The Splendid Table is “the show for people who love to eat.”

What if our schools had this tagline, “the place for people who love to learn.”

I was returning from an outing this afternoon and tuned in to the Splendid Table, an NPR program hosted by Lynne Rossetto Kasper.  This afternoon the title of her program was Dinner with Churchill.

One viewer offered her a prompt related to her experimentation with making sauerkraut, but not knowing what to do with it if after making a batch.  The viewer had listened to an earlier Splendid Table program with Sandor Katz, the author of the book The Art of Fermentation, and got this idea to make sauerkraut.  Lynne Rossetto Kasper went into this rich and very engaging description of a series of recipes that her guest could use with her batch of sauerkraut.  She referenced Northern France, a region famous for its sauerkraut recipe, Choucroute garnie.  As Rossetto Kasper described this recipe, as well as some variants that came to her, I couldn’t help but think of my mother’s recipe for pork shanks and sauerkraut, a family favorite. With origins from Eastern Europe, sauerkraut was a staple in our family.  She hooked me into her story and helped me retrieve memories.  I love food, but the hook was the way Rossetto Kasper connected with the viewer and her audience.  It was simple and authentic.

Relevant to my work as an educator I started to think about what if a classroom was like an hour with Lynne Rossetto Kasper.  She is a font of knowledge about the art of cooking, matching ingredients, preparing a fine dinner or retooling leftovers.  But what I find most interesting is that all the knowledge comes to life from a simple prompt from a guest.  Rossetto Kasper is a good storyteller.   “What can I do with sauerkraut?”  That prompt sets her off on a journey in which she interacts with her guest, crafting a wonderfully engaging response.  From my perspective, the key to her success is that she communicates: (1) caring; (2) enthusiasm; (3) connection to her guest; (4) adaptive knowledge; and (5) a sense of playfulness.  All of these traits appear naturally and spontaneously in her episodes.

Instead of a course being overly scripted to cover chapters 1 through 25, what if our students came to class with interesting prompts that started them on a journey with us.  Of course, they need some background knowledge, as well as guidance on asking interesting and provocative questions.  But we have to give them the space to experiment and wonder.  In chemistry, I do have to set the stage for the behavior of gases, just like Rossetto Kasper has to set the stage for the basic structure of a good recipe.  The difference between her and me is that she plays around with the ideas presented to her by guests.  There is no right answer.  She comes up with all kinds of interesting variations.  A learning experience with her is driven by open-ended questions that lead to interesting conversations.  The same could be true in my chemistry classroom if I asked students to “think” about chemistry and come with interesting questions or prompts.  Instead, I tend to be worried about whether they have the “right answers” and can produce the responses that fit with my script.  When I think about my work, it is not very playful.  So for most students, it’s not very interesting.

Could this be what is wrong with our typical classrooms in most schools?  It’s not playful!  By playful, I don’t mean a frolicking free-for-all that’s not serious.  I mean like an hour with Lynne Rossetto Kasper.  I mean a place that feels happy and full of energy and has a seriousness of purpose at its core.