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Health class goes gourmet in Beeman's 'place-based' learning

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By KATHRYN FLAGG

NEW HAVEN — For a few days this fall, at least, the Beeman Elementary School gymnasium is home not to bouncing basketballs and flying jump ropes but instead the smells of sizzling onions and the happy chatter of young gourmets-in-training.

In a project headed up by Beeman health and physical education teacher Patty Whittemore, all of the New Haven elementary school’s 162 students have taken to the kitchen, spending a few hours every week whipping up chowders and zucchini pizzas and fresh pesto.

The cooking project, which will culminate in a harvest dinner for families at Beeman’s open house on next Wednesday, is part of a “place-based” learning approach that the school is integrating into its classrooms. The place-based philosophy promotes integrating communities into the classroom — which, in Beeman’s case, means putting down roots in its own backyard garden and reaching out to neighbors to celebrate New Haven’s local produce.

“It’s kind of a cool, community thing,” said Whittemore, The project emphasizes cooperative learning, service to the community and the basics of good nutrition —

Last week, students were hard at work on a bright, crisp Tuesday, readying ingredients for the open house meal. Earlier in the morning, younger students had made the base for a zucchini pizza — they identified zucchinis on a table heaped with produce provided by local families, cleaned the vegetables and set to work on the preparation.

Fifth- and sixth-grade students clattered into the gymnasium, where Whittemore told them that they’d be making corn chowder for the open house.

The meal is being made over the course of several weeks and frozen, and Whittemore hopes that student volunteers will be on hand for a few hours on the night of the open house to put finishing touches on the meal.

At the beginning of the class, Whittemore gathered the students in a circle at the center of the gym. She rattled off a list of ingredients for the day’s project — milk, potatoes, onions, corn — and asked if anyone could guess what they’d be concocting.

“Clam chowder?” one student called out. Whittemore laughed.

“Did we grow clams in our garden?” she responded.

On the docket for the day, it turned out, was corn chowder — and a flurry of chopping, weighing, and mixing of ingredients.

Leaving the students temporarily in the hands of capable parent volunteer Alyssa Rittendale, Whittemore shepherded two students — Andrew Cloutier, “10 in November,” and Gabe Doane, 11 — out to the three garden beds behind Beeman. The gardens were put in two years ago with a grant from the National Gardening Association and donations from the Parent Teacher Organization, Greenhaven Gardens and local members of the community.

The approach, Whittemore said, was an “if they build it, they will come” one — and families have shown up to pitch in. Over the last two summers, family volunteers have helped tend the beds.

“This being our second year with the garden,” Whittemore explained, “we were ready for some next steps.”

Those next steps — which called for kids to pick and process much of the garden’s bounty — morphed into this ambitious plan to feed as many as 100 mouths come Oct. 8.

Doane and Cloutier milled around the garden’s three beds, stopping to identify the basil (Cloutier’s favorite part of the garden, he later explained) before searching out celery for their corn chowder. While they trimmed stalks from the plant, Whittemore sliced a few bite-sized pieces for the boys to sample.

Inside, the rest of their classmates were already hard at work. Elijah Pedriana, 10, chopped onions near the door, before passing the cutting board off to the head sauté chef, Ethan Meacham, 11. Meacham added a pat of butter to the sizzling skillet before throwing on a fresh batch of crisp, fragrant onions. 

Cloutier and Doane plucked the leaves from the celery they’d just harvested, careful to save the leaves from an eager band of composters — Danielle Morse, 9, and Morgan Pratt, 10. The two girls had been on potato chopping duty, but with the class’s prep work winding down they scurried around, collecting scraps to take back out to the garden.

But the celery leaves were off limits — good news for Boston, the kindergarten class’s pet bunny.

“I like the smells,” Morse said, cradling the compost bucket, when asked about her favorite part of the class’s cooking unit. “It’s kind of fun just to help out.”

Remarkably quickly, the students finished their tasks, whipped their workstations back into shape and then crowded around the table where their prepared ingredients stood waiting. Onions, celery, and around 10 pounds of peeled and chopped potatoes all crowded the table.

The students huddled around the table, until Whittemore reminded them to take a step back. A few minutes later, seemingly uncontrollably, they were straining forward again to watch as various classmates help put together the corn chowder. At the end of the class, they shuffled past the table in single file for a “bird’s eye view” of the chowder they helped to concoct.

“They really own a lot of this,” explained Beeman Principal Steve Flint. Students are growing their own food, trying vegetables that they’ve never tasted before and reaching out to the gardens in their own homes and neighborhoods.

According to Flint, this place-based approach to education — in which about a half dozen Beeman teachers were trained at Shelburne Farms this summer — helped the school rethink health education.

“They see it from start to finish,” said Rittendale, after the students had been collected by their teacher and led back to the school’s main building. “That’s really exciting.”

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