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Teaching History Through Food: The Shelburne Farms Experience

Posted by Kate Zankowicz
24 September 2013 - 11:35am

“It’s more than just a recipe for pizza dough.”

 I’m in Shelburne, Vermont on an educational farm, watching a group of Grade Twos from a local school as they try to figure out where flour comes from. The instructor has deftly made sure that every child in the class has played a key role in the making of a round of dough, from feeding the yeast to kneading the dough in sections to develop the glutens. He produces a stalk of wheat and asks the students to ponder its structure. It’s not long before the wheat berries are separated from the chaff and eager hands are working hard to mill them into a soft powder. The children will spend the day culling fruits and vegetables from the garden on the hill, practicing their hand at milking Starlight, the extremely tolerant Brown Swiss cow in the barn nearby, and making their own fresh cheese. These acts connect them to the history of food producing, a precious thing when most kids believe that tomatoes come “from the store.” As well as being a way to encourage students to be more aware of where their food comes from, farm education programs connect students to the ways in which food was produced long ago, an immediate entree for social studies or history teachers who seek to make the past relevant to their students.

At Shelburne Farms, the educational programming is hands-on and makes connections to the past as well as to a sustainable future, particularly by encouraging students to understand the centrality of agriculture in peoples’ lives. Farm Life and History for example, has students investigating farm implements and tools, and doing chores for the day. The experience of spending hours on candle making or wool spinning can connect students to the reality of living on a farm in the late 1800s, a daunting task for any teacher in this era of convenience and instant gratification. In the spring, students can also follow the life cycle of a sheep, getting up close and personal with newborn lambs and ultimately learning how to work with wool and the incredibly time-consuming task of washing, drying, carding, spinning and felting.

Making connections to your local farming communities and planning a field trip to a farm near you can help students connect to history. Food is a great unifier and perhaps one of the most compelling ways to get students to care about the past, since food relates directly to their own lives. A colleague of mine challenges her students every year by organizing an 1812 lunch: students are asked to research what people were eating back then, and to make their lunches based on their own historical research.  The meal has to be historically accurate, right down to the utensils that were used, as well as the cloth and baskets that were used for holding and transporting food. Students brought home-made cornbread, entire chickens and pressed their own apple cider.  Challenging your students to contemplate what life was like before plastic Tupperware or to spend energy and time to mill flour can be a meaningful way to link students to the past, one that resonates deeply with their own lives.

How do you work to connect students' lives with the past through food?

Photo: Author's photo, Shelburne Farms, Vermont.