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Classroom Happenings: Cooking Demonstration Mixes History, Culture, and Food

The Steward School
Global Studies lesson serves up new connections.
Steward ninth-graders recently experienced an out-of-the-classroom lesson that was food for thought in more ways than one. Students enrolled in Global Studies (taught by Upper School Social Studies Teachers Sarah Dwelle, Jalyn Wheatley, and James Haske) were treated to a cooking demonstration that highlighted the deep connections that food has to history, culture, and family. 

In the Bryan Innovation Lab kitchen, Chef Shola Walker from Richmond’s Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School shared insights about the role of food in the African Diaspora. Ms. Walker’s visit to campus was facilitated by Rashad Lowery, Steward’s coordinator of campus life and community stewardship. 

“When I thought about someone who represents Richmond, good food, and the African Diaspora, Shola Walker was the first person to come to mind,” said Mr. Lowery.  “Ms. Walker and I connected years ago at church services where she often used her gift of cooking as a way to facilitate community engagement. She has always been very intentional about how she cares for people with the meals she prepares.”  

Soul Food 

Ms. Walker asked students what they associate with the words “soul food” and explained that the tradition of soul food within the African American culture has deep roots. Named during the Civil Rights movement, it is “connected to African Americans because people would gather together in communal spaces,” she said, “and it felt good to the soul to share food.” 

As she spoke, she talked about some of the foods intrinsic to soul food: macaroni and cheese, spoonbread, collard greens, and sweet potatoes. She also invited students to help her prepare a lemon cake from a recipe created by Malinda Russell, whose 1866 publication, Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen, was the first known cookbook to be published by a Black woman in the United States. 

In addition, Ms. Walker told the story of Georgia Gilmore, who, along with other Black women, baked pies during the Civil Rights movement for her company, which she named Nowhere. “So when someone asked where the pie was from,” explained Ms. Walker, “Georgia would say, ‘nowhere.’” The money that the women raised from selling their baked goods helped pay for the alternative transportation system that arose in Montgomery, Alabama during the 1955-56 bus boycott.

A Meaningful Experience 

Tiana Scott ’23 enjoyed the interactive nature of Ms. Walker’s presentation. 

“She not only gave us the history of different soul foods but asked questions about our knowledge of and experience with various types of food,” said Tiana. “This lesson made my experience as a student more interesting and meaningful because I was able to taste the soul food and help with the cooking. When you are able to learn the history of something while being hands-on and interactive, it makes the lesson enjoyable and easier to understand.”

Braylan Rice '23 said, "When students are learning in a classroom, they don't always get to experience what they are learning about. But during the lesson from Ms. Walker, we got to make food that is popular in the United States that originated from Africa, and we got to try the delicious food, which was a unique experience."

Hands-on Learning

Morgan Shigley ’23 was surprised to learn from Ms. Walker’s presentation how African culture, and soul food, have shaped the American culture. 

“I also really enjoyed getting to cook with her!” said Morgan excitedly. “Being in the Bryan Lab kitchen, smelling the food, and tasting the food made it feel more real. I am a very visual and hands-on learner, so being able to be in [the kitchen] made learning super exciting. And baking the lemon cake made the experience ten times better.”


Earlier in the semester, Global Studies students took a field trip downtown to learn about the connections between Richmond and the African Diaspora. They visited the Virginia Museum of History and Culture and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and they walked along the Slave Trail. Ms. Dwelle said that the cooking demonstration was a unique way to bring to life the cultural aspects of the Diaspora. 

“When we took the field trip, it was impactful to see the link between Richmond and its history, and the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade,” she noted, citing the artistic expressions students viewed at the art museum and the importance of “learning how history has dealt with slavery and the slave trade. One of the things we want to do with this class is to get students outside of textbook learning and make some community connections. We hope it helps to bring the history alive.”

Bringing Joy Into the Classroom

Ms. Wheatley says that activities outside of the traditional classroom are incredibly useful to students’ learning. 

“When we’ve been reading about slavery in the Americas — and specifically about the transportation of enslaved people to Virginia, for example — students have been able to say, ‘Oh, I remember reading about that when we visited the Richmond Slave Trail,’” she said. “The cooking demo was a way to bring fun and joy into the classroom. We’ve been learning about the atrocities of the Atlantic slave trade, and that, of course, can be very saddening and depressing for students … so to take a pause on that and also learn about the joys that Africans and African Americans were able to experience and continue to experience is really important.” 

Looking Ahead

Ms. Dwelle, Ms. Wheatley, and Mr. Haske look forward to additional out-of-the-box approaches to teaching Global Studies. For example, their students regularly tune into CNN 10, a ten-minute student-centered approach to global news. Later this semester, Global Studies students will create their very own SNN (Steward Network News) stories: 10-minute video segments about a subject pertaining to the African Diaspora. 

“As committed Global Studies teachers, we are always looking ahead and having regular ongoing conversations about what and how our students are learning, and the best path forward,” said Mr. Haske. “When you talk to students about their highlights from the course, those highlights are related to when the learning becomes ‘real’ and they are able to connect what they are learning to their own lives. For the first half of the school year we have strived to provide students with authentic learning opportunities and a rich classroom experience, and it’s our goal to continue doing that for the remainder of the school year.”


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