John Dewey Kitchen Institute: Reflections on Activities and Conversations

The following is a somewhat random (but nearly sequential) gathering of reflections from the John Dewey Kitchen Institute that I attended at the University of Vermont in June of 2017.


The Experience of Being a Student: The First Day of School 

I woke up this morning with the same eager anticipation that I experienced for the first day of school every year through elementary school. I realized that this is one of the first times in as long as I can remember, that I am simply acting as a student – not a host, presenter, organizer, anything. I planned my day with plenty of time to pick up a large coffee and brand new notebook and even a new pen (an unnecessary expense, but important for such an occasion). While these morning errands were masked in excitement, I realized they were actually anxiety in disguise – nervous that I would be tired in class or appear to be unprepared without a notebook and pen. Those feelings were compounded when I made a few wrong turns looking for visitor parking and was *almost* late to class. For the record, I walked in at 12:59 for a 1:00 class. I met another “student” before walking in (a conversation started over the need for a pen, coincidentally) and one of the instructors introduced themselves to me immediately upon me entering the door. I felt comfortable within moments, starting to understand my place in this new group.

A Take on the Herb Sensory Experience

When I walked in the door to the classroom, all of the students were already actively engaged in an activity. The instructions to me were something along the lines of “observe and identify” – an activity I’ve done and seen done plenty of times with kids and adults alike. The experience of it this day and the following discussion led to some new, deeper reflections of it however.

  • There is a lot of beauty in a shared but independent experience – to start time as a group together. There was no social pressure to interact with each other but we were experiencing something new and challenging (on different levels) together.
  • There are a lot of access points to this activity (depending on how the objective is stated). All students can engage their three senses – or at least, sight and smell comfortably and taste depending on how adventurous they are feeling. If students have access to the language to describe what they experience, they can all interact with the experience comfortably. There was little structure to the deliverable of this activity and with some students it may be useful to structure their interaction with the herbs slightly more to make it more meaningful but it’d be interesting to leave it open-ended as well to see what develops.
  • I appreciated that this activity was intentionally student-paced. It would be interesting to play with the idea of relinquishing some control over the pacing with younger students. Encouraging students to appreciate the experience in any depth they feel called rather than focusing on the end product of filling in every answer blank for every herb within a specific amount of time.
  • It really struck me that the goal of the activity was to make unique and interesting observations and to ask meaningful questions way more than it was to be able to identify them by name. Another participant mentioned that there was an intimidation factor because she is not familiar with herbs and was unable to identify them but she ended up having some of the most detailed observations because she relied heavily on the qualities without being able to attach a label to the plant. There was no sense of failure when all experiences and observations were validated and appreciated.
  • It was mentioned that there may be some cultural awareness that should be considered in this activity – that herbs are not commonly used by all classes and cultures. For this activity, they had also used different types of potato chips, from different regions in an attempt to be more accessible and less intimidating. I thought about this for awhile but strongly believe that it is part of my role as a teacher to provide access for all students to healthy fruits, vegetables, herbs – whether or not it is currently part of their culture or class. I think I can continue to be aware of how my varied students will first view the foods that we will taste together and the preconceived notions they may have of them but then focus on the shared experience.
  • Another example of a sensory experience but focused on certain places was discussed. In this example, participants would visit a farmers market, grocery store, and department store and take time to experience each of them with all of their sense to understand their full experience of the place. I thought that was a fascinating extension of the activity that could influence choices and behaviors to be more mindful in daily life.

Beyond Experiential, Inquiry-Based 

One of the participants that is a Director of a Culinary School, mentioned that many culinary programs boast that they are “experiential” which translates directly to “hands-on” which simply means that they use their hands but made the distinction that “inquiry-based” goes much further. I have fallen into the habit of using these somewhat jargon-y education words always paired or sometimes interchangeably without actually giving credit to the distinct difference in mindset. While they both lead to meaningful student engagement, the parts of the mind they activate seem very different. In an effort to take a stab at how they are defined to me:

  • Experiential – An activity in which students use all of their senses to interact with materials
  • Inquiry-Based – An activity in which a question or problem is posed to students with the goal of students developing a method to come closer to a solution, discovering and exploring independently and in small groups to develop their own understanding of the phenomenon at hand

At some point in the conversation, an instructor stated that her goal for students was for them

to learn how to ask questions well, to cultivate students’ capacity to be curious.

It is in stark contrast to the education system that demands the correct answer on standardized tests as a measure of success but should ultimately be the goal of an education.  When students are searching for more questions, rather than the right answers, the teacher can become a mere facilitator of the experience rather than the giver of knowledge expecting the student to be prepared to receive.

The Experience of Being a Student: In the Kitchen

Following the introductory sensory experience with the herbs in the classroom setting, we headed next door to the kitchen lab. I had some surprising revelations as we headed next door.

  • Knowing that my knowledge in the kitchen is limited to what I’ve learned informally, I noticed that I was a little nervous – which in me, meant becoming incredibly attentive to the instructor as she walked through the steps to cutting an onion. In my mind, I was developing my own method to remembering the seemingly complex steps: pull, point, push. That wasn’t quite all I needed to complete this task successfully but it was a way for my brain to organize all of the details into buckets that I could grasp. It occurred to me that this is a mental process that as teachers, we can assist our students with – even when many details are given, providing a top 3 for terms or cues to remind us of the details and the sequence. It was also interesting to me that when the instructor started modeling how to cut a carrot (for early finisher work), I felt my brain telling me that it was at capacity and I had all I could handle in short-term. I took in as much as I could visually that would help me succeed with the carrot but kept repeating pull, point, push in my head to hold on to what I needed to accomplish. I think it is also worth considering in this situation that while I responded to a new environment and new task in this way, I think it’s likely that many young students would shut down in a similar situation. As a teacher, I think it’s worth considering how much of what we do in a kitchen or a garden is brand new to students – the setting is new, the tools are new, the tasks are new. How can we structure this so it is not intimidating despite the newness?
  • The social dynamic that was present in the classroom was interesting to be mindful of within myself too. I picked up on the idea that we would be working with partners, based on how the room was setup and I was concerned about who my partner was going to be (who I was going to embarrass myself in front of) long before the instructor mentioned picking partners. I felt a surprising relief when the instructor chose our partners for us too. My partner and I were both quick to explain to each other that this was not a task that we were familiar with – as if it was a disclaimer, preparing for failure. As if success would be a pleasant surprise but failure was expected. That sure took the pressure off to be perfect. We walked through the steps together, confirming for each other how to complete the task just as the instructor had.
  • When I completed both the onion and carrot, I felt a surprising amount of pride – I wanted to get out my camera and take a picture of this beautiful work I had done. It reminded me of the contrast I felt to a similar cooking experience at a conference about a year ago. In that session, we were making handmade pasta. I was very interested by the task, had listened carefully to the instructions, worked hard to complete the task just as I was told, taking cues from other participants around me. When the instructor came around to collect the pasta for the soup, for some reason (that I can’t even recall now) mine didn’t make the cut. I’m not sure if I felt crushed because it’s a task I really wanted to do well or if I was embarrassed in front of the other participants but I caught myself mimicking behaviors I see so often from many of my students – I got completely off tasks and started attempting to write my name with the pasta. It wasn’t doing anyone any harm but I guess it was my way of finding a task I could do successfully (because I defined it), if I couldn’t do the one the teacher defined successfully. I think this is something essential to notice in students – the reason why they are off-task, particularly with new tasks in a social setting.
  • One of the most enjoyable aspects of this lesson to me (beyond being successful) was the meditative aspects of the tasks due to the exactness that was required. Uniformity will likely never play a very large role in my teaching of small children but the aspect that is replicable is the meditative, repetitive, manual tasks… and ones that result in something that can be seen as beautiful. Both of those aspects felt really good to me as a student.
  • Learning to precisely and efficiently cut and onion and a carrot was compared to learning the notes before you play piano. Without thinking too hard on the musical part of the analogy, I think the takeaway is this – these are life skills. No, you don’t have to cut an onion exactly the “right” way every time you cook anything for anyone anywhere. However, I think the real power in this is that the more you cut onions, the more comfortable (and probably faster) you are cutting onions, which means you are increasingly more likely to cut an onion for your meal at home and to not be intimidated or consider it a daunting or difficult task. Considering this as the process for a variety of cooking techniques and eventually preparing a home-cooked meal becomes effortless, and therefore perhaps even in enjoyable or meditative or creative. The end goal here, I believe, is much more than learning to cut an onion to the instructor’s specifications because she said so.

The Role of Comfort and Discomfort in Learning

I do not have the answer here. But a theme that I’ve been reflecting on in my own experience of being a learner has been the role of comfort or discomfort – which sometimes correlates to familiar and unfamiliar. It often correlates with the potential of a soft failure (where I can learn, adjust, and continue) and the potential for a hard failure (where a hard stop would follow).

Perceptions of Eating

It is a fascinating time in American history to discuss the culture of food. We are in this time in which the food we eat now is totally different than what our parents ate, which is also totally different than what their parents ate. Therefore, the authority in what to eat is not the generations before us (as is typical in many other cultures). Rather, we rely on scientists, journalists, and food marketers to help us decide what to eat amongst the quite literally millions of options in any given American grocery store. This creates quite some confusion. One of the participants in our class may have stated it best, that many simply eat not to be hungry – which is a perception of those struggling with eating disorders and obesity and everyone in between).

Another interesting aspect of eating in this time, is that I often find that people define themselves by what they don’t eat – rather, of course, than what they do eat for nourishment or enjoyment.

Maybe not related but it was stated in class that food can be both inviting and alienating. I thought that was fascinating and something I hadn’t considered before. It will need to roll around in my mind a bit more before I can articulate a reflection on the statement. It does conjure up the idea of  the amount of judgement that we tend to have around food – that there may be a level of embarrassment around what you or your family eats based on a certain standard (that without a doubt, changes from person to person or situation to situation, a target that’s impossible to hit with certainty). We can potentially all agree that we want to be healthy but how we define that varies wildly across our culture – potentially alienating those that don’t fit in with a given group’s standards.

The Differences in Teaching Adults and Children About Eating

Teaching both children and adults brings to light the incredible influence that past experiences have on education of any kind. I have found that for children, in many cases they are experiencing specific foods for the very first time – which brings it own set of challenges but is also a “blank slate” to build on. The greater challenge, I’ve found, is in teaching adults who have fed themselves in their way for many years – they know what they like, what they don’t like, and how they do things. The learning process looks very different when we take into account the deeply-rooted (and likely varied) prior knowledge and experience. As a teacher, I see the role then as fully acknowledging all background knowledge before presenting the new process or information – always in the context that it is not necessarily the “right” way but in this instance, it will be the way that we try for this new shared experience together.

A Few Takes on the Comparative Taste Test

The comparative taste test is another lesson (like the sensory herb lesson) that I’ve both participated in and led many different times in a lot of different ways. Throughout the class, we participated in multiple comparative taste tests in a few different structures – from tasting seven different whoopie pies to two different types of yogurt. Some observations from those experiences:

  • In comparing both the whoopie pies and the yogurt, I caught my mind drifting to trying to figure out what clues may tell me where these were produced or what hands had a part in making them. I was looking for the whoopie pie that seemed homemade and the yogurt that seemed “real.” This really exemplified the John Dewey tenant of inquiry being value-laden. I was asking myself questions to compare the samples based on what I cared about. I was also interested in the knowing the packaging they came in, as if minimal packaging or marketing would make them taste better to be me.
  • In both taste tests, standards were hardly defined – at most, we were encouraged to consider appearance, smell, taste, texture but for either whoopie pies or yogurt there are many specific variables that could have been compared. I found that with out defined qualities to look for, I leaned towards just determining which I had a preference for and then wrapped as much language as I could around that. For example, I didn’t have the experience or language to describe the crumb on the cake, it’s dryness, fluffiness, the type of flour or cocoa, but I could in my elementary vocabulary describe in some accuracy it’s texture and chocolaty-ness. It may have been easier for me to participate in a more details way if we had specific aspects we were judging and a word bank of comparison words for each one. This is possible something I could provide for my students that may struggle with the same task of getting started without structure.
  • The language to describe the differences in these tastes  was very hard for me to come up with, even with an extensive word bank I struggled to match the words to the experience. Particularly with the yogurt, I found myself relying on comparing the taste to other tastes of milk or cheese because I didn’t know which words described the taste specifically. This is likely what many students (particularly English Language Learners) may feel in my class and I think there is a potential level of frustration there that does not work in favor of the exploration and I feel like I could potentially structure this learning to avoid it. I currently teach a lesson where students taste fruits that are sweet and we attach the vocabulary “sweet” to it, and the same process for sour, bitter, and salty – the four main tastes. I will have to consider in the future how to structure experiences further to develop even more vocabulary around diverse and deeper tasting adjectives.
  • I considered, while tasting, if my opinion of the samples was more based on what my eyes were seeing or what my mouth was tasting (or unlikely, but possible – primarily what my nose was smelling). While I was attempting to focus on taste and texture, I do think that the appearance is worth considering as well. Particularly for kids, I think the appearance of a food (the way it’s cut, what it is plated with, how it’s plated) can strongly affect their opinion of the food and whether or not they will try it again.
  • I thought it was interesting that the instructor and participants with a culinary background were less interested in our opinion of the samples (although, they admitted that ultimately that would be the deciding factor for both individuals and in a professional setting). They were more interested in our presumably unbiased descriptors of the samples. One participant compared it to an artistic critique – it doesn’t actually matter if you like it or not, it’s what you understand about it.
  • The concept of food “dislikes,” was challenged by the instructor questioning whether the statement meant a dislike of every variety of that fruit or vegetable, in every preparation and every combination. I’ve for a long time considered how to address this with children. I think that it is important to recognize that they may not prefer every food we try and to acknowledge that. However, I do think the sentence frames of “I don’t like it yet,” “I may like it prepared a different way,” “I may try it again later” can start to get at that idea that it is not a definite answer to an entire type of food. This discussion also led me to reconsider how we often collect data on student preference asking whether students liked it, loved it, or didn’t care for it. The instructor mentioned that preference is truly on an extensive continuum that is much more complicated than like it or don’t. The challenge is gathering an understanding of preference (or change in preference) while also accounting for the many dynamics of it.
  • In listening to the other participants describe the samples, in both cases, I recognized the extent to which every individual brings their past experiences to the shared activity. Many participants mentioned personal memories they had that connected with certain tastes or smells. Other participants shared their levels of expertise on the specific product. On a smaller scale, each of our students bring their personal memories and knowledge to the table with every tasting too and it’s important as teachers for us to make an opportunity for those to be heard.

A Take on Working with a Recipe 

In many of the advanced classes I teach, we do work with general recipes that leave a lot of room for creativity and we work with general timelines that presumably bring all of the dishes to completion around the same time. The experience of working through a recipe with a group today approached this very differently though.

  • “Mise en Place” or “everything in place” was emphasized heavily in this lesson. This is a phrase that I was not familiar with and a concept that I had not taught. However, it was one that resonated strongly with the way that I like to plan. This involved a very visual approach to looking at the counter top and placing the ingredients and tools in a way that made sense for the process. To me, I saw this as a neat way to actually read a recipe. When we created our quiche, I just looked at my sketch I made that depicted the quantities, ingredients, and steps.
  • The skill of forward and backward sequencing is challenging but I think a positive one for students. The general concept of time can be tricky but particularly lining multiple pieces up to end at certain times would be hard. I can see plenty of connections to both math and language in an activity like this.
  • I realized that reading a recipe is a skill in itself. In many ways, you have to be skilled enough to read between the lines to know exactly what to do, how to do it, and with what tool (and for how long, and on and on) when the recipe doesn’t provide such detail. This idea of making inferences from evidence or connecting texts is reminiscent of many of the Common Core standards for English Language Arts across the grade levels.
  • The group structure was important to my feeling of success in following the recipe. I leaned heavily on my teammates and asked for constant validation of the way I was reading and executing the recipe. I realized that particularly with baking (we were working on a pie crust), there were so many variables that it was really difficult for someone with my limited knowledge and experience to problem solve. I wasn’t quite sure what it was supposed to look like or feel like anyway, but if it wasn’t what I expected it could have been any number of things from the quantities of each ingredient to when I added them to the temperature of them to how I added them. It was hard to isolate a variable and adjust when so many were present.


These varied thoughts are only a sampling of the internal dialogue that was brought about by the thought-provoking activities and conversation that this Institute offered. I hope to continue to synthesize these thoughts into action in their various applications throughout my work.


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