What the Teacher Learned Today (Apron version)

May 8, 2013

I’m trapped in a kitchen with eleven teenagers,  unable to speak a word.  Two are stirring pans over a hot stove, two are grating cheese (their fingers getting closer and closer to the blade as I type.)  Six are wielding knives, dangerously close to chopping off their own fingers.  Several of them are singing Justin Bieber songs. I know, it sounds like a nightmare.  But I am fully awake.

And I am gagged entirely of my own will (figuratively gagged:  I don’t actually need duct tape over my mouth to keep quiet.) My silence in this case is for my own protection.  And their growth.

Switching to teaching in a Montessori school from a traditionally academic college-prep environment required more than a few adjustments on my part.  My teacher friends joked with me that I would have to start wearing ponchos and knitting my own stocking caps to fit in.  I already had twenty years of classroom experience, yet I worried that I would not be effective without my go-to habits for motivating my students.  Grades, detention, and even the classic teacher sunshine of a smile and a “great job!” all are frowned upon in classic Montessori environments.

But now, here I am, two years into the adventure, teaching a class that blends practical life skills, community service, and executive skills.  We’re in our school’s teaching kitchen, cooking six pans of lasagne, two giant pans of Caesar salad, homemade salad dressing, and six loaves of bread.  By lunchtime, the kitchen will be entirely clean.

And I will know I have succeeded if I don’t raise a finger — or my voice — between 10 AM and recess.  If eleven teenagers can make lunch for 60 homeless New Yorkers (and clean up!) without losing digits or losing their tempers, I will have helped them to discover within themselves what Maria Montessori most wanted them to learn:  self-direction.  I know what success will look like: in fact as I sit here typing, it is unfolding before me.

But how in the world did we get here?  Rewind to last summer.  I sat in this same kitchen with a group of my fellow teachers and multiple copies of blank planning documents Xeroxed from Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTeague.  Together we dreamed up goals for a Nursery through Grade 8 curriculum, agreeing that our curriculum would be deemed succeeded if by middle school, our students could plan a healthy meal, purchase the ingredients, cook and clean up on their own.

From there, we planned backwards, determining which skills we would need to teach when.  We made space for the curriculum in our schedule, and scheduled a series of lunches we would cook for groups of students and faculty.  I would teach knife skills and nutrition.  We would organize the teaching kitchen, labeling everything for ease of use, creating what Montessori called a “prepared environment.”  We came up with streamlined procedures that students would follow every time, from “Start with a clean kitchen, a clean apron, and clean hands” all the way to “Clean the sink until it shines,” including every step in between.

The first three times the students and I worked together were — to be perfectly honest — kind of like a nightmare version of today’s calm quiet.  Nobody cleaned up anything.  Measurement was haphazard and ingredients were left out.  There was shouting.  Students began chopping vegetables on the counter, with no cutting board, where raw meat had just been.  I routinely found myself yelling across the kitchen, adding to the chaos, to keep somebody from burning himself, chopping himself, or dropping globs of mess all over the floor.

Montessori spoke of the “three period lesson,” which in the classic form is taught one-on-one or in very small groups.  In the first period, the teacher demonstrates how to do a particular skill (or “work.”)  In the second, the child does the work with the assistance of the teacher.  In the third period, the child does the work independently.  Depending on the work, the child, and the situation, periods 1 and 2 can repeat multiple times before the child internalizes the lesson and is able to perform it on her own.

The first period lesson was not nearly as calm and quiet as Maria might have done it herself.  In part because I was new to teaching cooking, and in part because we were working in a large group, I had to keep my eye on all the chefs while figuring out how best to demonstrate each skill.

During the second period (October through April) the students gradually they learned the skills and internalized our shared kitchen procedures.  My voice got quieter and less necessary and their skills became sharper.

Not surprisingly, the hardest skill to teach was sticking around to clean up.  I find this to be true even of the adults I know.

Today, I printed out the recipes, I helped them divvy up the tasks, and I wrote the following sentence on the board:

“Ask three classmates before you ask me.”

I sat on a kitchen stool and typed this essay.  When a question came my way, I pointed my left arm up at the board.  Through this method, I only had to speak twice:  each time to solve a problem that I hadn’t given them the tools to solve.

And there is the salad, in two enormous pans.  The green apples have been dipped in lemon juice, and the salad dressing and croutons set aside to be mixed together later.  Six teenagers are assembling six pans of lasagne, dividing up the ingredients as fairly as they can.  They look like experts, and every bit of work I did to get them there is invisible.

Some day I will return to the teaching of college prep AP English classes.  Teaching with an apron on was not how I planned to spend my 40’s, but no matter.  This is where I have landed, and I am learning as fast as I can.  Fewer A plusses, more hands-on projects.  Less of my voice, and more and more of theirs, even the Justin Bieber.  Knife skills taught alongside the crucial virtues like empathy, and self-direction, and working together as a collaborative whole.

Today eleven teenagers made lunch for 60 hungry people.  And to me, it felt like nothing less than a miracle.

hope May 8, 2013 at 12:38 pm

lessons for life: for them, for you, and for us all. thank you.

Margaret May 8, 2013 at 1:12 pm

This is lovely…

GailNHB May 8, 2013 at 3:26 pm

Don’t kid yourself. It was a miracle, Launa. For them and for you.

Susanne May 9, 2013 at 4:45 pm

Beautiful! You did it! Your piece brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for taking all the snippets you’ve gleaned from this environment and running with them. Wild horses couldn’t stop you!! Go Launa – apron and all!

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