Monday, June 10, 2013

The Ort Report

Last week, our lower school (5th and 6th grades) went "camping" at Camp Jewell, close to the Massachusetts border. We had a fantastic time - we all had one heck of a time: Kids canoed and climbed rocks and swam in the lake and built a fire and went on a nature hike and performed campfire skits and made s'mores and...we learned about ort.

At every meal, our camp counselor would have us sing the "ort report" song and would reveal how many pounds of ort we had left uneaten at our last meal.

As you may be able to see from the bar graph, we steadily reduced the amount of ort left at every meal. That's good - it's generally a good thing to get kids to care about not leaving so much food and drink behind at meals. And all that really happened was this: We got excited to see the number (by doing a quick song and dance), our counselor gave the occasional tip* on how to reduce our ort, and we saw the number at every meal - represented neatly in a bar graph.

*My favorite tip was this: When using milk for cereal, keep in mind that one bowl of cereal takes about half a carton of milk. So you may want to find someone else who wants cereal and just get one carton of milk among the two of you.

I like the ort report for two reasons:

1. It helps kids care about a great cause, and one I suspect we don't talk about as much as we used to - not wasting food. But this isn't the nebulous "kids in China are starving" argument; it's more of a soft sell.
2. The ort report, whose stated purpose is to show how many scraps of food (and drink) were left uneaten (and...undrankened?), also helps foster other great habits: cooperation among table-mates, planning ahead for what you'll actually eat and drink, and erring on the side of taking less food than one may take otherwise. Economists call these other effects 'positive externalities.'

This all got me to thinking: What are the other 'ort report' -type activities that produce positive externalities in schools?

The one practice that comes to mind is the practice of asking students for evidence (usually text evidence) to support their answers. This gets kids to read more carefully, to evaluate each other's answers more carefully, check their own thoughts to make sure they're supported by evidence, and, ultimately, learn to pay closer attention to details in the first place.

Other than that, I'm struggling to find something as useful or elegant as the ort report. I'd love to hear more ideas in the comments...

In the meantime, one positive externality of the fact that this ritual is about ort is that, in reading this short post, you learned a new word exclusively through repeated exposure. Nobody defined ort for you, but, if pressed to define the word, you could probably get pretty close to the dictionary definition. This is the power of embedded, indirect vocabulary instruction. So thanks for reading, and congratulations on your new word - you ort to be very proud of yourself.

Sorry about that last one...