Dining In at School

The busboy: “I can feel it in my back.”

The plater: “My feet hurt! Our teacher told us to wear comfortable shoes.”

The restaurant manager: “I’ve been under high stress all day…”

On-the-scene remarks from students in Mrs. Laura Cole’s Advanced Nutrition and Wellness class, spoken by students who had just finished serving full course meals to 70 people in the space of two hours in a restaurant they’d created from scratch. Another class would repeat the experience two days later—this group preparing meals for 65. Teachers, secretaries, principals, aides–all building staff and even district office personnel receive the menus in advance, make reservations, and on the days of the restaurant, enjoy a thirty-minute lunch period in a setting very different from the usual brown bag, microwave, and cafeteria tray ambience.

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McCutcheon teachers enjoy lunch prepared and served by students.

These student-operated restaurant days have been a tradition at McCutcheon High School for at least thirty years. The program has spread to Harrison High School, too, and the staff  at both high schools have the chance each semester to enjoy a relaxing lunch with colleagues and observe proud, though nervous, students in a completely different setting. For the students, it’s an opportunity to discover the many challenging aspects of operating a restaurant and to apply the culinary skills they’ve learned in class.

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Mrs. Jami Mosley and teachers at Harrison High School enjoy lunch served by students.

I’ve enjoyed these lunches for years and I’ve often wondered how my colleagues, Mrs. Laura Cole at McCutcheon and Mrs. Jami Mosley at Harrison High School, do it. How do they take students from objectives projected on the whiteboard to a full service restaurant?

To find out, I asked to be a fly on the wall during the instructional phase of Mrs. Cole’s class and then take pictures in the kitchen on the days the restaurant was in operation.

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Students folded construction paper to make these floral centerpieces.

When Mrs. Cole introduced the project,  I learned along with the students that they would find recipes online, propose a menu, cost out the meals, and then make final choices based on selections that could be prepared economically and in volume in a short amount of time, meals whose artful arrangement on the plate and utter deliciousness would be irresistible. Mrs. Cole explained that the students would select a theme for the restaurant and transform a classroom area in the FACS department into a welcoming space with soft lighting and themed wall and table decorations. They’d learn to work as a team and see the absolute necessity for each person to responsibly carry out his or her role: managers, servers, expediters, platers, bussers, and dishwashers.

My colleague showed the students sample menus that went back thirty years—I remembered some of those earlier lunches—and opened her closets to reveal centerpieces, vases, and decorative objects that could be used again if students were interested.  She talked about some of the problems and successes of the past, warning students of the necessity to plan ahead and think large-scale–larger than they’re used to anyway.

On the day of the restaurant, she continued, everyone would be involved in food preparation from 7:30 until 10:30. Then they’d diversify, each student carrying out the responsibilities of the role to which they’d been assigned. The students told me, when I interviewed them on the day the restaurant was open, that they had had some choice in this: They indicated their top three preferences and then Mrs. Cole took it from there. One of the students, the busboy, confided, “I’m the only one who wanted to do this job, so I got it.”

In the meantime, they watched an episode of Top Chef, viewed a video called Restaurant Nightmares, looked up restaurants online to get ideas, and did the math for a number of different menus.

I was there the day of the Great Dessert Cook-off.  Working in teams, the students chose a dessert, prepared it, plated a sample, and shared the remainder with the rest of the class. Afterwards, students evaluated the desserts on cost, appearance on the plate, taste, and ease of preparation in high volume  in a small amount of time. One of the best desserts, Crème Brulee, didn’t make the cut—not a practical offering on a large-scale basis. In the end, two of the many chocolate desserts won out: Peanut Butter Brownie Trifle and Chocolate Chip Cheese Ball with Graham Crackers.

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I was struck, on the day of the restaurant, by the efficiency and calm in the kitchen. The atmosphere was harmonious and focused. No hanging out, no hanging back, and certainly not any hanging on. Everyone was concentrated on making the teachers’ dining experience perfect in every way, but no one seemed frantic, even the manager, who did confess to being stressed. He told me that he has a job in a carry-out pizza establishment. “They don’t have a dining room,” he explained. “I’m used to the back-of-the-house, but this front-of-the-house part is stressful!”

The entrée was chicken quesadillas. At one station, a team of cooks prepared them on anIMG_7372 array of electric griddles. The cooks even asked to try an innovation they’d seen in a cooking show: melting cheese on the griddle so it formed a tasty crust on the outside of the tortilla. Delicious!

IMG_7385Another girl— a tiny girl who wants to be a professional chef, the one whose feet hurt—wielded the chef’s knife, cutting each quesadilla into perfect triangles.

The others at her station added Spanish rice and chips and salsa to the plate, and then the expediter delivered the plates to a side table where the servers picked them up. The manager hovered over them all, taking his job very seriously:

“A little more lettuce there!”

“Don’t forget the chips on that plate!”

“Watch the sour cream!”  Someone appeared with a wet paper towel to wipe a smear on the side of a plate.IMG_7370

Servers rushed into the kitchen: “We need five more desserts!” Instantly, the platers went to work, the expediter picked up the desserts and passed them to the servers, and the waitresses were out the door.

The second day—with her second section of Advanced Nutrition and Wellness—Mrs. Cole repeated the process. This time the menu was loaded potato soup, garden salad, a cheddar bay biscuit, and for dessert, that Peanut Butter Brownie Trifle.

For teachers, restaurant day has always been an event to look forward to, especially during the gloomy days of winter. It’s a chance to see the students shine and a chance for them to impress us. But there’s always a cost: The food is  so delicious we leave nothing on the plate…and that means extra walks in the days ahead to burn the calories away. That’s okay. These lunches are worth every bite.

At the end of her meal, one of the teachers asked her waitress: “Is the manager coming out?”  In the “back of the house,” I witnessed just a moment of panic when the message was relayed. The manager stepped into the dining room to discover not a disgruntled customer, but one who wanted, of course, to compliment the chefs and all the other restaurant workers, too.

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Mrs. Cole directs the student restaurant project at McCutcheon.

Mrs. Cole has been orchestrating this project-based learning experience for several years. The restaurant project means hours of grocery shopping for her and a great deal of planning, but it’s worth the extra time, she says. “While the restaurant project can be stressful, it is very rewarding.  Students work hard to plan their restaurant and menus.  Since students have so much freedom of creativity, they really take ownership of this project.  It is amazing how well they come together to be an effective team to carry out their vision.  While most are exhausted by the end of the day, they are also very proud.”

Indeed, the whole production is a recipe for success for her students: an impressive blend of content knowledge and culinary skill mixed together with math, literacy and problem-solving, flavored with creativity, and topped off with teamwork. Five stars!

Project Runway

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  • Betsey Johnson
  • Calvin Klein
  • Ralph Lauren
  • Anna Sui

Just a few of the names that top the list of celebrity fashion designers.

Fashion is a consuming interest for many high school students, and these are names that brand-conscious teenagers recognize. They’re eager to know more about the industry itself, and for most, the first step is learning to sew.

But here’s a deplorable fact: In many parts of the country, sewing is no longer taught in school.

The rationale? People don’t sew any more. The implication being, who would want to?

Yet, every year at Harrison High School in Lafayette, Indiana, teacher Michelle Coors’ students pull off a runway show that has become an event in the community.  This year, the 28 students in her Fashion and Textile Careers classes took this complex project–the runway show–from an idea in their minds to a full-scale fashion production. On a mid-December evening, 137 different models paraded 159 designs on a 52-foot runway in front of parents, peers, and well-wishers. Stage lights illuminated the runway, and during the show, music and explanatory slides played in the background. This year, every seat in the house was taken and scores of attendees crowded into the little standing room that remained.

I was one of those people standing in the back. I had come to support my colleague, whose classroom I had visited many times and whose students I had photographed as they used a computer program to design wardrobes for “paper dolls”; as they cut cloth for the first time for pants, capes, and tote bags; and as they worked on their fashion merchandising research projects. Cutting fabric

Fortunately for our school district, most of our middle school teachers still have sewing machines and incorporate the fundamentals of construction into their curriculum (License to Sew). In addition, some students learn to sew through 4-H or learn at home from their parents. But about one-third of the students who enroll in Mrs. Coors’ classes do not have prior sewing experience, so she accommodates her instruction to reach students with a range of skills. Students who have never sewn before make tote bags and basic “fancy pants” in the Textiles and Fashion Foundation course first, and then they’re ready for the Fashion and Textile Careers class, the one that puts on the runway show.

HHS2014fashionshow_140Mrs. Coors offers her advanced class students the opportunity to create a magazine, a video, a movie—but they always choose the runway show. That means designing and constructing the fashions; finding the models; planning the lights, the music, and PowerPoint backdrop; constructing the runway; creating the programs; handling the publicity; arranging for a photographer; setting up for the program and taking everything down at the end.

Effective educators are skilled at organization, multi-tasking, differentiating, and sequencing instruction so that every student learns the skill he or she needs just as having that skill becomes a necessity. In Mrs. Coors’ classes, where the comfort level with needles and thread, bobbins and the presser foot varies from student to student, one-size-fits-all lessons will not work. Mrs. Coors plans her instruction so that students are always busy and on task, not all doing the same thing, but all engaged in a construction project appropriate to his or her skill level. Some of the students’ designs are simple; others are more complex. But the students are relaxed, self-confident, and engaged—after all, they are working on a project they have designed themselves, and they meet with success regularly.

And if they aren’t in the midst of a hands-on sewing project, the students are working on their Career Snapshot binder, a research project that more than meets the standards for Literacy in Technical Subjects, another layer of learning required in every subject area across the curriculum.

Students identify a specific fashion industry career that interests them and then explore that job and the  allied careers—the professionals whose job description and skills they’d need to know and rely upon to be successful at their own. I looked at some of these binders: pages of writing, including a reflective piece at the end.

IMG_1768 Croquis DrawingEach binder includes photographs and freehand drawings that illustrate the development of the students’ final design from inspiration to croquis drawing (those sketches of models with elongated—10 heads high—legs, the industry standard) to the sewn item on an actual model.

After the runway show ended, after the stage was disassembled, after the designers had collected their clothes from the models (Some let the models keep them!), the accolades poured in. And for 10 of the young designers, a contract: A local philanthropic organization commissioned them to recreate their “line” to be featured at another runway show, this one to benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation.WishGala.Poster2015

So, don’t tell Michelle Coors or her students that “no one sews anymore.” Indeed they do, and this Project-Based Learning class more than illustrates the career opportunities that are open to  people with skills in garment design and construction.  In fact, it’s only February, but already many of these students have been accepted into prestigious art and design schools across the country.

Not to mention this: When the audience applauds and the photographer’s flash captures the models showing off the work of these young and aspiring designers, it’s a source of genuine pride for everyone involved.  For that night, Harrison High School students are the celebrity designers–and who knows what will happen in the afterglow?

 

 

License to Sew

Middle School FACS (Family and Consumer Sciences) isn’t the cooking and sewing of yesterday. In fact, many FACS teachers don’t teach sewing at all P1040022these days.  It’s not in the state standards as a stand-alone skill.  Fashion design, care of resources, reading instruction manuals: These are covered in the standards, but not teaching of sewing per se.  Fortunately, the middle schools in my district still have sewing machines, local standards still allow for teaching kids how to operate them, and the teachers understand that the justification for omitting sewing from the state standards—“No one sews anymore”—is not entirely true.  In my part of the world, 4-H is still a big deal and fabric stores still exist. In the larger world, the world beyond the borders of my county, the fashion industry is HUGE—and people who enter into that world need to know how garments are constructed if they’re going to design them.  Learning to sew is a career skill for some kids—no less important than learning to draw, play a musical instrument, or use basic computer programs like Excel and Word.

So it was a thrill yesterday to watch a sewing lesson—and one that was about as perfect as any lesson could be.

The kids came into the room, put their binders and paraphernalia on the desks in the classroom portion of the FACS room, and proceeded without delay or loud chatter to their assigned sewing tables.  Their teacher took attendance by simply asking the tables to report out the names of the missing kids.  Two kids were gone; she recorded their names later. Then she began the class with three very simple, short directives.  First, a correction to a privilege she’d accorded the students earlier in the year (one sentence, very clear, about music and iPods). Then, a review of the parts of the sewing machine (The students pointed appropriately as the teacher called out the names of the parts: presser foot, bobbin winder, feed dogs, and so forth).  Finally, the day’s agenda (Steps 8-11 on the License to Sew).

Have you ever tried to explain a complex task to an 8th grader? Try thirty at a time on a potentially dangerous, motorized machine.  Can’t you just see the apprehension in a novice teacher’s eyes? The constant hands in the air? The ever-rising level of talk as the students  wait for the teacher to run around the room to each one individually identifying parts, showing each one how to load the bobbin, confirming that the machine is correctly threaded? The horsing around that middle school students are so very capable of? None of that happened in this FACS room.

Here’s how this teacher did it: She issued those students a “License to Sew.”

P1040025If you look closely at that “license,”  you’ll see genius at work.  To start with, the students taught themselves the parts of the machine and how to thread it (including bobbin winding) by reading the instruction manual.  Anyone with a question first asked a fellow student at the same sewing table.  On the blackboard, the place of last resort, was the teacher’s HELP list.  The teacher answered the questions of the kids who had put their names on that list. What that meant was that she wasn’t frantically trying to answer thirty questions, all exactly the same, many about trivial matters, or running around reassuring the anxious ones and restraining the ones with the potential to cause harm.  She was helping kids who genuinely needed her expertise.  For all the rest, self-reliance and a little help from a friend did the trick. Incidently, that’s an important goal of the FACS standards: helping kids learn to act responsibly and productively.  Kids moved ahead at their own pace, and a quiz later on—taken individually, when the student was ready, in a one-on-one minute with the teacher—confirmed knowledge of the parts of the machine and the necessary application skills.  The next step was practice sewing on paper templates. I missed that scene, but I saw the templates, commonly used in introductory sewing lessons to give the students practice without wasting resources–in this case, precious fabric.

When I was in that FACS class yesterday, about a third of the way into the P1040019hour, when everyone had been issued their “license to sew,” the teacher conducted a quick demo.  The kids—orderly, quiet, attentive— clustered around her as she showed them the next steps in their first project, a pincushion.  She showed them how to pin two pieces of fabric together (“Right sides kissing!”), leave a hole, turn the item inside out and stuff it, starting with the corners. Then she released the students to the machines.

At one point, a student I was standing near asked me for help. Her bobbin thread was hopelessly tangled, but I didn’t know the machine, and besides, the rule was, ask a friend first.  So I suggested that and reiterated that if she P1040015didn’t understand, she should write her name on the HELP list. Another student overheard my response and stepped right up: “I can help you with that,” she said. Exit me.

Imagine some of the other things that could have been going on in this classroom:  At a table covered with fabric scraps (from which the students were to choose two pieces for the pincushion), no one was tussling over the fabric, pushing or shoving others, or throwing fabric wildly about. The scene was orderly—and  the teacher wasn’t standing nearby controlling this situation, either.  She was seated at another table where kids who finished could line up with their license and their project in hand. She P1040024measured their seams and checked off the steps on the license. All over the room, kids were working at their own pace, and everyone was engaged.

When the end of class grew near, the rest of this teacher’s clearly articulated and rehearsed expectations played out: Without reminders or fuss, the kids stowed their possessions, picked up the room and put all the equipment back where it belonged. They disposed of the fabric bits that had fallen to the floor and pushed their chairs in. Exit them.

A spectacular class: Specific skills were learned, character traits like self-reliance and independence were honored and nurtured, and the instruction the teacher provided and the procedures she had instituted allowed for students to progress at their own rate and take responsibility for their learning.  I’ve seen art teachers and music teachers and technology teachers do this same thing.  In any project-based learning scenario in any subject area, the procedures must be clear and the pacing has to be orchestrated to accommodate different kids progressing at different rates. The class must operate (forgive the pun) like a well-oiled machine.

This one did.