London, Jamie Oliver, and writing good assignment descriptions

Tower guards

I’ve just returned from a wonderful time spent in London with my family. Years ago, my husband and I always loved to travel during the fall season, but once I started my career in academia that ended that. So, as part of my sabbatical plan for this semester, we decided to do some traveling this fall. For the first time since 1999 I am not teaching classes during the fall season.  This has been a life changing experience and I will talk more about my sabbatical  in the next several posts.

This post, however, is about Jamie Oliver.

Have you seen any of his shows or tried out any of his recipes? We are big fans in our household. We’ve watched his show and have several favorite dishes from the Food Revolution cookbook that we make for dinner regularly. His Food Revolution  movement is impressive for a variety of reasons. I like the simplicity of the message which is something like; get cooking, get fresh food into the schools, get rid of the junk, and fight obesity. It’s simple, straightforward, and somehow it sounds doable. Check out this short clip on using fresh herbs in your cooking. It makes you want to start right away. He makes it seem really cool to have a herb garden in your home, and with this brief clip you have enough information to get started and to feel confident about the project.

That’s good teaching!

I have come to love Jamie Oliver’s recipes because they actually teach me. They have clear, simple instructions in layman’s terms and they include descriptions and pictures of the process as well as the end product. When I make his recipes, my food looks like his and each time I make it I learn a bit more about the ingredients, and how to use my senses and observation skills through the entire process.  I’m not a natural cook, but I really like to be in the kitchen and try new things.  When I use Jamie Oliver’s recipes, I always know what I’m doing and what is coming next. I have a sense of the whole process; the big picture. I also have a sense of the smaller details, like a cutting technique or how the dish should look during each stage of cooking it.

This has made me think about assignment descriptions, and how to explain to students what I want them to do to complete the work. I want to explore how Jamie Oliver explains things and to think about how to use his techniques in my own teaching. I recently experienced the panic that a student feels when working on an assignment. As I mentioned in the previous post, I am taking two online classes this semester. I submitted my first assignments last week while I was in London and there was a big difference in how I felt in one class vs the other class. In one class, I am always nervous that I’ve missed something. I never seem to know what I am supposed to be doing at any given time. I need to search for details about assignments in various places within Blackboard and on the syllabus. I’m always searching, and it seems that with every search I find a new detail that I missed the first go around. In the other class, I know what I’m doing each week. I know what is coming up and I have plans in mind for each assignment. I never feel lost and if I need to look something up, I always know where to find it. Big difference!

So, how do I create a learning environment in which students feel that sense of confidence because they have what they need in order to complete the work? If we compare an assignment description to a recipe, will there be similarities? In a well-written recipe, there is an ingredient list, a step-be-step description & picture of the process including various techniques that one must use during the recipe, and finally a description and picture of the end product and perhaps how you can pair it with other dishes.

With an assignment description we need to list the ingredients too. What will a student need in order to complete this assignment?

Readings, observations, lesson plans, a computer, a camera, a notebook, etc.

We also need a step-by-step description of the process and it would be nice to include pictures or samples of what those steps might look like:

describe the various drafts of a paper, describe the steps of doing an observation and finalizing an interpretation, etc.

Within that description there should be some explanation of expected techniques:

describe what is meant by drafts of a paper, describe what is meant by using APA format, etc.

Finally, there should be a description of the final product including a few samples and perhaps some explanation of where you might use this product  in other academic or professional work.

the paper will have three sections, your observation will include a narrative and an interpretation, each picture will have a label, you will do observations like this in an early childhood setting, etc.

As I read through this comparison it sounds overwhelming in terms of the amount of writing I think I should do in an assignment description. However, the best recipes have a short ingredient list, use simple descriptive language, and include various pictures of the process and product – all on one page. If you look at Jamie Oliver’s recipes, they tend to be one-pagers. This is helpful because I’m not having to flip back and forth as I go through the cooking process. Everything I need is in one place. We can do that with assignment descriptions too. It shouldn’t be overly complicated. If a student has trouble reading the assignment description, this will create unnecessary roadblocks to their completing the assignment. Speaking from experience, it also raises stress levels.

I don’t know how to be as cool as Jamie Oliver, but I do think his enthusiasm for what he does is contagious and through his writing and shows I feel like he has confidence in my ability to get the job done and have fun doing it. Why not try this with our students? I’d like to experiment with writing assignment descriptions using Jamie Oliver’s recipes as a guide. Want to join me? If so, send me your assignment descriptions and maybe we can do an ACCESS Shared Knowledge and Practices (SKiP) call about it.

I’ll share a couple of my assignment descriptions; Assignment description Teacher Research Case Study and Assignment description This I Believe essay

Let me know what you think!

A highlight of our London trip is when we went out to dinner at  Jamie’s Italian in Covent Garden.  It was a lively night out. The food was delicious and it was fun to see a tangible example of Jamie’s vision of people enjoying yummy, fresh food together. Cheers!

Carrie at the Tower of London

For inspiration, watch Jamie Oliver’s TED speech:

Teach every child about food

“My wish is for you to help a strong sustainable movement to educate every child about food, to inspire families to cook again, and to empower people everywhere to fight obesity”

                                                                                         -Jamie Oliver


12 Responses to “London, Jamie Oliver, and writing good assignment descriptions”

  1. 1 Amy October 7, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    Inspiring post, Carrie. I am so glad to have found your blog. I enjoy how you share so openly and candidly. This thought about giving students instructions that are clear, easy to navigate, etc. is right where my colleagues and I are as we are reexamining our Key Assessments for NAEYC reaccreditation. You have given me something more to think about.

    • 2 cnepstad October 8, 2011 at 5:49 pm

      Thanks Amy! I do think the assignment descriptions, learning opportunities, and key assessments connect in many ways and it’s kind of fun to think about how they fit in with the self-study process. Let me know what you think and if you would like to share your reflections on the blog.
      take care,

  2. 3 Crystal Swank October 7, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    I also enjoyed this post Carrie. I work very hard on the instructions for my assignments. In some cases I also include samples, but not always, because I want students to do their own work and have had experiences with students who see a sample and try to copy it too closely. I’d be interested in a SKiP call about this. I’d also be interested in linking the conversation about the instructions to the rubric development, as I see those as so closely tied together.

    BTW, I’m applying for my first sabbatical leave for next year, hope I’m approved. Can’t wait to spend some time fine tuning some of my teaching strategies! :o)


    • 4 cnepstad October 8, 2011 at 5:47 pm

      Hi Crystal,
      That’s a good point. I do wonder if samples make students feel that they must do their work exactly as the sample is done. I wouldn’t want to stifle their creativity. On the other hand, many of my students have shared with me that they have never written nor seen a good example of a college-level paper or a formal observation, or lesson plan. They have no reference point and they seem to really appreciate seeing some example of what is expected. In the past, I’ve tried to give them a range of things to look at so they see the diversity in terms of how students chose to complete the assignment. I think i need to gather more samples to have on hand though.

      I highly recommend the sabbatical. Good luck with the process. It has really been a refreshing experience!
      take care,

  3. 5 Polly Parker October 8, 2011 at 7:20 am

    Hi Carrie,
    I also enjoyed reading your most recent blog and how you have been inspired by Jamie Oliver and is ability to make his passion and knowledge of cooking and healthy eating accessible to others.
    I’m pleased you were granted a sabbatical this fall and are able to travel.
    I had a sabbatical in 2006-2007 to study nature education with young children. I met Richard Louv who wrote the book “Last Child in the Woods” and traveled to Nebraska City for the first Working Forum on Nature Education and beacme a charter member of the Nature Action Collaborative for Children, a project of the World Forum Foundation. Happy traveling and keep writing! You are a fine author!

    • 6 cnepstad October 8, 2011 at 5:50 pm

      That sounds great! I’m such a big fan of Richard Louv and the whole No Child Left Inside movement – what a cool project. Please let me know if you would like to write a guest blog post or an ACCESS newsletter article about your experience.

      take care,

  4. 7 veronica V. Jackson October 10, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    Hi Carrie, thank you so very much for sharing this very inspiring project. As you know I am battling a lifetime of obesity, and have finally realized that it is indeed an on-going battle of what my grandmother believed and instilled in me about food, and what I now know is what’s best practices for me as an individual, and for my family . CD 107 is by far my favorite class to teach as it provides me with a platform to express not just what is best for people based on what’s found in the text, but what I have lived, and continue to live each day.

  5. 8 cnepstad October 10, 2011 at 3:09 pm

    Thank you Veronica!
    I think it is so meaningful when we share our own experiences with students and I’ll bet your 107 students never forget that connection you have built with them between the textbook and real-life.

    Most ACCESS folks out there offer a similar course in their programs. This one is called “Health, Safety, and Nutrition” and I think it is one of those courses that both majors and non-majors really benefit from. A course like this offers rich opportunities for discussions about food, feeding practices for babies and young children, and the connection to culture. I feel like I can still hear my grandmother telling me to finish my plate, no matter what!

    Thanks again for your reply,

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