I've just got to crack on!

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.

Feedback

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?

Endurance

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.

It’s no secret: Maintaining motivation

Source: Chen, Angus (March 4, 2016). “How to Turn on the Part of Your Brain that Controls Motivation”. KQED.com. Published by NPR/Mindshift.

The Moving Writers #100DOSW18 challenge has provided me with daily prompts, but more importantly, it’s inspired me to dig through my numerous saved links on my Pocket app. Initially, I tagged today’s article with “advisory”, “learning”, “motivation”, and “RTI”. Without reading the article, I felt the title held the secret to helping students tap into their motivation to succeed, not just in my class but at learning and within school. Unfortunately, the article left me with more questions than answers.

The article focuses on fMRI research of the central part of the brain where motivation seems to light up or trigger the greatest activity within the brain. The article details how participants and researchers would view the screen and give themselves pep talks. What they realized is that motivation can be exhilarating. Imagining teammates giving high fives versus coaches yelling at them produced different results. The study also admits that the process of activating, or motivating, the brain activity is “exhausting”. “‘The experience of the task was difficult…. It was very fatiguing for people.”

“People really are changing their mood when they’re doing this, Adcock thinks. They’re becoming more focused and eager. And it seems the effect begins reaching out to parts of the brain involved with learning and memory.” Obviously, the research is based on positive feedback. What happens with negative stimuli? Or how does this part of the brain relate to emotion? The study admits that no long-term or follow p study was conducted to find out if people maintained the motivation.

As a teacher, I KNOW that motivating myself and my students is exhausting. I KNOW that positive feedback generates engagement and motivation, but not always for the long haul. I wanted this article to share some scientific insight, to help me encourage and guide my advisory members and my future English students. How can I assist kids in seeing and discovering their value? How can we make a shift (or at least a nudge) from external motivation to internal drive, as Daniel Pink outlines in his text Drive: The Surprising Truth About what Motivates Us (2011)? Our school structure is set up to condition students to react, not generate their focus.

The bad news is that I am still in search of the Holy Grail that will help me guide my students. I’ll create my own long-term study with my next group of advisory students because we keep them all four years. Hopefully, I can design and amend different surveys for them and provide different resources to them to positively motivate them to succeed in high school and in life. The upside is this article and my reflection motivated me to write a blog post, a routine that I need.

Why I read & write

Today is NCTE’s National Day on Writing. This is a day where I can share my thoughts through writing, but lately, I have been pretty guarded. Lately, I haven’t wanted to share or write much at all. For the past 15 years, I’ve encouraged, goaded, and at times dragged my students into building their writing skills. My goal with writing instruction has always been to help them be effective communicators, to share their thoughts confidently, and hopefully, to help them achieve success through that communication.  At times, this instruction helped students find the “right” way to convey their thoughts for standardized tests, but more often this instruction focused on helping students make sense of what they read, write, view, and listen within the world around them. Thing is, I wasn’t practicing what I preached. I wasn’t writing alongside them, and I haven’t made a conscious effort to do so until this school year.

Unfortunately, my world recently turned upside down, and I haven’t turned to writing. I didn’t even read a page for almost a week. I shut down, became numb, tuned out. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by people who encourage, goad, and at times drag me out of this state — or at least do their best to keep me moving.  For today, I’m choosing to write. I’m choosing to share and to convey my gratitude for those around me who inspire, question, challenge, and uplift. I’m choosing to write to process the senselessness of life events. I’m choosing to write to demonstrate to my students how fortunate I feel to know them and to grow as a writer with them. I’m choosing to write because maybe, just maybe, this is a way to honor and to remember.

“Grief, I think, signs you up in a separate, invisible club, members selected at death’s awful randomness. ‘Gone forever’ is our password, lingering sorrow our secret handshake. If you haven’t lost someone important to you, you can’t begin to know the rules. Truth is, you don’t even know the club exists” (92).

I’ve always liked Susan Carol McCarthy‘s debut novel Lay That Trumpet in Our Hands (2002) published by Bantom Press. The young narrator Reesa has to navigate her loss amid the chaos and fear of Florida during the nine months of terror. I’ve used this text to engage students in discussions of tolerance, injustice, and grief. I just never imagined that McCarthy’s words would rise to my thoughts in my quiet house early this morning. I know that the ache I feel will soften but not disappear. I know that my memories and photographs will remind me of stories I can share. For now, though, I am just choosing to write, to reflect, and to keep a careful watch for others who are in my new club. Empathy is a skill that can be painful to learn, but it’s important for us to keep trying. So, today, I choose to write and hopefully pay forward the love, support, and kindness I’ve received in this past week.