Canine Cooking Class, Perkins Deafblind Program

(Continued from Perkins Insight eNews)

For the past three years, Christa Gicklhorn has been managing a business of sorts in the teaching kitchen of the Hilton Building at Perkins School for the Blind. Her crew: six students in the Deafblind Program.

Every week students take over the kitchen with their mixing bowls, rolling pins, and multi-shaped cookie cutters.

Photo. Two students busy at work during their Canine Cooking

Students busy at work during their Canine Cooking class.

“I try to stand back as much as possible,” says Gicklhorn. “We really want to foster independence.”

The student-made all natural doggy treats are packaged by students in another vocational class and sold to a growing customer base.

“It’s a fun way for the kids to learn,” Gicklhorn says. In addition to learning how to get around the kitchen, the students build their social and communication skills.

Terry, 16, smiled and waited patiently at a recent class for his turn at the mixing counter. The students, most of whom have some usable vision but no hearing, used a recipe flip book with large pictures matching the photos for each step with the appropriate ingredients and kitchen tools. The workspace is organized to allow the students to access ingredients and equipment independently.

Terry fills the measuring cups atop each canister of ingredients - whole wheat flour, oatmeal, condensed milk, chicken broth - and empties them one by one into the mixing bowl. He brings the bowl to an electric mixer at the end of the counter where a classroom aide stands by in case the students ask for help.

The students are learning to share a workspace, take turns, and communicate with others - all skills they can use both at home with family and in the community.

“We really try to emulate what they’re going to encounter in their adult life,” Gicklhorn explained.

When the dough is mixed, the students sit down at a table with rolling pins, flour, and non-stick mats. Gicklhorn encourages the students to make choices throughout the baking process and each of them picks a different shaped cookie cutter. Gicklhorn lets the students set up their own space stepping in only when asked directly for help. When Win asks her to help him lift the dough out of the bowl in sign language, she gladly obliges.

“We try to get them to ask for what they need … communication is one of our biggest challenges,” Gicklhorn notes.

Photo. Female student making biscuts.
Terry works carefully making perfectly cut bone-shaped biscuits and lines them meticulously around the perimeter of his plate. John, 17, uses the circle-shaped cookie cutter and when a cut-out does not meet his standards he adds it back to the ball of dough and tries again.

“They all bring different strengths which is nice to have in a crew,” Gicklhorn observes.

Once their plates are full with cookies, the boys hand them over to Bobbie Lee, 21, so she can cook them in the microwave. Gicklhorn said she chose a microwave recipe so the process could be completed from start to finish in one class. Bobbie Lee expertly navigates through tight spaces in the kitchen on her motorized chair and makes her way to the microwave.

All of the students are using the skills they learn in class outside in the community, whether through social activities with family and friends or volunteer work and part-time jobs. Terry brings a bag of the dog treats with him when he volunteers at the Buddy Dog Humane Society in Sudbury. Win likes to bring his dog Daisy to the Chip-in Farm in Bedford where he volunteers. The farm provides eggs for the Canine Catering doggy treats. John works at Russo’s, a local grocery store, where he packages dried fruit and candies. Bobby Lee perfects her mobility techniques while volunteering at Boston’s Museum of Science.

“We’re always thinking about what (skills) kids can bring home and how they can participate in their family life and community,” Gicklhorn said.

Every moment is a learning moment in Canine Catering class. The students in the Deafblind Program who participate are gaining knowledge whether they are using a can opener for the first time, following recipe instructions, gaining vocational abilities, or simply making friends of the human or canine variety.

“It’s all about finding an activity they can enjoy to work on all these skills,” Gicklhorn remarked.