Spicy, flavorful, slap yo mamma it’s so good, Louisiana Gumbo.
That’s how I would like to view the learning experiences I create for my students. I teach high school chemistry in Southern Louisiana. A fellow classmate recently shared Walter Brown’s analogy comparing teaching and the creation of a Louisiana gumbo. The comparison and relationship between teaching and cooking gumbo speaks to me. I am a Louisiana-born, mud-riding, crawfish eating, LSU Tigers alumni/ die-hard fan – “spicy” isn’t just the way we like our gumbo, it’s how we prefer to live our lives! Cooking gumbo is a deliberate process unique to each chef, and I hope my students look back on the experiences they’ve had while my student and appreciate the time and effort I put into preparing and executing the best lessons possible.
I absolutely love the reference to our teaching being like a Louisiana Gumbo! Notice the reference doesn’t say bland Northern Faux/gumbo – without spice and flavor. Our classrooms shouldn’t be boring arenas lacking a spark and flavor to grab attention. Our lessons should engage our students, pull them in and hold their interest. A gumbo with no flavor will fill your stomach and help you make the energy your body needs to survive, just like lessons delivered without real engagement will present the information. Boring, rote instruction will give our students the information but they will retain very little of it. Even worse than bland gumbo is the canned premade gumbo pretending to be the real deal! I think of the cookie cutter lessons and assessments that policy holders like to pass off as education – just like the canned premade Gumbo. Teachers rarely take ownership of the education experience when they are forced to teach to the test – just like the premade canned gumbo leaves you disappointed because it’s not the satisfying flavorful real deal! But…. When we take the time to created a spicy, flavorful learning environment – our students will excel and our teaching experience will be meaningful and successful.
If you’ve never made a real Louisiana Gumbo, you might not jump on this comparison as I have. A real gumbo is a work of art. It starts with a beautiful dark roux. Not the store bought roux, but a well seasoned cast iron pot with oil or bacon grease and flour and the patience to slowly stir and brown the flour to an even dark color. If you don’t slowly heat the flour and stay with it to watch and stir – you will quickly have a burnt roux that can ruin a gumbo. I relate this to the planning process. If we as teachers fail to spend time preparing and researching the best practices for our lessons, our teaching experience will fail. I can also relate this to the first couple weeks of school when we are setting the stage for the whole year. How we present ourselves, our expectations and getting to know our students requires deliberate engagement on our part, just like a good roux requires constant attention.
The next step of the Louisiana gumbo is the holy trinity of onions, bell peppers reach it’s flavor potential, something will be missing. In our teaching we can do the same thing – we can set the stage for a great lesson, then allow it to flop with our lack luster presentation.
After the holy trinity of spices is prepped for the gumbo, then the real personality of the cook comes alive – chicken and sausage gumbo? seafood gumbo with crab legs and shrimp? Tomatoes? Okra? Louisiana chefs know that rarely will 2 gumbos taste alike, even if you use the exact same ingredients! Our teaching can be the same way – 2 teachers can do the exact same lessons and the outcomes be drastically different – the gifts and abilities of each teacher plays a huge role in the educational outcomes. I think this is one of the main reasons all of the politically driven standards, mandates and curriculums generally fail is because the teacher’s role is largely disregarded.
In my classroom I strive to be the spicy flavorful gumbo that sticks in your memory bank. I like to include a variety of strategies to engage my students and keep them constantly challenged in the process. A good gumbo can leave your stomach satisfied and happy. Sometimes you wish you could eat more because it just tasted so darn good! That’s the irreplaceable teachers experience – the educators that stick with us and believe in us.
The opposite is also very true. If you’ve ever eaten a truly awful gumbo, you are not quick to forget it. Sometimes it’s seafood you’ve added that has turned or maybe you slightly burned the roux or over salted the pot. When you start to eat a sub par gumbo, you know it. Not only are you disappointed because you were looking forward to a delicious meal, you are also quickly trying to rid your palette of an undesirable taste – searching for gum, a mint or a toothbrush! None of us want to be the educator that fails to reach our students, but unfortunately we’ve all had teachers that gave us an undesirable learning experience or discouraged us.
Don’t get me wrong, I am well aware that everyday our classroom is unlikely to produce a spicy flavorful Gumbo of learning, but I think as professional teachers we should strive to raise the bar and create as many blue ribbon winning Gumbos that we can! Sometimes we might even need to step out of our comfort zone and try some new ingredients, you never know when you’ll create something that’s “slap yo momma good!”