I was really looking forward to this year’s winter break; for the first time in several years, I had no grading, planning, or general work to complete. Having said that, I did prepare some for my classes and professional development. The difference was I felt no pressure to do so. It was a real treat. I enjoyed a little reading, sewing, and cooking. And of course, I did catch up on some streaming shows.
One of the shows I began streaming was The Great British Bake Off (in the US The Great British Baking Show). I immediately became hooked. I enjoy cooking and baking, but this show is next level. In the most recent season, 13 participants competed to be named the greatest amateur baker. Each week, bakers complete 3 baking challenges: the signature, the technical, and the show stopper. I became invested in their techniques and flavor combinations, even rooting for a few specific people. What I didn’t expect was how the show would offer some revelations about teaching and learning.
In the middle of season 5 (after watching seasons 6 & 7 on Netflix.com), I noticed how clever the creators and producers were in the selection of the hosts and judges. Although Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith are veteran culinary experts, I realized how much they intend to mentor rather than critique the bakers. Each of the bakers truly seems invested in what Paul and Prue say, hoping to receive a smile or the unexpected handshake for a job well done. At times, though, the feedback is blunt, pointing out how raw or dry or messy a dish turns out, resulting in tears and apologies.
What makes the feedback different, from similar shows I’ve watched, is the fact that it’s ongoing. The judges and the presenters check in with each baker during each phase of the competition. Whether it’s the odd question (that’s really a hidden nudge) or a raised eyebrow, bakers are quick to share their ideas, and the judges genuinely appreciate the bakers’ insight and creativity. Even when the judges seem to disagree with the choices, they are quick to say how much they look forward to the end result. There’s no “sandwich” or programmed approach to the feedback, no specific phrase they repeat or prescribed number of handshakes. It’s a shared experience of people who enjoy making food. I began to wonder how I might incorporate this into my writing instruction, offering more options and sharing techniques with students rather than a prescribed number of classes on different standards. How might all of our writing improve when we share in the experience and more informal feedback is provided along the way?
At this point, it’s obvious I watched WAY too many of the shows. Because of this, I became curious in how they choose the bakers. It amazed me just how rigorous the process was to make it to the top 12/13 bakers they select for the show. Unlike the archetype personalities that seem to appear in other reality television shows (e.g. trouble maker, gossip, etc.), the contestants just seem like every day people. In fact, the show combines highlights of their backgrounds, occupations, and interests with the mini interviews between the 3 challenges. But this show isn’t for the faint of heart. The application has 75 questions, and that’s the very early beginning. There are at least 4 rounds of interviews, and applicants must also bring samples of their recipes as well as perform technical cooking at the interview. When interviewed, one winner mentioned that it took longer to be selected than it did to film the show.
The filming itself spans 10 weeks. Bakers attend each weekend, performing 2 challenges one day and the show stopper on the next. No one is guaranteed or safe despite the number of technical challenges they ace or the number of star baker titles they earn for the show stopper. The weeks vary from pastries and cakes to bread and dairy. Not only is it a test of the bakers’ knowledge and skills, but it also tests their ability to handle stress and emotion. As I mentioned, the feedback at times is just brutal– honest, but gut-wrenching. But the bakers often question themselves or absently forget ingredients, forcing them to start from scratch and getting them further behind. The thing is, they keep going. Despite the poor bake, runny moose, or lopsided sponge, they “crack on”. They acknowledge any short coming and begin anew. How often have I or my students gotten wrapped up in negative feedback? I’ve been embarrassed to actually write this post because I know I don’t prioritize personal writing enough. But what might happen if I tap into some of the bakers’ resilience? How can I share that with my students and colleagues?
Love of learning
Considering how rigor of the application and competition. One would think that the grand prize must be riches beyond belief, a contract to open their own business, or the like. No, the top three finalists receive bouquets of flowers, and the top baker wins a cake stand engraved with The Great British Bake Off. Yep, these people secretly leave each weekend to travel to the illustrious tent, not knowing if that week will be their last.
In fact, each baker knows what the focus will be for the following weekend. They have the week to research and try recipes that they can use for the signature and show stopper rounds. Many admit that they practice daily the different recipes; one contestant even shared that they turned up the heat in their flat to mirror the conditions of the humid summer tent to insure that the recipe would work. Day after day, week after week, these bakers work hard to showcase their best baking skills all while maintaining their lives as full time college students, bankers, teachers, etc. They relish the feedback from the judges because they know it is meant to lift their abilities. They endure the challenges because they are passionate about being the best. Simply put, they do it because they love it.
Our new semester begins this week, and I’ll admit I am tempted to redecorate my classroom into the tent in Welford Park in Newberry. I want to capture some of the same excitement for learning as well as some of the resilience for the challenges that teaching and learning can bring. Hopefully, my passion for learning will continue to inspire both me and my students.