Middle School Cookbook Helps Teach World Geography

A new student-authored book that explores geography, history, and culture has hit the Middle School shelves. The 80-page book was created by Ashley Best-Raiten’s sixth grade history class. But unlike most geography texts, this book isn’t illustrated with maps and tables of data. The book that the students worked diligently on for two months this fall is actually a cookbook. 

Grade six history at Friends’ Central, which is taught through the lens of world geography, gives students the opportunity to discover how physical geography impacts history, culture, and our own personal biases. What does cooking have to do with world geography? Ashley (known to her students as Ms. Best) explained that the project was an opportunity to explore how geography impacts the foods we eat and how we react to other foods.

Grade 6 History teacher Ashley Best-Raiten with the finished cookbook

“There’s more to geography than just memorizing countries on a map,” said Ashley. “The main thing you learn in sixth grade is skills. It’s all about starting to have abstract thought, thinking outside the box, and starting to apply your knowledge. Geography provides a great framework to practice all of that.”

Middle School Principal Alexa Quinn said that, about six years ago, the Middle School history program began a shift away from survey courses toward thematic learning. She said, “We felt it connected well with our Lower School and it would help students make more connections across disciplines and do more critical thinking about history.” 

Alexa noted that the lens of world geography fits well with her Middle School students. “So many of us have our own stories of migration in our families, or immigration, or forced migration, so it gives students a lot more access points to tell their own stories and to think about their families and to hear about the identities and stories of other families.”

Ashley began the project by showing the class a recipe for cuy without explaining what it was. The students guessed that cuy may be rabbit. Ashley observed, “They didn’t want to try it but weren’t disgusted by it. When they learned it was actually guinea pig, there were gasps and exclamations. So we unpacked that. Why is guinea pig horrifying to eat – ‘It’s a pet!’ – but rabbit is ok?” Through discussion, the students concluded that since rabbit is a part of European and Western cuisine, it feels more familiar. 

“All of the skills they’re learning now translate nicely, so by the time they get through the Middle School program they’re really ready for Upper School History.”

Ashley Best-Raiten

“One of our overarching themes for the year is ‘Be curious, not judgmental,’ from Walt Whitman,” said Ashley. “I told the students that when something startles or shocks us, let’s explore why and why the reaction might be different for someone from a different nation or culture.”

As the project continued, students were asked to share a family recipe or look one up that they considered to be from a place of origin for one of their ancestors. The first task was to look at the ingredients and answer the questions: where are these ingredients from, and what can we tell about the geographic themes of human/environment interaction and movement from these ingredients? 

“Kuri kinton is made on my mom’s side from Japan,” sixth grader Julia Epps wrote in her recipe. “Chestnut originated in Asia Minor and is believed to be firstly introduced by the Ancient Greeks. Interestingly enough, the iconic Japanese sweet potatoes originated in China, meaning this recipe has traveled a lot. Asia Minor, China, Japan, America… That’s a lot of movement!”

The project culminated in the creation of a printed and bound cookbook which the students brought home to their families. “The book was entirely student-generated. They selected, edited, and proofread their own recipes,” said Ashley. “It was a great way for them to get them thinking about our unconscious cultural biases and begin to think geographically when they approach new cultures in our future explorations.”

“All of the skills they’re learning now translate nicely, so by the time they get through the Middle School program they’re really ready for Upper School History.”

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