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West Valley teacher Lesley Dalke cooks up new ideas amid virtual learning

West Valley High School cooking class teacher Lesley Dalke demonstrates how to make muffins Instagram ready.  (Nina Culver/For The Spokesman-Review)
West Valley High School cooking class teacher Lesley Dalke demonstrates how to make muffins Instagram ready. (Nina Culver/For The Spokesman-Review)
By Nina Culver For The Spokesman-Review

Lesley Dalke’s classroom at West Valley High School is empty. The ovens aren’t turning out batches of muffins, the mixers sit unused, and no inviting smells waft through the air.

Teaching high school classes is a challenge for any teacher, but Dalke struggles to teach culinary skills to her students over the internet. She much prefers to see them in person.

“When I see them struggle, I can catch it,” she said.

Most of her students turn off their cameras and microphones, so she’s talking to blank screen when she leads her demonstration sessions.

“All I know is I’m talking to a bunch of pictures,” she said. “If they don’t understand what I’m saying, they won’t speak up in a large group.”

But she still insists on doing her sessions live.

“I probably should prerecord, but the kids can ask me a question – if I can get them to unmute their mic,” she said.

Teaching cooking virtually is difficult, she said.

“Somebody just sent me a picture,” she said. “ ‘Mrs. D, what is wrong with my bread? I’m about to throw it out.’ I said, ‘No, call me. We can fix it!’ ”

Dalke has been doing what she can to make the experience easier for students. Gear Up purchased several kits of common baking supplies and utensils to students who don’t have them available at home.

“If a kid cannot afford this stuff, they can check this out,” she said.

Each week, students can indicate what supplies and ingredients they need for that week’s assignment and Dalke packages everything up for the students to pick up.

Dalke said one of her students, James Kien, is the exception to the rule and frequently asks a lot of questions.

“I’m sure he’s asking all the questions the other kids want to know,” she said.

Kien said he signed up for the class because he wants to be able to cook for himself and his family. He enjoys learning how to cook and likes that Dalke allows them to personalize recipes.

“She provides a lot of additional information about it,” he said. “She says we can change parts of the meal.”

Dalke provides the recipes and the ingredients, but Kien said he’d much rather be in the classroom instead of online.

“For me, I prefer to have the teacher there,” he said. “It’s harder online than it would be in class, but it’s still helpful.”

One of his favorite things to make was pizza. He made the crust and even went the extra mile and made his own sauce, which wasn’t part of the assignment. He topped his creation with extra cheese and pepperoni.

“It was really good,” he said.

Last week, the students experimented with different mixing methods for biscuits and muffins. The week before, it was yeast breads. The students each maintain a Best Cook Project PowerPoint presentation that they add to each week. They post pictures of what they’ve made, videos of the creation process and write about their experiences.

On a recent day, Dalke was teaching her students how to make their muffins look Instagram ready even if they didn’t turn out that well. She whipped up a quick glaze of powdered sugar and milk to drizzle over the top of one and dipped the top of another in melted butter and a mix of cinnamon and sugar she had left over from another recipe.

“It kind of hides how it doesn’t look good,” she said.

Dalke said she teaches students three main things: Be organized, clean as you go and learn to handle the unexpected.

“I also try to teach them to use what you’ve got,” she said.

She said she has always enjoyed teaching cooking throughout her more than 20 years as a teacher. A cooking class can provide a needed creative outlet to students who might struggle in a traditional classroom, she said.

“Kids shine because they’re given the opportunity,” she said. “It’s not that I’m a great teacher.”

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