International Institute Cooks Up Recipe for Teacher Success

This year's International Institute summer training program for teachers, a 10-day workshop, traced the evolution of regional and cross-regional food cultures from antiquity to the present day in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East.

International Institute Cooks Up Recipe for Teacher Success

Many participants said they could use the exercise of making dolmas, or stuffed grape leaves, in their classrooms.

By Judy Lin for UCLA Today

HOW DO you stimulate a student's appetite for knowledge?

You talk about food.

That's what 60 teachers from the L.A. Unified School District learned this summer during "It's a Matter of Taste: Food in World History and Cultures," a 10-day teacher-training workshop presented by UCLA's International Institute and its affiliated centers.

The globe-spanning program traced the evolution of regional and cross-regional food cultures from antiquity to the present day in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America. Directed toward elementary, middle and high school teachers looking for ways to help their students better comprehend broad, complex global processes, the workshop included lectures, discussions and hands-on demonstrations … like making stuffed grape leaves, or dolmas .

Barbara Petzen, education director of the Middle East Policy Council, scholar in gender and social history and a self-described "foodie," passed paper plates stacked with grape leaves the size of a large hand around a classroom at Royce Hall one morning during her session on "Silk Road Traditions." Petzen was one of nearly three dozen scholars who participated in the multi-track program, leading sessions on a wide range of topics, from "History in a Cup: The Social Life of a Beverage, 1500-2000" to "What Archaeology Can Tell Us About Why, When and How People First Started Growing Food."

Viewing food in a broad spectrum and context provides a compelling entree into lessons about culture, history, language and more, Petzen told her teacher students, adding, "There is something utterly primal about eating and food, connecting to the earth and to other people."

Valerie Berkovich from the Latin American Institute shows dolmas made by workshop participants.

Valerie Berkovich from the Latin American Institute shows dolmas made by workshop participants.

Each teacher rolled up a dollop of rice and spices in a grape leaf, emulating the finely tuned work of many women in countries stretching from Egypt to Iran to produce hundreds of dolmas for family get-togethers or festivals.

Pointing to a Google Earth map, Petzen led participants through a geography lesson on the recipe's ingredients — grape leaves from the Nile Delta, rice from China, cinnamon from India's Malabar Coast and salt from the mines north of Timbuktu in Mali. In many cultures, mothers teach their daughters how to shop for the best ingredients; in the most conservative Muslim communities, men do the shopping while women work hidden away at home, the teachers learned.

Teacher Inigo Montoya said he hoped to use the grape leaves exercise to literally wake up his sixth-graders in their study of the Middle East. "Often, at a certain point, I just lose them," he admitted. "The kids are just sitting there staring at me." Not only would making grape leaves be fun for them, but a lesson on the geography of spices could be an eye-opener, he said, to get the kids "to think beyond the supermarket for where their food comes from."

Jeannie Peck, a middle school science teacher at the International Studies Learning Center in South Gate, said the seminar prompted her to think about how she might talk to her students about how "a lot of cooking relates to chemistry, following a recipe in the same way you follow steps in a lab experiment."

Teachers in Petzen's session also learned how nomadic lifestyles led to innovative foods like yogurt and cheese — easy-to-transport milk products — and the ecological consequences of growing export crops in countries short on resources, such as water. Petzen also brought modern-day food conglomerates into the picture: She spotted a McDonald's ad in Egypt that promised customers who supersized their meals free prayer beads.
Standing ready to taste-test that morning's batch of stuffed grape leaves readied for lunch was Jonathan Friedlander, assistant director of the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies, who has taken the lead in organizing teacher training workshops for more than 30 years. While similar programs long-standing exist on other college campuses, "We led from the outset because of our commitment and dedication to strengthening the vital connection between formative and higher education," said Friedlander.

The program started small — an offering of annotated bibliographies and a few hours of teacher training. It evolved into an ambitious enterprise that engages all the International Institute's area studies centers in providing extensive continuing education; curriculum and multimedia resources that support instruction; school site programs; networking; and a wide array of K-12 programs and activities.

The more than 1,000 teachers who have participated in the summer workshops over the past three decades in turn, Friedlander said, "have an impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of students. If you're talking about training global citizens … then it starts here."

See a short video about the program here.