“Close your eyes, and breathe in the scent. What does it make you think of?” said Michelle Krell Kydd to the group of participants, who, on June 25th, had gathered virtually from across the U.S. for this unique smelly workshop. “How does it make you feel? What does it make you remember?”
Kydd was leading the teachers in a highly interactive sensory exploration of the historic routes of trade across the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal, and the Arabian Sea, transforming the abstract nature of smell into articulated lived experience. For their descriptions of the eight plant-based odorants, Kydd encouraged the 25 participants to use words relating to colors, musical sounds, tastes, and textures.
Besides the thrill of suspense, the anonymization of the scents during the workshop supported unbiased sensory evaluation. “Sensory bias and human bias have a lot in common. We bring our ‘likes,’ ‘dislikes,’ and past experiences into what we smell. We have to get out of our own way in order to evaluate what we're smelling,” said Kydd, who is a trained “nose.” “There are no ‘wrong’ answers when it comes to describing smells,” she added. “Everyone experiences smells in their own way. Identification is not the objective.” Kydd encouraged everyone to release their imaginations in evoking memory, emotion, and language. And indeed, after breathing in each scent, they shared unfettered impressions. Clove: “mulled wine.” “Grandma pies.” Cinnamon: “It makes me feel happy, invigorated, strong.” “The forests of Burma!” Mediterranean Cyprus: “Palmolive + ajax -- mom cleaning dishes at the sandwich shop.”
Alongside the chemical properties, teachers were told about the social and religious uses of the scents. Did you know: dried patchouli leaves were used by Indian traders to protect luxurious silk shawls from moth infestations during the 18th and 19th centuries, roses symbolize joy in Hinduism and Buddhism, and that the Mediterranean cypress -- the principal cemetery tree since classical antiquity -- creates a “scentscape” for mourning?
“Vision does not provide a complete picture of what you are sensing,” Kydd cautioned the teachers. She narrated the imprint of a lesson acquired during a childhood excursion to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. On that day, she told the teachers, she discovered a green herb that smelled like a bright yellow lemon. How could something green smell yellow, she wondered! From then on, she followed her nose. Kydd hopes that this DEI learning, embodied in teachers emotionally and mentally, will, in turn, be shared with students in curricula and classroom experiences. Only 22.2% of the participants who provided feedback had experienced active smelling in their own K-12+ education. And 72.2% of them had never included active smelling in their teaching. Kydd’s wish, it seems, will be realized: the teachers roundly appreciated the "hands-on" nature of her presentation. “I can absolutely understand how using smells/scents in the classroom will really enrich students' experience - dramatically,” effused one teacher. Connecting memories to historical information, the olfactory experience “brought "home" the regions … in a really delightful way,” wrote another teacher. “I think students would love this type of exercise, and it would make our texts, etc., more meaningful.”
Aside from scent kits for the workshop and State Continuing Education Clock Hours (SCECHs) from the Michigan Department of Education, the teachers received a world-history unit created by the Center for Education Design, Evaluation and Research (CEDER) at the U-M School of Education. Geared towards middle schoolers, “The Scent of History: How the Spice Trade Connected the World” explores how the spice trade contributed to the interactions of people across Eurasia and the emergence of the Silk Roads, and how the desire for fragrant goods, like spices and incense, connected people in different parts of the world.
Jatin Dua, professor and socio-cultural anthropologist at U-M, followed with an overview of the historical maritime trade of the Indian Ocean. His presentation segued nicely after Michelle Krell-Kydd’s scent flight because the spices she referenced have historically traversed the Indian Ocean many times, taking spices to the Middle East, parts of Africa, Europe, or America, with these routes dating back centuries. He emphasized the importance of the Indian Ocean as it still functions as an essential body of water, using the recent example of the Evergreen ship blocking the Suez Canal and how it stopped commercial trade for days. This historical knowledge equipped teachers to give context to the origins of the scents they’ll use in the classroom. One teacher remarked that “it was most helpful to be able to make the geographic/historical connections to the smells. I was more familiar with some of the smells but still learned so much more. I appreciated the deeper dive and making those connections.”
CEDER’s design coordinator Darin Stockdill concluded with a pedagogical discussion about strategies for teaching “smelly” content in classrooms of 30 or more students in an easy and cost-effective manner. Using a collaborative Jamboard exercise, audience members suggested baking recipes appearing in literary texts, show-and-tell of favorite scents, reflections upon personal connections, and managing stress. “Scent is a great way to begin a personal narrative piece - about a childhood memory, grandparent’s home, favorite place, etc,” one educator suggested. Another expressed interest in creating a highly interactive lesson mapping the originations of scents and spices along the Silk Road, combining the knowledge from both Kydd’s and Dua’s portions of the workshop.
The olfactory experience, commented a workshop participant, “grounded me and reminded me to incorporate more sensory activities in my classroom. The spice trade [lecture] touched on many of the themes I am doing for my unit plans, and Darin's final discussion helped remind me of the components of effective lessons.”
“Rite Smells: An Exploration of Religiously Significant Scents from Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, and North Africa,” was a collaboration of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, the Center for South Asian Studies, and the Center for Middle Eastern & North African Studies at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. The workshop’s activities and educational resources were funded by Title VI grants awarded to each of these National Resource Centers by the U.S. Department of Education.