Saturday, November 13, 2010

Interesting Writing? I never even thought of that!

Teacher Musings:
One of my colleagues has talked a lot about how we can get students to write more "interesting" things. This all stems from the constant debate/discussion (one that is common among many educators) about how teach writing. Is the five-paragraph essay really useful? Should a thesis be stated clearly, or can it be implied? These are some of the questions I (and many others) ponder when we think about how to teach writing. Both I and my aforementioned colleague agree that the five-paragraph essay model is not used anywhere outside of K-12 school (that we can find) and he has really help me re-think this notion that somehow this "standard" essay form is a necessary stepping stone to more complex writing. I am still sorting out what "writing well" can and should look like for high school students, but I am finding it intriguing that my colleague has repeated over and over that he wants their writing to be "interesting." When he first said this I simply nodded my head - I mean, who would argue against interesting writing? Then he described the angst he feels when reading what is too often lousy, unoriginal writing over and over and over again in the never-ending grading that often consumes an English teacher's life. I have had the same problem and I have tried to find various ways of stream-lining this process, which often includes really detailed rubrics, (almost annoyingly so), comment codes, check-lists and so on. But this idea that I could even expect my students' essay writing to be interesting to me as an adult reader - well that was a new concept. That seemed to be aiming so high that I had never even considered it.

Fast-forward to finals last week. I had a ridiculous amount of grading to do, and it took me forever. One of the reasons it took me so long was that I spent more time reading student papers than I have in years - because they were freakin' interesting. I have been teaching writing a bit differently this year, and I am able to build on some fantastic work that our 9th grade teachers did last year. This has resulted in student papers (both from my 9th and 10th graders) that were actually interesting to read because, occasionally, the students were surprising me, such as the one who pointed out that learning from someone else's experiences can actually be more powerful than learning from your own, or the student who argued that "success," as it is defined in our culture, is actually problematic. Now, there were many papers that were bland, and even the interesting ones needed stronger organization and sentence structure. BUT I didn't want to slam my head on the desk while I was reading them. Also, when I asked students to elaborate on certain points it wasn't because they hadn't written the requisite number of sentences - it was because I actually wanted them to elaborate on that point - as a reader. Don't get me wrong - some of them still bombed what I thought would be the easiest part of their final, and others are still taking their complete sentences and making them incomplete during editing, but these are problems I feel like I can fix eventually. Complete sentences: Direct instruction followed by weeks of practice. No paragraphs: go though practice identifying the start of new ideas in a model. Original, interesting thinking: priceless.

Yummy Stuff:
My writing class is going to be writing product reviews for our next project, and I am excited to write with them. They are going to start by analyzing the features of a product that matter to them, and explaining why, so I thought I would do that with a product that I use all the time: vegan cookbooks!! When I first became vegan I went to buy one and was overwhelmed. Over the years I have learned more about some authors and figured out a few tricks in my own cooking that have helped me be selective about which books I buy and which ones I just read for fun in the bookstore. So, when deciding which vegan cookbooks to buy, here are some of the features I find important:

Ease of recipes:
I'm all for a fancy feast now and again (and I don't mean cat food!) but when it comes to 99% of the cooking I do, its gotta be pretty simple. I can handle lots of chopping and long wait times for something to bake or simmer, but unless I can look at a recipe and really "get" what I will have to do based on a quick skim, I probably can't make it on a weekday. So, when I'm deciding to buy a cookbook I look at the recipes - if I don't have to look on you-tube to figure out how to follow the directions I'm probably ok. If I want to make a gourmet meal I'm probably going to look it up online anyway.

Simplicity of ingredients:
As mentioned above I (well, we since the G-man is now in often in charge) cook daily and I need recipes that can be both made easily and shopped for easily. We are lucky that we have a Whole Foods near us, as well as Wilson Farms (for produce) and Trader Joe's. However, we are also on a budget, so vegan cheese, vegan sausage and other extras are not usually on our menu, except as special treats. So, I look for cookbooks that feature lots of veggies and beans and grains in interesting combinations. I'm more willing to get a cookbook that also explains what unfamiliar things are (like when I first encountered quinoa, which has since become a staple in our house) especially if the book tells me I can get that item at a regular or natural foods store. When a cookbook mentions ingredients that are followed by a note mentioning that they can only be found at certain specialty stores that is a quick indicator that this may not be the most useful cookbook to me.

I'm a busy girl, so I need a cookbook that is well-organized. A fairly detailed index is also a big plus. I want to be able to look in my fridge, see that I have a extra bunch of collard greens, and then be able to look in the index of my cookbooks under "c" to find ideas for how to cook these green leafies. I also want to be able look up types of recipes easily. This is one thing I love about Veganomicon - it has a one-pot meal section, a casserole section and a mix-n-match veggie and grain section - all very helpful when I need to figure out what to make for dinner and don't want to look through everything in a "main dish" section.

So, these are the features I'm looking for in a cookbook. I also enjoy cookbooks with lots of pictures and menu suggestions, but these are just sort of extras for me. I'm curious to know what others consider priorities when they are buy cookbooks, especially if you are vegetarian or vegan!


Kelmit said...

Do you have Mark Bittman's 'How To Cook Everything Vegetarian'? I think it fits all of your criteria. I LOVE it. Favorite cookbook, hands down.

Ms. L-P said...

I haven't checked that one out in a while - I remember lots of cheese recipies, but that might just be the pages I flipped to. Thanks for the suggestion - didn't he also just come out with another book called something like "Vegan Until 6"?