Cherri Farrell teaches consumer and family science, a subject that used to be called home economics. She teaches at College Park High School in Pleasant Hill, California. Her curriculum is devoted largely to cooking and nutrition and it's also indirectly a support for math, reading and other academic subjects. But what's not an explicit part of the curriculum, and yet perhaps most important in Farrell's eyes is the development of social skills and human relationships that is fostered in her classroom. Farrell is one of those teachers blessed with a love for the students she teaches and a keen sensitivity to the delicate issues faced by adolescents.
Talking with her made me regret not having given my own mother more appreciation for her work. She, too, happened to teach home economics for many years. Through Farrell's eyes, I've come rather late to an appreciation of the world she must have inhabited with her students, which I glimpsed from time to time in her stories. Typically strong ties of affection were always present.
Talking with Farrell, it's as if a window opens into the hidden worlds that often go unrecognized in the standardized requirements of mass curriculums. Here, it's made visible how important these hidden realms really are.
Recently I've had the good fortune to observe parts of the curriculum of St. Paul's in Oakland, an outstanding school that goes up to 8th grade. Their music program, for instance, opened my eyes to the profound value that students can absorb from a program that has often been relegated to the margins. Talking with Farrell has had a similar effect. But in both cases, it's also a matter of good teaching. A good teacher, if not overly burdened with rigid requirements, can turn any subject into a vehicle for a student's broader growth. As one reads this interview, the thought cannot be escaped: there's nothing more helpful to kids than a really good teacher.
The seeds of this interview were sown in a casual conversation I had with Cherri a year earlier when she told me a memorable story about one of her students. I realized it would be good if more people could learn something about this teacher's inspiring work.-Richard Whittaker
works: Now you teach grades what to what?
Cherri Farrell: Nine to twelve. And as the years have gone by I get fewer ninth graders. It's better if they wait and become little more mature. 10th and 11th are the best years, oddly enough.
works: I have the feeling things have changed among kids today. When I was in high school I think it was more like every person for himself. Do you think high school kids are different today?
CF: There are contradictions. One impression I have is that these children are very lonely. And the other is that there is much more of a sense of community among peers. I know that's pretty typical adolescent behavior, but there's often a sense of a bigger picture to it. There are so many clubs on campus concerned about how the government is being run or the financial situation or are we doing right by the planet? There's this interest among these kids to volunteer their time to others in situations of need. And they all still run around in this pack.
works: There are lots of extracurricular groups concerned with social issues and about doing good?
CF: Definitely. And I don't think it's just because of Obama. I think it's in the air, this whole idea of volunteering.
Let me tell you a story that expresses that. The class was learning how to make all kinds of bread. We had a lot of dough left over and I was going to pass the bread out among my kids like I often do if they're hungry or if they don't have any money. But we got involved in other things and I forgot about it. And as I was driving home, I spotted this young man with a shopping cart, maybe his late twenties. I stopped, rolled down the window and said, "How would you like to have a loaf of bread that my kids at school just made?"
He was so grateful and said, "My wife and I will really appreciate that."
It was heartbreaking. So I took out some more and said, "Why don't you just take these, too. We're glad to give it to you."
He said, "Are you sure somebody else wouldn't want it?"
I said, "No. You take it. Just take it."
The next day I told the kids and I barely got the story out and the whole room just exploded! All the kids were clapping. "Right on, Ms. Farrell! Right on! Lets do this again." They have a kind of awareness.
works: That's very touching.
CF: It was. I was also shocked when the young man was considering whether somebody else might want the bread.
works: You told me another story earlier. It was about one of your students, a big, athletic kid and another kid in your class who was making trouble somehow. You remember that story?
CF: There was this young Chinese student who had some issues. He was sticking some kind of very odorous substance on people's shoulders. It wasn't very nice. And in my classroom, there are six kitchens. So there are six groups and they all sit together at round tables. He was part of a group that was all boys. But they were from different cliques. Which is one of the good things about the class. They have to mix. So he was doing something and I did reprimand him. It was pretty sharp and blunt.
Almost immediately, one of the other boys in the group came over and put his arm around him. Later he came up to me and said, "You know Ms. Farrell, that was a little harsh. You know his grandfather just died. You have to be a little careful."
works: It's amazing to me that a student would do that. It sounds like he was sort of gentle with you, too.
CF: It was sweet. This was a really hotshot baseball player. He wasn't doing this for any other reason. It just came out of him. And I'll tell you another story.
In one of my other groups there was a very petite girl who had already become sexually active. She had already apparently had an abortion. I didn't know any of this. She was a little Latin American girl. She was sitting at a table with a group of kids. There was another Latin American boy about the ninth grade and he said something very lewd about this whole thing to her. She got up-I was lecturing-she got up in the middle of the class and slapped him in the face.
So immediately I stopped. And the whole class was stopped. She was only about four feet eleven. And this was a pretty hefty-sized guy. So I said, "Okay. Out in the hall!" I said, "What's going on here? You know that if you physically touch someone it's an immediate suspension." Then she looked at me and she said, "Miss Farrell, I had an abortion, and he said something awful to me about it."
Then I turned right to his face and said, "Don't you ever speak to a woman like that! Not ever!"
Then I said, "Now what are we going to do? Because you're going to get kicked out of school." I said, "I'm going back into the classroom and you two figure it out." So I told them to stay out there and figure it out.
Then I went in and just went on with my lecture. They came back in and sat down. I finished the class. Afterwards the boy came up to me and said, "I'm very sorry I said that." The girl said, "It's all right Ms. Farrell. We worked it out. We're friends now." And they were. And after that he kind of protected her.
works: That's very touching, also.
CF: I know. There are so many times I almost break out in tears. The kids are just wonderful. I think that, as a teacher, I get to see more sides of children like that. I think it's partly because these kids are not all lined up sitting in desks and we're not going from page to page in a text.
This is a huge room with six kitchens and six round tables and they have to be with kids who are not the same age, not in the same groups, not from the same culture. And they're cooking and interacting. I don't restrict them from having fun or talking. So there is so much interaction and play where they can practice all these social skills and they can be.
It's an ideal place for a student who has English as a second language. They're learning the real vocabulary of the kids and in some of the fast contexts.
works: As a teacher what do you hope for? What are you trying to do?
CF: Well, there's a curriculum I have to teach, but I also have my own underlying agenda. I think food is so important. Unfortunately many of my students don't have anyone at home so there is very little cooking at home. And there's very little understanding of the richness of sitting around the table and connecting with your family. But if they learn to cook, they can bring that into their own lives, really simply.
For instance, they all want to move out and get their own apartment when they're eighteen. I let them know all these bills you're not paying now, the discretionary money you have now, it's not going to be there. So what can you do? You can invite people over and have a lot of fun around food. And I take a poll in class. I ask the girls, does it sort of raise the bar for you when a guy can cook? Every time every single girl raises her hand!
works: So you're influencing the guys...
CF: Right. Hey guys, did you get that? [laughs]
works: Now the idea of food is really more than just the food on the plate. Sitting around the table and sharing is another kind of food.
CF: Oh, yes. So you approach your meal like it's doing something very important together. It sets up an ambience that allows you to share more. I make them learn how to set a basic table. They have to wash the table before we start. There has to be a centerpiece even if it's just a colorful place mat. And no one eats before everyone is ready and everyone is seated. The boys learn to serve the girls first.
works: Is there anything more about this?
CF: I might say something like, well, I only have these white napkins but we could make them look kind of interesting. Next thing you know we're over there and they're folding all these gorgeous little things. And they just wait until I notice that they folded the napkin beautifully. It doesn't take much to make it feel special. I don't know if they can put it into words, but it's more enjoyable. They're physically more relaxed.
works: So sticking with the food analogy, the attention you're giving them is another kind of food, and making special, let's say. Does that make sense?
CF: Yes. And I think they know I accept them and care about them. Because I think socialization-I don't know how else to put it-to me, that's more important.
I'm so glad I'm not a math teacher. There's so much flexibility in where I can go. And we have all these little rituals, too. At the beginning of the class if I find out that it's someone's birthday, I'll say, "Well, it's Mary's birthday today." [laughs] I might have a little candle and a little leftover piece of cake. So I'll run over and whisper to the girls at her table and then we bring it out. And the whole class sings "Happy Birthday" to her.
Or I might just go over and put my hands on a student's shoulders and say, "It's John's birthday today." By the end of the year the kids themselves are coming up and telling me it's their birthday or they say [whispering] "You know, it's Susan's birthday today."
works: I'm intrigued by your statement about the creative freedom you have because of the nature of your class. And I take it that you relish this, right? [yes] So can you give me more examples of the ways you might utilize this?
CF: Well, last year I had a group of senior boys. I gave them the back kitchen that has a lot of space and a lot of privacy. I let them kind of do their own thing and a camaraderie developed among them. They were the kind of guys who might put on the baker's hat. "Let's do it right, okay?" [laughs]
works: [laughs] The guys were getting down with it!
CF: [laughing] And I gave them a lot of slack because they really had something that I thought was very healthy going on. And the really good students in that group were kind of bringing along the others who weren't quite as good.
works: Do you see much of that?
CF: Oh, we make that a standard.
works: How do you support that?
CF: With this particular group I didn't have to. But I get children from across the board in intellectual levels and motivations-kids with behavior problems, children who don't do well anywhere else but in my classes; I get kids who are going to Stanford. You name it. If a child in the group has trouble and there's someone who can help, I say, okay, let's do this-you work with him because he's not getting it. I try really hard, and I think I'm pretty successful, at not making that student feel there's something wrong with him.
I had a girl who moved here in the middle of 11th grade. She was from Iran and spoke Farsi and had very little English, which would be pretty devastating to move to a totally different culture all alone. I put her in my best group of girls who were all very sweet, brilliant girls. I said, you guys explain the concepts to her. So they did. I'd look over at the kitchen and they'd be working, they were showing her. Then we set it up for her to meet other kids from other classes that I knew who spoke Farsi.
One time I had a child from Afghanistan whose parents were killed. He came to America and lived with his extended family. I found a student for him to talk with, too. I'd bring him to my computer and we would look up holy spots, mosques. He showed me all these beautiful places in his country and we'd just talk.
And I had another child who came from Mongolia. We would talk about Mongolia and what it was like. He came from a very prominent Tibetan Buddhist family. In the summer he lived in the old way-in yurts in the middle of the Steppe. He rode horseback and used a bow and arrow just like Genghis Khan! Today, he's in a pre-med program.
works: Did you ever have a kid like that tell a story to the whole class?
CF: Since these kids often didn't know the language very well, that would have been a little overwhelming. But sometimes we would take a recipe from their family. I'd say, here's how we would make a pilaf, but in Amir's culture, they would add these spices.
Anytime someone new came into the class, I always would say, "We have a new person in class. Here's Jane. She's come in the middle of her senior year. Can you imagine leaving your group of friends that you'd grown up with your whole life and having to move here? That sucks!" And then I'd decide where to put her, "I think I'm going to put Jane in this group. This is a great group! Okay, you guys need to show her where everything is."
You'd be surprised at how the kids would react. They'd be saying, "Yeah, what are you doing after lunch?" Or, "I'll show you where the gym is." I think it has to do with being in this environment, cooking food and hanging out together. It makes for an environment where more aspects of living a human, normal life can happen-which is way more important than whether they know that brown sugar gets packed into a measuring cup and white sugar doesn't. Although we do learn those things. Now earlier you asked something about how am I creative myself?
works: Right. I was curious about how you might go with the conditions.
CF: Well, this is creative, in an inner sense. A group of boys were making cookies and using the Kitchen Aid mixer. And instead of cracking the eggs into a little bowl like I told them to, they cracked the egg over the big bowl of the mixer that was going round and round. They turned it off and a couple of them came over to me and said, "Ms. Farrell, we dropped the egg into the mixer."
And I said, "Okay, just mix it up."
"No, Ms. Farrell, the whole egg."
So I came over and I looked. "Oh, Okay," I said. "Well, what do you want to do?" And I just walked away. [laughs]
Later I peeked and saw them dealing with it. Because they all know I have a very tight budget. If they make a mistake they can't just throw it out, so what? They kind of have to just go through with it, or it's over.
works: You've made that clear somehow?
CF: Oh yeah. It's very clear. So I left them with that. And they decided they wanted to go ahead and make the cookies. [welling up with a big chuckle] That's what I love about teen-agers. They'll just go for it! All right, we'll try it! It's cool.
One kid said, "You know, it's going to get ground up pretty small." [laughs] Maybe it will taste like nuts! [more laughing] I didn't say anything. Then afterwards I asked, "Well, how did it go?"
works: [laughs] There's something wise there in having walked away. You voted in favor of their capacity to deal with it.
CF: Yes. I look out at my class sometimes and can see that many of these kids have been yelled at a lot. They've been reprimanded a lot-which we're all guilty of sometimes. So I try very hard not to do that, although when I get mad at them, I'm really pissed.
The kids say [Cherri whispers], "You don't want to piss Ms. Farrell off." [laughs]
The other thing is I look at them and can see that in public school they've been made to sit still too long. It's just too much. So sometimes when the class is going nowhere, I'll say, "Is anybody really paying any attention here?"
[laughs] Then I say, "Well, let's see. It must be too close to finals." Or whatever. Then I say, "Okay. Put everything away. Heads down. We're all going to take a fifteen minute nap."
CF: [laughs and makes a snoring sound] They were out! Sometimes they just need to stop and rest a few minutes. Some kids have said to me, "That really helps." Then there's always someone who is going to take it too far. "You know, we can do this for the rest of the day." It's usually a boy.
CF: At the end of the year I always tell them, "You can cook. You are on your own. You can take care of yourself." And the kids say goodbye and leave, but one girl at the door stopped and said, "You know Ms. Farrell, I have learned so many things. Thank you." And she left, but then she came back in and looked at me and said, "Miss Farrell, you teach us how to be."
works: That's really something.
CF: I didn't quite know what that meant, but it was very real and, at that point, I knew something good was going on.
You know, when you're a teacher you're in your own room. The administration is very supportive, but you are on your own with little feedback. Kids come in and say, "Ms. Farrell, I've been trying for three years to get into your class." One boy came in for yearbook pictures and said, "Miss Farrell, I don't know you but they took an unofficial poll and you were one of the most popular teachers." I was shocked.
works: I'm not surprised from hearing the things you've told me. People think home economics, what a nothing course! But if they take it from you, I think it's just the opposite.
CF: I tell them that there's nothing they're going to learn in this class that will be useless. They'll use everything and it will make their lives richer. I say, what's going to be more important down the road when you have families and children? Or when you're on your own and you're in college or learning a vocation and you're studying like a dog? Here's a big piece in your life that you have skills in. So why not have a lot of fun doing it?
works: Can you think of any stories of students who were really shy and without confidence where you were able to help them in your class?
CF: A lot of what I do happens in these little moments. Maybe a child lacks confidence or is frightened. I'll be talking in front of the class and just randomly say, "John, that's a handsome shirt today, a really handsome shirt!" And I'll go right back to what I'm doing.
CF: I had a brother and sister, Japanese, both very reserved and self-effacing, just culturally that way, but incredibly competent. So I might describe a project and then say, "Elissa, you're so good at this kind of thing. Can you take charge of this?" And then I'll just walk off.
Or there was one girl last year, she probably ate five things. That's it! Every time you introduced a new food, she was just going [makes a face]. So I'd tease her in class, mercilessly. "Oh, come on Jane! I don't think I can face that today!" And then a week later, "What do you think, Jane?"
For once, she says, "It's okay."
"YEEESSSSS!!" I say. [laughs]
There have been times when I've helped, specifically, very shy people, but maybe I do it very indirectly. I stand at the door and see the kids as they come in. I'm never late to class. I'm there. I try to be there.
works: That's a regular practice for you, to watch them when they come in?
CF: Every kid. And when they leave, I'm right there when they leave.
works: When they come in do you make eye contact with them?
CF: Yes, I do that. I acknowledge them.
works: And when they leave?
works: That's actually amazing!
CF: It's pretty much every time. And then I go out into the hall if somebody is late. "You're late to my class??" [laughs] And I just give them hell. "You have five seconds to make it into the room before the bell rings!" I just exaggerate. And they know I'm not mean.
works: You're making a demand.
CF: Yes, I am. And they respond to having the attention.
works: There must be an art to putting a demand on the students in a way that it's not a crushing thing. Maybe this is something really good teachers can do and make it so the kids feel inspired to reach for it.
CF: I try to have an atmosphere in the class so that what the child feels inside is to be willing. That's what I'm interested in, that they feel willing.
Now I can't control them. I often know a lot about their home life. Their family may be falling apart or they're having trouble with a girlfriend or some kind of drama. But underneath all of that, there's something you get from being willing inside. You can come to a place where you look at something and it's not so hard to shoulder it.
I think that's really important. A lot of it is giving kids attention. It's tender, loving care. You teach them things. They get results. Of course, they get this HUGE reward, because kids love to eat. And they get this immediate feedback of something they have accomplished. They actually pulled it off!
works: This is important stuff.
CF: We have this soup unit where we learn to make different types of soup. Each group creates their own recipe together. For this, they can have six ingredients plus seasonings. Then each group turns in a formal recipe.
I'm very serious about it. I come over to each table and make a list of the ingredients they've chosen. I bring them in and then I say, "Okay, go make the soup." And I don't say another word.
That's when lots of kids get the baker's hats on [laughing]-and they go and make their soup. Then they're just dying for me to come over. I taste it. And "What do you think, Ms. Farrell?"
I always find something good to say and then we do an analysis. Then the kids begin to get it. "I think I was a little heavy-handed on the Creole seasoning." Or, "I think I was a little heavy on the garlic."
I tell them they are developing a palette. I tell them, "You're a chef and you're developing a skill. Don't tell me you don't want to eat that because you don't like it. I don't want to hear it." [laughs] I make demands like that, but I put it in a context where they kind of have to laugh at themselves a little.
One time we did deviled eggs. There were three recipes and two kitchens each did one of the recipes. I put out a long table in the middle of the room. So each team brought their eggs. They really went all out. They even created little placemats. Then we had a tasting. And I let them make all the judgments. They voted and picked the two best.
So this creates a lot of esprit de corps and a lot of buy-in. The more they buy in, the more they get out of these projects in these really subtle ways that you can't teach. You just have to let it happen.
works: I can see why students would want to get into your classes.
CF: So about shy girls-and I often have shy children. I might especially make eye contact with that child for a split second and then just keep on doing what I'm doing. Or I might say something. I had a very shy girl who was quite bright. She dressed really weird and in black-Goth, I guess. With her, I would acknowledge her strengths. When I returned a paper I would say, "Another 'A' -standard for you!" And then I'd walk off.
Then I get these things where I have a problem kid who just keeps talking and talking. And then somebody else will take over my job of correcting that. They'll say, but in a kid's way, "Why don't you just shut the fuck up??" [laughs]
The class begins to be like a whole organism. It doesn't start this way, but it becomes something where everyone is there for everyone.
works: Earlier you said you have the kids touch the food, and I wonder if you have any thoughts about the importance of the role of the body, of sensation, as something important, but not on the curriculum?
CF: Yes. That's very important. When you cook, it's your feelings, your mind and it's your body. You see right away that many kids have no relationship with their bodies at all. So I let them cook right away.
The first recipe I usually have them do is a Vanilla Sand cookie. It's very simple and easy to be successful, simple ingredients put together in a bowl, tossed all around and they have to squeeze all of the dough together with their hands. All of them have to touch it. Then they have to roll the dough into balls. I go around and give everyone an exact sample of the right size. They're talking away and next thing you know, the cookie is this big [holds hands apart, laughs]. Or they're real lopsided. I say, well, that's not quite right. But they're touching the material. It helps bring them back to their hands. That's really important. Next, with their little finger they make a little hole and put a little bit of jam in it.
I tell them, get your hands in there! Knead the dough! I don't just let them all use the electric equipment. Learn how to cream. How to whip. How to use the whisk. How to cut with knives.
The next thing we usually do is baking-powder biscuits. I demonstrate and then they go and do it. And I cannot tell you how amazingly proud of themselves they are when they have a big fresh biscuit to eat. Then I say, "You're doing so beautifully. I think we should have honey butter to go with these! These are outrageous!" [laughs]
works: It seems we're living in such a head-brain culture, not like living on a farm where you did everything by hand. So I wonder if you ever get any sense that the kids like this physical involvement?
CF: I don't know exactly in a direct way. I know their bodies relax when they're working physically. I can see that. And they feel proud of what they make. They get to relax. That's really a big deal.
works: Does this school have a garden, by any chance?
CF: Yes. I created an herb garden. And the special ed kids got a grant to put in a vegetable garden. When we have one of these tired moments, I tell them the vegetable garden needs help. So we run out there and for fifteen minutes everybody weeds. There's sunshine. Then we come back in and poof, everybody is up again! [laughs]
works: Is there anything you'd like to add?
CF: For me there have really been moments of help there. A few times I'm in such a place where there is no curriculum, no need for that. I've looked down and everything was there. And often, if I'm off, it's such a reminder. I get to class and it doesn't go right. Often it's me, and there is no blaming-although I've had my share of kids who have been difficult.
Being with the kids is a way to see where I am emotionally, because you have to be really clean with them. I can't need anything. I can't need anything. That would be inappropriate. And it's very delicate, too, to work with them because they're very vulnerable. But giving children attention in the very smallest ways, you can see that it really affects them.
I respect teen-agers and I like them. For some reason, around teen-agers, I'm not shy and I'm relaxed. And my sense of humor comes out. I can tease them unmercifully, and they don't take it personally. So often it's a support for me. It's been a very rich experience.
works: It's got to be good for the kids that you get fed in doing this yourself.
CF: I don't know if they know it that way. But they know that I like to be with them. And they do little things, like they'll put a little heart on the blackboard "We love you Ms. Farrell" or, "Ms. Farrell, you rock!"
Sometimes we have a lot of fun! [laughs] Like the other day... The kids ride their skateboards to school and some teachers won't let them have them in their classrooms, so they park them in my room. So this one boy, I could tell he wanted to get his skateboard so I said, "Okay, just move the table and do it!" [laughs]
He got his board down, first of all, because he just couldn't sit still any longer. But he also needed to be acknowledged somehow. He was riding his skateboard back forth and doing these tricks while the other students were cleaning up. It wasn't like he was showing off. He was good.
I was watching and I'd say, "That's pretty good!" [laughs] The impression you get so often is that these kids are just like little sponges. They need acknowledgement and support. They really do. So after he had been doing this for a while, I said, "Okay, now it's my turn."
This was very surprising. He said, "Ms. Farrell, you could really get hurt! So you better put your hand on my shoulder." Of course I did because he was making this gesture of real concern and I wanted to acknowledge that.
And the next thing I know, the entire class is saying, "Alright, Jim. You've got to be really careful that she doesn't fall!" [laughs]
So I'm skateboarding. I'm going down this thing. [laughing] It was so much fun. But in that, there were so many micro-moments where I could make this special contact. You know what I'm saying?
Richard Whittaker is the founder of works & conversations magazine.
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