Category Archives: Teaching

The $1500 Gooey Butter Cake: NICE!

IMG_1423I’m still in a bit of shock about this year’s fundraiser results. It’s not like I was unaware of the power of the cake, but when it went for $1000 more than the highest bid for indoor skydiving and only $500 less than two primo tickets to the finale of “Dancing with the Stars” I realized that there was more to this story than a box of cake mix, some eggs, a stick of butter, powdered sugar, and cream cheese.

Each year during my school’s annual benefit season, teachers are asked to donate their time and talent in experiences that are put up for auction and bid on the night of the gala. Last year when my initial offering of gooey butter cake appeared, it was bought straightaway for the suggested price of $200. (The $200 Gooey Butter Cake) It went so quickly that this year I knew it would be put up for auction without a ceiling.

A week before this year’s big event, when it was time to make my sales pitch at morning chapel for my “Teacher Experience” that wasn’t an experience at all, I knew I’d have to update my approach.  That meant just one thing. I had to come clean. The previous year I’d ended my presentation dramatically, reminding students that gooey butter cake was NOWHERE to be found in southern California and that their best chance of having it again was in asking their parents to bid on the one I’d bake for them, St. Louis-style.

As it turned out, this was not completely true.

‘In the interest of our school policy of honesty in all things and truth in advertising, I come before you today to set the record straight,’ I confessed as I stepped up to make my pitch. ‘A reliable source informs me that gooey butter cake can now be found in southern California!’

Stunned silence as the following picture appeared on the overhead screen:

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When the gasps of horror and giggles died down I explained that I’d done some investigative research and this is what I’d discovered.

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More gasps.

I compared and contrasted the two products, pointing out that despite its claim as the ‘Gateway to Flavor’ and the friendly price point of $1.49 or 2 for $2.50, the extensive list of ingredients on the Walgreens’ brand of gooey butter was nearly unpronounceable as compared to the simplicity of ingredients in my homemade cake. I tried to be as kind as I could about the inferior imposter and closed my pitch with this call-to-action plea:

‘I’m sure the folks at the NICE! company mean well, but wouldn’t YOU rather have a gooey butter cake baked just for you by a NICE teacher like ME?’

Apparently, that clinched the deal. The rest was gooey butter history.

In hindsight I’ve realized that along with the sheer power of the cake there were some basic sales principles at work here that, despite the fact that I nearly failed Econ 101 my freshman year of college, I have finally understood:

  1. Create a buzz. Because I use gooey butter cake as an example of my favorite dessert in class when I teach expository writing, students are inundated with knowledge about it, intrigued by its foreign Midwestern origins, and curious to sample it, which leads to…
  2. Don’t underestimate the role of the stomach in decision making. After we complete the writing unit I bring in samples of GBC for the students to taste. Their heightened anticipation from hearing all about it along with its pure deliciousness creates further buzz.
  3. Limit supply, increase demand. Now that gooey butter cake is a benefit item I no longer share the recipe with students and their families. Big deal, you might be thinking. Anyone can get the recipe in a hundred places on the internet. True, but not one baked just for them by their writing teacher. Which returns us once again to #1.

There’s one more principle that renders my list pretty much irrelevant because it’s the one that really matters. And that’s the generosity of the parents who purchased this St. Louis-born treat to help our school and make their daughter and her classmates happy.

Now THAT was really nice.

 

The Nap, Revisited

Long KdgI wasn’t always a big fan of the nap.

As my kindergarten report card attests, rest time was the first subject I ever failed in school. (Click on report card to enlarge if you don’t believe me.) I really didn’t see the point in lying quietly on a hard linoleum floor for fifteen minutes when there were so many interesting things to explore—the play kitchen for one. My lousy grade wasn’t the only price I paid for my restlessness though. All that long year I was never chosen to be the child who tiptoed around tapping nappers on the head with a sparkly silver-starred wand, granting permission to rise and stow away mats. Only the students who “relaxed” earned that privilege.

Before entering school I was a big-time nap resister as well. I am still mortified to reveal I slept in a crib until I was pushing four. Four! Later I always wondered: were my parents too chintzy to invest in a big girl bed for me during those years? Were they trying to keep me, the baby of the family, a baby? Or—and this is what I’ve decided was probably the case—was it my mother’s only hope of catching a break? I learned recently there’s a parenting syndrome called “third child fatigue.” I was the third child and I hated naps, so my mother must surely have been fatigued. Without those confining side rails there was no way I would’ve stayed put on my bed and given her the rest I’m sure she desperately needed.

What a difference a few decades make. I first discovered the joy of the afternoon nap as a college student, catching up on late hours spent studying and having fun. Then later, when I was pregnant with my son, I found myself answering the siren call of the snooze every afternoon around three. I realized after he was born that my body had been preparing me for his schedule all along. When he went down at three o’clock for his afternoon siesta, so did I. Our inner alarm clocks were in synch long before he made his appearance.

Today naps are a luxury I’m free to indulge in only during summertime and the occasional weekend. Nothing is lovelier than curling up with a book after lunch, feeling my eyes grow heavy, and floating away for a few minutes. Taking time out from my to-do list feels like the ultimate gift of self care. When I come back, I’m refreshed and ready to resume my day again.

Arianna Huffington discovered the importance of taking time out for rest in the middle of the work day herself after collapsing in exhaustion during her early days running the Huffington Post. She has since installed two nap rooms at HuffPo, where employees can sign up for one hour slots. They are always filled. Imagine–a workplace where a nap is not only tolerated, but encouraged!

I would love to go work there. In the meantime, perhaps I will install a George Costanza-like bunker under my desk at school and disappear during my prep times. I might even make a sparkly silver-starred wand and add a new and, no doubt, coveted position to our roster of classroom jobs. Teacher Waker!

Teaching TITANIC

IMG_0280“My grandfather wants to know why we’re studying the Titanic.”  The boy was taking advantage of a lull in our fifth grade literature class when he walked right up from the back of the room and put his question to me in a quietly serious voice.

I thought a moment. In the nearly twenty years I’d been teaching Robert Ballard’s Exploring the Titanic to elementary school students that question had been raised only one other time, and it came from a colleague who thought it was morbid and didn’t see the point in teaching about a terrible tragedy.

My own interest in Titanic had been piqued right about the time I was the age of my students and first saw A Night to Remember. Later, as an adult coming across Ballard’s book about his discovery of the wreck and subsequent dives two and a half miles to the bottom of the North Atlantic, I realized the story’s potential for teaching invaluable lessons.

Through the years my students and I have uncovered many of them. We learn about Titanic on the heels of our study of Greek mythology and find that Titanic’s story has all the elements of a Greek myth. Students see that hubris—the Greek word for excessive pride or self-confidence—is at the heart of the story and caused a series of human mistakes, creating a perfect storm of circumstances that brought the great ship down. From Titanic students learn that technology is not infallible.

Along with our class study, students are required to choose an aspect of the Titanic story that appeals to them. After doing research they write a paper, create a tangible project that shows their learning, and present both to the class. Hundreds of projects in, I continue to be amazed by their creativity and learn new things.

Some students are fascinated by the ship itself and build models. Others love the human stories. One boy dressed up as and told the story of Charles Joughin, Titanic’s head baker, who survived the freezing water for an exceptionally long time–allegedly by taking a few nips of whiskey before the sinking. A girl was fascinated by Violet Jessop, the stewardess who survived not only Titanic’s sinking, but the sinking of the Lusitania and Britannic as well. This student found a pattern for her American Girl doll and sewed a World War I volunteer nurse’s uniform, just like the one Jessop would have worn when she served on Britannic, which was converted to a hospital ship during the war. Still other students compose poetry, write diaries, paint pictures, create PowerPoint presentations, and sing songs. Last year, the students in orchestra and band took it upon themselves to learn the Titanic theme from the movie and gave a concert when we opened the doors to our “Titanic Museum” for students from other classes.

At a loss as to how to convey any of this, I looked down at the boy and smiled. “Tell your grandfather we study the Titanic…because it’s interesting.”

He nodded, satisfied, and returned to his seat.

Got Plot? A Handy Quick Check

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Recently I was sitting in on a picture book critique workshop, listening and reading along as a writer read from her work-in-progress, a story with no clear plot structure. I’d read many such meandering stories over the years as a writing teacher of children, until it occurred to me that the same simple strategy that my literature students use to summarize chapter and book plots could be used as a pre-writing task for storyboarding the main plot points in writing. What a difference! Using this method with my writing students has resulted in clearer plots and tighter stories that are much more satisfying to read.

While there certainly are more sophisticated and refined plotting techniques for writers of picture books to utilize, I find the following scaffold can quickly determine whether a story has a narrative structure.

Ready for this ‘handy’ trick? Open your hand and put out your thumb, then each subsequent finger for each bullet point.

  • Someone: Your main character
  • Wanted: What does your character want? This can be explicit or implicit and must carry though from story’s beginning to end.
  • But: What is the problem/obstruction that keeps your character from getting what he/she wants?
  • So: What does your character do to overcome the problem?
  • Then: The resolution. Does your character achieve what he/she wanted?

Someone wanted, but, so, then. A simple frame, but it’s enough to hang a story on. Try using it as a storyboard when planning your picture book or next chapter. Or use it as a diagnostic tool after you’ve written, to see whether your story has essential plot points. I’ve even introduced the frame as a discussion device in my book group, which has provoked some lively debates as we hammer out just what exactly our book was really about.

Simple, quick, and always handy, this tool is just an arm’s length away!

[This post was originally published at The Rhubarb Writers Group blog, July 2014]