Wednesday, October 12, 2011

PBJ Sandwich lab hilarity

Who would have thought, something silly like Sunflower Nut Butter would start a new trend!? What a smashing success the PBJ (or SFBJ lab) was. I don't know how many students actually liked the flavor of it, but we put those two jars and another two loaves of bread and several knives through the ringer and back.

Launch to the lab: "Many five-paragraph essays were vague at some points, even the A-papers. It was common to see sentences such as, 'The x-axis goes horizontal and the y-axis goes vertical and there is an origin in the center of the graph, and now you know how to graph!'. Well, no, unfortunately, I still don't. Or I don't know that you know how to graph." That got some blank stares. 

So we started a discussion of what steps actually are involved in making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich... and compared that thinking process to writing an outline to a paper. Then, we thought about how to break down the steps of each of our "bullet points" into its components, in order to complete the directions correctly. And then the fun began. They could not touch the materials. They could only look at them on the table. I know for a fact that some cheated, and went home, and made a PBJ sandwich step-by-step in order to perfect their directions. But whatever. You KNOW that scientists do that sometimes too ;)

The first day, I had 3 groups (1st and 2nd hour) and 4 groups (3rd hour) who were ready with their so-called procedures. During the trial run, the jars got spread on the bread, the bread got stabbed with the knife, the bag got ripped open from the side, and the jelly got smeared on the back-side of the same slice as the peanut butter. The success rate was around 60%. 

After doing the demo to the lab, my table was SWARMED with other students who wanted to try it for themselves, to see if they could be more specific. Some wanted to try it as is. Some wanted to try it with nachos or burritos or getting dressed (argh! start with your underwear on, PLEASE). Others wanted to make their siblings write the directions so they could play teacher/skeptic. Which I can't blame them for. It was really fun to think of how to mess with them ;). 

On the second day, results were better. Students had learned from prior mistakes about taking the lid off the jars, and placing the lids on the table, and of picking up the knife before sticking my own hand in  the jars. Still, some errors were found, and I got to dump the jars upside-down onto the bread, and my favorite, "cut the sandwich into 2 equal parts"... I PICKED UP A SCISSOR AND CUT THE SANDWICHES IN HALF!!!!

Awesome. I wish I had gotten a picture of THAT! I will say, though, the second day had a success rate closer to 80%, up from 60% the day before. And more importantly, students were starting to realize the mistakes in their directions as they were reading them, instead of after I had completed the directions. I heard groans and "d'oh"'s and other semi-appropriate exclamations as I flipped the bread around, turned the knife upside down, and then dropped it on the table. Memories were definitely made in my class this week. 

This may seem frivolous and a waste of time to those nay-sayers out there, so let me lay the objectives out for you. 

1. Giving clear directions and being able to articulate them in a meaningful, logical, understandable way is not only an important life skill, and cause of many a misunderstanding in life, but also it is a 7th grade language arts standard. 

2. I have the benefit for the rest of the year of using various code phrases, like "It's a sandwich!" or "That's definitely not a sandwich... your bread seems to be upside down", to tactfully tell certain students that their process needs refinement. Whether we are writing another essay, completing a lab report, giving a small group presentation or just sharing in class, I can say "be more specific" and hold up the scissor I used to cut the sandwich with, and they will get the idea. 


They laughed while we learned. They learned while they laughed. They were inspired and wanted to go home and replicate the feeling in their own way. And they received valuable life skills that will apply not only to many other aspects of their math career, and 7th grade, but to becoming better human beings, more understanding of the difficulty of clearly communicating meaning to fellow beings. 

3. Many students tried (or at least smelled) sunflower butter for the first time. They had never heard of its existence, nor realized that they could buy it at nearly any store, nor how difficult life is for highly allergic students to get around in the real world. We had a short, but meaningful discussion, about how wonderful it is for kids (and grownups) with allergies to have even a "fake" version of a favorite ingredient. 

While some students disliked the flavor of the sun butter, I reminded them that to a kid who could get deathly sick from smelling, let alone tasting peanuts, this is a really special treat, that makes them feel kind of "normal" for a while. We talked about what it must be like to find foods to eat when you are milk- or -egg or nut-allergic... how difficult must it be to find anything to eat at all, let alone something healthy or that tastes good? I felt, at least, that it was a good reality check for many of my kiddos. 

4. Essay writing quality will undoubtedly improve, due to this activity, and already has, in the 10 re-writes that I have since graded. Each student was given specific feedback as to how to add "meat" to their essay, and after the PBJ lab, they saw exactly what I meant. How specifically do you make an input/output table? What specifically does it help you to understand about linear vs. non-linear data? Do you prefer a table to a graph? How do you make a graph from a table? What is better about a graph that you like?

As the day winds down and I sink back into my zombie tired state, I will now head to the bathroom to clean the remaining sun butter goo from under my nails. I spent a whopping $10 over 6 classes and 2 days of labs to facilitate this wonderful learning experience. Lesson for me for next year? GET A P.O. for MACKENTHUNS AND STOP SPENDING YOUR OWN MONEY ON WORK!!!!!!!!!!!!   

You'd think that would sink in one of these days.


  1. AWESOME idea! I love it...makes me wonder how much more I could be doing to get through to my students the importance of certain tasks!

  2. And how much of your own money you're willing to spend on last-minute ideas that pop into that genius brain of yours ;)

  3. Mandy I am loving your blog! I've passed it along to several math colleagues. This lesson is distinctly familiar...did you take this idea from our 8th grade science teacher, perchance?! -Robynne

    1. Totally!! That lab was so much fun, but I don't remember our directions going much better than these did :o) -Mandy