Close “Listening” to News Story on Nutmeg

This report on NPR – “No Innocent Spice: The Secret Story of Nutmeg, Life and Death” might be an interesting “approaching the holidays” foray for students into close listening and close reading. The content will surprise them, but what makes this feature report effective is the way reporter Allison Aubrey has structured the content.

  1. She starts in the kitchen discussing how nutmeg is currently used for holiday cooking – helping the listener connect to what they already know about nutmeg.
  2. Then she interviews Kathleen Wall, a culinary historian at Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts, about how early settlers used nutmeg not just for cooking, but also for medical purposes. So she’s delving into American history and the use of nutmeg. (Get out a map.)
  3. Aubrey moves to interviewing a chef in a restaurant who has found some interesting combinations with nutmeg – try spinach, butter, shallots and nutmeg! Aubrey is bringing us back into the present – but stretching what we know about nutmeg’s current use.
  4. From the present, Aubrey goes further back into the past – the 1600’s with historian Michael Krondl who tells a very sad narrative of the history of nutmeg – including European traders engaging in the genocide of the indigenous peoples in the Spice Islands in order to have sole access to nutmeg plants. Did you know the Dutch traded the island of Manhattan (formerly New Amsterdam) for an island in the Caribbean?

Aubrey has carefully constructed this report to move us from the familiar present to a familiar period of history back to the present in a less familiar situation (spinach and nutmeg, anyone?) and then to the past again to an even less familiar – and maybe even surprising historical period of fighting to the death for nutmeg. She deepens and broadens our perspective through her choices of who to interview and what content to include. (This could be a good mentor text for writing research as well!)

Instructionally for 6th-9th graders –

  • I’d start with the smell of nutmeg. Bring some into your classroom so students will be able to connect more easily. (Okay…and not all students will be familiar with nutmeg – so you might have to build some background knowledge.)
  • Then listen to the report.
  • Follow by handing out the transcript and asking students to identify the sections of the report.
  • Post the transcript for all to view and think aloud about what is happening for you the reader in the first section – your familiarity with nutmeg, etc.
  • Ask the students to work in groups to think through and share out about the next section.
  • Proceed in this fashion – coaching groups at the point of need.

Essential questions to ask as part of the conversation – perhaps after the structural analysis –

  • How does Aubrey’s report deepen our understanding of a familiar holiday spice? What are the implications?
  • Is there a history for everything we touch?
  • What are the political and social implications of newer “things” we touch and use? Like i-phones?
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