The Buttermilk Torture – Middleschool Instruction at Its Best

I have been immersed in middleschool energy since January. There are those who do not appreciate this age group but I love this age for many reasons. And I love how I can goof on them in ways that give the students new perspectives. That is my job. I am asking students to look at the world, to look at language, to look at themselves in expansive ways that may be outside of the norm. Adolescence is an age in which individuals are very self-focused so using that focus as a tool to open eyes to a broader view is very exciting.
Yesterday, as a part of study of the wonderful memoir poem, “Knoxville, Tennessee” by Nikki Giovanni, I stopped at the grocery store at 7:20 a.m. to find foods referenced in the poem. Okra was not available fresh so I decided I would use the internet for photos instead. I had to bother two produce department staff for a bunch of collard greens. I found disposable cups and a quart of buttermilk for taste tests.
Ah…the taste tests. What drama! The faces as the cups were raised to lips to sample the half-teaspoon of the liquid were priceless. The retching, the hands grasping their own necks, the groans, it was all predictable and humorous. This is not an adventurous age for culinary experimentation but they did indulge me. There were those who were more polite about the experience. Each class also had at least one kid with a huge smile declaring, “Hey, I like it!” Brownie points for those young gourmands!
I have been working with this poem for nearly 3 years at all grade levels. We have wonderful conversations about family traditions, about church hats, about our favorite foods, etc. My personal favorite conversation is always about the origins of okra and how it got to the North American continent. I speak to the imaginations and empathy of students to consider the courage and tenacity of that one person kidnapped hundreds of years ago from their native African soil who managed to cling to a pod of okra all the way through the horrid ordeal of the Middle Passage to bring that one element of home and life before identity was stolen from them. I thank my mother for giving me the taste for this vegetable and I thank whomever it was who brought it west to plant in new soil so that now, I can pick those small pods from the bin at the store and prepare them for my dinner.
I do not thank my grandmother for making me drink buttermilk on a hot summer night when I was very young. I don’t love it. But I do love asking students to experience its taste and select similes and adjectives that reflect their opinions. “Nasty,” “disgusting,” “old cheese” are common. I had to laugh as I asked the one student who said, “It takes like sweaty armpits” just when it was that he had that experience. He caught my humor, thankfully. He did not ask for seconds on the buttermilk though.
And, since every teacher I work with gives me a new tool or perspective on my work, I thank my colleague who keeps a bag of Dum-Dum lollipops in her drawer as rewards when earned. I will never do the buttermilk sampling again without that vital tool!
Thanks again for following my blog. I appreciate your consideration of my words and thoughts.

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