A Food Truck Festival Has Tasty Lessons for Creating an Engaging Classroom

Food trucks have become all the rage these days, thanks to the advantages of cooking in a small-but-mobile space and offering better food at cheaper prices.

Awhile back, I stopped by a food truck festival in a neighboring town. As I was sitting there munching on my pulled-pork sandwich and parmesan-encrusted french fries, I couldn’t help noticing this fun, social and high-quality experience has a lot in common with an effective classroom:

Structure and flexibility

The festival didn’t require attendees to eat on a set schedule or choose a specific kind of food. Attendees could sit and listen to the free music, walk their child to a nearby playground, sample a few trucks’ offerings or even purchase a full dinner.

The festival was cordoned off with ample space for people to spread out and decide exactly what they wanted to do. The event was structured enough to offer clear choice and a good time, but flexible enough to give people plenty of options to customize their experience. In other words, the organizers had “set the table” and opened the door to easy and worthwhile participation.

We want the same dynamic in our classrooms: just enough form and expectation to enable our students to fully participate, but not so much that they feel forced into certain expectations. Knowing when to be hard — and when to be soft — is a learned skill. Striving for the right balance becomes easier over time.

A common topic, clearly conveyed

The reason for the event was clearly communicated to the people who participated in it. Before the event, organizers used multiple avenues — social media posts, fliers, emails and local ads — to relay the how and why of the evening. It may seem obvious, but too often we mistakenly assume our students understand why we are teaching them certain topics and skills.

Be explicit in your work, driving home the point of why you are making your choices. A common topic — whether it’s delightful homemade ice cream in a food truck or a new activity in your class — can empower your work. Just make sure the “why” of the lesson is well-advertised to your class. A group will better rally around a clearly spelled-out common topic.

Choice and variety

The food truck fest had a simple goal: everyone leaving with a full belly and good memories. And while the organizers didn’t have a hard-and-fast plan to get us to that place, they still offered multiple options for participants.

The same dynamic exists in your classroom. You have a specific set of curricular goals — knowledge, beliefs and skills — for your students. Some subjects may require a specific path to achieve understanding, but you want to offer as much choice as possible to develop that understanding.

Too often we mistakenly assume that all students do much the same thing all the time — and that learning won’t happen unless everyone is marching in the same direction in lockstep.

Search for ways to offer your students an abundance of choice. This will help bring the lightly engaged learner into classroom activities and get your entire class to the same spot at their own speed and time.

A lighter mood

The overall vibe of the truck festival was relaxed expectation. Attendees were clearly enjoying themselves — engaging conversation, enjoyable background music, comfortable places to sit, and many different options — and the atmosphere helped everyone open up, laugh heartily and enjoy the experience.

While your classroom needs to be a place of high expectation, this feeling doesn’t have to come at the expense of a positive, student-centered atmosphere. Mix in choice, structure and a core reason for being there, and you’ll soon find out that stronger student engagement and performance will follow.

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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