pita bread on a warm spring day, you should realize that the temptation to utilize it as a Frisbee will be almost overwhelming.
Pat Johnson understood. She is one of several parents who is participating in an exciting and very successful program at Ben W. Murch Elementary School that might be called "Better Learning Through Better Eating," or "Cooking Your Way to Knowledge." She suggested that the child put his bread on the tables. In moments the would-be Frisbee was cut into triangles and became part of a Middle Eastern food presentation. w
As half-a-dozen children from a combined 1-2-3 grade class prepared food, their classmates in the next room were listening to a series of reports. The subject was Iran. All the children had heard of Iran, but -- like many adults -- they knew very little about the country. On this day they heard from their peers about the nation's art, its mosques, its geography and economy. In time they sat on Persian carpets and watched as the young kitchen staff, in costume, presented an assortment of foods. The classroom became a mock bazaar as the children used chips to buy or barter for food. They tasted, and gave mixed reviews to unusual items such as fresh pomegrante juice and dried, unsweetened dates.
Last semester the students explored the United States, using what project director Shelia Ford calls the "everyday practical experience" of cooking as a springboard or hook to involve the children and feed them samplings of much more than food: the curriculum involves math, science, social studies, nutrition, languages, ethnic origins and the significance of holidays.
The children, who were eagerly participating both by joining in the discussion and by eating, have been taking home their new knowledge and recipes. They have become more adventurous in their own eating. Furthermore, adds Ann Yonkers, one of the parents who helped develop the curriculum, "It gives parents a substantive area to work in. They can come in and do something that's natural to them, cook, or they can help in the classroom by giving talks or demonstrations.
"We don't need super chefs and our goal isn't to turn out super chefs. Food is an important part of our lives and we've found a way to incorporate it into the learning experience."
They readily acknowledge that cooking is not a new subject in schools, not even for young children. But they feel that the year-long curriculum they have devised and polished over the past four years puts making food within a sound structural framework that can be employed elsewhere. (In fact, at Murch it has expanded to eight separate classrooms and this year has been tried at four other schools.)
Here, in summary, is what happens in the grade 1-2-3 program, which uses food primarily to further social studies. The first semester presented students with the food, culture and history of 18 states and the District. The second semester is taking them to Madagascar, China, the Soviet Union, Iran, Israel and Switzerland. (While the students don't actually travel abroad, they do keep "passports" that are stamped after each class. They also keep books of recipes.) The school year ends with an international dinner for parents prepared by the students, who also perform skits. Last year's feast menu included hummos, country captain, corn bread, an "ancient day salad" from Egypt and a Brazillian dessert .
According to Yonkers, parents and school volunteers have been an essential part of the Murch program. After trial runs in 1976 and 1977 involving teachers Ford and Karen Glantz, plus parents Mary Ann Allin and Yonkers, the program was outlined to a parent-teacher workshop. With their support, it went into four classrooms in 1978-79 and into four more at the beginning of this school year. One volunteer works with the teacher in the classroom while a second supervises the cooking.
A fact sheet on the program deals with two vital areas in getting started, facilities and finances:
"It's nice to have a kitchen at your disposal but not really necessary . . . Armed with an electric skillet, paper towels, a few simple bowls and pans, anyone can assemble a portable kitchen. Access to a sink and a stove and a refrigerator increases the variety of foods that can be cooked." At Murch the school provided a small room with a stove, sink and tables, a refrigerator was donated and the PTA came up with money for pots and pans.
The food is financed through a parent contribution of $12 a child to cover the school year. Yonkers suggests the PTA or a class bake sale as alternate potential sources of money. A parent coordinator opens a checking account and reimburses volunteer cooks. The coordinator also works with the individual teachers to make sure the schedules are flexible enough to jibe with their "classroom curriculum goals."
In teacher Shelia Rowley's classroom last week, one precocious student caught onto the concept of barter very quickly. Ignoring the "coins," he collected some pencils and, sitting on his Persian rug, busily traded them for pieces of pita bread. Students guessed "prune" and "apricot" before they properly identified a fig. Their teacher was ready for the obvious follow-up question: How does this funny-looking fruit relate to Fig Newtons?
The two-hour session was a successful learning experience. Nonetheless, one student stumped the class. During a discussion of pomegranates, she said her mother used them in making vegetable soup. Not even the adults could identify the soup, or what other fruit or vegetable it might be. Perhaps a recipe will be forthcoming.