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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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What Process Activity Works Best with Your Students?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

How hard is it to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? How many different ways can it be done? I am certain that every way possible has been explored in this tired process activity. After observing a teacher recycle this much-used activity, I couldn't help asking, "What would be the more appropriate modern version of this activity?"

Out with the Old

I watched a teacher try to get third grade students to use sequence words by having them write down a recipe for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Then she had them switch recipes and proximally follow the other student's recipe to make their PBJ. The ultimate result was that this was easy, comfortable and mildly interesting for the students. First of all, it was a formal, announced observation. Secondly, considering all of the time spent in this activity, only five minutes were spent writing the recipe (it could have been done in one) and twenty minutes were spent handing out crackers, then peanut butter, and then jelly and only then making the cracker sandwiches. In the end, the activity won out over the learning.

As I sat watching the lesson unfold, I asked myself what would be a better connection to the students that would push their sequence word use. Right off the bat, I considered technology. Commencing with my own experience, I know at my house, just to watch a movie, there are several steps that must be taken in order to get the TV talking with the DVD (a lot has changed since we just turned the TV on and turned the channel knob). Continuing this vein of thought, another idea occurred to me that would draw out the students' vocabulary skills.

Step by Step

In turn, I thought of a couple of questions. "What steps do you have to take in order to play a video game? What do you do to win a video game?" Students could first write their step-by-step procedure and later their partner could illustrate it based on what was written previously. Nah -- much too complicated for the teacher; the students would know more than the teacher would. Aha! Decorating sugar cookies!

To start off with, there are obvious steps (i.e. frosting comes before sprinkles), also it matters which side of the cookie is used, following this, students could be really creative on their procedure designs, and ultimately the students could eat them afterwards. Nope, that would not work. The federal lunch program would not allow teachers to do that because it doesn't qualify as a "highly" nutritious snack and additionally, there would be way too much sugar. Paper airplanes! That's an idea. First of all, classrooms always have lots of scrap paper and secondly the students could describe in detail how to create the planes, and thirdly they could describe how to test the planes to see if they work. No, that won't do either. Kids don't make paper airplanes anymore; neither do teachers. Perhaps alternatively, they could Google directions to build a paper plane. Hmmm...but consequentially they would only know one plane design, then they would be back to the peanut butter sandwich problem again -- only one way to do it.

In with the New

Starting off, I thought about what kids do today that is done in sequence. Initially I thought about reading books and finding sequence words used there. In quick succession, I discarded that idea because they don't read books in sequence; they often read the end first. Following that thinking, it occurred to me that they really don't watch that much television in sequence; with commercials it is hard to maintain continuity.

This led me to another idea. They listen to music, they watch music videos, and they dance! That's it! To begin the learning activity, the teacher can have the students write an eight-count dance routine. Then, have them trade with their partner and read how to do it. Next, we turn the music on and watch the fun. Afterward, the students can reflect on what happened, then circle the sequence words used, and finally correct their partner's instructions. The consequence is that each one would be different, crazy, fun and memorable. Wait -- teachers can't do this. The result would be too chaotic and too noisy and the classroom next door would complain. In conclusion, kids don't like noise anyways.

Ultimately, I quit trying to find an answer to getting students to sequence. After all this thinking, my brain began to get fuzzy, then I started losing focus, next my ears began to ring, and lastly, my fingers would only cooperate with the computer long enough to type one question: How would you get the students to use sequence words?

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Jessica Piper's picture

Recipes: My students love to read them (step-by-step) and write them! It is so painless and fun. Especially when I bring the ingredients and they get to eat their step-by-step project. Quick, easy, creative learning that the kids can't forget. I've had several students come back a few years later to visit, and guess which lesson is still burned in their memory? The process of recipe writing and food eating=)


Woody's picture

I have been working to have students use the model used in Make! Magazine when they are writing the process of what they just made. They feel it is more meaningful to them and do a better job.


Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


Being able to follow a recipe is a skill that I have not fully mastered yet--according to my wife. I just don't see the need if I know the basics about how all the ingredients work together, and which ones are essential and which ones aren't. Recipes are essential, however, for people who don't know how all the ingredients work together. They have to depend on the experience of the person who wrote the recipe in order to make the result successful.

The down-side of recipes is that usually there is no higher order thinking involved (unless it is to figure out how many tsps. in a tbsp.). All you have to do is follow the steps. One way to add HOTS is to leave out a key step in the recipe and have the students investigate what it is, or create a substitute.

Thanks for your post!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]Recipes: My students love to read them (step-by-step) and write them! It is so painless and fun. Especially when I bring the ingredients and they get to eat their step-by-step project. Quick, easy, creative learning that the kids can't forget. I've had several students come back a few years later to visit, and guess which lesson is still burned in their memory? The process of recipe writing and food eating=)



Jessica Piper's picture

Dear Ben,

The recipe lesson is teaching BASIC process elements...as each students reads his recipe, other students have large posterboards with words like "then" or "next" that they hold up as the word is said (Think of cheerleaders holding up LHS. Same concept--the kids yell out the transition word as it is said). The kids walk out with a basic knowledge of process elements, i.e., chronological order, transitions, and step-by-step instructions.

We always want to remember to tackle the basic before we move to the sophisticated...and I think a recipe is just as difficult as the dance moves you alluded to in your piece. And as you can see, I know that kids DO like noise and "I ain't afraid of no noise". :-)

Thanks for your response.


When I asked my multicultural students to bring a "family recipe" for a class cookbook, there were a lot of brownies from a box recipes and pizza recipes. How many kids or their parents make anything from scratch? My point is.... this is a perfect opportunity for cross curriculum learning: measurement, on-line research (calorie counts and nutritional value), transitions, life skills.....the possibilities are endless. Recipes can be timeless, priceless family heirlooms.

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