Lesson: The Beef Wellington
Sorry if you’re a vegetarian, but there’s going to be some gratuitous meat imagery. By “gratuitous” I mean pictures of succulent, seasoned beef tenderloin smothered in a mushroom-bacon pate, wrapped in flake pastry and roasted to a golden, Maillard-inducing perfection. Whatever.
Also, I would like to thank Jerrid Kruse for pointing out that my last lesson was a sham (I’m pretty sure his official title is “Iowa Sham Detector General.”) Although the students found the Radon lesson interesting, it really wasn’t the deep level of inquiry that sticks to your ribs. I love blogging for giving me the virtual colleagues to help me parse this out.
I used to be a chef; I helped run a personal chef service, actually. We would meet with clients, design a menu just for them and their guests, and then prepare the menu at whatever location the guests had chosen. This included 300 sq. ft. apartments (with “pocket” kitchens), Victorian mansions, banquet halls, picnic tables, or what have you.
If the customers weren’t vegetarians or vegans, they would invariably flirt with the idea of beef tenderloin. This cut of beef — sometimes known as the filet mignon, filet, cheateaubriand, and other names — is the most expensive and by far tastiest cut of beef.
How does this relate to my classroom? I firmly believe that it is the individuality of teachers that adds spice to the educational wassail. We might all teach math or physics or whatever, but none of us teaches it quite the same, and nor should we. Without my near obsessive predilections for food, games, and Justin Bieber classical music, I don’t think I could come up with a single lesson of weight.
The blog-o-tubes spend a lot of time arguing about what makes good teaching and who is a good teacher and who is not. We don’t need a giant pile of acronyms to explain how to teach. In fact, I will Cornally-Hulk the entire Internet if someone asks me if I use the 17E, CLTWR, A.P.I., or WTFOMFGBBQ, method ever again. This kind of conversation misses the point; all of these inquiry cycles, models, skeletons, and thinking guides are all hitting at the same ideas:
- Let students do things, because you can’t know what prior experiences they have or haven’t had.
- Wrap up the important knowledge after students have experienced or played. (You are a teacher, after all)
- Provide prompts, invitations, and lessons that are actually interesting. Where the math is necessary and the best method is used; where the science content is not trivial and is compellingly curious.
- The grand narrative of your class is more important than anything else. Do they know how week 3 runs through to week 13? Do they understand the larger questions that are trying to be answered, or do they feel like the curriculum is a movie, running underneath them like an assisted sidewalk, at which they can choose to look down at or stare away from at will with no change in its time line? All of these questions can be wrangled with quality assessment practices (*cough*SBG*cough*) and thorough meta-cognitive activities done with students.
- Finally, do you believe that the “Author is Dead?” More on this later.
Allow me to walk you through a lesson that doesn’t immediately make me vomit in my mouth (like most of my ham-fisted attempts).1 I’m by no means the perfect teacher, and by no means are all my lessons as engaging as described by my aforementioned, all-powerful, bulleted list (the bullets make it seem dangerous).
The Beef Wellington:
I was cooking beef wellington for friends at a party. This immediately raises the stress level, as cooking for friends means that: a) you don’t want to make them sick, b) you want to impress them with your culinary prowess, and c) and this might be just me, but you want to entice others to take control of their food and be more responsible with how they eat.
So, If I produce a crappy beef wellington, it’s pretty much the worst thing that could ever happen.
What’s even scarier is that there are 50 ways to make beef wellington:
I can leave the entire tenderloin intact as a roast, smother the whole thing in the earthy pate, and then wrap in puff pastry:
OR! I could cut the roast into steaks, lather in pate, and then wrap each individual serving in puff pasty:
OR! OR! I could forgo the puff pastry altogether (HOLY BUTTER) and I could go with the more calorically and economically efficient phyllo dough; thus sacrificing tradition, but creating a lighter more engaging pastry shell. (Phyllo dough has the consistency of paper):
This all comes down the following question: How long do I cook each one to get the perfect awe-inspiring, transcendental beef wellington?
How is this a lesson? It’s genuine. This is not some pseudocontext, this is a problem that I really had, and the outcome matters. The question (how long to cook?) is not contrived, it’s a real question every chef asks, and to which popular belief ascribes answers like “just wing it” or “measure with an instant-read thermometer.” But where do I put the thermometer?
Questions beget more questions. This is the dizzying onset of learning.
How do I bring this to my students in a way that doesn’t sound like a math book:
“Shawn is cooking a beef roast. He wants to know how long it takes to get to medium-rare. If the roast is blahblah by blahblahblah and its thermal conductivity is blahblah and the water concentration of the average beef roast if blahblah and the oven temperature is 600 K.”
You know, because why not work in Kelvin just to make sure no one has any context but the chemists? Do you remember what the question was? When’s the last time your oven gave you all of the pertinent information about the thing you were about to cook? Do you have a super robot oven? Is it becoming self-aware? Should you be worried about that? (Terminator ovens!)
So, I brought it to my students in the most genuine way I could think of. I just told them my story. I told it to them with all the stresses and emphases of an epic poem. By the end, their questions just boiled out of them. What does the dough do to the heating? How fast does a roast cook normally? Does it taste good? It looks weird. On and on.
The science and math here are probably obvious to you: conductivity, volume approximations, heat energy, chemistry, etc . . .
The students of course wanted to cook. They naturally wanted to experiment with things like dough thickness, steak thickness, and whatever else. Data analysis was rough…
Who am I to stop a group of teenagers from learning to make some classic French food?
1. Normally, all things ham-related would have a positive connotation, but here the awkward connotation is used.