A few months ago, I tweeted from the sideline of a soccer practice:
My son’s soccer coach just worked his team through the same play for 20 minutes. He then said, “that might happen once in the game tomorrow, but it could change the outcome one way or the other.”
I noted this scenario — publicly — because I thought it was a brilliant example of teaching. In a high stakes situation, you can only expect to be able to do the things you have practiced. Luck isn’t a viable strategy. I left the field seeing my own work in the classroom with a bit more clarity.
Again this week I had an experience where someone with a job title other than “teacher” reminded me of some very effective teaching practices — and pushed me to both consider and extend my own. For me, the lesson was heightened because it snuck up on me. I wasn’t expecting or looking for professional development. I was expecting to make ravioli from scratch.
Specifically, my family had signed up for “a cooking class where chefs and farmers from Agriturismo Constantino [would] teach participants how to make ravioli from scratch with ingredients found locally in the Calabria area.” At exactly noon on President’s Day (a day off from school), we connected to Zoom and heard the chatter of the Italian language mixed with English phrases and the clanking of chef’s tools. And after some quick introductions and orientation, we were up to our literal elbows in mounds of soft flour and dripping eggs. Exactly, in other words, where we wanted to be.
Looking back, it was clear that the chef wasn’t trained as a teacher. He forgot to think ahead a few times, forgot to tell us to get the water boiling or that we would need to convert some ingredient measurements. His skill and intuition and ability to improvise in the moment, no doubt, worked against some teaching basics: breaking down and presenting steps, articulating hidden or seemingly obvious knowledge, uncovering the uncommon parts of common sense. To butcher a bad phrase, those who can do, often can’t teach.
But, again looking back, that wasn’t quite right. Our chef turned out to be an especially good teacher in three particular ways.
1) Anticipating and heading off errors
As he led us through the recipe, the chef often stopped to predict our mistakes and redirect us. At one point, for example, just as we were about to set our dough aside, he told us we would probably need to add a little water to the mass to prevent it from drying out too quickly. A few steps later, right as I had dropped a blob of filling into a ravioli shell, he said, “some of you will just drop the filling onto the shell, but you want to roll it into a hard ball first. This will help it stay together when you put it in the water.”
We need teachers, of course, because the path to knowledge and skill acquisition is sometimes hidden or counterintuitive. You either have no idea where to walk or have to be told that what feels like the right way is actually the wrong way. A good teacher is there to point to the path, to walk with you until you’ve picked it up, and to watch with great interest as you begin to move on your own, maybe somewhere the teacher has never been.
2) Offering feedback at critical moments to ensure things are “up to spec”
At one point, the chef said, “now show me your sauce.” My daughter lifted our pot up to the camera and waited. When the chef looked at ours, he said, “it’s too thick. Add more milk.”
My daughter was disappointed. She wanted to impress this guy — a genuine Italian chef. But she had such a clear path forward, such a direct line to the improvement she sought, that she didn’t dwell on the tiny shame that pinked her cheeks. She added more milk, stirred the sauce, added a bit more, and then went back to the well for more feedback.
By this point, I was paying more attention to the teaching at hand than the ravioli. This chef had a standard in his mind. It wasn’t personal — he knew, through long research, what kind of sauce a ravioli wanted to swim in. Your sauce either had the right consistency or you had to make some kind of adjustment to bring it closer to spec. It didn’t matter if you were forty-something or eleven. If you were in the kitchen, you were worthy of feedback. The chef kept things moving, kept things light, but never took his eye off the gap between where his students were and where they needed to be.
3) Connecting with each and every student
I also noticed that, when transitioning to a major step in the process, the chef wouldn’t move on until he checked in with every student. He went student by student, calling them by the name in their Zoom frame, and made us show him our dough, our filling, our sauce, the final shape of our raviolis. Every student, and every student’s work, was seen, acknowledged, paid attention.
Miraculously, we were also “on the clock” — few tasks are as time bound as cooking — and the chef had a big event at the back end of our smaller event. He may have rushed a step or two in the process, but he never rushed past a student.
So here’s where I’m a little envious of the chef from Calabria: the meaning and relevance of his lesson was literally baked into it. He ended class by making us eat our own cooking for homework. If our process worked, we had a great lunch. If our process was flawed, our lunch would follow suit. In my house, our ravioli was a bit chewy; the dough was too thick. We made a note on the recipe before tucking it into our favorite cookbook. Next time, we’ll cut the recipe with some 00 pastry flour and work the rolling pin more industriously.
As for my teaching, my note to self is more challenging and less certain: How can I design lessons that produce student work that has relevance and meaning for students? How can I help my students eat their own cooking and update their own recipes in response?