October 26, 2005

The Chocolate Celebration: A Reminiscence

Did you know that there are three varieties of cacao tree but that all of them belong to the species Theobroma cacao, “theobroma” meaning “food of the gods”? Did you know that cacao trees, which grow in Africa and belong to the same family as kola trees, can grow to 60 feet tall in the wild, and that monkeys and squirrels break open fallen cacao pods and eat the insides? Did you know that the first chocolate factory in the US was begun by a man named James Baker, hence Baker’s Chocolate?

I didn’t either, but I l know those things now, and so does my well-educated third-grader, Agent 97. For today’s celebration, his classroom, which is team-taught by the two best teachers I know, was decorated with wall posters drawn on colored construction paper and illustrating interesting facts about chocolate. The classroom contains half a dozen tables with two to four students at each one, and students had paired up to research, write, and illustrate their projects. The skills mobilized by this task were many and formidable: planning, discussing, working together, taking responsibility, finding information, drafting, revising, editing, proofreading, presenting information in visual form, and making an oral presentation. English, math, science, geography, and history, all through chocolate. This is cross-curricular learning, and even though it may not transmit as many dogged insistent hammerheaded facts as the old rote methods did, I have a feeling it has more desirable results in other ways.

Plus, I got to drink an eight-ounce carton of organic chocolate milk and eat a chocolate chip cookie and a 17-gram, 0.6-ounce (how do they come up with these sizes?) Hershey bar. (I had fortified myself with high-protein foods – cheddar cheese on multigrain bread, water on the side – before arriving.) It was a lot more pleasant than the half-day’s work I would have done instead.

Every time I visit my children’s classrooms, I’m newly amazed by how warm and welcoming the atmosphere is, how much these seem like places I would have liked to spend time as a child. Children can get up and move around and socialize during class time, within the limits of pedagogical usefulness. Teachers move around from table to table, conversing with students in human tones about their work. In the center of each student table is a box containing a dictionary, a thesaurus, a safety scissors, and writing implements. There are books and magazines all over the room, brimming from shelves and tubs and folders. Kids are encouraged to do things on their own, to take initiative in their projects, and to work collaboratively. There is a low background hum of people enjoying what they are doing. There is laughter which is not the sneaky, guilty laughter of wiseguys cracking nasty jokes about their teacher or classmates. On a bulletin board a display headed “Accountable Talk” gives examples of phrases you can use to maintain a constructive discussion: “I disagree with you, because…”; “I like the point you made about…”; “What you said reminds me of…” If I had ever received that kind of guidance when I was young, neither I nor anyone I knew would have known to take it seriously. It would have seemed like yet another strange intrusion from an outside world where people were polite, unsarcastic, and sincere.

At the chocolate celebration I found a funny unexpected bonus. Inspecting the reading materials, I came upon a rack of small paperback 16-page illustrated readers published by Scott, Foresman. These are leveled readers – little books written at specified reading levels, grade by grade – and I came upon several copies of one that I had written as one of my freelance assignments. It’s called YOUR NEW PLANET and it consists of advice from space-wise kids to kids who are about to migrate to new planets. I wrote half a dozen such little readers for Scott. Foresman a few years ago, at a variety of grade levels. For each volume, my editor specified the genre (this one was fantasy) and the reading level and a comprehension skill to be taught implicitly by the text. (The skill for this one was knowing the difference between realism and fantasy.) Given those guidelines, I conceived and wrote the story, threw in a handful of grade-level vocabulary words of my choice, and thought of illustrations for an artist to execute. YOUR NEW PLANET was one of the better ones I’d done, and I was glad to see it there, and I showed Agent 97 and he showed his friends and then the teachers asked me to sign the books.

Looking at this little book – probably about 500 words altogether – makes me wonder. This is one tiny product out of countless billions of products that human beings make. I know how much education and skill and care and time and effort and cooperation go into it, on the part of so many people – a writer, an artist, a large team of editors each with her own special task, a marketing department, a sales force, a publishing board. And all the people who worked to train and educate those people. Multiply that by the number of products made on Earth. The total amount of intelligence and ability in our species must be overwhelming. It makes me wonder what we’re doing.