Last night I attended a parents’-night talk on healthy eating at my daughter’s preschool. I had no intention of going; as an avid reader of books on nutrition and someone who cooks absurdly healthy meals, I knew they would be preaching to the choir. But my daughter was in a frenzy of excitement and begged that we attend the “party at school,” so I forced my husband to sit for an hour in an uncomfortable chair while two nursing students nervously lectured to 15 parents about the food pyramid.
While I sat there, I thought, as I always do in these situations, about what makes good teaching. These young nursing students, bless their hearts, were professionally dressed and tried hard to sound knowledgeable yet nonjudgmental when discussing food choices (a bit of a paradox). A hand-drawn poster illustrating the new food pyramid was propped up next to an example of a nutrition label. Sample packages of processed food were passed out, and the young women explained how to read the food label (good active learning, I noted). After 30 minutes, we took a break and were offered tiny plates of quinoa stir fry, a small cookie made with applesauce instead of butter, and a little plastic glass of water (experiential learning, check). My husband’s look clearly said, Is this all I’m getting for dinner?
Despite the meager servings and charmless room, all of the parents listened patiently. In the room were several mothers, one lone dad, and an Asian family of four. Our daughter’s school/daycare is located in a lower-income neighborhood and many of the children receive subsidized daycare. School events are rare and generally poorly attended. Since I pick my daughter up in the early afternoon, I have long chats with the teachers, but rarely see other parents. Perhaps this is one reason I attended the talk: it seemed like an effort by the school to foster a greater sense of community among the parents and I wanted to support it.
Although the young women did a fine job explaining the main points of how to make healthy food choices, I was frustrated at the missed opportunity to form a community in the classroom. Here were 15 parents of different ethnicities, economic backgrounds, and cooking expertise who didn’t know each other at all, united by our willingness to come out at 5:30 and hear a lecture. I didn’t learn anyone’s name, their favorite dishes, or their greatest challenges in getting their children to eat healthy food. As much as I balk at many of the classroom icebreakers (even as I use them in my own classes), it felt odd not to introduce ourselves. I wondered what the Asian family sitting in front of me made of lecture, and which of their traditional meals contained “super foods.” And what did the single dad sitting who went back for thirds of the stir-fry think about switching to more vegetable-based meals?
Neither I nor the presenters had any way of gauging what people learned from their talk, what changes parents intended to make, or how the nutritional information jibed with their own practices. Taken in a larger context, the presenters’ lack of interest in the conditions of these parents’ lives speaks to a larger issue of class and education. What does it mean to tell someone that the way he feeds his children is wrong, or that the things that taste good to him are bad?
A novice teacher focuses on her own performance, while an experienced teacher focuses on what the students have learned. But as I walked out of the room last night, I realized that when the teacher stops talking and leaves the room, all students have is each other and if the teacher hasn’t helped us form a community among ourselves, we just walk away alone.