Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Read All The Words

It is hard for me to believe that we are two weeks from the end of another semester and that I am writing the final assignments and tests for my classes. Though I like considering questions for tests, I really don't like to "give" the tests. I would much rather just gather around and have a group discussion about the questions at hand. Unfortunately, undergraduate academic life does not work that way. So, I must write questions in such a way that I can draw as much discussion as possible from my students without asking pointed questions that demand a specific answer. As strange as it may sound, clearly written open ended questions are more difficult to write than the typical objective test question. The key to successfully answering one of these questions on my tests is to read all of the words - carefully.


This seems to be a mantra that I find myself saying as a mother and a teacher. It is advice I give to my own children as well as my students. As a general rule, the fewer words that something contains, like a test question, the more important each of those words becomes. I know this to be true and I know that READ ALL THE WORDS is sound advice for us all. Today this conviction was reinforced several times.

This morning I was baking a cake for a birthday celebration tomorrow. The recipe I was using is one that my mom gave me; it was my favorite birthday cake as a kid. I have made it many many times, though not very recently. I have not memorized the recipe though I have made it enough times that it is quite familiar to me. I began, as the recipe directed, by melting some butter and chocolate and then pouring this mixture over the typical dry cake ingredients. I then added eggs, buttermilk and vanilla. All seemed good. As I was pouring the cake into the pan, I had this feeling that something was missing. I went back and read through the ingredients on the recipe card. Nope. I had not forgotten anything. I put the cake in the oven to bake for its specified 40 minutes. About half way through the baking process I glanced into the oven. Something was not right. It then dawned on me that the recipe had not called for baking soda, a basic ingredient of almost any cake. Again I read the list of ingredients on the card. No baking soda.

When the timer buzzed signifying the end of the 40 minute baking period, I removed the cake from the oven. Something was definitely wrong. This was not the cake that I know and love. This was a chocolate sponge-a flat dense layer of chocolate sponge. It might have been good with a couple of scoops of ice cream on it, but it was certainly not deserving of the icing that the recipe called for. Frustrated by the fact that I could not figure out what I had done wrong, I went to the recipe card one more time.

This time, I did indeed read all the words. And, I found the error of my ways. Baking soda was indeed required. It just so happens that it was not listed separately in the recipe's list of ingredients. The card read "1/2 cup of buttermilk with one teaspoon of baking soda stirred in. I read the buttermilk part, several times, but had failed to read all the words that followed it.

The rather pathetic part of this story is that I had read the recipe looking specifically for "baking soda" and still missed it three times. That's a little embarrassing!

I remade the cake using all of the ingredients the second time. It has been iced and I believe it to be acceptable for tomorrow's party. I also somewhat redeemed myself by making chocolate chip banana bread avoiding all culinary disasters (I think).

While I was dealing with my flat cake, BK was having a similar problem with her knitting. She was trying to knit the edging onto a shawl following the instructions in a magazine. After several attempts, she could not get it to work correctly. In a desperate move, she solicited my help. I asked several question and tried my hand at following the given instructions. As it turned out, we were following those particular instructions correctly. The problem was that there was a little piece of very important information concerning this process that was way back at the beginning of the pattern. This detail was easily overlooked at the outset of the project because it was not really necessary at that time. However, at the point we found ourselves today, it was vital information.

Twice in one day I was faced with having to take my own advice.