Learning and fun go together

UFT President Michael Mulgrew and Vice President for Elementary Schools Karen Al Miller Photography

UFT President Michael Mulgrew and Vice President for Elementary Schools Karen Alford experience CookShop alongside students at PS 18 in the Bronx, dicing veggies for a hummus dip, a new taste for many.

Early childhood educators often feel like we are in on the best-kept secret in the world: that our field is connected to education in its most elemental, purely joyful state.

Keeping that joy and love of learning alive and strong while we broaden students’ minds and lives is what it’s all about.

On a recent visit to PS 18 in the Bronx, I had the pleasure of visiting a school deep into the CookShop program, which exemplifies everything that’s best about our field.

CookShop is an innovative program that brings healthy cooking and hands-on learning to early childhood classrooms — and to parents and communities — courtesy of a partnership between the Food Bank for New York City and the UFT’s Healthy Schools Initiative.

What I saw in the pre-K to 1st-grade classrooms was a wonderful engagement of students who were learning and having fun.

One class was making bruschetta, another celery, carrot and raisin salad, another hummus with cucumber sticks, and the last class had fun making jam, which they sampled on different textures of healthy whole wheat bread and crackers.

Kids were categorizing by color, size and texture, and learning math and science as they were cutting items up. It also expanded their knowledge of healthy foods.

The only rule is that they must taste what they make. They don’t have to like it or eat it all, but they must try it.

The parents were there, too, helping out and learning about healthy cooking. The adult class was thrilled with the crunchy apple parfait they made. So the goal of the program is two-fold: it’s about family engagement as parents bond with their kids and cook with them at home, and about healthy eating.

As parents are exposed to new foods, it changes how they cook at home. They’re modifying ingredients and trying something new, so the whole family benefits. CookShop’s mission is to give low-income families the knowledge and tools to adopt and enjoy a healthy diet on an affordable, food stamp budget.

In some neighborhoods the local groceries don’t carry all the items, but as parents request different fruits and veggies, the groceries do start to stock them, so there’s a ripple effect on the entire community’s health and wellness.

What we’ve always known at the early childhood level is that school doesn’t have to be drill and kill with teachers lecturing at the board. The best teaching engages students with their own participation, gives them choices and hands-on learning.

This past fall, 900 teachers flocked to UFT headquarters to receive CookShop training. CookShop is now in schools in every borough. If you’re interested in bringing this program to your school next year, you can contact me at kalford@uft.org.

Now, on to the next development I’m excited about: our upcoming fourth annual UFT Early Childhood Education Conference! Like CookShop, it’s about finding and sharing what’s best in early childhood education.

It’s called “Getting to the Core” because our focus is the new national Common Core Standards. While some standards have been released and others are still being developed, now is a great time to tackle what we know will be the next big focus in early childhood education.

With 15 workshops, there’s something for everyone here, from math for the pre-school English language learner, to interactive technology for early childhood education, why and how to differentiate instruction, educating children with autism and much more. This is a conference to help you hone your curriculum and refocus your approach.

You can register online or by downloading a flier that details the day’s events and sending it in.

Those who come will join us for a plenary session, a choice of two workshops, resource materials, and breakfast and lunch to fuel the learning. Hope to see you there. You’ll find plenty to keep your own enthusiasm and joy of learning vibrant.

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