What should a school SMELL like?


I walked into my son's kindergarten on Thursday for maybe the twentieth time, and it finally clicked: This whole place smells like a horrible cafeteria. Smells evoke a mood in a way that sights and sounds rarely do. Just this morning, walking down to my local coffee house, I strolled past an area clearly inhabited only minutes earlier by a smoker. The lingering scent of cigarette smoke triggered a half-dozen memories: smoking at a best friend's bachelor party, hanging around my now-deceased grandfather who was rarely far from a Camel. Good memories, all — which obviously isn't to say anything in favor of smoking! Rather, it's to note that even one of our great health scourges has survived in part by taking smell seriously.

It's so easy to overlook the olfactory sense — but specific smells set the stage for the rest of life.

So: what should a school smell like?

Hunch #1: not like a crappy cafeteria. 

It's surprising to me that the administration of my son's school hasn't identified "our school reeks" as A Sensible Problem to be Addressed. Maybe the administration has acclimated to the smell?

(Note: the school is a public, district-run homeschooling outreach school. Most of the time, we're homeschooling our son, or sending him to an outdoor kindergarten. Our lives are complex, if wonderful.)

But of course it might take real work to rid a school of the "Tuesday Mystery Meat" odor. Those odorants are powerful, and in a building lacking both (1) excellent ventilation and (2) counterbalancing smells, they may be impossible to clear out.

But let me suggest a helpful hint to fellow school-founders: ask an outsider to tell you if your school literally stinks. 

Hunch #2: at lunch, like fresh bread.

One of the distinctives of our new-kind-of schooling is that our kids will make lunch together each day. Part of that will be regularly making various kinds of bread — because (1) culture, (2) science, and (3) deliciousness.

I've argued all those before. Now add to that: scent. Because what better way could we communicate to visitors that these schools are good places for human beings than by having them smell fresh bread?

Hunch #3: I have no more hunches.

It's weird, this "smell" thing. I've literally spent 33 years swimming in a sea of smells. They've influenced the way that I feel and behave. And yet I'm an idiot about what a school should smell like. So I'll turn the question over to y'all — what might a new kind of school aim to smell like?

How to raise wild kids: place-based learning, food science, and green schools


Beyond imagining the subjective world of animals and plants (and fungi, and protista, and monera), how else does Scott Sampson suggest schools can help kids understand ecosystems? That is, how can we help kids grok that everything is connected to everything — in fact, not just connected, but interwoven? Three things, Sampson suggests: place-based learning, food science, and green schools.

I'm elated to say that our new kind of school has already been exploring curriculum that supports at least two of these (makes me feel pretty darned cool, actually!), so I'll sketch these out a bit more briefly than I have been, and give links to our signature curricula.

Crucially, each of these gives kids repeated experiences with the natural world — encounters over weeks, months, and years that allow children to gradually develop a complex, rich, and nuanced understanding of the world. (I've written about the necessity of such an approach in The secret to boiling an egg — and mastering everything else!)

Place-based learning

Place-based learning is a tried-and-true approach to school that privileges local environments. Instead of only reading books about the rain forest, for example, educators who fancy place-based learning take their kids outside. Local people and communities can play a role, too.

The point isn't just to observe the outside world, but to integrate it with what's being learned in the classroom.

I've seen nature place-based learning brought to its zenith by the Corbett Charter School, the Portland-area K-12 grounded in Imaginative Education and led by Bob Dunton until 2014.

The school was located near the Columbia River Gorge, and the whole school made a magical, three-year study of it, focusing (in sequential years) on the biology, geology, and human history of the area.

By the time the grade schoolers finished their three-year cycle, they understood not only more about the Gorge, but about all of geology, biology, and human history than I suspect I did in high school!

Food science

Food is nature. When we forget that, we become a little more alienated from the world around us.

And we ourselves are food! Every cell of us has been assembled out of what we've put into our mouths. As Sampson writes,

You're not merely connected to nature through the web of life. You're interwoven with it.

Paying attention to food, then, can be a route into deep understanding of science. Delightfully, there's lately been a crusade to bring food science into the classroom — the farm-to-school movement, like the Edible Schoolyard Project. Sampson points out that gardens are micro-ecosystems themselves, and lauds schools who have created gardens to grow food kids can eat:

Gardens are almost magical in their capacity to lift the curtain on our alienation from nature.

I haven't written about it here, but I'm proud to note that our first school — the Island Academy of Hilton Head — has been creating their own garden.

Our schools, though, are going even further than this. As regular readers know, we're taking on the radical project of having kids daily make lunch together — something I've summarized here, and have explored the grade-school practice of here.

Green schools

Sampson dreams:

What if schoolyards were transformed even further, into ecologically diverse landscapes? We all have a pretty good idea of traditional schoolyards: mostly asphalt with some dirt or grassy fields and maybe a few trees and shrubs.... Now imagine these old-style school grounds... replaced by a diversity of greenery, including plenty of native trees and bushes. Rain captured in downsprouts flows onto the grounds, nurturing the plants. Children welcome migrating birds in spring with nesting boxes and frolic in the autumn leaves amidst lengthening shadows. In addition to a vegetable garden, there's a butterfly garden, another just for hummingbirds, and even habitat for bees, which produce delicious honey.

I have little to say about this right now, except: oh, oh yes.

Let's do this.

We can reboot schooling and make it wonderful — and learning from special places, growing food and cooking it together, and re-wilding the school grounds are perfect places to begin.

Conference feedback: Making lunch together


More feedback (& my commentary) from my presentation at the IERG conference last week! For the original posts on our (crazy fun) practice of making lunch together, see this long initial one, and this pithier one.

Making lunch together

My own young adult children can not cook thanks to my control-freakish nature! My bad. I wish I could remedy that by turning back the clock.

Ha! That makes perfect sense.

Perfect sense, I mean, because teaching kids to cook takes time, and is dangerous. It takes time (not to mention saintly patience) to teach kids to cook. And when you leave them to their own devices in the kitchen, there's always the chance they'll burn the house down.

Our society has seen wisdom in allowing professionals to take on a similar task: teaching our children to drive. It's time-intensive, and boy, is it scary.

My hat's off to parents who choose to teach their own kids to drive. But for the rest of us, there are driving instructors.

The same thing makes sense with cooking, I think. Only better — once the kids learn to cook with some skill, they can cook together with their parents at home.

Hot dang!


Cultural content: gyoza, dumpling, etc. Could lead into history...

Yes, absolutely! (How fun, too, to not just learn about the culture the food comes from, but the history of the food in that culture.)

Many kids don't know certain foods.

Y'know, I forget about this. There's more low-hanging fruit than I'm prone to acknowledge: how much fun will it be just to introduce kids to, say, sorbet? Or a scone? Or a wild rice soup?


Stories about how spices have affected history...





Food sensitivities, religous restrictions, etc.

Man have I thought a lot about this. The conclusion I've come to is that we'll need to mostly handle this on a case-by-case basis.

(The following thoughts apply to our future school outside Seattle — I won't try to speak for Lee and his school on Hilton Head. Different cultures call for, unsurprisingly, different food norms!)

Since we're taking seriously the ability of food to knit together, community, our reflexive move should be to be as inclusive as possible: if one student can't eat peanuts, then we should avoid peanuts in our meals. I presume there will be exceptions to that — times when we'll make a dish, but serve it on the side, so everyone can participate in the main meal.

As a general rule, I think we should de-emphasize meat. When we prepare it, it should be sourced from a farm that we're happy to have our kids visit. (Whatever the other virtues of industrial meat production, it serves to distance people from their food. We want to war against that.)

Lee, your thoughts?


This was a point that participants made repeatedly: how will we ever have time to do all of these fun curricular things, if we're making food every day? Some participants were quite pessimistic on our ability to pull this off; others were quite optimistic. I appreciated hearing both sides of that.

Lee, here are my thoughts as to how we need to approach the "we're trying to squeeze an ocean into a swimming pool" problem.

  1. A lot of these fun curricular things are done by individual students, during their independent work time — not as a whole class, together. So students will do some of them daily, but others perhaps weekly — or even less frequently than that.
  2. We can have students form teams, and take turns making lunch. One team can make the food, another team can prepare the table, another team can clean up afterwards. This'll limit the time that any one group spends on lunch.
  3. We should guide students to get faster, as they gain experience. I'm not thinking about "fast-food" speed — that's too quick to get kids to think about the chemistry and biology of what they're doing — but a faster pace than they otherwise might fall into. Speeding up could be particular help toward guiding students into a flow state. (Imagine this: cooking lunch as a group flow state. Oh happy experiment we're embarking on!)
  4. We should make sure that our heavy skills-building periods are intense. I've heard this from many homeschoolers, and as a tutor I can confirm it: when students want to learn, and the teacher is prepared, a lot of learning can happen very quickly. In order to justify these other curriculum aspects that could be maligned as "froofy" (cooking, handwriting, place-study, people in your neighborhood…), we need to guarantee that the academic core is strong. (Measuring student progress will be useful here.)
  5. Lee, how long will your school days at Island Academy be? With our Seattle-area school, I'm interested in looking into a longer school day. (Especially if we can abolish/restrict homework.)

More land-based cooking: take part in a hunt, field dressing, skinning, prep, & cooking/smoking, etc. Bridge traditional methods with modern culinary practices.

Whoa. I'm having a hard time imagining pulling this off. (I can only imagine a mother in our office screaming "WHAT DID YOU TEACH MY SON TO DO TO A SQUIRREL?")

But: I love it. I agree that, at least theoretically, this would be a very good thing to do with kids (at least those who aren't ethical vegetarians).

As I continue to mull over this, I wonder if there are a few halfway-steps that we could definitely do:

  • Have kids grow some of their food. (I didn't mention this at the conference, but it should become a very important part of our school.)
  • Collect wild mushrooms. (Dangerous if we don't do it right, so we should do research, and then go out with an expert.)


Can kids choose what they make?

Boy, how did I not think of this before? Yes, they should have a voice in this. It shouldn't be a totally free choice on their part (for one reason, part of our purpose is to take kids outside of their comfort zones), but they should be part of the steering committee for what we're preparing in future weeks and months.

Lee, how can we allow students choice in what foods we'll be eating?


All right, that's it for now. I'll be going camping for the next few days (for the record, we're bringing along our own industrially-prepared food!), but when I come back, I'll be hashing through the feedback I got on our Song-a-day curriculum, and our People in your neighborhood curriculum.

And then, I'll actually start talking about new things!

Cooking lunch together


A problem:

Kids don't know how to make delicious food for themselves — or for others! Instead, we "feed" them: culinarily, our schools guide children into a learned helplessness. Meanwhile, commercial food scientists develop ever-more-brilliant recipes for hooking children into less-than-healthy fare.

At the same time, the act of making food can be incredibly educational: cooking, baking, and eating can provide questions of chemistry, biology, physics, and culture.

Our basic plan:

Kids cook their own lunch.

We can start with simple (but delicious) dishes — easy soups and breads — and gradually move up the ladder of complexity until students are routinely creating complex dishes — like "Stir-Fried Asparagus with Shiitake Mushrooms" and "Quinoa Pilaf with Herbs and Lemon".

Kids will get experience in setting up a kitchen, cooking the food, cleaning up, and devising a shopping list.

They'll also get experience in enjoying food — not just wolfing it down, but in savoring it, and critiquing it. (At some point, a heated argument will break out as to whether the dish needs more or less tarragon. At that point, we will know we have succeeded!)

We'll encourage kids to ask scientific questions about what's happening to the food as they cook it — why are parts of the egg different colors? Why's the albumen turning white? Now why is it turning brown?

We'll also encourage cultural questions about the food — where does this pho recipe come from? Does it have anything in common with the other Vietnamese dishes we've cooked? Where is this chili pepper native to? (Hint: not Vietnam!) How'd it get there?

Our goals:

Kids will gain competence (and ultimately mastery) of one of the most fundamental skills: making food that nourishes and delights you, and the people around you.

Through this, kids will raise questions about chemistry and culture that can be investigated in other parts of the school day.

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

Kids measuring, chopping, stirring, planning, and cleaning. And eating — delighting in the food they and others have made, and making plans to make it even better next time.

Some specific questions:

  • This is a situation in which fine-tuned mastery is key — and in which badges seem the natural measurement. Should we have cooking badges for each kitchen skill? (E.g. a badge for dicing, a badge for slicing, a badge for properly washing a pan, a badge for roasting garlic, a badge for leading a team of people through a complex soup, a badge for properly setting the table, a badge for making a grocery list…)
  • Should we have a test for each badge?
  • How should we rotate the roles? For example, should a group of students spend a week on prep work, then a week on cooking, then a week on cleaning up?
  • Should teams of students stay stable for a semester?
  • What food restriction issues should we be prepared for?
  • Should we ethically source the food? (I'd love to be able to visit the actual farm, so the students can see where their food comes from.)
  • What specific skills should be on our list for the first year? (E.g. slicing, dicing…) Where do we learn the Official Best Way to learn these? (YouTube? A book like The Professional Chef?)
  • What specific recipes should we tackle the first year?
  • How much time will this take at the beginning of the year? How much time will it take by the end of the year, as kids get more accomplished?

A food curriculum (for grade school)

stew In our school, how can we do food good?

I mean, how can we acculturate children into a way of life in which food matters — in which kids love to make food, love to eat food, and love to understand how food connects into the rest of the universal and human stories?

How can what we do with food interlock with the rest of our curriculum? How can the ways that we cook and eat food help us shape our own values and habits? And how can food help us knit together the school community?

We've been kicking around these questions for a couple years now. We're still adding to it — please suggest your own ideas in the comments section — but I think what we've got is pretty exciting.

In this post I'll limit myself to sketching out our vision for just the primary grades — look for the continuation in a later post!



In grade school, our kids can dine together every day — on food they themselves make.

I'm shamelessly stealing this idea from a good friend who, in a previous life, ran a Waldorf-inspired preschool. A few years ago he told me that, each morning, he guided his kids in gathering components — roots, berries and whatnot — and adding them to the day's store-bought ingredients.

Then they made soup.

(That's so radical I want to put it in italics, and read it like it's a movie-trailer voiceover : Then they made soup. But of course the idea is utterly simple — a lost piece of pre-industrial society.)

My friend commented, "If you don't have enough time to eat together when you're in preschool — when will you have enough time?" This thrilled me then, and thrills me now.

Here's how I see us appropriating this simple "daily cook together" for our school, in grades 1–4.


1. Our food can start simple.

I'm imagining we can begin by making basic vegetable soup.

We'll need to round out the meal — hungry kids are peevish kids! — and so can add in sides such as bread (particularly types that evade whatever food allergies our kids have), butter, and cheese.

The kids will prepare the meal: measuring the water, slicing the vegetables (wielding age-appropriate knives), and doling out the spices. And then heating the water (in a slow-cooker), setting, the table, and finally washing the dishes.


Or at least it can be after some practice: with practice comes automation. (A question to those who teach cooking to kids: does a half-hour sound reasonable for lunch prep, not including the time the meal spends stewing?)

After a few weeks, I imagine the process will have become fluid enough that we can begin to complicate things.


2. Our food can (slowly) become complex.

Having mastered simple soup, our classes can experiment with other elements.

We can try out new ingredients, and new spices. We can add in sides — simple salads, with simple dressings. We can also (excitement of excitements!) begin to make our own wheat bread, and our own butter. (For a six-year-old, what's more fun than shaking a jar of cream until it magically transforms?)

How delightful would it be to smell freshly-baked bread when you walked into your child's school?

Vegetable soup is a gateway: having become proficient we can move to chowders, chilis, and stews, and from there to pastas and stir-frys. (And beyond!)

Likewise, wheat bread is a launching pad: bread can lead to biscuits, muffins, popovers, and so on. From there, we can move in more directions still: the rest of the world of food.

And we don't have to rush it. We can can move toward this complexity slowly — relying on the gradually-accumulated expertise that our students have built up over the months and years they've been in our school. Every week there may be new things to learn — but every day most of the food-making task will be automatic.


3. Our food can be an engagement with world cultures.

In eating, we internalize the world. This has special ramifications for our school: from grade 1 on, we'll be exploring a wide swath of human cultures — Chinese and Roman and Aboriginal and Indian and Semitic, to name just a few. (I'll be writing about our social studies curriculum in future posts.) We can integrate our food with our social studies.

We can regularly prepare traditional dishes from multiple cultures.

In our soups, we can make bisque, egg drop soup, goulash, lentil stews, miso, and pho. In our breads, we can make challah, injera, baguettes, naan, and tortillas. (These, of course, just to name a few.)

Food is an in

Now, we mustn't delude ourselves: in one sense, food is the most superficial way to understand another culture. (The deeper ways involve stories, metaphors, and ideas — tacts we'll be taking.) But in another sense, preparing and consuming the food of another culture is a profound method of understanding. To eat a meal is to make your body out of it: the eater becomes the eaten. And perhaps none of the "five senses" is as emotionally hefty as is taste. Eating is, if you'll pardon the pun, visceral.

We can use that in the hard work of helping American children emotionally connect to cultures which may at first seem quite alien.


4. Our food can be a science question-starter.

Why do vegetables soften when you steam them? Why does tofu brown when you fry it? Why does milk clot into butter when you shake it? Why does dough rise? Why do cucumbers pickle? Why does dough rise? 

These are all scientific questions. (And hard ones, at that.)

A major task of our science curriculum (any science curriculum, I think) is be to get kids to wrangle with the ineffable complexity of the physical world. The work of learning science is to recognize the fractal-like intricacies of the external world, and to trace them in one's own mind — posing questions, imagining answers, and finding out if they're real.

This kind of awe-powered, fact-guided science education is glorious. It's also maddeningly difficult, because it requires more information-processing than most teachers or students are used to.

Help comes when we look at repeating children's exposure to the physical phenomena we'd like to help them intellectually unpack. For too many of us, school sometimes felt like a conveyor belt: study one thing, then it's gone — then move to another, and then it's gone.

We can't reach a complex understanding of the Maillard reaction (the chemical process that we recognize as the "browning" of food) the first time we consider it.

We can't reach a subtle appreciation of the fungal zoo that a lump of sourdough is when we first hear about it.

Perhaps we can't understand anything deeply if we're expected to "learn" it the first time through.

To achieve the deep, rich, and imaginative understanding of science that we're hoping for, our kids need repeated engagement with physical processes. They need to encounter a complex phenomena on a daily and weekly basis.

(And better yet if they can do this through multiple senses: seeing, touching, smelling, and of course tasting.)

Our food curriculum can integrate with our science curriculum. The level of scientific understanding that students at our school might reach with the help of the cooking curriculum is impressive indeed.

The complexity of the world routinely floors me — as does its unseen simplicity. Only recently, I recognized that most of what I eat is flowers. Bread? Largely flour, ground from grass seed. Grass seeds are part of grass flowers — are, indeed, the raison d'être for the flowers. How about the fruit I had for lunch? Also flower parts!

An odd fact: there is very little in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that is not a flower.

The bread and the jelly are largely flowers, of course — but the peanuts? Peanuts grow under the ground, but they're not roots. After a peanut plant's pollinated, its flowers stretch out and descend to (and then into) the ground, where the ovaries become the delicious snacks we know, love, and smear onto children's sandwiches.

How have I made it into adulthood without realizing that? Heck, how did I graduate grade school without realizing that? Flowers — these little critters from the early Cretaceous — now make up a majority of my meal. Just nuts.

The world is complex, and it's also simple. Both sorts of understanding can be approached by a food curriculum like this.


And finally:

5. Our food can be a community- and ego-builder.

Communities are forged around shared projects. The daily practice of making, devouring, and cleaning up after the meal can, I hope, become a major community-builder. 

Furthermore, kids can differentiate, developing individual expertise and even styles for cooking. In our world of pre-made everything, kids crave opportunities to do something themselves. How cool will it be when they recognize they're actually better at making serious food than some of the adults they know?