Learning life skills in the kitchen
Learning to cook with Jennifer DeManuele-Kinder teaches students far more than just skills around the kitchen; it teaches them life lessons they’ll use for years to come.
DeManuele-Kinder is a special education instructor at Fairfield Middle School. She runs a number of classes on subjects ranging from math to science to reading, for students of varying abilities. One way she has found to sneak these skills into the classroom without the students’ knowledge is to teach them through a cooking course.
The cooking class meets every Friday in the family and consumer science room and is normally attended by three students. DeManuele-Kinder thinks of a recipe she’d like to teach the students and then writes all the steps on a poster so the kids can follow along. She said she was surprised at how many individual steps are involved in creating even simple dishes such as Rice Krispies treats.
“You don’t want to give them something they could hurt themselves with, and you don’t want to make the steps overwhelming,” she said. “Making Rice Krispies treats took 17 steps when we counted the basic things such as opening boxes. You don’t want to overwhelm the kids with a recipe that takes 40 steps.”
The class began in September and DeManuele-Kinder has taught the students to make a number of dishes since then. Most of the dishes are snacks or desserts such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, puppy chow, popcorn balls and chocolate covered pretzels.
Students have learned how to make meals such as individual pan pizzas. They also learned how vegetables are grown and how they go from the garden onto a dinner plate. DeManuele-Kinder took her class to a pumpkin patch where they harvested squash. The students took it back to the classroom where they microwaved it and ate it.
“At first, they didn’t understand how they could eat something like that,” she said. “When they opened it up they found the inside was edible.”
The class is designed to teach the students much more than food preparation. Tasks such as weighing and measuring are important in other domains as well, and the kids get plenty of practice doing those things. More fundamental than that, the students learn that preparing a snack or a meal requires following steps in a specific order.
“They will be able to help their parents cook, and give themselves a sense of independence and a sense of self,” she said.
Learning doesn’t end when the food is done, either. To teach them social skills, DeManuele-Kinder has the students offer their treats to school staff. She instructs her students to look people in the face when talking to them and to be cordial with them by saying please and thank you. On this front, she has noticed marked improvement in one student in particular, who has had to overcome considerable shyness to perform these tasks.
Sue Henkel and Darla Stacy are associates at the middle school who are assigned to monitor a special education student. They said they work with the students on improving their social skills, and the cooking class is a great way to do that.
“They would ask a teacher something like, ‘Mr. Phillips, would you like a popcorn ball?’” Henkel said. “Eventually, these kids will be on their own so they need to know how to measure ingredients and how to cook. The social skills are also important but it’s an area they struggle with.”
Stacy said she has noticed a greater use of pleasantries such as “please,” “thank you” and “have a good afternoon” from her student since the class began.
Henkel and Stacy said the kids look forward to the class and are excited when Friday comes.
What Henkel loves most about the class and about helping her student is to see the “lightbulb turn on” after the student has been struggling to understand a concept. Stacy and Henkel said the students were not keen on cleaning up their mess during the first few classes. However, they’ve come to accept it as a necessary part of cooking and no longer complain about it.
“It’s one more area where we can make them more successful in the future,” Henkel said.
“We’re trying to make them as independent as possible,” Stacy said.