Everyone knows kids love to eat.
That’s why Maggie Michaels is eager to bring more food into the classroom. Michaels, a former Portland Public Schools teacher, is behind a project called the Curriculum of Cuisine, which combines cooking and food preparation to teach language arts and science.
While working in Portland Public Schools and alternative programs such as New Avenues for Youth, Michaels saw food pique the interests of students who were otherwise disengaged. She began the Curriculum of Cuisine three years ago, hoping to incorporate cooking in the classroom in a way that challenges students academically.
“I know if they’re able to put their hands on food, they get really interested in whatever else they’re doing,” she said.In recent months, Michaels has worked on getting chefs into classrooms. Jamie Zartler, who teaches a Food and Culture course at Northeast Portland’s Grant High School, invited Michaels and a chef from Whole Foods for lessons in his classroom this fall.
“When I had Maggie work with two of my classes, the students were rapt,” he said.
Michaels is applying for grants to fund her project, which would cost about $10,000 a year at local schools. She is involved with the Charitable Partnership Fund, which is dedicated to helping local organizations get off the ground.
Michaels, an Ohio native who attended the University of Oregon and Lewis and Clark College, says she’s no professional cook. But colleagues say she’s a born teacher who has become an expert at marrying her interests in education and food to help kids.
Madison High teacher Susan Wiencke said Michaels’ persistence and passion for the subject shows in the classroom. “We all have our answers to problems in education,” said Wiencke, a sustainable agriculture teacher. “For her, it’s definitely culinary education.”
In 2012, Wiencke worked with Michaels on her five-week summer program at Madison High School called the Seeds of Cuisine. The project was backed by a federal grant for low-performing schools and targeted 15 freshmen who needed to finish up credits in biology and English.
The students learned more about gardening and cooking by writing narratives on food and working on lab reports. At the end of the five weeks, they sold their own pesto and salsa at a farmer’s market.
The two co-teachers saw the program as a success: Every single student turned in lab reports to get credit by the end of the course.
“These were kids that didn’t hand in lab reports during the year, and here they were typing up lab reports like it was no big deal,” Michaels said.
Most importantly, they saw students get engaged.
“Pardon the pun, but I think students are hungry for culinary knowledge,” said Wiencke.
Students in Zartler’s class would report back about using their healthy recipes with their families, which Michaels sees as another benefit of the curriculum.
“We don’t have home economics anymore in schools,” he said, “And Maggie’s class is well beyond a simple home economics class. It’s extremely valuable.”
Next year, three schools are preparing to invite Michaels into their classrooms, including Alliance High School, a Portland Public Schools alternative school.
The ultimate goal is to get her programs to go nationwide, focusing on urban and rural school districts. Supporters like Wiencke think that shouldn’t be a problem.
“Once it gets going, it’s really going to catch like wildfire,” she said.