With fewer trips to the grocery store for many during the stay at home order, people find themselves standing at the kitchen pantry scanning ingredients to come up with something to make a meal from. That challenge was the core of a recent assignment from Chef Brenda Hitchins, Washougal High School Culinary instructor.

“The assignment was to find three food items in their pantry or refrigerator to make a dish out of,” she explained. “They would then share pictures, provide a self-evaluation and an audience evaluation. I was pleased at how they took the challenge and made items that they felt comfortable with.

“Being able to go into your kitchen, see ingredients and understand how they can be combined to create a meal is an important life skill for students to know,” Hitchins pointed out. “I want students to take chances with food and have confidence in themselves to be able to make a variety of foods.”

It turns out that it is no picnic trying to teach food classes online. “I know many students don’t have the ingredients to try and make the items I am demonstrating, and not being there to help them through the process is hard for me,” admitted Hitchins. “When I make an item, I usually give out samples so they can taste it and then they would make it in class the following day.”

And then there are the technical difficulties of teaching remotely.  “The other day my WIFI went down during a buttercream frosting demonstration, which was frustrating for me and sad for the students,” Hitchins said.  She is now filming the demonstrations and has created a Youtube channel for students to watch the videos.  “This is something I always wanted to do, so it is a great opportunity for me to build a library for the students and staff,” she said.

Each student has a digital notebook in which Hitchins sends information to weekly with a recipe and an evaluation page. The notebook has become theirs to keep and build on going forward in the culinary program.  “I am still learning about digital notebooks and I think they are beneficial for online learning,” she said. “When we return to the classroom, there may be combination of digital and written resources moving forward.”

“Many of our teachers have really shown exceptional strength, vulnerability, courage and creativity during this difficult and ever-changing time in education,” said Margaret Rice, WSD CTE Director. “It has put many teachers to the test, especially those with courses that are so ‘hands-on’ like Brenda’s.”

Hitchins is challenging her students to use critical thinking and risk taking with their assignments.  One example is student Aubrey Imel, who experimented with dumplings by making one batch with baking soda only and one with baking powder.  “She was amazed at how the baking soda dumplings floated, browned but were very dense inside,” said Hitchins. “The baking powder dumplings created a better dumpling. I told her if she made the dumplings with baking soda plus an acid, they would have come out the same as the baking powder. There are many more stories of students trying new things and approaching cooking using critical thinking and taking risks to understand different recipe outcomes.”

One of the other challenges for Hitchins is to come up with dishes she can demonstrate in 20-25 minutes for the classes.  Cooking methods, understanding ingredients, sanitation, plating and presentation, and knife skills are the focus of these ‘short courses.’  “I hope I am helping to offer some sense of structure and continuity while doing practical demonstrations for students that become a part of the meal planning at home,” she said.

Rice said she has seen more collaboration than ever among teachers during the school closure. “Teachers are challenging each other, seeking consultation on streamlining curriculum and learning concepts, and generating creative ideas that connect students in learning new material, all while keeping their current situation in mind, exploring, learning and for some mastering online learning delivery systems in a very short period of time.  They are staying positive and upbeat, helping each other overcome a myriad of other issues (both professional and personal) during this crisis. We have so many incredible, caring and dedicated teachers in Washougal and I am so lucky to be able to work with them every day.”