Food & Community: Tilling Organic Learning

Today I get to feature another guest post from my folleague (know what that is? it’s a friend and colleague) Lorrie Ranck (Lorrie first guest-blogged with her post Bumps! a few months back).  Lorrie and I are colleagues because we’ve worked together a lot (formally and informally, and once we even started a grant-writing business together, but after our first grant we decided we didn’t want to be grant writers – that’s a long story and maybe another blog post that we can co-write, if we feel like dredging up that saga). We are also colleagues because we talk the same language: teaching, learning, assessment, social action, student engagement, etc.

Lorrie is a friend because we have a lot in common and enjoy similar things. For example, we are both July babies born in the same year, we both have little toddler boys, we both had bad hair in the 80’s, and we both tinker in the garden, though she is a better tinkerer than I, as you will see:

Summer of Food I

Sitting at the desk absent-mindedly gazing out across the backyard my eyes fall to the rather droopy elephant-ear leaves of the two zucchini plants I nestled into the ground in March. Just beyond those are three plump dark green reticular pumpkins with just a hint of orange slowing wrapping around the squash in an autumn embrace. To the left, strawberry plants (sans berries) still thrive with the suckers sneaking beyond their brick boundaries, tomatillos and jalapeno peppers are making a comeback thanks to some hot days here in Northern California, and the bright, crisp stalks of rainbow chard cheerfully wave at me even after several cuttings.

The sugar snaps never quite made it except for a couple handfuls ready-to-burst-pods quickly plucked by little hands and devoured. However, the green bean teepee might provide for another serving or two yet.

In so many respects, the garden is my sanctuary: respite from the daily grind of the job search, playground for my boy, resting place for my canines, and generally a place of contentment, discovery, and reflection. Not bad for a 12×20 ft plot! I’ve learned, perhaps this summer more than ever, how this little space helped me create community, time and again.

Gardens from past years often produced an abundance of produce beyond what my family could eat or store. While I would offer these to local family and friends, more often, I’d truck these into work every few days and hope there would be willing souls with whom to share. You could bet that if lemons, zucchini, oranges or whatever vegetable was wildly growing at home appeared on a conference room table at work, it was a remnant of my presence.  Sometimes I put out a basket with a sign “FREE ORGANIC PRODUCE” in the hallway. Faculty, staff and students would pause, perhaps consider how they might use whatever was available, and just to be sure, ask me if they could really take something with them. That is how I came to know many of colleagues and how some students first entered my office: those few seconds of connection, of sharing, sometimes extended into broader discussions. As much as I enjoyed sharing in the harvest, the conversations that grew into relationships that grew into community from these organic encounters, well, those were and are invaluable. I can’t help but think of how this relates to building communities of learners. I’m not of the view that knowledge is necessarily the produce we pass forward or, if you are a fan of Freire, the Banking Concept of Education. After all, information is there all the time, it is ripe and ready for the taking. Maybe, though, knowledge is a compilation or weaving together of both individual and community actions:  preparing the space/laying the groundwork, carefully and thoughtfully planting, building of and tending to relationships, sharing of the bounty, and reflecting on both process and product. This, over and over again, each time with new “seeds” or techniques, with others in and outside of our community is why learning is not static but quite organic.

I’m interested to hear stories of your experiences related to food, community and learning. How do those tie together for you? What challenges and/or opportunities have you witnessed, facilitated or engaged in?


Vacations To Learn By

Around these parts, Summer term is coming to a close (next week!) and Fall term is about a month away. While my work doesn’t end when the term ends (in fact, it usually gets a bit busier), it seems like a good time to take some time off and time away from the office. It’s a time of the year that seems like a threshold.

Main Entry: thresh·old
Pronunciation: \ˈthresh-ˌhōld, ˈthre-ˌshōld\
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English thresshold, from Old English threscwald; akin to Old Norse threskjǫldr threshold, Old English threscan to thresh
Date: before 12th century

1 : the plank, stone, or piece of timber that lies under a door : sill
2 a : gate, door b (1) : end, boundary; specifically : the end of a runway (2) : the place or point of entering or beginning : outset <on the threshold of a new age>
3 a : the point at which a physiological or psychological effect begins to be produced <has a high threshold for pain> b : a level, point, or value above which something is true or will take place and below which it is not or will not

That’s it: the end of a runway, and the place or point of beginning. Thus, a good place to pause and take a break!

At the end of last summer, we spent the threshold at the beach.

Mac and Mom's Beach Walk

At the end of this summer, we will spend the threshold celebrating my parents’ 45th wedding anniversary and my husband will be riding his bike uphill, 100 miles, around a lake. (Fun!?!?) Mac, the Toddler of the House, has informed us that he is not only taking his Elmo suitcase and his own bike, but also his lawnmower. He likes to travel light, apparently.

The Bike

The Elmo Suitcase

The Mower

While I am one who actually hates packing suitcases and leaving the dog and cats and house in the care of others, I also like to plan vacations, and it should come as no surprise that mine involve learning to do something new.  So, here are my Top 3 (Dream) Learning Vacations for this Summer/Fall threshold, none of which I will go on, but each of which will inspire me to keep learning somehow.

1) Learn to Build a Table From Scratch. Here’s the class description – don’t you want to come along?

How would you like to take a weekend away in Vermont, build an authentically local wood table from scratch with 15 other people, and then finish off the weekend enjoying a bountiful dinner on it prepared by local chefs?

2) Learn to cook Mexican cuisine – specifically HERE, and then I could make these chiles en nogada. (I need to brush up on my Spanish, first.)

3) Learn to bake bread at King Arthur Flour. My friend Doug took this class and posted pictures and updates about his adventures to his Facebook page and everyday I said, “I want to do that, too.” Perhaps I can teach myself to make this Braided Lemon Bread.

Braided Lemon Bread from King Arthur Flour

So these are my Top 3 (Dream) Learning Vacations for Summer/Fall Threshold 2010.

What are yours?

Installment #13: What My Toddler Has Taught Me About Adult Learning

In today’s installment of What My Toddler Has Taught Me About Adult Learning, let’s talk about food. Actually, let’s talk about fuel. Mac needs fuel — good fuel — on a regular basis (like every few hours) to keep going and to keep learning. When he doesn’t get good food on a regular basis, just as when he doesn’t get good sleep on a regular basis, we’re in for trouble!

Snack Time

I know from my own experience that when I am hungry, I am not very effective at thinking, acting, or behaving very well. My mom tells stories of me as a baby needing to eat RIGHT!!! AWAY!!! upon waking up in the morning or from a nap. Forget dry or clean diapers or hugs and kisses: GIVE ME MY DAMN CHEERIOS NOW, WOMAN!

That's me, eating, as much and as fast as possible.

This hasn’t changed much for me as I’ve gotten older, the same holds true for Mac, and I am pretty certain it’s the case for most of us. Food — especially good food — fuels us. We need it to run our bodies and our brains.

In his book How We Decide (which I started reading after I had to make a difficult decision), Jonah Lehrer cites an experiment led by a psychologist at Florida State in which students who received lemonade made with real sugar made better decisions than the experimental group who received lemonade with a sugar substitute (if you’re interested, read the whole description of this study on page 152). The reason, as Lehrer explains it, is this:

The rational brains of these students [who received the substitute] were simply too exhausted to think. They’d needed a restorative sugar fix … This research can also help explain why we get cranky when we’re hungry and tired: the brain is less able to suppress the negative emotions sparked by small annoyances. (p. 152)

Too exhausted — too hungry — to think… Right?!?! I know that feeling!

So … what is good food? (It’s probably not sugary lemonade.)

The more I read about this subject, the more I am coming to appreciate Michael Pollen’s Food Rules, and I highly recommend his “Eater’s Manual” for an easily-digestible (pardon the pun) version of his work. Pollen’s three basic rules are:

  1. Eat food.
  2. Not too much.
  3. Mostly plants.

Mac and Bapa shucking fresh corn for dinner.

With all my might (and it takes a lot of might), I am focusing on this for Mac’s diet — and the fourth line I’d add is this:

  1. Eat food.
  2. Not too much.
  3. Mostly plants.
  4. On a regular basis (every few hours) to keep blood sugar levels stable.

I know there will come a day when Mac will be exposed to the addictive nature of McDonald’s french fries, and already he constantly lobbies for “yogurt stars,” which are basically cookies made to look healthy (thanks a lot, Trader Joe’s). For now, as long as we can hold back the temptations, we’ll do our best to follow Pollen’s rules, such as these:

  • #19:  If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.
  • #57:  Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does.
  • #60:  Treat treats as treats.

Alas, there are already times that we need to call on Rule #64: Break the rules once in a while.

I know, I know: It's an Otter Pop! Long Live Rule #64!


Learning Soup

I think that learning happens better with good soup in the stomach. Cold. Hot. It doesn’t matter! Campbell’s was right:  Soup is good food.

Beautiful soup, so rich and green
Waiting in a hot tureen!
Who for such dainties would not stoop?
Soup of the evening, beautiful soup!
Beautiful soup! Who cares for fish
Game, or any other dish?
Who would not give all else for two
Pennyworth of beautiful soup?

– Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Here is a new recipe for my ultimate cold-weather learning soup:  French Onion Soup.  This one is a vegetarian version — made with miso (good good food!).

Learning Soup

I know, I know — it’s early May and some of us can see summer from here.  But there is not much of a better dinner or lunch (or breakfast!) on a mild-May day than soup.

Try it! Next time you need to write a paper or read that challenging book for class, eat some soup first. Your brain will thank you, as will your stomach.