Making Fruit Tarts
March 18, 2012 at 2:45 PM
I've been making fruit tarts for about two decades, and it's taken me that long to become masterful, that is, able to turn out an excellent fruit tart just about every time. I don't say that to brag. I've had lots of failures over the years—tarts that had too much sugar, fruit that got mushy, crusts that weren't fully done, berries that weren't tasty—even when I was following a trusted recipe. Those failures taught me that thoughtfulness and analysis were also essential ingredients. I still mess up occasionally, but what I have learned is while the recipe is a basic and necessary starting place, it is insufficient. Fruit varies, depending on the climate, time of year, growing season conditions, quality of care, stage of ripening, transport to market and any number of unforeseen and unknown factors. For example, all fruit has pectin in it, but we can't see it. The amount of pectin determines how ripe the fruit is, which determines how much sugar and thickener we need to add and how long the fruit needs to cook. So a successful fruit tart maker needs to consider many factors.
In many ways, learning to bake a superb fruit tart is similar to becoming a highly effective teacher. It takes many years of trial and error, deepening knowledge, professionally informed judgment, first rate resources, years of practice and experience to master the craft, and ongoing self-questioning and self-monitoring. Self-questioning and tinkering are essential to the process because every batch of fruit varies and requires unique attention. How much sugar will this batch require? Will fresh lemon juice or orange juice be better? How much cornstarch should I add as thickener? How long will this tart need to cook. So, too, do highly effective teachers recognize that every student and group of students vary and have different needs based on former "growing conditions," many of which are unknown to us. How much demonstration is enough? Will a small group or a one-on-one conference be most beneficial? How long does the group time need to last?
When we're new to the profession, we may need to follow and master a "recipe" or framework before we can responsibly and responsively adapt and innovate on our teaching. Learning foundational steps and procedures, in order, over and over again, initially helps us cement basic routines and procedures so we don't have to think about them much; they become second nature. And, like my recipe for a fruit tart, it's a necessary first step, but just a beginning one. That solid internal framework, along with a growing store of knowledge, frees up mental space. That space gives us the energy and will to make the evolving judgment calls of effective, in-the-moment teaching and to do the inner self-questioning that expert teachers constantly embrace: Why isn't this lesson working as intended? What do I need to add, change, delete, redo to get the results I want? What resources can best support teaching and learning? How can I engage this group of students? I no longer use a recipe when I make a tart. I know from years of experience how to "measure" what's needed for optimal results.
Finally, the quality of the resources we use is paramount. You can't make a first rate tart with second rate fruit. And, you can't tell the quality of the fruit just by looking at it. On the surface, berries can look excellent, but until you taste them, there's no way to know. So it is with instructional and assessment resources, standards, and new curriculum. They can look like the "new best thing" but they have to be "tasted," studied, carefully examined, and tried out in the context of relevant research, experiences, and resources that have already proven their worth. Resources have to be top notch, or they should not be used. Just as I only serve my cherished family and friends a beautifully made, tasty tart, we must not compromise what we "serve" to our students if we want "delicious" results.
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