Food is a lesson that lingers.
I can’t recall much about the learning being doled out at Fairwood School in 1966. Something about Henry Hudson, something about pilgrims.
But lunch is still very clear. I can see those metal pans of boiled hot dogs, the Borden ice cream sandwiches, frozen hard in industrial deep freezers. A dime apiece; a nickel for half a sandwich.
Lunch is still important, judging from the Bennett Day School, a new private elementary on West Grand Avenue.
“It’s part of a dialogue between the students and teachers,” said director of admissions Amanda McQuade, noting teachers eat with their students, teaching them how to converse and conduct themselves. Eating is carefully integrated into the curriculum; for instance, kindergartners eat in their room.
“At this age, going into the cafeteria was way too over-stimulating for them,” said Sara Violante, a senior kindergarten teacher. “We eat five to six kids at a table, one teacher at each table modeling how to interact with each other, engaging in conversations. It’s definitely worked very well, especially having three teachers in the classroom.”
Three teachers for 16 kids, a reminder we aren’t in the Chicago Public Schools anymore. The building, a century-old former settlement house, is pristine. The cheese in the mac and cheese is Merkts. The school was created by private equity investor Cameron Smith, dissatisfied with available educational options after the birth of his first child in 2010, and Kate Cicchelli, a teacher at the prestigious Francis Parker School. Bennett now only goes up to third grade, but is adding a grade a year and next fall will start a high school with eighth- and ninth-graders.
The school has 149 students, with tuition costing up to $27,000, though a third of the students receive financial aid, and their parents might receive tax benefits from Gov. Bruce Rauner’s new Invest in Kids Act. First-rate, farm-to-school food is part of the package that sends parents lunging for their checkbooks.
I watched Bennett’s chefs, Brad Newman and Christine Lee, make lunch.
“Today’s pizza day,” said Lee, who learned to cook at Charlie Trotter’s. “But guess what we’re serving?”
“Pizza?” I ventured.
“Freshly made focaccia bread, pureed San Marzano tomatoes, out of a can but from Italy, with fresh olive oil, herbs and mozzarella cheese,” said Lee.
“Why should they come to school and eat something less than what they’re eating at home?” Newman added.
Why indeed. The chefs are committed to teach the kids good eating.
“We’re just beginning,” said Lee. “You can’t start on Day One giving them the most amazing raw food salads and grains and so on. You have to build the palette and start slowly. We’re giving them new flavors, new textures, and new items. One by one we’ll expand their palates.”
Bennett is a lab school, partnered with Northwestern University, and during my tour I caught a glimpse into the future while talking to Frances Judd, a teacher and member of NU’s Tangible Interaction Design and Learning Lab. She showed me personal glyphs the students made to connect with the online digital portfolios that follow them through their school careers.
“The children make a logo for themselves,” she said. “Photos we take of children’s work go right into their own Google Drive folder so a teacher does not have to organize that. We have a digital portfolio that’s very robust. We do a thoughtfully curated experience, digitally.”
Students are “helping to talk about what goes into your portfolio, curating a number of items that express your learning experience,” said Judd. “They come over and say, “I want a picture of this’ and snap it.'”
In other words, those finger paintings and hand-tracings that used to decorate parents’ kitchens will only exist online. Kids don’t mind.
“They are quite satisfied in this school with the photo,” said Judd. “What we’re doing in class goes into a blog, and they can visit it with the family. They’ll now say they’d like a photo of this, and they consider that idea saved. It doesn’t have to be a piece of manila paper.”
As to how the parents feel about this, well, I image that, as always, they’ll adjust.