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Monday, September 2, 2013

Monday Morning Check In: Just one finger

I grew up in Central Pennsylvania, and everyone in my family would add hot cherry peppers to their cheesesteak sandwiches. Except me. I did not like hot peppers or other spicy foods. I was the bland one in my family when it came to hot spicy food. Then I moved to Texas. While others around me ate jalapeños, I chose to follow my usual lifestyle choice of eating nothing so hot and spicy that I would regret it in the morning.

A few decades ago, we took several junior high and high school students from our Texas youth orchestra program to visit a sister youth orchestra program in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Our Texas students wanted to thank their Minnesota hosts by cooking an authentic Mexican style meal from scratch. We had fun in the kitchen that afternoon, as we mixed and rolled and kneaded and chopped and sliced and grated. During that communal gathering I discovered that a 12-year-old student of mine had also never eaten anything spicy in his life. The two of us made a pact on the spot to learn how to eat jalapeños. We took the minutest bit of a jalapeño and placed it in the center of a very large nacho cheese chip. Not too bad, we thought. We tried another and another. Pretty soon we were eating regular slices of a jalapeño on each nacho chip. We were pretty proud of ourselves that day, although we paid for it in the morning with tummy aches and the feeling that our upper lips were burning every time we exhaled.

This method is a direct contrast to my mothers preferred method of "full immersion." Let me relate two childhood stories about my mother's style of teaching about swimming and food taste. When my mother taught us how to swim, she dumped us in the pool. She knew that we would not drown, because we were at that part of the pool that was commensurate with our height. She did not let us pussyfoot around and stick our toes in the water either to get used to the colder temperature. She taught us to dive in from step one. Today when I encourage hesitant students to try something, I might tell them, "come on in, the water's fine." This is a reflection of my mother's style.

My second story about my mother's full immersion style involves food -- sauerkraut. I come from a family history of Pennsylvania Dutchmen. My grandparents spoke Pennsylvania Dutch, but unfortunately, my mother refused to let my grandparents speak it around the home, so that language was lost to the grandchildren. I came home from school one day at age 7 or so and sniffed the air and said, "what's that awful smell?" My mother was horrified. "You are from a Pennsylvania Dutch family and you don't like sauerkraut?" She exclaimed. "That cannot be."

At that point, my mother served sauerkraut at every single meal that week. Her full immerson method had some validity in my case, because by the end of the week I actually looked forward to eating sauerkraut. I really liked the taste.

Fast forward to the present. I recently had the opportunity to taste my first kale salad. It was delicious. As I subsequently discovered in my research, kale is one of the healthiest vegetables in the world. I started adding kale dishes to my regular menu on a small scale at first, but now we eat it regularly.

I decided recently that I should be more experimental in my choice of food. I want to explore all the various kinds of foods available today that I have never experienced before. I came across a recipe that called for feta cheese. Now I have not liked feta cheese in the past, for it is a little too strong for my taste. I pondered how I would acquire the taste for something that I already knew I did not enjoy.

That is when I remembered my history with the jalapeño. My memory then triggered another memory of a story a friend of mine once related to me about a young mother who did not enjoy having to say no so many times to her young toddler. This mother came up with the idea of "just one finger." Whenever her exuberant 18 month-year-old would try to touch a new object, the mother would gently speak to the boy,"Oh, look. It's okay to touch with just one finger." With this method, the young mom was able to teach her son that it was okay to look and maybe to touch but gently, with just one finger. This approach taught her boy to be more cautious in how he interacted with new things, rather than burst into a room and spin about with no awareness of what is happening around him.

I liked this idea and have used it on my dogs (I have nine in the house). I get tired of saying, "leave it!" whenever I want my dogs to leave something alone or I have dropped some forbidden foodstuff on the floor. There are times though when it is natural and okay for the dogs to want to sniff. So I started saying "just one sniff." I am sure that my tone of voice resonates with the dogs rather than my voice command, but I have found that the dogs do tentatively approach and gently sniff the object when I follow this method.

I decided to use this same approach with my feta cheese exercise. Just one finger, just one sniff, just one taste. I made the recipe without the feta cheese. Every time I ate a serving, I added a little taste of the feta cheese. Before I knew it, I was adding bigger amounts to experience more of the flavor in combination with the other ingredients in the recipe. Within three days, I found that I was adding the full amount and then some to my servings. Now I use feta cheese all the time.

Sometimes we can feel stymied when faced with a new situation about how to incorporate all of a new experience all at once and from the very beginning. Perhaps it would be better to stand back and just approach the new situation with just one finger, as I did with the feta cheese. As a teacher, I have been thinking about my students and how difficult it must be for them to constantly learn something new at every lesson. I have been considering how I might apply my feta cheese and kale experiences to my teaching style.

There are times when the full immersion approach may be the best way, such as fully immersing ourselves in the sound of language. Dr. Suzuki suggested this approach when he taught us about the importance of fully immersing the child in the musical environment of the repertoire that the child would learn. There are times though when a more gentler approach may be the best way to introduce a student to something new.

This week I will take a page from my own life experience, and I will be more mindful about how I offer new material to my students. I will look for more ways to gently ease my students into the new skills and repertoire by finding ways to follow the philosophy of "just one finger."

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