Building student independence within carefully planned parameters

By September 13, 2019

Middle school students arrived at their first nature class this week without the slightest hint of the planned chaos about to ensue. The teacher, Mr. DeFlorio (Mr. D), announced that the students would be working in teams, foraging plants, herbs, and vegetables from the school gardens, developing their own creative menus, cooking and preparing the meals, and then presenting their final creations to be sampled by the whole group at the end of the class period. As you might imagine, the assignment caused instant excitement and trepidation!

Foraging for food in the school gardens

“This was my first meeting with the class,” Mr. D told me, “and my idea was that the first visit should be a ‘wow’ experience to actively get the kids super-charged and super-involved. The idea was building independence within carefully planned parameters, and giving students ownership of their own learning.”

The carefully planned parameters were very important. Students were expected to execute the project within the given rules. Mr. D took the students on a quick tour of the gardens, pointing out which plants could be used and which plants couldn’t. The students were expected to work as a group, listen to each other’s viewpoints, be respectful, and make sure everyone was involved.

Once the parameters were clearly established, the goal was to give students ownership of this learning experience. The students had to cooperatively solve the challenge with the other members of their team. They had to figure out what they could make using the ingredients from the gardens and how to put it together. The teacher didn’t provide any recipes–it was all up to the students. They had to get organized within their teams, making assignments for the various tasks. Mr. D explained, “This is a great team-building and community-building activity. It’s not exactly a competition, but it does intentionally create a friendly stress level. It’s stress in a fun way.”

Transforming food into delicious meals

During the entire class period, the middle school was buzzing with team activity. Students utilized the available resources of the fully-operational middle school kitchen and then presented their meals in the middle school community room. Here are just a few of the food creations:

  • Pasta with garlic and jalapeno (and a lot of other things).
  • Rice with pesto, basil and mint
  • Potato fries with jalapenos
  • Pesto with basil and kale
  • Tomato basil salad
  • Western stir fry (eggs and a mixture of vegetables collected)
  • Potato, squash, peppers, and zucchini
  • Cucumber accidental soup. “We mixed a lot of things together. It didn’t come out the way we expected. It was way too watery. So we named it cucumber accidental soup.”

Sharing the culinary results with everyone

I sampled all of the dishes, and they were amazingly tasty given this spontaneous challenge without any chance to plan in advance. What mattered most, of course, was how much the students learned. Here are just a few of the comments students shared with me after the end of class:

  • “All fresh vegetables, right from the garden. Fresh food is awesome.”
  • “The best part is that we all worked together as a team. We all felt included, and we all had fun.”
  • “We used our creativity. There were not a lot of options so we had to be creative.”
  • “We don’t usually get to make a meal from scratch, so this was a really unique experience.”
  • “I have a new respect for my parents in how much work it takes to make a meal.”
  • “In one case, we kind of messed up. We ended up making something by accident.”
  • “It’s harder to cook than we thought.”
  • “Teamwork for cooking is better than doing it yourself: without a team I could not have cooked anything.”
  • “It was competitive in the sense that we were watching what the other teams were doing, and we wanted to make sure that our meal tasted better.”
  • “The clean-up was really hard. We really didn’t plan our time to allow for that amount of work at the end of the class period.”