Q+A: Jessica Lander, Ed.M.’15
As a history and civics teacher at Lowell High School in Massachusetts, Jessica Lander, Ed.M.’15, starts her class’ study of U.S. history with a unit on immigration. Yet for her class of 11th- and 12th-grade immigrant and refugee students from about 30 countries ranging from Columbia to Cambodia to Nigeria to Syria, the textbook questions that typically accompany a unit on immigration — “imagine you’re leaving your home” or “imagine you’ve arrived in a new country” — don’t speak to the expertise and lived experiences of her students and their families.
Inspired by one of her own teachers, Lander works with her students to write a cookbook that linked their stories and experiences to those of immigrants in the early 20th century through the flavors of their home countries. So far, Lander has published three cookbooks with three classes of students. Just about to start the fourth version, we caught up with Lander to talk about the power that food and its stories have to bring students from all over the world together.
So why a cookbook?
Food is visceral. It calls up memories. It brings people together quite literally. It’s the dining room table. It’s tied to family, celebrations, people here and at home, and home country. This is a way in to talking about their own immigration journey, a way in to center their families as experts, and to be thoughtful about creating doorways for them to share their stories. I’ve found many students want to share and speak about parts of their journey and story, and food allows us a way to enter that conversation that’s meaningful but also lets each student choose how they enter that conversation.
How do you then connect those stories to what you’re learning in history and in civics?
As we’re studying history, my students bring this range of perspectives and understandings that enrich our class in tremendous ways. It’s important that my students know their history is a part of America’s history — that their story is part of America’s story. It centers their experiences so we can talk about the intersection points with the history of the United States.
Each student starts by finding a recipe?
They start the project by thinking about and sharing food traditions. Then, they choose one recipe they want to write about. So, they have to go home — for many it’s going to mom and dad, or grandma and grandpa, or an uncle and aunt — and asking how to make the dish. That often becomes an exercise in multiple levels of translation. They bring it back to the classroom and we type it up and think about how to write instructions for someone who’s never cooked your dish. After we have the recipe down, we edit. Next, they have to write a story about their dish. Perhaps they write about the history of the dish and why it’s significant in their country or religion or their family. Sometimes, they’ve written about a memory of the dish or cooking it for the first time.
Do they actually cook the recipe?
Yes, finally, they make their dish and bring it in to share with their classmates. We lay out the food on our desks and they try each other’s food and share traditions and stories. Everyone’s filling their plate with, for the most part, food they’ve never tried before.
What does the celebration look like?
It’s watching an Iraqi girl sample Japanese egg custard from her friend that she sits next to every day or a Dominican boy realizing that Tanzanian donuts are like something they had growing up in the Dominican Republic. Food is a connector and the connections the cookbook makes are so powerful. The project is a space for students from all around the world to learn from each other.
What do students take away from that experience?
Having done this project for a number of years, I often find it’s a building block for new friendships. Many of the projects we do [in my class] help to build community, but the cookbook is a powerful part of that journey because it’s a space for my students to share about themselves.
What’s the most important thing for you as a teacher to keep in mind with this unit?
The idea of belonging is so important for all students, no matter where you come from, no matter whether you’ve been in this country for generations or came in the last year. Belonging is essential to learn and to thrive. It’s essential for me in my work and in my classroom to help my students, who are mostly newly arrived refugees and immigrants, feel like they belong here in their new home.
You actually publish the books each year. Why?
I do the work of putting it into a book and publishing it because my students become published authors. Being able to hold a book that your name is in is transformative. We share the book publicly in our community — like in the public library — and it’s a powerful idea for them that their words, their stories, their traditions, their recipes, are out there being shared in a real, physical book we can hold and put on our shelves.
Read a related essay from Lander in Usable Knowledge.
Follow her on Twitter: @Jessica_Lander and her website: jessicalander.com. Learn more about the cookbook itself here.