Saturday, February 19, 2011

Success Story

This entry corresponds with a staff meeting held here. We were asked to write out a success story we had been involved with in order to better communicate our hopes for the work we do:

At one point during the full staff meeting on Friday Vanessa emphasized our roles as advocates for young people and the corresponding responsibilities to point out health issues to other leaders in the schools. What she didn’t either mention or understand is the kind of critical tension that develops when a nutrition educator (seen as idealist as opposed to realist) begins a conversation with school staff about better nutrition (no matter how polite or diplomatic the conversation is). With this in mind, I entered New Life Youth and Family services last week looking to advocate in the right way.

Knowing the upcoming nutrition theme to be vegetables, and knowing the young men’s aversion to vegetables in general, I decided to use Lynne’s Swiss chard recipe and attempt to shock them with the odd food. As soon as I put the electric skillet on and pulled the garlic from my bag their eyes got big. “I love garlic,” I heard one young person say. A sincere moment only food can pull from these kids. They began slicing (carefully and with proper food safety instruction, of course) and gathering the ingredients, learning as they went that mistakes would affect the food.

Smells rose from the skillet that surprised even me. After all I had never actually prepared this dish with anyone else. The room filled with the hiss of the skillet as the onions cooked and the chard wilted and slightly browned. One young person who had been cursing me and the whole venture stopped talking and seemed regretful (he probably wanted to be involved now that he smelled the food.).

The food looked and tasted great. The teacher tried it and loved it. The students loved it. I supervised two more groups of young people to make the same dish. They all loved it. The kitchen manager even came out from her post in the very back of the kitchen to take a recipe after trying the dish. I felt like we could move on knowing these young people had tried something not only new but green and really liked it.

The lesson and momentum taken from this experience doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the food made (although it is a positive side effect). No, what I took from this experience was the opportunity for genuine advocacy and connection between staff, students, and myself. I now feel confident asking for more from the kitchen manager who was visibly impressed with the food and the presentation. And the students were actually listening to the nurse as she talked about a number of nutrition and health issues.

Advocacy is difficult when it involves navigating tense relationships. I find no more tense relationships than those I have with staff at schools or facilities where students complain about the food or health resources in general (at New Life students always complain about the food and their health). This day the tension subsided even for just a few hours and in that pocket of time, no one was advocating, but everyone was listening. Advocacy is no longer necessary when leaders actually listen.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Unearthing issues at Heart--a Classroom Compromise

The unreported fact of the classroom is that students are not more engaged in classroom work because they are not asked to come forth with relevant cultural background to the issue. In other words, they are not being asked about what matters to them. In reaction to such disregard, students will not proscribe to the same morals and ethical codes authorities do. This inevitably leads to conflict. This conflict always results in a renegade class and wasted time. With this sense of disenfranchisement, the personal content of students, often confused for idleness, is squandered. Inviting that youth perspective into the classroom through engaging activities can produce thoughtfulness and significant discussion that has the potential to change attitudes.

Looking realistically at classrooms, I understand students assets to be the recollections of food experiences, so our goals must be to put them in a position to narrate and direct stories based on food events from their life. In order to make this connection, I invite students to use their collective imagination and judge nutrition issues. In this way we can connect experiences relevant to students to our prescribed nutrition content. Thus the classroom compromise consists of intertwining the cultural background of students with the intended content of the teacher.

If educators do not negotiate with students in the classroom about nutrition content, then the activities will not work. They will not work precisely because they marginalize student experience thereby relegating them to voicelessness. Naturally then, they claim their voice by resisting and misbehaving. Instead coupling the two, the teacher will simultaneously become a student of the experience and engender far more fruitful conversations than by just dictating lesson material. The compromise leads to an inclusive classroom, greater knowledge retention, and a cultural relevance extending beyond the school and into the world students know very well. A world we cannot reach unless we invite it into the classroom.