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While cooking for family and friends this Thanksgiving holiday season, I mused that following recipes is like following lesson plans: it works best if you know what the end product should be, but are prepared to modify and adjust along the way.

In preparation for my first Thanksgiving at home in five years, I dug through well worn files holding favorite family recipes and perused on-line sources for unique holiday treats. Once I had gathered the proper ingredients, I enthusiastically spent the day preparing a festive meal for family and friends.

Because I was unsure of each new recipe, I followed it as closely as possible. I dutifully measured each ingredient, mixed according to instructions, and baked or braised for the suggested times. I ran into trouble on several occasions, though.   I had never brined a turkey before and didn’t have the exact equipment shown in the pictures in the on-line recipe. Transferring the turkey from the brining pot to the roasting pan was a two-person job, which created an enormous, unplanned for clean up project! I had forgotten to purchase two necessary ingredients and had to scramble to find a substitute. When we finally sat down to enjoy the meal, I nervously observed my guests. I had checked and rechecked the recipes so often, I had forgotten to actually taste each dish first! I should have tasted, adjusted, and planned for the equipment and ingredients I had on hand instead of what was written in the recipe.

When I’m teaching a lesson, book, or concept for the first time, I tend to follow my lesson plans very closely, too. But unlike preparing my Thanksgiving Day dishes, I modify and adjust my instruction based on the needs of my students. As education consultant Stephen Barkley claims, “Planning is extremely critical, but the problem comes when teachers deliver exactly what they planned!” Teachers often run into trouble when they try to deliver exactly what the scripted lesson prescribes, because they forget to assess student understanding to determine whether or not they need more scaffolding or more challenge. Experienced teachers have plans and know where they are headed, but pay attention to the learning during the teaching of a lesson plan and modify and adjust accordingly.

In the days following Thanksgiving I used a different strategy when making dishes with leftovers. I only referred to recipes for inspiration. I brazenly substituted ingredients with what I had in the refrigerator; increased or decreased amounts by my family’s preferences; added spices according to taste; and measured the cooking of soups and casseroles by need, rather than the timer. Both types of cooking created nutritious and delicious meals, but creative cooking was a lot less stressful and required less time for shopping and preparation. It allowed me to use what I had and make necessary adjustments in the process.

Like creative cooking, teachers need to modify and adjust plans according to the needs of the students they actually have in their classrooms. Frequent informal assessments can help determine if the lesson needs a little more salt, a dash of pepper, or a few more minutes in the oven.

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