(A favorite)
In my school, each teacher and staff member who works with the 8th grade heads up a "Magnet" -  a sort of Advisory group, though that doesn't exactly describe it accurately. Each Magnet is built around a particular interest - Nature, Technology, Social Activism, etc... - and students have to apply and interview to get into the Magnet of their choice. The idea is that each student ends up with one or more adults in the building who knows him or her really well and can act as an advocate or as a spur to staying on top of work.

My Magnet is the Food Magnet.

After several years of trying different Magnet themes with varying degrees of success, I stumbled on an interest that 14 year olds and I actually share in common - a love of, and passion for Food. (Though not generally the same foods.) Over time, we've developed an activity we call "Tastings".

Every three weeks or so, I will go shopping and bring in four or five new and exotic foods for my guys to taste. The rules are:
  • It is Challenge By Choice - nobody has to try any particular food. This is not supposed to be an endurance contest or a dare. If a given food is too far outside a student's comfort zone, he or she is welcome to sit out that part of the Tasting. 
  • Everyone in the room gets to participate - students, staff, visitors.
  • All students wait until everyone has been served before trying the food.
  • Before trying a food, we discuss its scent, appearance, texture, etc..
  • If at all possible, while we are tasting a food, nobody should talk about whether they like it or not.
  • We discuss the flavor of the food as objectively as possible - is it salty or sweet? Is it fruity? What does it remind us of?
  • Students take notes in their Tasting Journals.
  • Finally, everyone gets to express an opinion. Each person rates the food on a scale from one to ten: One being, "Oh-dear-God-I-wouldn't-touch-this-again-with-YOUR-mouth" and Ten being "I-really-think-I-would-back-over-my-own-grandmother-in-the-driveway-to-get-more-of-this"
(Not a favorite)
The results of these Tastings are rather remarkable.

By eliminating the "I Like This"/"Yuck" factor and forcing students to be objective, they become very creative in how they describe different foods. Very quickly, and almost entirely on their own, they come up with terms that (though they probably don't know it) are identical to those used in wine-tasting:

"Hmmm... You know - this was a little bitter on the front end, but it's got a fruity finish."

"I like the heat; it doesn't hit you over the head or anything, but it builds over time."

"Dude! This TOTALLY tastes like peanut butter on beef jerky!"

(Well, okay - maybe not entirely wine-tastery...)

Anyway, as this activity has developed over the past few years, it's become a more and more interesting and important part of the Food Magnet Experience. What's really interesting to me is that although we take very different paths to get there, my Food Magnet guys end up in a very similar place to the members of the Social Activism Magnet - they are a bit more open-minded by the end of the year and more likely to be accepting and less judgmental of unfamiliar cultures.

(Given that I don't have the emotional depth of a parking lot puddle, this was as big a surprise to me as anyone.)

This year, we experimented with a new twist on our Tastings. We partnered up with a class in Kansas and conducted some Tastings via Skype. When shopping for a Tasting, my Kansas colleague or I would buy two of everything, then mail a "Care Package" of quince paste or Turkish Delight to the other classroom. On the day of the Tasting, we would video-conference with each other and hold a joint Tasting.

It seems to have been a success.

Here is our most recent Tasting - the last of this school year:

Sometimes teaching takes you to surprising places.

5/28/2010 18:48:03

Just wondering if they might like to try an Aussie delicacy, Vegemite???

6/5/2010 07:58:49

I really enjoyed reading this post and thinking about the implications this could have for a classroom. Isn't it great when we get unexpected postive results (like the students becoming more open-minded)? I like the way that you took the "I don't like this" reaction out of the equation. I think we, as teachers, should work to do that more in all aspects. Thanks for sharing this great experience!!


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