Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Paper, Butter Crocks, Literature: Crafts and Cooking in the Language Arts Classroom

"Blancmange?" one of my students said. "What's blancmange?" And suddenly, we weren't talking about themes and relationships in Little Women anymore, but instead about a foodstuff that no one's enjoyed for 200 years.

In the novel, when one of the girls falls ill, next-door neighbor Laurie sends "a blancmange" over to soothe the patient. I had been reading aloud from the novel to my students, when we were derailed by the unknown substance. I knew I had two choices: answer the question quickly to set us back on the relentless path through the book that I'd set out, or, stop and consider the question, and thus provide a real demonstration of the curiosity and inquisitiveness I'm always trying to encourage my students to have.

We stopped. We discussed the etymology of the word. We looked "blancmange" up in the dictionary. We looked it up online. And, eventually, one day after school, we trundled down to the home rec room to cook and eat a blancmange, while watching the most recent film version of Little Women. For the record, a blancmange is kind of like a flan. Tasty!

Sure, making blancmange isn't a career. But neither is reading.

That experience reminded me that simple explorations have a place in the high school classroom. Crafts, including cooking, are a mainstay of the lower grades (believe me, when I taught preschool, there was a one-craft-per-day manifesto which left me gibbering over coffee filters and plastic straws into the wee hours), but often ignored once the middle school years arrive. But a little project, breaking up what can be a monotony of reading and writing in the language arts, is the perfect antidote to a winter-dulled classroom.

As my experience in the art of custard-making shows, a little project can give your students the experience of a different time or place. We often forget just how remote literature can seem to our wired students -- there aren't yet any curricular classics that reflect what their lives look like every day. And the teenage years are the most difficult time to understand that there's a world outside of your own life; imagining the lives of those who lived hundreds of years ago is even more difficult for them. Sometimes a simple, visceral experience is the key in.

It's also worth noting that handicrafts reinforce the same concepts and skills to older students as they did in preschool: Hand-eye coordination. Color theory. Patterning. Mathematical ratios. Estimating. Not to mention that crafts allow the different learning types -- visual learners, kinesthetic learners -- a means to educate themselves in a way that is profoundly comfortable to them. We word nerds would do well to remember reading and writing aren't the only valid ways to learn. And this stuff is fun. If our classrooms are a preparatory experience for the lives we hope our students will lead, we would do well to value safe, stimulating fun in them.

Incorporating crafts and cooking into our lesson plans is not wildly difficult, and, of course, internet sources can help. Here are some of the ideas I've come across or implemented in my own classroom.

In Which Our Thoughts Turn to Dairy

I start off with food because it makes everyone happy. If you can find a reason to tie together a work of literature and some simple food preparation, you're going to have an exciting, memorable class that day, giving your students an experience of life in a different time or place.

If you're reading something set in Puritan or pioneer times, such as Sarah, Plain and Tall or The Crucible, help your students understand how difficult daily life was for the characters. Foods that we take for granted today then required tremendous effort, and such conditions would have strongly affected the characters, perhaps driving them to do things we do not easily understand. For example, making butter is simple, but requires the effort of an entire class (or perhaps my girls have weakened their churning muscles with too much texting). The basic premise is on the site, but I use a large jar and straight cream. Bring a pack of crackers and a knife or two.

Any novel or short story featuring a festive setting, such as the pivotal winter carnival scene in A Separate Peace, is a great reason to involve your class in making ice cream, no cooking or special machine needed. Please note that the same class did not get to make butter and ice cream. I teach English, not Principles of Dairy.

Reading Tennessee Williams? Harper Lee? Eudora Welty? Flannery O'Connor? Truman Capote? All of these Southern writers crafted characters who seem to be constantly drinking sweet tea. From my brief sojourns in the South, this appears to be accurate. I'm sure one of our Southern readers can steer us in a better direction, but I like to make sun tea using this technique. Before you think this is a stretch, picture your students drinking small cups of sweet tea while they read these iconic writers. Especially for us Northern folk, this is a great chance to experience a little part of the gentler lifestyle that Southerners do so much better.

There are many other food-related crafts you can use in your classroom, such as making hummus while reading The Kite Runner, or serving buckwheat pancakes (warning: your students won't like them) while reading Tuck Everlasting. Explore www.cooks.com for recipes, and Martha Stewart's Kids as well as Family Fun's recipes section for more ideas that suit your curriculum.

Oh, the Weather Outside is Frightful, But in Class It's So Delightful...

There is more to life than food. There's also making stuff look pretty, specifically your classroom. Why not let your students help? Chances are, they will enjoy this mini-break from textbooks, and you can still sneak in some learning for them.

At this time of year, our thoughts and prayers turn to snow days, so I get the girls to cut out snowflakes as I read snow-themed poems to them. I have a book of snowflake patterns that I use, and several are available on Amazon.com too. Or visit these websites for printable patterns: Paper Snowflakes or Noel Noel Noel. If you have more time, and some stiffer paper, here's a very cool, relatively simple 3-D snowflake pattern. These patterns allow each student to create something lovely, but freeform cutting is certainly fine by me too. The poems I share include Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" (you can find it here, if your textbook happens to be the one in 10,000 that doesn't include it.), an excerpt from Denise Levertov's "Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus" (scroll down here) and Richard Wilbur's First Snow in Alsace. If we're doing this when it's actually snowing and the class is feeling cozy, I'll even read Ezra Jack Keats' The Snowy Day, to them. At the end of class, we decorate the classroom with our work.

The Heart is a Lonely Crafter

But perhaps you're thinking more about Valentine's Day. Although I am one of those Valentine's Day cranks who mutter about it being a "fake" holiday (query to self: what are the "real" holidays?), the thought of tying together a craft and literature makes it much more palatable. When I started teaching at an all-girls' school, I thought V Day would be left in the dust, but I have learned the truth: Valentines' Day exists at the will of teenage girls. In my mind, Valentine's Day is the holiday most correlated with school handicrafts, as I recall laboriously cutting out tiny hearts to make valentines for each of my classmates. If you want to recreate such a scenario, there are a myriad of ideas at this link at MarthaStewart.com. Is it too 2006 to dislike Martha Stewart? Are we over that now? I sure hope so, as the site is an amazing source of classroom-worthy crafts. This link includes 11 Valentine's Day activities. I think idea # 7 is particularly apropos for an older classroom, as it employs small, simple-to-make stamps to create lovely heart patterns. And to read? Gary Soto's first date poem, "Oranges" is perfect to read and discuss while doing this.

Not That Kind of Book-Making

Many of our curriculums now include substantial writing from the students. I find this thrilling, but wonder what to do with all of their output: poems, short stories, genealogy charts, autobiographies. Then it occurred to me: all of these are going to look better in a little book than in 10 pieces of typing paper stapled together, right? (After all, we now know what typing paper is for: snowflakes). So I'm excited to try making books with the girls. Book making can get very complicated, involving special tools that make me think of 15th century monasteries. But accordion books are quite simple and instructions can be found here or here. By the way, I do not know why all handmade book instructions feature marbleized paper. I can only assume the marbleized paper mafia made a deal with the bookmakers guild 300 years ago.

Old School Salty

Do you get confused when you read The Lord of the Rings? Not quite sure where's Rivendell (which I insist on calling "Hobbitville") in comparison to Mordor ("Evilville")? Ah, you, like me, must lack the ability to comprehend the Geography of Fake Places. Thus, let me also sing the praises of salt maps. Fallen far out of favor now, Salt Maps, which I hope you all remember, (but if not, these great pictures and instructions) were a way of making relief maps, with only lots of salt, some flour and your mother's undying patience needed. Principally seen in Social Studies classes back in the day, I'm thinking of using this technique at school to make either a map for The Lord of the Rings or The Lord of the Flies. Definitely one of the Lords. So fun, so old school.

Fun in School: Not Always Impossible

Sometimes, though, you're not looking for anything except an enjoyable way to pass a day in your classroom. Maybe it's the end of the year, or the day before a vacation, or a day when you know more students will be absent than attending. My favorite go-to craft for a day like that is making paper beads. It's simple, requiring only scissors, magazine pages (or other papers), glue, and toothpicks. It also rises to the level of the crafter -- everyone can do it, and the artistically gifted can use their color sense to make something truly lovely. If you want to extend this project by a few classes, here's a way to make the beads into key chains (This site also has a color photo which may be illuminating if you're not familiar with this craft).

I also am not above the purchase of crafts kits. For the last two years, I've had an English Honors class that adores making things. They're also incredibly hard workers, stalwartly working on a curriculum that is very advanced. About twice a year, after a big test or huge assignment, I like to give them a day to chill out and make something. We use the catalog from Oriental Trading Company to choose kits. The girls bring in the money (usually such a small amount that it's not a problem, but I'd subsidize a student if I thought it would be), I order the kits, they arrive quickly, and then we hang out together, craft, and get something cute to take home. Just be forewarned: Once Oriental Trading Company has your information, they will not hesitate to send you approximately 80 catalogs a month. Make sure to give your school address.

There you go, just a few of the many ways to incorporate handicrafts and cooking into your classroom. All that is really required is a desire to do so. I hope that the prospect of a slightly different kind of class excites you as we head through these long winter days. Trust me, your students will be glad you took the time to do so. Blancmange is a small, white, sticky thing, but it left a big impression... your students will think so, too.


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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

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Comments from our users:

Monday February 11th 2008, 10:39 AM
Comment by: Rachel M.
I love this essay. Your ideas are wonderful. I wish my son had you for a teacher. Also, I forgot all about making butter in a jar, something I found enthralling as a child. I believe my son and I will be making some this weekend.
Tuesday February 12th 2008, 3:27 PM
Comment by: FRANK C S.
Quote: "Blancmange? . . . a foodstuff that no one's enjoyed for 200 years."

I don't know; Monty Python got a lot of mileage out of it.

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