How One Cooking Teacher Opens up a World of Opportunities for Students With Disabilities

This piece was originally posted by Adeshina Emmanuel at Chalkbeat Chicago.

Growing up with dyslexia, Athenia Travis had to master other ways of learning at Chicago Public Schools. Now the Golden Apple-award nominee helps many of her culinary arts pupils do the same at Southside Occupational Academy, where students with special needs prepare for life after high school

“At one point I struggled to even see the alphabet straight, I would see it backwards,” said Travis, 40. “You might say something to me and the whole processing of it will take a little longer, or when I’m reading by myself, I have to read it several times to process it. Going though those struggles helped me to help the students.”

Travis was one of 32 teachers chosen as finalists for the Golden Apple Award For Excellence in Teaching. She’s in her ninth year at Southside Occupational Academy, a high school in the West Englewood community that serves about 260 students ages 16-21. Travis teaches the Art of Cooking through Culinary Arts to students in special education, who learn skills that could help them land jobs in professional kitchens and help them live independently after they leave the school district. Travis runs them through food preparation, sanitation and safety, with accommodations for students’ specific challenges.

Travis, a mother of three children ages 1, 9 and 13, lives in the Chatham community on the South Side. She grew up in another South Side community, Washington Park, and studied culinary arts at Sullivan University. She used to watch her mother teach swimming and dance, and was inspired to bring her love for food to the classroom by her culinary arts teacher and mentor at the former Englewood High School.

We spoke with Travis about her path to the classroom, the challenges and joys of her job, and how she tries to prepare her students.

How did you fall in love with cooking?

Well, between my mother, grandmother, uncle, and father, I was just a greedy little kid, and everybody fed me. I loved to eat, and so I had to learn how to feed myself what I wanted. And then I met this young lady named Darlene Austin who was the culinary instructor at Englewood High. She would have us catering for the school and outside events. I remember she taught me how to make cheesecake. I sold it, and I’ve been excited about being a chef ever since.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I was back from college working downtown at Foodlife, working the pasta station. It wasn’t fun. I liked to talk to people and engage with people, and just being back in the kitchen wasn’t enough for me. That’s when my old teacher Darlene Austin called and said how would you like to be a culinary arts teacher. She said, I know of a school who’s looking for a teacher. I told her it sounds fun.

Why do you think teaching your students about the culinary arts is important?

It’s an industry they can tap into and get jobs through. In my class, I feel like I introduce them to foods that they don’t know, and that opens up a lot of opportunities to study other people’s cultures. And they learn to not just feed others, but to feed themselves.

What — if anything — is different about teaching culinary arts to students with disabilities?

The difference is the challenges they face on a daily basis. I have to figure a way for every student to be involved in the lesson without making them feel as if they are different than any other student. I also have to lay out a recipe that can be used by students with different disabilities, while all still create the same recipe.

Let’s say we have a student in a wheelchair and he has a hand disability where he doesn’t have a great grip but he has to chop up some carrots, which is a very hard vegetable to chop, and he has to be able to move through the class and reach for things. Some things in the kitchen are set on a level he can get to, and I have special L-shaped knives that make it easier for him to grip.

Let’s say he has to do a recipe but he’s not a great reader and he has to measure a teaspoon. I might change it to an abbreviation so it matches the measuring spoon so they can find the correct one to use. I do things like making visuals for the different stations, like the cutting station, the boiling station, the frying station, so once they get a recipe I teach them how to decide what station they need.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach.

My favorite lesson is fish. How to identify, pick, clean, cut, and cook a whole fresh fish. I just think the fish lesson is so fun is because  — how many people get to work with a whole fresh fish? Most people don’t deal with it. It’s kind of creepy and the eyes are still in. The kids are laughing and having fun but they are grossed out and don’t really want to touch it.

When I present that lesson to them I ask, do you all know what type of water we have here — is it fresh water, or does it have salt in it? There’s some students who have never traveled or been to the sea. We do a little tour of what type of fish it is, what type of water it comes from, how to go the store and know which fish is a good one and which is not good to eat. We teach them how to eat healthy, and if they’re ever outdoors, how to set up a place and cook.

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?  

My radio. It would be a shame not to finish or even start the day without a little music. It kind of pumps you up for your day. I just remember growing up and being in the kitchen with Mom —  she would have the radio on and she would be cooking, and everyone in the household would be dancing. I know my kids love to dance. If you’re having a bad day it kind of puts you in a good mood. After I’m done talking we turn on the radio. It soothes me and them, and it’s a great connection for all of us.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

If another student gets hurt. We had one student who got shot by an off-duty police officer one day when he was running down the street. We have other students talking about it, worried about it. It happened a while ago and he’s OK, but it still affects them emotionally and affects their focus.  When things happen that are emotional, or somebody is having a fight or a confrontation, it’s drawn out for them. They can’t talk about it and be done with it. You might have to go back several times and speak with them to get them to calm down. Sometimes the students don’t know how to control their feelings.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

When I spoke with a parent about her son’s allergies. I wanted to explore dishes just for her son because usually he is on a very strict diet. He’s gluten free, dairy free, and he’s very particular about what he eats. It was really hard to get him to eat different things. Once she told me that, I told her that I would work hard to try to get him to taste different things. Every recipe that we do, I create a recipe just for him to do. Let’s say we’re doing chicken noodle soup, instead he’ll do chicken and rice soup with gluten-free rice.

What part of your job is most difficult?

When I can’t help my students to feel better or control their emotions it makes me sad. One of my student’s parents had them on a diet and really didn’t want them eating a lot of sweets, but for Christmas we made cake. Everybody picked out a design, and we spent weeks on this cake, but when that particular kid took the cake home, their parents threw the whole thing in the garbage. When he came back to school he was so upset about it.

After that, when it came time to pick things to bake, he wouldn’t want to pick anything. He would say it’s too sweet. One day we had an episode where he was very, very upset. Finally, I said, would you like to make something healthy? And that did the trick. But it took me weeks and weeks to find out he didn’t want to make anything sweet because he couldn’t have it, because he couldn’t communicate that for himself.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

New recipes! We’ve been working on soul food from around the world. We look at Jamaican cuisine, Nigerian, and African-American, and we cook food for the whole school. I was studying recipes, researching all these different types of black food. I made jollof rice. We tried it, and that’s one of my favorite rices to get at a Nigerian restaurant, but it’s still missing something. I need to get somebody to cook it with me, because once they cook it with me, I got it.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

Always keep the excitement in the class. The kids never want to leave my class, and all the other kids want to get into my class. We’re always doing something busy, something fun. I feel like if I got the excitement, I got the kids!

Is there enough done for students with special needs transitioning out of Chicago Public Schools?

I feel like we can do more on the grammar school level if we start there and give them some of the things we’re offering at our school. Let’s give them both academics and vocational training opportunities, and if we do that, we’ll have more productive young people coming from special education and students with disabilities.

An original version of this piece appeared on Chalkbeat Chicago as “How one cooking teacher opens up a world of opportunities for students with disabilities.”