Navajo Nation and JCPS Students Use Louisville To Study Food And Culture

This week, students from the Navajo Nation in the southwest United States will visit Louisville to learn about the local culture and work with Jefferson County Public Schools students to study food literacy.

In February, a group of eleven students and three teachers from Fern Creek High School flew out West to do the same. For some students it was their first time traveling by plane. The teachers who led the trip are young, innovative and say they want to challenge what a classroom could look like. 

The trip was a collaboration between Fern Creek High School and the Navajo Nation, which is the largest Native American reservation in the U.S., roughly the size of West Virginia.

The idea combined teacher Paul Barnwell’s media class with the school’s Food Literacy class, which is taught by Brent Peters.

“The part about food lit that’s amazing is that it challenges what can be done in a traditional base. Not only does it ask students to leave the classroom and to make bridges between the common core [standards] and the rest of the curricula, but it also enables students to do more,” Peters says.

The students got a chance to see a new culture, learn a new language, and interact with peers across the nation. They also talked about the importance of food and health, and the Navajo Nation’s Vernice Morgan introduced students to culinary culture by cooking a meal.  

“What I made, this is steam corn stew, that’s with mutton, also mutton ribs and also fry bread. It’s just a Navajo tradition that when you have guests that you honor, that you respect, you bring forth your best dish and in the Navajo that’s mutton,” she says.

Teacher Joe Franzen says putting the trip together wasn’t easy. It required private financial support, some from alumni, and extra planning time. But he says when you have teachers and leaders at a school who are willing to support innovation you’ll always have students who are interested.

“Whichever school you’re at, you’re going to have students that will buy into it. Here at Fern Creek some of our most dedicated students were students that were C students, who were D students, that have just never been turned on in life,” he says sitting in the middle of the school’s garden.

That’s what the Food Literacy class is trying to accomplish, and Franzen says assessments from certain students are showing positive results.

Students who participated in the trip were able to see firsthand why they were learning what they were learning, which is also part of the new common core standards Kentucky and most states have adopted. 

This week, Peters says Fern Creek High School and Navajo Nation students will be exploring downtown Louisville and visiting restaurants, farmers markets and meeting the community.  

“They will be using the city as a classroom in which to complete research projects with theme areas and letting that research be shown to the public and making that public, but also instructional so that other teachers and other classrooms could use this in the Navajo Nation, here in Louisville, here in JCPS and beyond,” he says.

It will include curriculum, collaboration and community, but for students like junior Paige Hardin it’ll expose them to another way of life. 

“We were listing all the food places, just the food places within a mile’s radius of our school and she [a Navajo student] was like, Oh my gosh that’s so much. And we’re like, we’re used to that. We’re used to after school before a game walking to Arby’s or walking to Dairy Queen. They can’t,” she says.

The surprises go both ways.

Vice President of the Navajo Nation Rex Lee Jim says he expects his students to be able to handle the city, but says when he travels he’s always impressed by the landscape.

“Every time I come out it still hits me. It’s so green here, it’s so green. And if you look at some of the photos out there [Navajo Nation] it’s just desert and rock and it’s just brown. This is the opposite effect and I think that is what will hit them the most,” he says.

Students from the Navajo Nation arrive Wednesday and stay until Sunday. The itinerary includes visits to Mammoth Cave, Mayan Cafe, Harvest, Smoketown USA, Kenny’s Country Cheese and the Bardstown Road Farmer’s Market.

Devin Katayama

Devin Katayama host middays for WFPL and reports on education and other Louisville issues.

@DevinWFPL

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