Unit for High School English Classes Overview for Teachers The Common Core has received quite a bit of attention in recent years. Even if, working in private schools, we are not subject to whatever requirements grow out of that Core, we can’t help but be aware of its emphasis on critical reading and its call for more balance between literature and nonfiction.
This unit was created in response to that emphasis, along with the move toward digital instruction (use of iPads, for example) and away from textbooks. The purpose of the unit is to engage students with a variety of materials (some nonfiction and some literary, mostly written but some video) that are available online and prompt them to respond through both informal and formal writing assignments. The unit also challenges students to engage in creative projects, both individually and cooperatively.
Food serves as a focal point or anchor for this unit. Most high school students can relate to this topic because humans experience food daily and can hardly escape having opinions about and reactions to this topic. Of course, we often take food for granted, but that has been less the case in the past couple decades. More people now consider themselves “foodies,” and the market has to factor in the public’s growing concern with the quality, source, and processing of their foods.
Here are some key questions that arise in thinking about food:
What makes food good? (Are there approaches to processing and cooking that produce better-tasting food?)
What ethical considerations should influence our decisions about what food to eat? (This question takes in treatment of animals along with environmental concerns.)
How do our food choices affect the economy, locally and globally?
Which nutritional principles are lasting, and which are fads?
What about the spiritual dimension of eating? (This question incorporates communion, fasting, the importance of eating together, and gratitude.)
Built around such questions, this unit includes a list of readings (with Internet links), informal writing prompts, major writing assignments (with grading criteria), and projects.
Readings and Responses Michael Pollan, “The Food Movement, Rising”
This article provides a good overview of current food issues, especially political.
Response prompt: Describe the key issues that Pollan identifies in his article, and make a case for what you think is the most critical of these issues facing our society.
Ruth Reichl, “Favorite Food Memoirs”
A mother weighs the dangers of letting kids try fast food, and the need to model choices.
Response prompt: Read this article as a counterpoint to Laudan’s “In Praise of Fast Food”. Write a brief analysis of which author does a better job of convincing you (and how they do it).
Rachel Laudan, “In Praise of Fast Food”
The author makes a case for fast food as a key to the liberation of modern women.
Response prompt: Read this article as a counterpoint to Albright’s “If You Give Kid McDonalds”. Write a brief analysis of which author does a better job of convincing you (and how they do it).
TED Talk Video, “Teach Every Child About Food”
In this TED Talk, the author who made the Blue Zones famous (including Loma Linda) talks about the lifestyle secrets to a long life.
Response prompt: Compare and contrast the effectiveness of statistics and personal stories when it comes to convincing you (or anyone) to make a change in diet or lifestyle.
Mayo Clinic, “Celiac Disease on the Rise”
This article reports (for a lay audience) the results of a study that indicates an increase over the past 50 years in celiac disease.
Response prompt: What strengths and weaknesses do you see in the methods and evidence of this study? Overall, how credible do you find the study’s conclusions?
Sharon Astyk and Aaron Newton, “The Rich Get Richer, the Poor Go Hungry”
This excerpt from a book argues that our lifestyle in the West is largely responsible for global hunger, and the authors urge changes to our food system.
Response prompt: It’s not popular to blame your readers (we do live in the West) for starvation, so Astyk and Newton probably face an uphill battle. That makes it important for them to offer rebuttals to common arguments. Summarize two rebuttals they offer in this article.
Amanda Gregory, “Chocolate and Child Slavery”
This blog post summarizes the prevalence of child labor in harvesting chocolate and the political difficulties involved in trying to stop that practice. It suggests concrete steps consumers can take to help reduce child slavery.
Response prompt: How likely are you and your family to make some of the changes suggested in this article? How likely to you think other families are to make those changes? What additional persuasive strategies might make people more likely to take action?
Barbara Kingsolver, “Lily’s Chickens”
This essay begins with a funny, touching story of a daughter who doesn’t want to eat chicken once she realizes where it comes from. It then broadens to discuss the overall importance of people (children and adults) being more involved in the production of food.
Response prompt: What events or people have shaped your opinions about food? Describe one —or two in short narratives.
Priyamvada Gopal, “Turning Vegetarian Will Not Solve the Food Crisis”
This editorial contends that the system of food distribution must change if we are to solve the problem of world hunger.
Response prompt: Young people often feel helpless to tackle problems that involve huge systems (like the global economy). What steps, based either on this article or your own experience and observations, could you make to help reduce hunger in the world?
Richard Foster, “The Discipline of Fasting”
Excerpts from Foster’s book on spiritual disciplines describe the reasons for fasting and let people know what to expect when they do it.
Response prompt:: Does Foster motivate you to want to try fasting? Why or why not? What would you hope to gain? (If you don’t think you would gain anything, what makes you skeptical?)
Leslie Leyland Fields, “A Feast Fit for the King”
This article critiques the food movement for often leaving God out of the equation—for declaring or implying that the way we eat can save us and our world. Fields calls for an approach to food that is moral and responsible, but also God-centered, honoring the goodness of Creation.
Response prompt: Summarize this article’s description of the extremes to which people can go about food and the author’s conclusions about proper attitudes toward food.
Nancy Nordenson, “Things That Fall and Things That Stand”
This meditative essay alternates between descriptions of a tragic bridge collapse and the making of Swedish pancakes. In the end, it reflects on the importance of being anchored in relationships and gratitude.
Response prompt: Describe something that has fallen or is falling in your life, and then something that can help you stand.
Major Writing Assignment
Persuasive Essay Write an essay in which you defend your position on an ethical issue related to food. Ethics is the study of right and wrong, so an ethical issue usually involves harm to people, animals, or the environment, and to what extent that harm is justified. Examples include whether or not to eat meat, the importance of buying organic foods, the effect of our buying choices on various corporations (and in turn how those corporations treat employees or animals or the environment), and the role of the government in safeguarding consumers (there are many specific issues related to this question, any of which would make for a more focused essay).
You should choose such an issue and take a stand on it. Then write an essay in which you explain and support that stand. Although I am not requiring research for this assignment, most of you will probably need to conduct some research in order to present specific evidence for your position. You do not have to follow all the MLA rules for source documentation on this assignment, but you should somehow indicate where your information comes from. (For example, if you claim that Walmart avoids hiring people for full-time positions because the company doesn’t want to provide benefits, you should refer to a source. Something like this: According to a 2012 article in Newsweek, almost 90 percent of Walmart employees are part-time.) Also make sure to use quotation marks around any wording you take directly from a source.
We will talk in class about what makes a persuasive essay effective, but here’s a checklist you can consult as you write and revise this essay:
□ Do I have a clear position?
□ Is my approach appropriate to my audience?
□ Is my tone credible?
□ Do I have specific support for all of my claims?
□ Are the sources for my support reliable?
□ Do I offer an effective rebuttal for the most likely counterarguments?
□ Are my opening and closing paragraphs engaging and motivational?
□ Are there clear, smooth connections between my points?
Preferred length: 500-800.
Remember, well-written paragraphs are more important than the number of words.
Major Writing Assignment
Food Memoir Write a personal essay about a significant food memory. You could choose a tradition. Thanksgiving dinner is the most obvious example, but most of us have other food traditions—cocoa by the campfire, blueberries on the 4th of July, split pea soup on Halloween (OK, that’s probably just me), a celebratory visit to a nice restaurant after a good report card…
Or you could choose a one-time event. Maybe you remember with particular fondness the first time you worked with your mom to prepare a meal, or the pizza you wolfed down after a 30-hour fast, or the instant noodles you made at 10,000 feet, or the last dinner you shared with your grandpa…
Whatever the memory, your mission is to bring it to life for us. These great food memories almost invariably revolve around people, and you need to introduce us to those characters. But you are also writing about the food, trying to bring us almost to the point where we can taste it through your words. So your essay should be rich in specific details, sensory images, comparisons, precisely chosen words. Let yourself wax a little poetic.
This essay is likely to take a narrative form (a story), but it could be descriptive, organized spatially or by different senses. Just make sure to have a plan and follow it. As far as length, there’s not a firm minimum, but anything less than 500 words is probably a malnourished essay for this assignment.
Major Writing Assignment
Evaluating an Article Write an essay in which you evaluate either the validity or the style of an article. We have read a variety of articles, and you have learned different ways to respond to them, but your responses so far have been informal. Now I’m asking you to produce a more fully developed and more polished evaluation of an article. You may choose one of the articles to which you responded more informally earlier in the quarter, or another one that you find (with instructor approval).
An evaluation is an assessment, a judgment about quality. For this evaluation, I’m giving you a choice of focus. You may decide to focus on the validity of the article, or on its expression. Please don’t try to do both (your essay would then be too long, too unfocused, or both).
If you evaluate the validity of the article, you are focusing on its content. Ask yourself questions such as, How reliable is the evidence? How substantive and convincing is it? How sound is the logic? Are the methods legitimate? You might also focus a little on expression, since qualities such as tone can have an impact on credibility. But mostly, you are making a judgment about how well the article supports its claims. Your own thesis will be a claim about the validity of the article you are evaluating. While you may need to spend a paragraph summarizing the claims of that article, most of your essay will describe examples of the articles strengths and/or weaknesses to support your thesis.
If you evaluate the style of the article, you will focus not on what is said, but on how it is said. Ask yourself questions such as, How clear is the writing, and what makes it more or less clear? What sort of tone does the author use, and how is that tone established? How creative and effective is the article’s diction? (You will want to use examples.) To what extent does the author make use of figurative language, and are the figures of speech effective? Your thesis in this case will be a claim about how well written the article is, and most of your essay will analyze examples of the stylistic qualities of the article.
Either way (content or style), here’s a checklist you can use as you fine-tune your essay:
□ Is my focus on assessment (rather than summary or personal reaction)?
□ Do I support my evaluation with specific examples from the article?
□ Do I use terminology that shows my understanding of writing techniques?
□ Is my organization smooth and clear?
□ Is my writing style somewhat scholarly, but not overly dry or wordy?
□ Have I edited thoroughly?
Preferred length: 500 words
Feast As a class, you will plan and prepare a meal for other people. Those other people might include your families, other students in the school, or a group of people in the community. While you should select a realistic group size (not the entire school, probably), you shouldn’t limit yourselves too much.
This feast should reflect our thinking about food. We have talked about what makes good food, and we should do our best to produce a high-quality meal here, even if that is not easy. We have also talked about the ethics of food, and your choices for this feast (what to make, where the food comes from, how to prepare it) should honor our convictions about food ethics. You should also be mindful in your planning of nutrition. This feast should be delicious but also healthful. Finally, this feast should be instructive. Those who come should enjoy the food and each other’s company, but I hope they will also begin to understand the principles that have guided the feast and the processes you went through to bring it all about.
When it is all over, you should be able to point to specific contributions you have made throughout the process—planning (in committees), cooking, presentation (both of food and information, and this includes decor), and clean-up. Your grade on this project will mostly indicate the strength of your individual contribution, though it will be affected by the overall success of the feast.
I trust that this undertaking will be enjoyable for us, enlightening for others, and a delicious blessing for all.
Food Unit Project
Outside Reading You need to choose a book*, nonfiction or fiction, in which food figures prominently. You need to read that book attentively and prepare to share with the class about it.
Your sharing needs to have a visual/technological component to it. I especially like Prezi or video.
What should be in this presentation?
Explain the key points made in the book, especially points about food. (Even novels make points. They show, rather than tell, but they still illustrate ideas.)
Show a few short key passages that exemplify the book—its approach and style.
Any other ideas you want to share about the book.
Answers to any reasonable questions brought up by your classmates.
How long should your presentation be? You should plan to be up front for about five minutes. A presentation much longer or shorter than that will not receive a good grade.
*Outside Reading Suggestions Anita Desai, Fasting, Feasting. This novel starts in India and ends in New England. Among the cultural clashes illuminated are some revolving around food. (I found the shock of North American supermarkets especially memorable.)
Leslie Leyland Fields (editor), The Spirit of Food. Fields collects 34 essays on food and spirituality. A rich variety of writers looks at land, rituals, community, fasting, and many other issues through the lens of food.
M.F.K. Fisher, The Gastronomical Me. A food memoir from the ‘40s (before there was such a thing), this classic features wonderful descriptions of and reflections on food, beginning with the author’s childhood.
Paul Freedman (editor), Food: The History of Taste. Acclaimed for both its writing and illustrations, this book tells the history of food from pre-history to the present, covering cultures around the globe.
Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. The author describes her family’s year-long experience with eating only what could be obtained locally (and, whenever possible, what they themselves could produce).
Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. “What should we have for dinner?” This book, the author explains, is an extended answer to that question. It looks closely and honestly at where our food comes from and what that means for us.
Julie Powell, Julie and Julia. The author undertakes to make, in one year, all the recipes (more than 500) in Julia Childs’ Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The attempt changes her life.
Ruth Reichl, Tender at the Bone. The food critic for The New York Times narrates her journey to becoming one of the nation’s food authorities.
Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals. Partly through his own story (as a father and as a grandson of a Holocaust survivor) and partly through hard-hitting investigation, Foer takes an unflinching look at our relationship with meat.
Eric Schlosser. Fast Food Nation. An instant classic, this bestseller exposes the public costs of America’s dependence on fast food.
Jeffrey Steingarten, The Man Who Ate Everything. The author travels around the world, experiencing all manner of foods, and makes it an entertaining story.