Tag 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.

 

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.

Love and the Stream of Compassion

Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s thoughts on love seem especially appropriate to be reminded of today.th

“Love is a force in you that enables you to give other things. It is the motivating power. It enables you to give strength and power and freedom and peace to another person…It is a power like money or steam or electricity. It is valueless unless you can give something else by means of it.”    

Anne Morrow Lindbergh, LOCKED ROOMS AND OPEN DOORS, p. 231

 

Anne’s thought on what love really is came on the heels of a stimulating conversation she had with Margot Loines, the woman who would later marry her brother. Even as a young woman Anne began to understand that love is not an entity that you can give: “…like an armful of flowers. And a lot of people give love like that–just dump it down on you, a useless strong-scented burden.” [i] Rather, it is a power, a flow that energizes you to give other things out of it.

I think this is profoundly true. More and more I see that love is not this thing that I possess, that I hand over like I would a Hallmark card. It is something I am inside of, that I give out of. Instead of “I give you my love,” it’s “All that I do toward you comes out of this force inside me.”

It reminds me of Anne’s metaphor for God as the stream of compassion. When I am “in the stream,” I love. All that I am, all that I do comes out of this place that flows through me. When I live out of this place, I can be a channel for love to flow through.

To be in the stream of compassion–to love–begins with me. I have to be present to myself, honest with myself, and compassionate and merciful to myself to open the door. And then I am free to love. The presence, honesty, and compassion that I give myself, I can give to another. It enables me to really see another person, empower them to be themselves, and to want the best for them. It doesn’t feel hard to do this; it’s not a burden or a sacrifice. It feels natural, as if it comes out of a flow inside me. It is a power, like money or steam or electricity. It’s not sentimental and it’s not always pretty. But it wants good and power and strength for the other.

I’ve experienced the difference between what it’s like to live out of this place and not live out of this place most dramatically in my teaching life. I’ve taught elementary school students off and on for many years. It is one of the hardest jobs you can imagine. If you’ve ever planned and carried off a children’s birthday party, think about doing that five days a week for six hours a day–only the activities you plan have to be meaningful and educational, keep the students involved, and get them ready for life. Not only that, children bring their emotional lives into the classroom and generally sit them right out there on their desks. Hel-lo! Here I am. They don’t have the ability to hide their emotional lives as adults do, so you’re dealing with that as well. It’s exhausting.

I used to experience the responsibility of all this as crushing. I felt the weight of all of it–it felt like it was up to me to carry and solve all the problems and make everyone and everything okay.

It doesn’t feel that way anymore.

As I get more in touch with myself and my inner life, my ability to discern what I am responsible for becomes clearer. I can’t solve everyone’s problems and fix everyone. I don’t have that kind of power. No one does. Letting go of unrealistic expectations of myself frees good will to flow unencumbered. As I’ve grown to be more compassionate toward myself, I become naturally more compassionate toward others. It doesn’t require effort. It just happens.

I’ve noticed a subtle yet noticeable difference in the way I teach. I’m better able to connect with my students when I’m connected with myself. I’m freer to share my real feelings with them. If I’m proud of them or pleased with them, I let them know. If they annoy me or make me angry, I let them know that, too. There’s an honesty and good will that flows between us and I know it’s because I’m more aware of myself than I’ve ever been. At the end of the year I’m always amazed and touched by the kinds of cards and notes they write me. They’re full of love toward me and gratitude for all they’ve learned–and it’s because they have felt loved and respected by me. The stream of compassion has flowed through our classroom. It hasn’t been something I’ve had to reach for or will to happen. It’s felt organic.

And so I find Anne’s ideas about love and the stream of compassion to be true. When we are in touch with ourselves and merciful to ourselves, we open ourselves to dwelling in a flow of energy that is greater than we are. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is more than a commandment; it’s really the only way that can even happen.

[i] Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Locked Rooms and Open Doors (New York, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1974) p. 231.

(Excerpt from Gifts from the Spirit: Reflections on the Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 2002, 2014, copyright Kim Jocelyn Dickson)