"Today, we are going to France."
And with that introduction, Diane Hathaway has the undivided attention of her class of students at Eagleview Middle School.
"Cooking in France is a religion. They are especially known for their crepes," she tells the eighth-graders. "Crepes were very popular back in the '60s. Then crepes sort of disappeared. Today, I'm going to show you how to make the batter and cook them."
It seems what's old is new again at Eagleview. The administration decided last year to start offering cooking classes in the vacated home economics classrooms. Twenty or more years ago, food and textile labs where students learned to cook and sew were the norm.
"Most or all of the schools have dismantled their home-ec rooms," Hathaway said. "What a shame."
Hathaway, who was an art teacher at Discovery Canyon Campus for three years, couldn't resist the opportunity to teach world culture and cuisine. She is an avid cook and passionate world traveler who brings to the class more than three decades in education in the U.S., Canada and China.
"I think I have the best teaching job in District 20," she said.
The idea behind the class is to be interactive and collaborative with world history. Students bring a love of eating and an interest in cooking but leave with much more than a full stomach. While Hathaway teaches the process of cooking, she also addresses the cultural background of foods; the history of various cultures and how their foods and customs developed; the nutritional and health aspects of these foods; and, finally, the personal dynamic of accomplishing a cooking task in collaboration with other students.
"Through the 'hook' of cooking," Hathaway said, "students are exposed to an amazing array of historical, geographical, political, economic, cultural and religious aspects of a variety of countries."
A similar class had been offered at Eagleview a few years ago.
"The class itself was the idea of a former teacher here who used to teach French and world cultures and cuisines," said Anna Keilman, an assistant principal. "She was passionate about cooking and travel and wanted to share that with students."
Because of staffing issues, however, the program was placed on hold.
"We were lucky enough to bring it back this year and found Diane through the hiring process," Keilman said. "We kept our home ec room for this class and have been lucky that it has remained intact and up to date over the years. I am not sure why other middle schools have gotten rid of their rooms like this."
The class is an elective, and students can take it for one or two quarters. Hathaway devotes about two weeks to each country.
"Mondays and Fridays are culture days," she said. "Tuesdays I demonstrate the cooking lesson for the week, and students cook on Wednesdays and Thursdays."
During the French unit, students made croquet monsieur (grilled cheese sandwich), crepes and chocolate mousse. A tour through Italy is next, when students will learn to make pasta and pizza dough.
Other countries include Germany, Kenya, Ireland, Japan, Switzerland and Mexico. Thanks to a professional development scholarship, Hathaway will travel to Finland and Switzerland for 10 days this summer to study "Innovation and the Future of Education." She'll take what she learns to expand the Switzerland unit and add a Finland unit.
The class has been a hit with students. Hathaway teaches six classes - two each for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders - every quarter with up to 28 students in each class.
"I have an average of 130 students each day and teach about 550 students over the course of the year," she said. "At the end of the day I'm tired, but it's happy tired."
As for the students, they enjoy the food they prepare and some have an eye turned to more culinary experiences.
"I like to look up YouTube videos of Rachael Ray to see how to fix different dishes," said Justin Graham, an eighth-grader. "I'm thinking about becoming a chef."
Netanya Seale, also an eighth-grader, is more interested in the sweets department.
"I like to watch 'Cupcake Wars' and 'Cake Boss,'" she said. "After going to college, I'm planning on going to culinary school."