Affirmation and Invitation: Say Yes to Pears

May 21st, 2020 | By | Category: Featured, Spring 2020

-by Tom McKenna

Brent Peters, a teacher at Louisville’s Fern Creek Traditional High School, is a BLTN Fellow and an M.Litt candidate at BLSE. He received his M.A. from Bread Loaf in 2016.

Think of the last time you were at a friend’s house, or a restaurant, for a special meal. You may have gone through some usual rituals and formalities, but somewhere early in the experience, you had a feeling that this visit was right. Something felt authentic. It might have been in the way you were greeted and welcomed. Maybe there was a simplicity or pragmatism that helped your shoulders drop a little and your senses heighten. You might have been invited to chop some veggies or set the table, making the conversation easier. Maybe, when it came to meal time, you recognized some of the ingredients you use often, but they were arranged with some subtle shock of difference, a simple and do-able new combination. 

Available from NCTE.

To enter Joe Franzen and Brent Peters’ Say Yes to Pears: Food Literacy in and Beyond the English Classroom (NCTE, 2019), is to take the authors up on an invitation to just this sort of an encounter. This is no ordinary pedagogy book. Joe and Brent invite us graciously into their practice, involve us in planning the ingredients for our own contexts, and they provide literal and figurative feasts for experiences (in high schools of all places) of community and affirmation. Just as Joe and Brent continually invite their students to consider ways they can contribute to community, they invite us to listen to stories, each complemented with adaptable structures and “Questions to Chew On,” urging us graciously into our own planning processes.

This is no ordinary pedagogy book. Joe and Brent invite us graciously into their practice, involve us in planning the ingredients for our own contexts, and provide literal and figurative feasts for experiences (in high schools of all places) of community and affirmation.

After a session at NCTE Annual Convention in Baltimore. From left: Joe Franzen, Beverly Moss (BLTN Director) , Ceci Lewis (BLTN Assoc. Director), and Brent Peters

First, a word of caution: Don’t be tempted to skip this book if you’re not inclined to integrate food studies into your teaching. Franzen’s and Peters’ classroom philosophies, their practical management ideas, and their many lesson, unit, and project plans could be adapted to many subjects and contexts. And next: a dare. I dare you to read this book and NOT plan a class meal or a “Curiosity + Challenge” (over a vacation or during school closures) when you finish. “What follows,” Joe and Brent write in their introduction, “can help you and your students bring more of yourselves into the room, be more yourselves each day, and leave with a sense of belonging that is large enough to be something that you and your students can look forward to each day.” 

Say Yes to Pears: Food Literacy in the English Classroom and Beyond alternates Peters’ and Franzen’s voices and perspectives, interlacing them with voices of students who write sections and who helped to edit and design the book. Brent brings his experience as a professional chef and English teacher, and Joe his experience finding his way through the loss of a parent, bonding with his grandfather, and finding his identity while reconstructing physical and culinary histories. Both men show combinations of humility and confidence that lead them to share their ongoing learning efforts with their students and with us as readers. You can almost see the smiles on their faces as Joe and Brent recount how listening to, and responding to, their students’ questions and interests, changed their professional identities.

Where they took the course often led us to asking for strange permissions, such as… Can we travel to the Navajo Nation to explore foodways?…What happens if we make a better school lunch? How can I start a garden at home?…It also led us to develop skills and fulfill roles we didn’t know we needed as teachers: fundraisers, travel agents, public speakers, social networkers, social workers, construction managers, caterers—you get the idea. However learning on the job and from your students makes teaching matter. We realized through our learning and their engaged work that it matters to them, too.  

For the foodies among us (and here I’ll confess that I really wished I had read this book before I attempted some food literacy work in the elementary classroom years ago), there are year-long curriculum maps for English and Social Studies classes, specific text and food pairings, and many tasty recipes for food and learning. Consider the key ingredients of Chapter 2:

  • Food Maps and Food Narratives
  • Class Meal
  • Class in the Garden
  • Campfire
  • Curiosity + Challenge Project
  • Class Tea
  • Panzenland – (town creation simulation)
  • Food Lit Flyovers
A class meal at Fern Creek Traditional High School

For those with less of a culinary bent, I’d like to dig in to the Curiosity +  Challenge, a section made even more poignant with schools across the country interrupting instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To set the section up, Peters writes, “As a teacher, I think about what I communicate before a break—and how important that communication is for kids. Do I let the class come to a stopping point and then start again after two weeks, or do I create a bridge between the first and second semesters?” He details flaws in many of his approaches over the years, and then offers the “Curiosity + Challenge” structure, which honors the fact that the kids are having a break, and also honors “important components to great learning—time, family, food, and gifts.” 

The project is simple: make a list of all the things you are curious about next to a list of challenges you have always had for yourself, and then look at these two lists side by side. A few items will stand out—things that are more doable or more interesting to you than the others on the list. …. (He goes on to explain how supports are identified in school and community.)… Finally, kids select two peers they will check in on during their project and list two people to check in on them. Ideally, this creates accountability and encourages kids to network with one another, as well as inviting students to support each other and be supported by each other over the break….Long after we open our holiday gifts, we give ourselves the big gift of astonishing one another on the first day back from break by being able to reconsider what we thought we knew about others and ourselves. The result of these new discoveries about what makes us all work is that we are better able to acknowledge the same depth in all the texts we read and all the writing we do. 

It is this broad wisdom–acknowledging that students given freedom, voice, and a sense of belonging, along with simple guidelines and peer support will grow to the extent that they come to care about and trust one another, and thereby learn to  challenge themselves–that sets this book apart from other pedagogical texts. Near the end of my third decade as an educator, I wonder what my career might have been like if I were challenged to construct my early management systems with these versions of invitation and affirmation. So while I highly recommend this book to anyone who cares about what some of the finest teaching in America looks like, I think it’s a text that every preservice teacher program should offer, and to which every preservice teacher might say, YES. 

* * *

“Questions to Chew On” in response to this post:

Today, our physical schools are shut down indefinitely. How might you carry some of the teaching and learning captured in the book into your efforts to stay connected with young people and their families?

In this issue of the Bread Loaf Teacher Network Journal, we’re also reviewing Dixie Goswami and Peter Stillman’s classic collection on the value of classroom inquiry, Reclaiming the Classroom. Brent and Joe do a marvelous job in Pears of depicting the many roles teachers take on as they open their classrooms to student voice and to community partnerships. What about inquiry? How have you been learning with your students this spring?

Please comment below.

3 Comments to “Affirmation and Invitation: Say Yes to Pears”

  1. elizabeth farrow says:

    I am really struck by the “invitation to the table”… in all the ways this is interpreted in this text. Students are invited to the table, to relationship and community with one another over shared meals. Students are invited to the table, to be true stakeholders and decision-makers for the content and direction of class learning. How powerful this is for a flourishing class community!

  2. Whitney Morgan says:

    I have included a food-centric literature circle and storytelling unit in my classes for a few years and the sense of community that emerges from the experience far outweighs any other thing I have done in the name of community-building in my classes. I’m eager to learn from this text and purchased a copy! I am SO excited to read this book!!

    As far as the impact of COVID-19 on schooling structures, I’m wondering how Curiosity + Challenge could be utilized as well as how to use “invitation, affirmation, freedom, voice, sense of belonging, peer support, and simple guidelines” as a form of guiding principles for planning and delivery.

  3. Anna Loome says:

    I can’t wait to read Say Yes to Pears. This review has me thinking about how I can help students feel a sense of authenticity and invitation into whatever form school takes this fall (virtual, hybrid, or in-person). The model of Curiosity + Challenge could play an important role!

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