Nov 8 – Lessons of a Cake

This November I am participating in the #ReflectiveTeacher November Blogging Challenge. I hope you enjoy these posts!

Today’s Question?  Nov 8 – What memorable moment in the classroom reminds you why you love what you do?

I was teaching World Geography to a group of relatively well-to-do Grade 8 students, and I was truly wracking my brain: How do I help kids with a pretty strong sense of entitlement experience and relate to the issues of global inequalities?!?

And from some unknown place came the brainwave of The Cake. A huge luscious 3-layer Black Forest Cake – with a huge bottle of Coke t’boot. Over the top wealth – which I promptly awarded to a secretly-primed (and carefully chosen) student for a completely fictitious award. I casually instructed her to take it off to one corner of the room and share it with 2 “runners-up” (also previously chosen), while the rest of us went ahead with our regular class lesson. I’d chosen a strong student with a dramatic flair, and I’d instructed her very specifically NOT to give in and share with any other students in the class, no matter what happened. And when students started complaining, I reinforced that this was her award alone.

And then it happened. Students loudly appealed to me about the injustice of it all. Some asked the winner very politely if they could please have some – even a little piece? And when that was clearly not going to work, others started getting out of their seats and crowding around her, trying to take some either by stealth or by force. But before any fights could break out, I stopped the action in my “Teacher Voice”, and asked them all to cool it and each and all of them to please sit down. Luckily, they grumbled and mumbled but slowly did what I asked.

Because happily I’d foreseen their likely reaction, and quickly pulled out a huge second cake from beneath the front counter. And as they quickly sat up straight and assumed a best-behaved student posture, I began to share and to explain. This was a set-up. There was no special award, and I had cake and coke for all.  The student I’d chosen to “win” was playing a role, and I had primed her to play that role. She even showed them the piece of paper I’d given her with her instructions and the names of the students she was to choose, just to prove the set-up was legitimate and real. I explained why I’d chosen the students I did – 3 students with strong drama skills, who would be able to handle the other students’ possible reactions.

And while we all indulged, the conversations began without any prompting from me. How awful it felt to be “left out”. How horrible it felt to see a few people gorging themselves on such over-the-top riches, when they had enough that they could have shared. How some wondered why they hadn’t deserved to win the cake – not even a little piece?!? But also how difficult it was NOT to share, when the winners knew that they didn’t really deserve the cake any more than any of the rest of the students.

And as I sat back, the lightbulbs started going on… When people want something badly enough and feel they deserve it, sooner or later some are going to try to take it by force. How sad and angry and frustrated! the poor people and poor countries must feel about us, who have so much and yet haven’t done anything to deserve it except be born into a country, a community, a family with such a wealth of resources. How difficult and complicated it is to share, and at the same time, how difficult it can be not to share! How we as “rich” people have a responsibility to decide what we are going to do with all of our rich resources….  And when we’re grown up and in that position, what are we going to do with them and how will we decide???

I was so proud of my students, watching them engage in such deep and meaningful discussion with each other.  And years later, I’m still reminded by students and their parents of the profound and memorable lessons we learned that day from a cake.


About Cathy Beach

Recently retired elementary teacher and outdoor educator in rural Ontario, Canada. My Olympic Journeys may be over, but they lead me into some very exciting adventures with teachers and kids and the world of connected learning...
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