Letting Things Simmer

When I was a child, there were certain expressions my mother used, and one of them (which I hadn’t thought of in years) was an admonition to “simmer down” when emotions were at a boiling point.  That’s not what an angry, tearful four- or fourteen-year-old wants to hear, but it’s excellent advice.  Don’t cover it over and pretend it isn’t there; that’s a recipe for a future explosion. It makes me think of an old pressure cooker, its gasket worn out, shooting stew or sauce or jam all over the kitchen.  Don’t just let it boil, either; that’s a recipe for an ugly mess, too.  Let it simmer, she said; acknowledge the anger or sadness or fear, don’t pretend they aren’t there … and don’t let them control you.

Maureen’s post about slack and simmer is still on my mind, and so is the Google+ conversation we had about her post and mine.  Letting things simmer until the proper time, until they’re done and ready to be served, is as important in teaching and learning as in cooking.  And yet, in the classroom as in the kitchen, it’s tempting to rush the process.

The Boy and The Girl are big fans of deviled eggs, so we had some with our Easter dinner on Sunday.  We’d been invited to spend the afternoon with friends, but everyone was just too tired.  So after a long nap, we had our not-quite-Nicoise salad and our deviled eggs … and of course that meant letting things simmer until the eggs were ready, then cooling them and peeling them before the yolks could be removed and the filling prepared.  It’s tempting to rush the process, but that’s not a process you should rush!  Those eggs need to be hard-boiled, and they need to be completely cooled before you peel them.  And while the cooking process can be timed, cooling depends on a whole range of factors even if you use the “quick-cooling” and “lower-mess” method of submerging the newly-boiled eggs in cold water and peeling them there.  Just because this egg is ready to be peeled, that doesn’t necessarily mean this other one is ready.  And even though you usually need This Much mayonnaise and That Much mustard to make a dozen deviled eggs with my mother’s recipe, that doesn’t mean you should blindly add without tasting.  Every batch of eggs is slightly different … and think of the extra complications that arise with a more complex dish!

I think there’s a lesson for us teachers and learners, but it’s not one that factory-model schools or teachers want to hear.  Many years ago, I taught at a school with an excellent Home Economics program.  Ms. N and Ms. M inspired their students, some of whom couldn’t boil water at the beginning, and some of whom went on to cook professionally.  “A recipe,” one of them said, while collecting faculty recipes for a cookbook I still have, “is really only a guide.”  Mr. Z, in the auto shop class down the hall from them, would have said something similar: every car is different, and you have to listen and look and pay attention.

But somehow, over the past few decades, that kind of wisdom gave way to the notion that you can blindly “follow the recipe” and expect identical results from young learners.  By the time Mr. Z retired, there were code-readers and sensors in his shop, and he and his students used them gladly … but they didn’t think the machine-generated data could be more real than the actual car that poor Ms. X had brought in that morning because it was “making that sound again.”

But in 2014, after years of “accountability” and “data-driven instruction,” many factory-model schools and teachers do see data instead of actual cars or actual learners.  “Can a student be This Label and That Label?” asked a link-bait headline in an email newsletter … as if the labels were somehow more real than the students who could certainly exhibit the traits of both Labels.  Thankfully, when you did click through, the answer was “yes, and schools need to be aware of that.”  But the existence of the article (and the headline, for that matter) made me realize how far some schools and teachers must be from seeing individuals.

As I let these things simmer this week, I’m wondering how they’ll affect my work with the Latin Family when we return to action on Monday.  Unlike Ms. X and Mr. Y, I deliberately assigned no Great Big Packets over the break … and that’s probably why Z, Y, and X decided they needed to get together and finish their Minor Assessment product.  “Have you noticed,” I asked someone a week or so ago, “how you assign yourselves the homework and extra practice that you need when there isn’t the same assignment for everybody?”  And they had, but they hadn’t really thought about it, either.   Meanwhile, One Ms. X, still firmly ensconced in How We Always Did Stuff, assigns endless amounts of textbook problems or definition copying, while Another, attempting to be “data-driven,” gives up, overwhelmed with the “impossibility” of finding twenty or thirty different things according to her reading of The Data.  To both of them, “those kids” seem as inert and helpless as eggs lying on a counter, waiting to be boiled, or cars lined up in a service bay, waiting to be fixed.

It’s different in a joyful learning community, of course, because everybody knows that those joyful learners are active and in control of their learning process.  But that’s terrifying to Ms. X, Mr. Y, and Some Powers, because active and powerful learners won’t necessarily “sit down, shut up, copy the PowerPoint, and do the cute little activity” like they “should.”  I wonder what other insights await as we all let things simmer over the next few days, and I wonder how we’ll translate our insights into actions!

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Published in: on April 24, 2014 at 1:00 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. Thanks for extending the metaphor with so much thought and example, Justin. When I choreograph the learning in my classroom the design has lots for the choosing including a variety of seating, grouping, movement of lesson–there’s lots of choice which matches the varying moods and styles students bring to class. As the “conductor” I often watch to see what students choose–I notice who is choosing to work alone, and who works with others. I notice who launches forward and who holds back a bit before completing a task. I notice who lets the work simmer. Often I’ll end a learning event when I can tell they’ve had enough, returning to it now and then with a comment, and then later heading back into the learning with greater depth. The simmer is part of the overall orchestration a teacher conducts to bring about the best possible learning for all students.

    I appreciate all your thought and discussion. Thank you.


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