West Godwin Elementary fourth-graders stood in line taking turns shaking a bag filled with a Valentine’s Day treat of Chex Mix and powdered sugar.
To the tune of singer Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off,” students vigorously shook the bag, while instructor Di Szczesny, “Ms. Di,” told them what they would be doing next. “We are going to take our chocolate and pour it over our Chex Mix. Pour it all in there. Shake it all in there. Everybody can stir and everybody can shake.”
Soon, things got even sweeter with red M&Ms and sprinkles.
“We’re making it red for Valentine’s Day because you’re the loves of my life,” Szczesny told students.
Students dance, giggle, grin and, perhaps best of all, feast when they learn to cook with Szczesny, who hosts cooking classes for the after-school program Team 21, which is run through a partnership with the City of Wyoming. Over the side dishes and desserts they create together, Szczesny gives attention to each student, doling out kind words and lots of silliness with instruction. Somehow everyone stays on task.
“It’s my passion. I love kids and I love food,” Szczesny said.
Meals, Manners and Measurements
Retired after 14 years working in food service for Wyoming Public Schools, Szczesny now spends her evenings teaching elementary students to cook. She leads classes for Team 21 at Godwin, Wyoming and Kelloggsville schools and in many Kent County schools through Artists Creating Together, a Grand Rapids-based non-profit organization that provides artist-in-residency grants for students with special needs across Kent County.
During Szczesny’s classes, students make kid-friendly dishes. The 14 West Godwin students stuffed and wrapped veggie spring rolls and mixed Chinese chicken salad in honor of Chinese New Year. They dipped marshmallows in melted chocolate and shook the cereal and powdered sugar-laden snack known as puppy chow. It was the first of four visits planned, so students from all grade levels get a turn cooking.
Students learn about nutrition and the value of homemade meals, Szczesny said. They learn etiquette, food safety and math skills as the measure ingredients, reading skills as they follow recipes. They must have good teamwork to hustle and get several dishes ready at the same time.
“The main thing is to eat what they make,” she said. “I focus on good nutrition and healthy habits. I would like them to be able to start dinner at home, to learn the basics.”
She also wants them to learn hospitality, what to do when you hate your great aunt’s cooking and to remember to chew with your mouth closed. “I teach them manners, to open doors for a lady, how to set a table and just to be kind to each other.”
Betsy Berry, West Godwin Team 21 coordinator, said cooking with Szczesny is students’ favorite activity.
“Di has a unique approach to connecting and bonding with all of the students in all the grade levels. They love this class more than any other they do in Team 21,” Berry said.
Aryanna McCrary said she learned tips on how not to burn food from Szczesny. “She is a very good cooking teacher and kids can learn from her,” said the fourth-grader. “She introduces me to new foods too.”
Between chopping, mixing, cooking and presenting, students say being a good cook involves a lot. “It’s amazing the work you have to put into it,” said fourth-grader Adrien Rochelle.
After the cooking was done and lemonade poured, students settled down to eat before heading home. “I like everything,” Aryanna said. “The salad was the best,”