Sunday, March 22, 2009

Its a Control Thing

Teacher Musings
My family has so many control issues that we have a special name for it: LCF (Levey Control Factor). LCF is simply the reason why my sister, my dad or I get stressed out and frustrated when we can't control something that we crazily think we should be able to control. LCF is the reason my sister gets spitting mad whenever she is injured and can't work at full capacity (which is an issue when much of your work is physical). LCF is why my dad can throw down an f-bomb when people around him act like morons. And LCF is why I got so frustrated that my face turned red when my students wouldn't listen to me last Thursday. This was all aggravated by the fact that I had another teacher, whom I greatly respect, watching my class.
The idea of "control" in the classroom is one every teacher faces. On one hand, not having control in a classroom can have drastic consequences for you and the students - just ask anyone who has ever had a fight break out in their room. Like most things in teaching, this idea of control is not simply something you have or you don't - you might control some things and not others. Which begs the question - what are teachers expected to be able to control and what should they be able to control? On Thursday, I was attempting to get my students to have a whole class discussion about the main idea of an excerpt from "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass." I had some students listening and contributing, others who were frustrated with the process in a way that I can live with (they were frustrated that there was no "easy" answer, something I want them to grapple with), a few more who were tuned out and moving along with other work and at least one who was flat out asleep and snapped at me when I shook her arm to wake her up. In some ways I had control of the class- no one was wandering around out of their seat, or starting a fight, or trying to have a loud conversation with someone else across the room (all of which have happened to me before and I'm sure will happen again). In other ways, however, I felt the control slipping away bit by bit as the process continued. Every moment that passed I lost more students' attention, and I had that brief moment of panic wondering if I was going to get it back. We eventually moved on to another activity where they were all more engaged and I was able to circulate and help more one on one. In the midst of that circulation I had a student, in her very nicest voice, tell me that my butt was big. I have since decided to take that as a compliment and move on with my life.
At the end of that period LCF reared its ugly head. I was "amped" (as my students would say), frustrated and mostly angry at myself. Why couldn't I capture all of their attention while I was up at the board? Isn't that something I'm supposed to have control over? On reflection this begs the question - how much of another human being's behavior can we be held responsible for? Its a dangerous question in teaching, because it is always tempting to say that its the students' fault that you taught something and they didn't learn it. I not only believe the opposite, I think it is imperative that all teachers believe the opposite - we are there to get students to learn, by any means necessary. But how much should I be blamed, or blame myself, for the student who was sleeping in my class? How much should I blame myself for the side conversations? Sure, I can reflect and problem solve and try to find ways to create more systems in my class that minimize that behavior (as I have) but how much of it is actually in my control? Isn't it a bit egotistical to think that I can be responsible for and control the behavior of 25 teenagers for one hour when their lives are out of my control for the other twenty-three hours of the day? This moment was a good reminder that "controlling" my class should not always be my goal, but perhaps "managing" it and creating systems for it should be.
On this note, I read a wonderful article by David Cohen called "When Testing Fails" around this issue of control in the context of testing. Check it out at
Basically, he points to the fallacy that a test (the way they are done now) can be a measure of a single teacher's performance. What I like his article is how he shows that we can't blame or congratulate one teacher for a students' success, but that teachers do make a difference - we are just a piece of a giant puzzle as opposed to the sole motivator for any single student.

Yummy Stuff
Its been a while since my last post, and we've been making a lot of great stuff! I have been reading "Eat to Live" by Joel Fuhrman and I'm finding it fascinating. As a result of this, I have been cutting out sugar and oil and trying to add way more beans and greens to my diet. The result has been some really yummy stuff! I made a white (navy) bean casserole from "Easy Beans" a few weeks ago, but of course it got changed and veganized. So, here is my version of it:
Gratin of White Beans with Herbs
3 1/2 cups of navy or Great Northern beans (white beans)
1 TB olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 fresh tomato chopped
1/4 cup veggie stock
1/4 cup unsweetened soy milk (with 1 TB of cornstarch added)
3/4 cup panko bread crumbs
2 green onions finely chopped
3 TB olive oil
1 TB fresh rosemary
1 tsp dried thyme
1/4 cup parsley chopped
1) Sautee the onion and garlic in olive oil over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add tomato and cook 10 minutes more, stirring frequently
2) Add stock, soymilk and cornstarch (already dissolved in the soymilk) and stir for 2 minutes
3) Pour the veggie mixture over the beans in a casserole dish and stir gently to mix
4) Mix topping ingredients together and sprinkle on bean mixture. Bake at 375, uncovered for 30 minutes

We also had a delicious black bean and greens soup from "More Easy Beans" that I also messed with a bit. Here is my version of that:
Black-Eyed Bean Soup
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cans of black-eyed peas
28 oz can of diced tomatoes
4 cups veggie stock
2 TB of "Chili 3000" powder from Penzay (or 1 TB + 1 tsp chili powder and 1 tsp oregano, 1tsp cumin seasoning)
1 1/2 tsp each oregano and basil
3 bay leaves
1 bunch kale, roughly chopped
1) Sautee onions, garlic, celery and pepper for 5-7 minutes
2) Mix in all the other ingredients, mixing in spices well
3) Bring to a low boil, then turn down and simmer for 35 minutes, or until kale is tender
Easy and delicious!!

Finally (because we've been making some great stuff!!) here is the Eggplant Cacciatore recipe from Vegan Italiano - I've made it twice, and its amazing!!! Of course this is tweaked a bit, as usual. Gary's not a fan of eggplant and so he didn't really like it as much - just a warning to the eggplant haters out there!
Eggplant Cacciatore
1 large eggplant peeled and cubed (you can salt it if you want - I usually don't bother)
1 large onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
3 large cloves of garlic, minced
About 4 1/2 cups spaghetti sauce (I use my own that I make in large batches and freeze. You could easily use store bought!)
1 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1/4 tsp dried basil
12 oz pasta (the book says linguine, I used whole wheat rotini last time and really liked it! We are also going to put leftovers over polenta tonight!)
1) Heat about 2 TB of water over medium heat (you can use oil you want - I've been trying to cut down on it). Sautee the onion and bell peppers for about 3-5 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute
2) Add the sauce, herbs, and salt and pepper to taste.
3) Bring to a brisk simmer. Reduce heat and simmer gently, partially covered for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally
4) While the sauce is simmering, heat 1 TB of olive oil (or water - see earlier note) over medium high heat in a large sauce pan. Cook the eggplant for about 5 minutes, until it begins to brown. Add it to to the sauce mixture and then simmer gently for another 10 minutes or until the eggplant is tender. Server hot over pasta of your choice!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

"You doin' too much!"

Teacher Musings:
"You doin' too much" was something my students in Oakland used to say constantly. Out here in Boston its "You forcin' it." These statements are usually uttered when I am assigning homework, or expecting them to do some amount of reading and/or writing during class. What they essentially mean is that I am expecting them to do a lot of work. Needless to say, I take it as a compliment when they tell me this - it means I'm pushing them to do and think more (or at least I hope so). But lately I've been feeling like telling my own colleagues and supervisors that they are forcin' it. I have been feeling entirely overwhelmed with the pressures of the MCAS, English exhibitions (a type of presentation done by students in all of their content areas), professional development opportunities and mandates and expectations that I manage all of this and continue to teach and have my students learn the same way at the same rate as when I didn't have all of these responsibilities. Its overwhelming to say the least.
Recently I have also been reading numerous studies that compare how teachers in America teach significantly more hours and have significantly less planning and collaboration time in comparison to their European and Asian colleagues. I also attended a roll-out of my district's latest collaborative professional development endevour. This latest roll-out is actually a way of leading inquiry groups that I personally prefer to how they are done at my school now, and that also have show stronger results. Yet when I was talking to my assistant headmaster about how these would look in our school, we got to the point where we were talking about what else had to go. Because, frankly, in my opinion, at my school we are doin' too much. We have at least three different types of meetings that we use our Friday whole-school PD time for. We also have a leadership team, a governing board and department time build into our day. Yet almost every single one of these meetings is doing something different. What is frustrating to me as I really think about it, is that every group is made up of dedicated people and every meeting has some value to it. Its not that we are doing useful things at my school, but we are trying to do far too many of them. More and more is being published about the benefits of "deep" rigor where learners focus long and hard on understanding and applying one important core idea. And I think that we, as teachers need to be allowed to do the same with our learning. You could pick almost any one of the many initiatives in our school, say we as a staff are just going to focus on that, and I could guarantee some successful and noticeable outcomes. But when we try and do it all we do none of it well. Just as I have to pick a few main objectives that I want my students to meet by the end of the year, shouldn't teacher development also have a few measurable outcomes for teacher learning every year? And just as I have to constantly re-focus both my students and myself back to our "Big Goal" I know I would learn more if I know what my own "Big Goal" was.

Yummy Stuff:
This last week, after getting back from vacation, our eating schedule got back to normal a bit. We had red curry one night, which is super easy and quick to make and is one of my favorite weeknight meals!
Red Thai Curry (makes enough for two, plus leftovers for lunch! Feel free to substitute your own favorite veggies!)
1/4 cup red curry paste (in the ethnic section of most grocery stores. Make sure its vegan by checking for shrimp paste!)
Two cans coconut milk
1 bell pepper, chopped
1 head of cauliflower, chopped
1 block of tofu (12-16 oz) frozen, thawed, (this helps soak up the flavor) and chopped in to small blocks
1. saute 2 T of curry paste over medium heat
2. Pour in coconut milk. Be sure to shake cans to mix it up first - it tends to separate
3. Stir in the rest of the curry paste well
4. Pour in the veggies and tofu. Stir to coat.
5. Turn down to simmer and cover with a pan. Simmer for 25-30 minutes or until the veggies are as tender as you like. Check and stir every 10 minutes or so.

I love to have this with brown rice, so I usually start the rice before I chop the veggies and tofu. Its quick, easy, and yummy for lunch the next day!