Baking Day

I love this time of year for many reasons, but one of my absolute favorites is baking day. I really enjoy cooking and baking and use my time in my kitchen to process my thoughts and sometimes fill the time when I can’t sleep. Baking day is the one day a year where my family clears the house for an entire day, and all I do is bake for about twelve straight hours while I watch holiday movies or old 80’s movies in the background. I always appreciate my time with my family and involve my kids in baking and cooking whenever I can, but this is one day I take entirely for me. My family, my neighbors, and my colleagues also enjoy baking day as they are the recipients of all the treats. Each year I make some tried and true recipes that are staples, and then I try some new ones to add to the displays for our holiday meals and gifts to neighbors and friends. When I am stressed out at this ridiculously busy time of year, I look for recipes on the internet or in one of my many cookbooks and focus on the joy others may feel depending on the choice and the outcome of the recipe.  

Baking day needed to look different this year as we are moving to a new home. I struggled at first to make it the same experience. When I thought a lot about why the day is so important to me, I actually thought about what we want for learners in our schools. Putting together the display of all these baked goods is like a great Design Thinking experience. The book Launch by AJ Juliani and John Spencer is one of my go-to resources for helping teachers learn about Design Thinking. In this post, John Spencer explains the core steps to the Design Thinking framework they share in Launch. The first one is to Look, Listen, and Learn, which is precisely what I do when I am getting ready for my big day. I remember which treats each member of my family likes best and go to the second step to Ask Questions about what new recipes I should try. I know my brother loves Oreo truffles, my sister-in-law loves butterscotch cheesecake bars, and that everyone enjoys the lemon sandwich cookies, but who knew my nephew would absolutely love coconut macaroons. Once I learned that about him, those became a regular on the holiday baking list.  

The next steps in the Design Thinking framework are to Understand the Process or Problem and Navigate Ideas. This is where I got stuck this year. My process for solving the problem of getting multiple batches of ten different desserts ready to go needed to look different, and it threw me off quite a bit at first. Once I started to navigate ideas on how to solve the problem in a way that made the experience equally enjoyable and meaningful for me, it was not that hard to find a solution. I ended up having to break the day into a couple of half days and evenings and get others more involved. A big challenge for me was finding enough time, which is continuously our challenge in education. I needed to stop trying to find more time and instead use the time I had in a new way that still allowed for the same outcome. Navigating ideas on how to set things up in a new kitchen to make sure I could be efficient with the time I had and still be relaxed to not feel under a time crunch was a challenge, but one that I was able to overcome with the help of getting ideas from others. I also had to let go of some things I would normally do that just did not get done this year, which was okay as it allowed me not to feel stressed by something I usually enjoy so much.   

Being okay with things not being perfect, having to go back to a creative process many times, reaching out to others for support, and eventually working it all through to create something beautiful is what I hope our learners are experiencing every day. Nothing is ever going to be perfect. If that is what we are trying to do all the time, we will for sure be disappointed. What I love most about baking at the holidays is that I make the time to be creative and try new things which may not always work, but sometimes do. I don’t worry about it all being perfect and I get to learn a lot about a new ingredient or baking process through trial and error. I can also tell when I am distracted or other stressors are coming into my brain as recipes that I have made many times don’t work right or taste off. This is true of our learners as well. When they are experiencing tough times in and out of school, things they may have always been able to do well may not go as planned. We need to help them recognize that it is okay and that they should take the opportunity to try again just like I do when I throw out a batch of something and start over.    

New recipes often don’t turn out right the first few times or are just not good. Continuing to try them gives me the opportunity to practice the next two steps in the framework- Create a Prototype and Highlight and Fix. I appreciate the iteration that baking frequently takes. I may need to try a recipe multiple times, adding a little of this and removing a bit of that until I get it just right. The process of documenting what went well and how to adjust helps achieve a product I am proud to share with others. Some recipes are also just not tasty, even when I get them right. I have to accept abandoning an idea that doesn’t work and moving on to the next one.  

Launching to an audience, the last step in the framework, is the most impactful part. I look forward to the end of our Christmas Eve meal so I can bring out the tray of desserts that I have worked so hard to produce. People will tell me how much they are looking forward to tasting their favorite recipes and then give me feedback on any new ones. This was my tenth year of launching my work on Christmas Eve, and it was fascinating to see which desserts come back from year to year as I get good feedback on them and which ones drop off or I make for different audiences as they may appeal to others more. The process of preparation and research, being creative, iteration, and then the launching means something as it helps me to get better each time I do it. I bake all the time throughout the year, but this is a time of year when I do it more and with a real purpose to connect to one another and make memories that carry me forward to doing it all over again on such a grand scale the next year.  

If we think about our most successful moments, they are when the experience is personal to us and our strengths, has an impact on others, and allows us to use a creative process to work through multiple iterations of what we are trying to achieve to get it just right. Baking day, even this year when it needed to look different, does that for me. While it doesn’t solve any major problems in our world, it makes lots of people including me really happy, which is never a bad thing.

What Will They Create That Will Make Our World More Awesome?

As we push for learning that is authentic and empowering for our learners, we decided to try something new this year. We decided to set aside some budget money to sponsor some student-led businesses as start-ups. I was curious to see what our learners would do if we gave them the opportunity to add something to the school that we had not done before and then actually let them do it. We put out a simple five-question form that asked about what kind of business it would be when they thought it would be profitable, and what they would do with the money. It was essential to ask them how they felt their business would make the school and our community a better place as well. It created a great opportunity to hear from some future entrepreneurs that are really inspiring. 

We got to hear from a group of five and six-year-olds about how they are doing a project to draw more families to move to our city. I had the honor of sitting on their expert panel a few weeks ago with our mayor and other city leaders to answer their questions about why I think West Allis is a great place to be. They are now making a promotional video and will be going public with their work at our local Farmers Market next month. They asked for a button maker to create promotional materials and some podcasting equipment as they are starting a learner-led podcast (Thanks- Award Winning Culture for an excellent idea!). The learners will be going out into our community to interview people and document their thinking and insights via their new podcast. This was the feedback from the teacher when I shared that we would be funding their project, “Our room was full of excitement and pride when we told them the good news. Thank you so much for taking the time to hear their ideas and for funding this project! There are so many exciting opportunities ahead for them!” That’s exactly how we want all learners and teachers to feel about school. 

Another elementary group had researched hunger, how it impacts the brain, and what the nutritional requirements are for schools. They proposed a snack store with healthy snacks to get learners through their afternoon hunger and be more productive. Their proposal was very professional and entirely done by the learners. They had dressed up and offered samples of all the snacks for the panel. You could see the pride in their work and the sense of community that had been built in their classroom as they worked together to answer all the questions we asked. That sense of belonging and community really came through when we asked them what they would do with any profits. Each learner talked about wanting to give to charities or support others in school and out who are struggling. The learners were from varied friend groups and able to see past that to want to create a collective impact on our community. Again, that is exactly how we want all learners to feel about school.  

Two young men from another elementary had a great idea to add a more exciting option to their Friday activities that is both educational and fun. They created an arcade on a cart that others can use if their name is called in a drawing. They had quite the sales pitch and are planning to take their proposal to a major supplier for more units once they have some promotional videos from learners using the cart. It was a creative idea that was driven by one learner who had not always felt successful in school. He had challenges connecting with his classmates and his learning until he got the opportunity to design a project of his choosing to demonstrate his learning. It gave him a new outlook on his learning, and I can confidently say he is able to communicate, research, problem-solve, and collaborate with others based on what he showed us in a fifteen-minute pitch. Being able to make his idea a reality through our student-led businesses means he will continue to feel empowered at school.  

Our high school and adult learners want to start a cafe, a t-shirt business, an outlet for students to express their feelings through art, a recycled t-shirt business, a photography studio that offers discount senior pictures for those who can’t otherwise afford them, and a greeting card company. One that really impressed me was a team of learners from our marketing class and our current student-led coffee shop run primarily by our learners with disabilities. They have been working on a revamp of the school book store together and wanted an investment to make it better by adding a satellite location for the coffee shop to it. The two teachers and an educational assistant had obviously collaborated on how to make the experience inclusive for all learners in a purposeful way that closes opportunity gaps. The learners worked together and presented a cohesive picture of what they wanted for their business. We continually reflect on our inclusive practices for students with disabilities as a district team. This was an exciting glimpse into what’s possible for all learners when the work is authentic, project-based, goes public, and the inclusionary practice becomes seamless and invisible in the work. When I asked this group why student-led businesses are important, all four learners gave almost the exact same response. They all said that they need to have real experiences in school so that they feel ready for life outside of school. The expectation for all these learners in this project will be the same, the pathway and the supports may just look different. ALL learners will get the opportunity to feel ready for whatever comes next for them.   

The sense of empowerment that every learner we spoke to demonstrated was remarkable. When we ask our learners to try with the right supports, they do, and they want to do more. As Kid President once said, “What will you create that makes the world awesome?” We have a bunch of learners who are about to see what they can create together. I am sure it will be awesome!