Monday, April 29, 2013

When the Best Lab Plans Fail

February 2, 2016 Update: Over 100 new FACS resources including those listed here are available in exchange for a small donation to fight blood cancer - see details here!

Don't you love it when a colleague says "Oh your job is so fun and easy - you just get to cook and eat with the kids all day long!"

Right. Easy.

It's amazing how many teachers (parents, administrators, etc) think teaching a classroom full of public school kids how to cook something is the exact same as teaching one of your own children/grandchildren at home. Amazing, and maddening. Why is it that I can pick out about 42 issues with "Freedom Writers" and "Dangerous Minds," but the English teachers all seem to think that "Superbad" is a fair representation of home ec classes? Neat rows of well-stocked two-man lab stations, and time to make homemade tiramisu in ONE class hour? Wha?

We all know that just handing a recipe to a group of kids and saying "Go cook" is not going to work. Even if you've gone over the recipe. Repeatedly. And demonstrated. Repeatedly. Once they get into the kitchens, it's always a free-for-all. Always. No matter how many times you warn them "Now, once you get into the kitchens, it is not a free-for-all - that's why we spend so much time learning the rules and preparing." So much oxygen that we'll never get back.

Part of that is just the nature of trying to fit a round peg in a square hole. Recipes are typically designed for only one cook who then sets aside the time he/she needs to create the final product. In our classes kids work in groups to prep, create, eat, and clean all inside of 44 minutes (or 88 minutes divided, etc). Real-world recipe reading skills are not the same skills needed to succeed in a classroom kitchen setting. 

All this to say that most FACS teachers strongly believe in lab plans, meaning making the kids sit down and write out who is going to do what and when. That way on the day of the lab - theoretically - there are no arguments over who does what, and the tasks are completed in a timely dovetailed fashion rather than all of the group members standing around watching one person complete one step at a time as you would do if you were cooking independently in your own kitchen. Theoretically.

The first few labs are always the toughest - after all, the kids have to learn for themselves that if they stand around and watch one person do one thing at a time they are not going to have time to eat AND they will not receive a pass from their beloved teacher when they stay after the bell finishing clean-up. After the first few they get the hang of it and things begin to run pretty smoothly.

However, I have run into two problems with this at my new school. One, we only have a few labs, so there's really not much time for that "getting the hang of it" phase. But the second one is the biggie.


Now I have faced attendance issues at every school I've taught at, but this one takes the cake. At the beginning of the year I spent time on lab plans, then came to discover it was a massive waste of time, no matter how far out in advance we began to work on them. There was no way of knowing how many people were going to show up on lab day or who they would be. I couldn't even assign groups the attendance problem was so ridiculous.

At the high school level when there were attendance 'surprises,' the kids could pretty much handle the adjustments - we'd have to combine groups, someone would have to change roles, someone would have to do two jobs, whatever it took. The situation usually worked itself out.

At the junior high school level, the abstract thinking abilities are just not there yet for a substantial number of the students. Which makes perfect sense, if you know your Piaget; however, it also means that making lab plan changes on the fly is not a realistic possibility.

All this to say that I had to throw out the lab planning concept at the end of the first semester and come up with something different. 

And that's when I began developing Cooking Lab Task Cards***.

We still go over the recipe in detail. I still demonstrate the labs (actually, I've taken to creating videos and showing them on the SMART Board. That way everything is close-up and everyone can see very well. They can also watch them at home if they're absent, as I have posted them on YouTube). We still go over the different jobs. But on the day of the actual lab, whoever shows up is handed a task card.


Even though the first two classes to cook this semester were small and filled with very cooperative kids, I was dreading the first lab and trying to think of ways to make it run more smoothly. Then I thought, why not give them each a to-do list for what needs to happen before the lab? I hand wrote a list of supplies on little slips of paper, creating a set for each kitchen. When we went into the labs I handed each kid a paper, and magically they all did what the sheet said!

It was at that point that I began developing the actual cards. On the front of each card is a list of that person's assigned prep responsibilities - tasks that have to be accomplished BEFORE any actual work takes place.

Once that is accomplished, then they have the steps that they are responsible for on the back.

These cards have worked wonders! Somehow, with a short, detailed list of what to do in their hands they are able to more or less stay focused and get things done the way that they should be done.

I went through quite the evolutionary process with these - as mentioned I began by handwriting supplies on slips of paper for my first experiment during my first rotation this semester, which worked pretty well. Then I reworked the lists, added the jobs, and typed and printed them on labels and slapped them on index cards, which worked well until a class in the second rotation decided it was okay to just ball them up and throw them away rather than give them back (really? You really thought you should throw that away?). 

Now that I've used this method several times, I've created a more permanent product for my third rotation. 


1. I create a "prep" label and a "steps" label for each person (A/B/C: if there is a fourth person, I double up the weak readers; has worked well so far) for each day of the lab. For this I use Avery 5168 3.5" x 5" labels.

2. I cut colored 8.5" x 11" cardstock (one set for each kitchen in its corresponding color) into four equal pieces.

3. I affix the labels to the cards, and laminate (not the flimsy roll stuff. I do not want these getting trashed - I go for the 5mm, yeah buddy).

4. I hole punch the cards, and use a book ring to hold together all of the cards for that recipe.

5. I store the cards in a 4 x 6 inch index card box (check out these from Amazon!).

Admittedly, this is a LOT of work initially. However, they are enormous time-savers (and frustration-savers!) once created. Additionally, each class only cooks three or four times, so I only have to create four recipe sets, which are then used in 12 different classes throughout the year as I go through my rotation.

I'm just bummed I didn't have this together 7 or 8 months ago!

And since I have to change everything up for next year, I'll have to make four more recipe sets, but I'll have the summer to do that... and then I'll already be set for the following year!

Again, if we spent more time in the kitchens (or if I were working with an age group more capable of formal operational thought), I wouldn't employ this method. But, when only offering a small number of labs within a short period of time, I want the emphasis to be on their hands-on foods experience rather than their ability to break down new and complicated text into a series of dovetailed tasks. 

And of course I would also like to retain some fraction of my own sanity and sense of well-being.

***Update: Sets of task card labels are now available in my TPT store for $1 per set. Recipes are also available for free download. Check 'em out at
Please note that only the labels are for sale - you'll have to do the card making yourself! : )

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Tool Belt 2 - Tutorial

A few people have emailed asking for a pattern or tutorial for the tool belt, so I whipped up another one today and tried to keep track.

For this one I skipped the bias tape and added a backing, you can of course do whatever you would like. Again I used home decor fabric - I like that it is stronger and will put up with more abuse than regular cotton fabric.

.6 yd Fabric A
.7 yd Fabric B (unless you don't mind making the backing out of separate pieces which is what I did, then you only need .5 yd)

If you want to add bias tape or anything else to fancy it up, have that ready as well.

Step 1 - Cut the following pieces:

Fabric A: 14.5" x 24" (main piece)
                   6" x 24" (lower pocket)

Fabric B: 14.5" x 24" (backing, optional; pieced together if necessary)
                 10" x 24" (middle pocket)

Note: 24" width was ideal for me; you should measure yourself to see where you would like it to fall on your waist/hips, wherever you plan to wear it.

Step 2 - Hem one long edge of both pocket pieces. I chose to use a zigzag stitch.

Step 3 - Align non-hemmed edges of both pockets with one edge of main piece, and pin.

Step 4 - I decided to add writing utensil pockets to this one. Figure out where you would like to carry your pens, etc, and mark them with pins.

Step 5 - Sew a three-sided rectangle around the outer edges, then divide down the middle (sorry for the terrible lighting). I've photographed the back for the next few steps because the black thread on black fabric does not show well.

Step 6 - Mark where you would like the pockets to be divided, then sew lines to divide. If you would like a different number/size pockets between the two layers, sew down the middle layer first. I divided both into equal thirds, so I was able to do this in one step.

If you are not going to add a backing, this is the time to finish your edges with bias tape. Or good ol' fashioned hemming, or whatever you like.

Step 7 - Pin front and back right sides together.

Step 8 - Sew around outer edge, leaving a gap to turn the tool belt right side out. The top is the best place, as it will be folded over for the belt casing. Remember to switch to a straight stitch if you were using something more decorative.

Step 9 - Clip your corners and trim.

Step 10 - Turn right side out, press edges flat, then stitch all around the outside with your stitch of choice.

Step 11 - Fold top of tool belt over to the back, allowing enough room for the belt of your choice to slip through; pin and stitch.

Step 12 - Add belt, take photos, admire. Then put it on, fill it, and get to work on another project!

I have received several compliments from coworkers since I've started wearing my tool belt, both on the cuteness of it and the usefulness of the concept. A few have even asked if I'll take orders - can't even think about that until summer, but hmmmm, a little pocket money never hurts, eh?


Sunday, April 21, 2013

File Cabinet Upgrade

Like so many teachers, I have some pretty hideous file cabinets - one in particular is especially cringe-worthy. While it has been on my list all year to work on this issue, there are obviously a lot of other things that were much more important to take care of first. However, last week I just couldn't take it anymore!!! So I dealt with the most hideous one. Sadly I didn't take a pure before photo, but did think to take one about halfway through (and next to it is a mostly-obscured photo of it I took last May upon my first visit to the classroom):


Gah! Told you it was hideous! There are of course about 79 different ways to updo your file cabinets currently dancing around Pinterest, here's how I did mine. Note: I only had the time to cover the drawers, didn't touch the rest of it. If I were making over the entire thing at the same time, I would take the drawers out, which would make it much easier.

Gift wrap, clear contact paper, shipping tape, screwdriver, bucket, dishrag, Dawn dish soap

1. Removed all hardware from drawer.

2. Scrubbed down front and back of face, sides, and underneath front of drawer with dish water; let dry.

3. Cut out rectangle of gift wrap slightly larger than front of drawer:

4. Marked where drawer handle screws should go:

5. Cut out a piece of clear contact paper about an inch longer than gift wrap on all sides, taped it upside down to a table:

6. Removed paper backing, centered gift wrap with design down on sticky side, cut out corners of contact paper:

7. Applied to front of drawer, pulling lengthwise until tight and securing edges with tape:

8. Cut slits in contact paper where necessary to attach, taped down the rest of the sides:

9. Folded in corners of top and bottom, then folded over top and bottom edges and taped:

10. Placed clear hole reinforcers around the dots where the screws belong:


11. Poked through the holes, reattached handles. The end!

Obviously I did it the quick and sloppy way, but I had it done within two days and it has made a HUGE difference. Eventually I will repaint the outside of the cabinet and the handles as well, but this will do for now.

And yes, I do plan to do something about all of the ridiculous stencils on the wall! Summer is six weeks away...

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Sewing Supply Storage & a Pep Talk

Once you've assembled students' sewing supplies, the next step is to create an easy way for them to access their materials and a headache-free way for you to store them. My classroom came equipped with a few "storage tray" cabinets - you know the kind I mean, with the removable trays/drawers for student supplies. When teaching high school I just assigned a tray/drawer to each student (complete with name labels) and put them in charge of retrieving and putting away their own tray. I found this to be a complete disaster at the junior high level due to all the pushing, shoving, and messing with other people's stuff. So scrap that idea!

Since my classroom is arranged in four horizontal rows with a supply table in front of each, I now assemble one tray per supply table:

In the tray, I place the supply jars, supply bags, and folders for the kids in that row. The folders are usually kept in a tote in front of the classroom, but during the sewing unit I put everything together to cut down on the time it takes to transition between classes. While I still love the SpongeBob formula can cover, I've found it's a good idea to make each jar in the tray a dramatically different color so that students are able to find theirs much quicker than by looking for their name label alone (it is AMAZING how long it takes junior high kids to accomplish simple things like "find the jar with your name on it" compared to high school!). The other items I keep on the supply table are a small stack of paper towels (cuts down on student "need" for tissues dramatically when you offer paper towels only, not to mention having them within arm's length cuts down on room traffic) and a measuring cup of golf pencils. Yes, I have given up on the pencil war. Except for the class that kept constantly throwing theirs on the floor - they're completely on their own for pencils for the rest of the school year. But I digress. The tray you see in the photo above only has three jars because my smallest classes are in the sewing unit right now - during the last rotation each of my trays was packed in, but it still worked well.

In the baskets (purchased at Dollar Tree - don't you love that store?) I place the supply baggies and whatever materials they need to share. Right now I have a roll of Scotch tape in each basket because it's usually necessary during paper sewing. Later on I'll add mini rolls of yarn for our plastic canvas project, etc.

The trays admittedly are pretty ugly; in time I will pretty them up. For now I've just thrown some colored duct tape around the edge so that each class's trays are obviously marked.

I just toss these out on the supply table before class, and throw 'em back in the closet before class ends. Works great!

This next part has nothing to do with sewing, but I have to share. This was shown during a student assembly at school yesterday, and I found it to be absolutely fantastic. I am not one who is big on YouTube sharing, email forwards, etc, but this one is totally worth it - check it out!

(Here's the link in case the embedded video doesn't work for you.)

I'll end this with sharing that I have finally jumped on the Pinterest bandwagon and put together my own teacher "toolbox" from Lowe's:

I have been coveting these all year and now that I've finally made my own I LOVE it! Buy one for $23 at Lowe's, trim some scrapbook paper, make some labels, and presto, supply command central. If you've been hesitating, do it already, it is so handy and sooo cute!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Sewing Rules, Supplies & Starter Bags

As I mentioned the other day, this week I started my 6th curriculum rotation of the school year. It's been interesting teaching each subject only for about five weeks (minus half days, Monday holidays, institute days, etc); I've had to really think about what is essential to include and how to most efficiently meet my course objectives in that small amount of time. I've also learned many of the quirks of junior high students in general and of students at my school in particular. I'm going to share how I organize my sewing unit as I go along, in case you're looking for any ideas. I always am, so feel free to share what you do as well! Note: if you are not a FACS teacher, this is not going to be all that interesting. Perhaps even if you are a FACS teacher, it won't be all that interesting : )

We always start out with the rules. Some are worded a little harshly, but I've learned that blunt is usually the best for understanding. Here they are (they receive these in the form of skeleton notes, and we fill in the blanks during a PowerPoint presentation):

One thing that I have learned at every school I have worked at is that classes can be very unreliable and/or unpredictable about providing their own sewing supplies. Aside from the "forgetting" and unlimited lists of excuses, sometimes kids bring in things that either aren't quite right, aren't in good repair, or are just plain weird. I've found it so much easier to simply provide the basics, that way I know for sure that all students will have the right supplies on the correct day that I plan to begin sewing. Also, everybody has the exact same supplies which seems to limit petty bickering and jealousy.

Since my sewing unit is so short this year, the only supplies I require my students to provide on their own is the fabric for their one sewing machine project, a pillowcase - all they have to bring in is 3/4 yard of one fabric and 1/3 yard of a coordinating fabric. Even with this, I give them the option to pay me (one week in advance) for fabric, and I will make sure I have some on hand for them when we begin (limited choices of designs, of course). Here is the supply/info sheet I hand out:

So all that being said, when we begin the sewing unit, I give each student a starter bag. Here is what I include:

1: Quart-sized baggie. Can be a little tight at times, but I found that gallon-sized baggies took up way too much room. I write each student's name on their baggie with a Sharpie. During one rotation I tried sticking a label on the outside (I love printed labels!) but the kids tended to write/doodle/scratch out letters on those labels which made them difficult to read over time; also, when baggies fell into "enemy" hands people tended to write unpleasant things on that person's name label, which is easily marked with a standard pen or pencil. During another rotation I tried attaching a label on the inside of the bag, but that made it tricky to see when the bag was full. So a Sharpie it is!

2: Iron-on patch and needle. I cut iron-on patches into roughly 2" x 3" rectangles, then teach students to "Tuck, tuck, needle stuck" every time we clean up. Lost needles are a HUGE pet peeve of mine. When I first started teaching I would replace them, but they of course wound up all over the floor. Then I started to charge for additional needles. That backfired, because when kids dropped them they were too lazy to look for them and would just pay for a new needle. Again, needle-covered floor. No more. I have a very firm ONE NEEDLE policy. If it becomes lost, they must bring in one on their own, no exceptions. There's always one kid who will try to call my "bluff" - ha, doesn't work, Buster! Anyway, they tuck-tuck the needles into their needle patch before putting their needles away in their baggies. This way they are easy to locate in the baggie, won't get lost in the shuffle while looking for other supplies, and won't poke through and fall out. I begin clean-up time each day by saying "Everybody needs to tuck-tuck!" Usually several of the kids will then yell out "Needle stuck!" - it's kinda fun. I started out by using small rectangles of canvas, but the patches are quicker to prepare and the slightly gummy coating helps keep the needle in place. BIG sanity saver!

3: Bobbin of thread. Full spools take up a lot of room in a baggie, so I don't want to give one out to everybody. Also, at my current school they get stolen quite often if I put several out to share, which I learned the hard way. My students also don't share very well, so it's best if they each have their own source of thread. Each student gets a bobbin; if they lose it, they pay a quarter for a replacement. When it runs out of thread I trade them a new one for their empty one.

4: Dot paper! I use this paper to teach basic stitches before we use them on fabric or any kind of project. It makes it very easy for them to clearly see what they are doing as well as what the stitch is supposed to look like. Some of them groan about it when learning the first stitch, but after moving to fabric they understand the point of it and are much more cooperative when we go back to the paper to learn the next stitch.

5. Piece of scrap fabric. I use this fabric for pinning and cutting practice before we get to a real project.

6. Oval printed on paper. Students cut this out, pin to the FOLDED piece of scrap fabric, and cut out two identical pieces. Most students usually complain about how dumb this is before actually doing it. Then most students usually complain about how hard it is to cut around a shape. Some of them will acknowledge that practicing first was a good idea.

Side note: Have any of you noticed a sudden and sharp decline in fine motor skills, particularly cutting skills? Since starting out seven years ago I've noticed that scissors skills have absolutely plummeted. Just the way some of these kids hold scissors makes part of my brain throb. How do they not know that's not right??!!

7. Three buttons: large, medium, small. We start by sewing the large button onto the green ovals they have cut out, then move our way down through the medium and then the small. We aim for pretty on the front and on the back! By the third one most of them actually nail it down pretty well.

8. Monkey pattern! This is our first hand-sewing project, a carryover from the high school classes I taught. For whatever reason most kids get really excited about these monkeys, even the boys. Go figure. I let them choose their own colors from a classroom collection of felt, so I don't include the material in their baggie initially. They do keep the felt in their baggies as they work on the project, and it fits perfectly fine with everything else.

9. Small rectangle of plastic canvas. Our second hand-sewn project is yarn on plastic canvas. We begin by practicing on a small piece to work out the pitfalls of tangles and the details of knots, etc. They obviously use a different needle, but I have learned not to give that one out until they are ready for yarn - otherwise if they lose their regular needle they try to use the bigger one on their monkey project, which of course just destroys the felt.

Desk trashcan - a jazzed up baby formula can to be used as a trash can during class, and as a scissors/pin cushion holder in between classes. For these I do stick printed name labels on the inside. They're easy to remove and replace for the next class, and kids are much more likely to empty their trash cans and keep their supplies neat if they know they'll be stuck with the same can the next day.

There you have it - all of my intro to sewing preparation. If only I had come up with all of this half a dozen years ago rather than piecing it together bit by bit...

Monday, April 15, 2013

Caudill Update

As I've previously mentioned, I'm reading my way through the 2014 Rebecca Caudill list in preparation to be a "Book Champ" next school year. Here are my latest reads:

These were all excellent and I would recommend any one of them. "Breaking Stalin's Nose" is a very quick read about a boy growing up in Stalinist Russia - if you read no other book for this age group, read this one! Such an interesting look into a critical time period in Russia often overlooked by US history classes due to the overlap with the Great Depression and entrance into WWII.

I must say I've really enjoyed reading all of the Caudill books so far - such a departure from my usual fare, but incredibly informative in addition to entertaining. These books introduce 4th-8th graders to a wide range of different cultures and problems faced by kids their age around the globe - quite the perspective-changer! I encourage you to check 'em out - if you have doubts, start with the shortie "Stalin's Nose" - you'll be hooked!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Tool Belt!

Today's work: a tool belt to wear during sewing classes!

I've only had this on my to-do list for oh, seven years or so, because having to choose between always carrying a bunch of supplies in your hands or always running back and forth or always allowing a couple dozen junior high kids to get out of their seats is a paltry, paltry choice. I have a BUNCH of aprons because I LOVE making aprons, but I needed something more heavy duty with a lot of pockets. This guy has six pockets and is made with home decor fabric (50% off at Joann this week!) so it is highly functional. My favorite part is that rather than making straps I made the casing wide enough to accommodate a real belt - that way it won't start to slide off under the weight of six pockets full of notions!

Tomorrow begins my 6th curriculum rotation of the school year - hard to believe I've gone through everything five times already, whew! As I go through this time I'll share some of the ideas I've implemented to make shorter sewing units go more smoothly with my classes. And as always, if you have any suggestions I'll be glad to hear them - after all, the first day of school is a mere four months away!

Sorry! Don't shoot! Don't shoot!

I'll also share some of the classroom organization projects I've tackled. As you've seen from the pics I've previously posted, it has been one big uphill battle trying to get these rooms set up the way I want. Yesterday I worked on just the rooms (no grading, lesson prep, copying, etc) for over six hours, and I think I finally achieved the tipping point where I feel that the "sewing" room and the storage room are breathable - one more full day and perhaps I can hit that point with the foods room and begin to focus on the decor more! If only we were allowed to take a personal day just to work in our classrooms, eh? Here's to dreaming...

Have a great week!

Tutorial added here.