Kitchen Literacy: Comfort & Joy & Gingerbread

Ahh… breathe in the sugar and spices, smell the vanilla. My memories of the winter holidays always take me back to the warm sunny kitchen of my childhood with my mom standing in front of the sink reaching for soapy dishes. My parents were both very good home cooks, and I loved watching them prepare meals.  In fact, when I got to college and made meals for myself, my roommates would marvel, “How do you do that?”  I was a bit surprised that they thought cooking was some type of magic trick; I shrugged my shoulders and responded, “I watched my parents cook.”  Cooking was like brushing my teeth.  I didn’t think about it as some kind of complicated skill that I couldn’t attain.

December always meant cookie baking time in my house and my father would experiment with making different shapes and flavors of Italian cookies:  biscotti, torcetti, pignoli, cuccidati, strufoli, and the sesame studded giuggiulena.  Just saying their names make me happy and hungry. Crowned with nuts or filled with figs, these cookies are the hallmark of my childhood Christmases.

When it came to holiday baking, my mom, sister, and I would lean toward more traditional American cookies: sugar, shortbread, and gingerbread.  I loved those times spent in the kitchen mixing, pouring, cutting, and creating. My sister and I would stand opposite each other cutting out trays and trays of dough, invariably ending up with throwing some scraps of dough at each other and giggling, signaling to my mother that it was indeed time to clean up.

When I became a teacher and integrated cooking activities into my curriculum, I eagerly awaited the winter when I could make gingerbread everything with my students.  It’s amazing to me that my former students often contact me to say that it was the cooking activities that they liked and remembered best.  These activities, they tell me, made them feel connected to their classmates and made them feel successful.  “I made that!” are three very important words.  I think “I made that!” is the essence of being a fully creative and content human.

For the last several years, I created a gingerbread curriculum for our 1st grade students. We have made soft gingerbread cakes in gingerbread-shaped pans, both small and large.  The soft cakes are an easier approach to making gingerbread if you are working very young children and you don’t have a lot of time..  They are able to scoop, pour and mix, but they do not have to do all that cutting.  They can, however, still decorate their individual cake.  We have also made the traditional gingerbread dough, and the children able to choose the type of cookie shapes to make – boys, girls, rabbits, stars, snowmen, etc.  We would cut, bake, and decorate with each child able to taste a cookie and take home a little bag for her family. One year, the grade had students with many allergies so we made a batch of gingerbread-scented salt dough to cut and decorate.  The children still had the experience of making and baking with the added pleasure that their gingerbread creation would last for years!  Gingerbread baking always accompanies playing gingerbread board games, making gingerbread puppets, and decorating giant cardboard gingerbread houses.  The children also read many great gingerbread stories. Every year, I find more and more creative versions, which keeps the ideas fresh.  After reading lots of gingerbread stories, the children write their own version, which they read aloud to each other as we enjoy our gingerbread cookies.

With the holidays approaching, I encourage you to slow down and be mindful of the traditions you are creating whether at home or in the classroom. Relish the preparation and process.  Taste the success.  Know that kitchen memories are sweet and last a lifetime.

Gingerbread Recipes:

Gingerbread People

Ingredients:

  • 5 cups all-purpose flour 
  • ½ lb. butter or margarine, softened 
  • 1 Tablespoon ground ginger 
  • 1 Tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1 Tablespoon cardamom 
  • 1 Tablespoon cloves             
  • 1 ½ cups sugar 
  • 1/2 Tablespoon baking soda 
  • 1 Tablespoon molasses
  • 3/4 cups water

Directions:

  1. Measure the flour into a mixing bowl and set aside. 
  2. Combine butter and sugar in another large bowl and set aside. 
  3. In a saucepan, combine the water with the remaining ingredients, bring to a boil and pour over the butter and sugar. Stir until the sugar dissolves. 
  4. Add the flour one cup at a time, blending well with each addition. Store, well-covered, for several hours in the refrigerator. 
  5. Dough will be quite soft but will stiffen in the refrigerator. 
  6. Let come to room temperature.  Then roll out on a lightly floured surface to 1/4” thickness. 
  7. Place in gingerbread shaped pan.
  8. Bake at 375º for 15-17 minutes or until browned. 
  9. Let cool and decorate with icing and candy of your choice.

Favorite Old-Fashioned Gingerbread

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup molasses
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup hot water

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease and flour a 9-inch square pan.

In a large bowl, cream together the sugar and butter. Beat in the egg and mix in the molasses.

In a bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. Blend into the creamed mixture. Stir in the hot water. Pour into the prepared pan.

Bake 1 hour in the preheated oven, until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow to cool in pan before serving.

Gingerbread Man Literature:

 1.     A Christmas Cookie Exchange by Sheri Wall
  
 2.    A Gingerbread Wonderland by Elise Rian Cunha
  
 3.    Can’t Catch Me! by John and Ann Hassett
  
 4.    Catch That Cookie by Hallie Dumand
  
 5.    Georgie the Gingerbread Fairy by Tim Bugbird
  
 6.    Gingerbread Christmas by Jan Brett
  
 7.     Gingerbread Cowboy by Janet Squires
  
 8.    Gingerbread Friends by Jan Brett
  
 9.    Gingerbread Mouse by Katy Bratun
  
 10. Kolobok by Natasha Bochkov 
 (in 4 languages: Russian, Chinese, Spanish, & English)
  
 11.  Maisy Makes Gingerbread by Lucy Cousins
  
 12.  Senorita Gordita by Helen Ketteman
  
 13.  Snow Dude by Daniel Kirk
  
 14.  Stop That Pickle! by Peter Armour
  
 15.  Ten Tiny Gingerbread Men by Fhiona Galloway
  
 16.  The Cajun Cornbread Boy by Dianne De Las Casas
  
 17.  The Cajun Gingerbread Boy by Berthe Amoss
  
 18. The Gingerbread Baby by Jan Brett
  
 19.  The Gingerbread Bear by Robert Dennis
  
 20. The Gingerbread Boy by Richard Egielski
  
 21.  The Gingerbread Boy Who Didn’t Run Away by Vickie King
  
 22. The Gingerbread Girl by Lisa Campbell Ernst
  
 23. The Gingerbread Girl Goes Animal Crackers by Lisa Campbell Ernst
  
 24. The Gingerbread Kid Goes to School by Joan Holub
  
 25. The Gingerbread Man by Paul Galdone
  
 26. The Gingerbread Man 2: What Happened Next by Stephen Dixon
  
 27. The Gingerbread Man on the Loose at Christmas by Laura Murray
  
 28. The Gingerbread Man Loose on the Fire Truck by Laura Murray
  
 29. The Gingerbread Man Loose at the Zoo by Laura Murray
  
 30. The Gingerbread Pirates by Kristin Kladstrup
  
 31.  The Gingerbread Rabbit by Randall Jarrell
  
 32. The Gurabia Man: The Armenian Version by Talent Dadia White
  
 33. The Horribly Hungry Gingerbread Boy by Elisa Kleven
  
 34. The Jalapeno Man by Debbie Leland
  
 35. The Library Gingerbread Man by Dotti Enderle
  
 36. The Matzo Ball Boy by Lisa Schulman
  
 37. The Musubi Man: Hawai’i’s Gingerbread Man by Sandi Takayam
  
 38. The Ninjabread Man by CJ Leigh
  
 39. The Runaway Latkes by Leslie Kimmelman
  
 40. The Runaway Pancake by Mairi Mackinnon
  
 41.  The Runaway Rice Cake by Ying Chang Compestine
  
 42. The Runaway Tortilla by Eric A. Kimmel
  
 43. The Runaway Wok by Ying Chang Compestine
  
 44. The Sourdough Man: An Alaskan Folktale by Cherie Stihler
  
 45. Three Pigs and a Gingerbread Man by Hilary Robinson
  
 46. Tough Cookie: A Christmas Story by Edward Hemingway 

Listen to Their Songs

A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer.

It sings because it has a song.

– Maya Angelou

Last week, I attended yet again another professional development webinar.  This summer they have run the gamut from strategies for reopening given the new pandemic reality, to antiracism, from identifying and reducing anxiety to techniques for project- based learning.  All were informative, helpful, necessary, but as we drift into August, I am beginning to get weary of learning.  I desperately need a respite before the tsunami of teaching in a pandemic begins to swell again.  This latest webinar feature A.J. Juliani as the keynote.  I have heard this dynamic speaker before, and I was eager to hear what he had to say.  What I didn’t expect was his final words of encouragement to teachers in the form of a video from Clint Pulver, a motivational speaker.  Clint is an author, musician, and employment retention expert. He helps companies and organizations retain, engage, and inspire their workers. Clint believes that a single moment is transformative, and he demonstrates this in a video about his school experience about his interactions with his teacher Mr. Jensen – here.

I was blown away by Clint’s story and was lucky to have champions like Mr. Jensen throughout my school career.   Clint’s story reminded me of the story of Gillian Lynne described by Ken Robinson in his book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. Robinson explains that as a young girl growing up in the 1930’s, Gillian was thought to have a serious learning disorder, and school officials recommended that her mother take her to a psychologist.  Gillian’s mother complied, answering the psychologist’s questions as Gillian sat on a chair listening.  When Gillian’s mother and the psychologist left her alone in the room, the psychologist deliberately turned on his radio.  As the music played, Gillian got up and began to dance.  As Gillian’s mother and the psychologist watched from the doorway, the psychologist asserted that Gillian did not need to attend a school for the learning disabled.  Instead, he proclaimed that Gillian was a dancer, and he recommended that she attend dance school.  She went on to become a famous British ballerina and choreographer.  Gillian Lynne is best known for her choreography of the Broadway hits, Cats and The Phantom of the Opera. (Robinson, 2009).  It is this shift in perspective that is necessary for connecting children with possibilities.

This was best illustrated to me a number of years ago, when I was teaching 2nd grade.  One of my students, Michael, was a talented violinist.  Although, I gave my young learners many creative arts experiences, true music integration was more difficult for me, since I had no background in music.  However, Michael was eager to weave music into his day. It was an integral part of who he already was at the tender age of seven.  During whatever we were learning, Michael was humming.  He created songs throughout his day, even during quiet working times.  This caused consternation among his classmates.  Michael’s humming disrupted their thinking, no matter how quietly he hummed. One afternoon after dismissal, Michael stayed behind to speak to me about this problem.  He wanted me to know that he wasn’t being disruptive on purpose. The songs, he explained, just came into his head. I reassured Michael that I knew he wasn’t humming to annoy his classmates.  That afternoon, we came up a solution that involved rearranging desks, which would allow Michael to continue to softly hum, while also enabling his classmates to work in quiet. 

That year, I began to develop my own intrepid spirit when creating musical experiences for my students.  As Carolyn Hildebrandt, a professor of psychology at the University of Northern Iowa, wrote, “… teachers do not need special training to foster creativity in music.  The only thing we really need is an interest in children’s music and a willingness to listen to their songs.” In the coming months, I deliberately found space in the day to add music: playing music that reflected what the children were learning, collaborating as a class to write a song about taking care of the earth, showcasing various students’ instrumental abilities by asking them to demonstrate their talent at musical show and tell sessions.  The children also made a variety of string, wind, and percussion instruments.  While constructing various musical instruments over many months, my students experimented with sound and progressed from producing various noises to creating music.  In its simplest form, the children made string instruments with rubber bands and milk cartons or created tambourines with paper plates to aluminum pie pans and dried beans.  While working on their musical instruments, students began to collaborate, making several iterations, and finally coming together to perform in duets, trios, and full bands. These open investigations were the foundation of whole class instruction: we created rain sticks while studying the rainforest, constructed panpipes while learning about Andean culture, and built water xylophones while experimenting with sound and pitch.  Step-by-step, the children began to see themselves as composers of their own lives.

Although, I was not musically inclined, I did realize the need to hold all children’s talents in high esteem.  I remember vividly times as a child when a poem would pop into my head as if by magic. I’d repeat the words over and over again, as not to forget until I got home to a paper and pencil.  As a teacher, I knew I had to nurture students’ passions and allow them to create.  Instead of silencing Michael’s nascent musical abilities, I thought of ways to honor them and connect them to the classroom culture. And what did Michael grow up to be?  A concert violinist, of course, who has performed at Carnegie Hall.

A Song in my Head

Sometimes I need my own space

I lie on the floor in my room

Surrounded by pillows

Listen for my own voice

Wait for the poetry 

To play like

A song in my head

That dances

That makes my curls ring

The swaying of trees 

on a spring day

The sun skipping across

 Sparkling deep water

A restless stranger

On a lonesome beach

Watching waves come in

And go out far

Far to sea

Reaching blue beyond

Poetry to me

Most Likely to Create

Humans are social animals and as such we seek community.  We yearn for communication and understanding.  We want to be seen and most definitely heard. There are all kinds of communities to which I have belonged.  I have been part of a community of quilters, dancers, painters, teachers, cooks, readers, martial artists, and writers. As part of those communities, I was able to build strong bonds with others who shared similar interests and passions.  These alliances deepened my understanding and helped me express my ideas and support my fellow members.  I experienced valuable interactions and connections.  I learned and thrived by being part of all these communities.

As a teacher, I’m a natural collaborator. I enjoy standing back and observing students working in small affinity groups on various projects.  Engagement is the key to empowerment, and I’ve witnessed formerly detached children flourish. In these types of circumstances, children begin to recognize what interests them and learn how to make important contributions to their groups and to their common projects.

Recently I watched the documentary, Most Likely to Succeed created by Ted Dintersmith, a professor of engineering and the author of Most Likely to Succeed and What Schools Could Be. The movie chronicles students from High Tech High in San Diego California, which is a project-based high school. Project-based learning is a method of teaching where students work on a project over a period of time that entails solving real-word problems or answers a complex question.  Students work collaboratively, building skills and knowledge, and ultimately showcasing their project or presentation to a target audience. The movie follows the students through their freshman year.  We watch as students gain more and more confidence and knowledge.  They support each other and develop leadership skills. The year culminates with a school exhibit where students showcase their work be it art, theater, or engineering.  We revel in their successes, but we also get a glimpse of failure.  One student fails to finish his engineering project on time.  However, instead of wallowing in despair, his peers, teachers and family rally around him. He is able to reflect on the reasons he was unable to make the deadline. Clearly this student had a keen innovative mind.  His teachers knew that proper reflection and determination would lead to eventual success.  And they were right.  The student worked through the summer and was ultimately successful. His project was very intricate and displayed a high level of thought and expertise.  By failing, he was able to fail forward and create a complex piece that reflected his vision.

            After watching this film, I saw that there was another documentary with the same title – Most Likely to Succeed directed by Pamela Littky.  This documentary followed four high school seniors who have been voted “Most Likely to Succeed.”  The film follows these young adults over a ten-year period following their dreams of college and desires for career success and happiness.  The teenagers come from very different backgrounds and the film accurately portrays the trials and tribulations that arise given gender, race, and socio-economic status.  It is an incredibly powerful film, and I find myself wondering what has happened to those adults.  Viewers cannot help but create a strong connection with the characters, and one has to keep reminding oneself that these are real teenagers, with real problems, and real dreams. It is with community and connection that they are able to successfully navigate their lives and set a stable course.

            I have the honor of supervising my school’s make space called the Wonder Lab.  It is a multi-age community of elementary school girls.  They come voluntarily and work on projects of their choosing.  So often they tell me how important the lab is to them.  So often they beg to stay the whole afternoon.  It is so rewarding to see them take risks and work together; share ideas and challenge each other.  As we return to school this fall, I wonder how I can offer this space to them.  How can we still be a community of movers and makers?  I’m sketching out all types of plans because I know how essential this work is to their development.  I know it’s not just kids playing with duct tape and cardboard.  I know I have inventors, engineers, astronauts, entrepreneurs, artist, actors, musicians in front of me.  I know it is imperative to provide them space and foster community.

Most Likely to Create

Little girls gather

Forfeiting their recess

To spend time in the Wonder Lab,

A spacious room

Filled with light and

All manner of treasures:

Cartons, boxes, tubes,

String, nails, hammers,

Paints, tape, paper,

Wires, beads, gears…

What do you wonder?

What can you create?

Away they go –

The younger ones bound off

And start right away,

The older ones hang back a bit,

Talk together, write down plans.

The young ones have already

Started building with tubes

Taller than themselves.

And decide to begin

The older ones look on

Very carefully,

Very deliberately,

Soon there is a busy hum,

A flow of energy,

We forget the time.

Now older ones praise younger ones,

And younger ones help older ones,

And the quiet girl in the corner

Who builds by herself

Astounds everyone,

And is soon imitated.

They borrow, bend, cut, and paste,

They sketch, paint, and measure,

They lend a hand; they exchange ideas,

They construct a community of makers.