Sunday, May 8, 2011

I've Moved

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Sunday, May 1, 2011


Teacher Musings:
I was always a "good" student. I knew how to play the game of school - how to figure out what kinds of answers the teacher wanted, how to always raise my hand on the first day and therefore be known as the kid who "always" volunteers, and how to fake read. In many classes I could look at the end of the chapter questions and then just go answer them from the chapter - without every actually "reading" anything. And the reality is that these strategies served me well because they were paired with my love of actual reading. I read books. Tons and tons of books. I didn't always read the classics, although I still love The Great Gatsby, and I read Fahrenheit 451 for fun in the summer after 8th grade. But I mostly read Stephen King and Sweet Valley High like there was no tomorrow. And I also read the newspaper often, even if it was mostly the local and sports columns.

This meant that when I went to college I was actually ok. There was a ton of reading, and it was much harder than the work I had in high school, but I had enough reading confidence and vocabulary (and study skills) to figure it out. And there was also something else about college that also made a difference in my academic success.

I got to chose my classes.

My first quarter of college, I took a class on fairy tales and fables (in the English department), and introduction to Women and Gender Studies and Italian 1. That's it. These are all classes I took that sounded fun. So, when the reading was hard, or I didn't quite understand, I asked for help, paid close attention in class, and re-read and wrote notes until I understood.

Because I wanted to know.

Today there was a revolt in my writing class. We are learning about violence in our city so that students can write an op-ed about the issue from a knowledgeable perspective. We (the writing teachers) thought it would be an engaging topic - and for some kids it is. I did a poor job introducing it and getting kids interested, but I got an extra amount of push-back today with a chorus of "why are we doing this?" and "this topic is stupid." I think part of it was rooted in the fact that we weren't just talking about it anymore - we were reading complex and difficult articles about it that required serious reading and thinking. I was frustrated, they were frustrated, and we kept plugging ahead, even though I know we need to step back and re-group. I was trying to figure out what to do about this, and I have some ideas for how to deal with this tomorrow when we re-focus on their experiences and and questions. But I think one of the fundamental reasons they resisted these readings came down to this.

They didn't choose to learn about this. They didn't choose to investigate violence in our city. So, at some level, I don't blame them. And I imagine the classroom where each student has a local topic that they are reading about and learning about with the purpose of writing an informed persuasive piece about it.

I wish I had been in that classroom today.

Do you think choice matters that much? How much choice do you give in your classroom?

Yummy Stuff:
After a crazy day it was time for some cookies tonight! I tried a batch of oatmeal cookies without Earth Balance that came out pretty good. These are based off the Chocolate Chip recipe from post-punk kitchen, but with my own yummy oatmeal twist!

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

7 TB white sugar
1 TB molasses
2/3 cup canola oil
1/4 cup unsweetened almond milk (or your favorite non-dairy milk)
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1 1/4 cups all purpose flour

1 1/2 cups oats

1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 cups chocolate chips


Preheat oven to 350 F. Lightly grease two large light metal baking sheets.

Mix together sugar, molasses, oil, milk and cornstarch in a mixing bowl. Use a whisk and mix really well, for about 2 minutes, until it resembles smooth caramel. There is a chemical reaction when sugar and oil collide, so it’s important that you don’t get lazy about that step. Mix in the vanilla.

Add 1 cup of the flour, the baking soda and salt. Mix until well incorporated. Mix in the rest of the flour. Mix in the oats. Fold in the chocolate chips.

Put a heaping TB of cookie dough on the pan. It will be gloppy, but they will turn out fine! Bake for 8-9 minutes. Let cool on the baking sheet for about 5 minutes then transfer to a cooling rack

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Blooming Trees . . . and Teens

Teacher Musings:
On my bike ride home today I thoroughly enjoyed my jaunt down tree lined streets. The trees and bushes here in New England are starting to bloom and the bright pink, white and green leaves are just gorgeous. However, in my backyard our previously massive and full canopy from our Norwood maple has been turned into a scraggly mish-mash of branches and lonely buds. It is all for the best - the tree was getting too large for such a shallow root system, and my husband really wants a vegetable garden and a lawn for our son to run around in. So, the tree had to be pruned, and it will probably look funny this year. But the other option (according to my husband) was to cut it down entirely, which I want to avoid.

Every once in a while I see something in the world (like these trees) and it helps me realize and/or remember something about my students. Lately I have been really, really worried that my students reading and writing is not up to par, and that they are not on track to be successful in college, which really scares me. I start to worry that I have to slow down, force them to do more skills work, etc. But today, when I saw the trees, with their multitude of branches turned in so many different ways, I remembered that my students also have many different strengths, issues, things they care about, etc. And my students are mostly 15 and 16. Like the trees in the spring they are just starting to bloom in many ways. While I want my students to flourish and grow like the trees will as spring and summer progresses, I also know that my students need some guidance. While I encourage them as they develop their thoughts and understandings about the world, I also know that they need to learn to express these deep thoughts through writing and that they need to learn to read and think about the deep, complex, thoughts of others. Sometimes this requires me to push them, and even critique them or nag them a bit. This is like the pruning my husband did to our tree. This critique (it feels like such a dirty word) is as important as the encouragement in many ways, but a lot of critique can be more damaging then helpful, much like too much pruning.

I hope I can do enough pruning to allow them to express their deep and valuable thoughts to others.

I am scared of pruning too much and loosing who they are in the quest for "academic competency."

Yummy Stuff:
I cannot get enough kale lately! I chopped and washed a bunch of it this weekend, and we have a couple kale-featuring dinners planned. I know it is better to prep greens right before you eat them but between grading, planning, starting a new unit and chasing after a toddler as soon as I get home, my husband and I both recognize the need to have some produce prepped and ready to go. Here is what we had last night - a pretty-damn close version of Udon and Kale in Miso Broth from the AWESOME Veganomicon:
Udon and Kale in Miso Broth
5-7 dried shitake mushrooms
7-8 oz package of udon noodles (we use the "fresh" ones, not dried, from the great local Japanese market, Ebisuya)
1 red onion, sliced into thin half-moons
4 cups of chopped kale
1 heaping TB of garlic, minced
1 TB of ginger, minced
1/4 cup light miso
2 cups of water
2 TB of canola or vegetable oil

1. Boil water and pour it over the dried mushrooms. Let them sit for at least 15 minutes, while you prep the rest of the ingredients. When the mushrooms are done, slice them into thin strips.
2. Boil a pot of water and cook the udon for about 4 minutes. Drain and set aside
3. Heal the oil in a saute pan and saute the onions and mushrooms on medium heat for about 5-7 minutes. The onions should just start to get soft.
4. Put in the garlic and ginger and stir for about 1 minute, until fragrant
5. Pour in water and put in miso. Stir until the miso is fully mixed in.
6. Put in the kale and use tongs to stir/flip it around until the kale is wilted (about 5-7 minutes)
7. Put in udon noodles and stir carefully. Let them sit in the broth for 2-3 minutes before serving.
Serve in bowls! Trust me - it seems basic but it is awesome!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Planting Seeds

Teacher Musings:
As an English teacher, I hear this a lot from my students: "We do the same thing over and over in English! Why do we have to do the same thing over and over again every year?!" The short answer to this emphatic question is that we are doing the "same thing" (reading, analyzing text, writing persuasively, etc.) because every time we do it we try and get a bit better, a bit more sophisticated, a bit more thoughtful. The "task" might look similar to an "assignment" from last year, but the thinking and rigor that is involved should increase and get more complex over time. Learning about literature, and developing reading and writing skills is not like learning to chop an onion (a pretty basic skill). Instead it about learning how to cook, which is something rich and complex that people develop sophistication around, but rarely every "master."

I don't yet know how to explain this to students in a way that they get (or at least admit that they get - sometimes I swear they are just being ornery). I've been hearing this quite a bit recently in one of my classes where we are writing persuasive letters. As far as they are concerned, they wrote persuasive letters in 8th grade - why the heck do they have to do it again in high school! They say this after they have learned about pathos and logs, the power of anecdotes and the importance of knowing your audience. They say this after hours and hours where I have not only taught but actually seen learning and I want to yell it at the top of my lungs, because I know that what they are writing is NOT what the wrote in 8th grade because it is already so much more sophisticated than what they wrote for me the second week of school.

But when I started to despair today (didn't they learn anything??? don't they know they learned something???) I see the comments they made on each other's letters. I see one student write on another's paper and say "Great point, but try to add a story." I see another student (who needed the concept of "specific examples" explained over and over again two months ago) comment "Good examples on what makes school lunch unhealthy." When I saw these comments, and when I see the thoughtful revisions my students are making to their letters, I realized something. My students are learning, but they don't always realize it. In some ways I think I'm stealth teaching (which is not always a good thing). We are reading examples of strong writing, we are practicing with small assignments, and the result is that my students, at some level, own this idea of examples and persuasive stories. They don't think they learned anything because, maybe in their short-term teenage way, they don't remember not knowing it. I'm not trying to sound like I did it all. These are smart kids who have five other smart teachers in their lives, not even including the fantastic teachers I'm sure they have had in their past. All of those teachers (and yes, I do include myself in this) planted some seeds that lead to students not only develop new writing skills but truly absorb them. And if that is the result of this (apparently) stealth teaching process, maybe I can't put up with a bit of whining about what they did in 8th grade. Although I sure wish we could compare their two letters!

What do you think? Do you think you have planted seeds that you didn't necessarily get to see come to fruition as a teacher? Comments always appreciated and welcome!!

Yummy Stuff:
This weekend we had a wonderful birthday party for my son. I think we are also planting seeds for him during this formative year, but those seeds may be centered more around chocolate! The cupcake for him was a yellow cupcake with chocolate frosting from the fantastic cookbook Vegan Cupcakes Take over the World. But the cupcakes that party goers really seemed to like were my almond adaptation of the Hazelnut Cupcake from VCTOTW (since the G-man is allergic to hazelnuts). So, here is my adaptation

Almond Cupcakes with Chocolate Mousse Filling
Ingredients for Cupcakes:
1 cup plus 2 TB of all-purpose flour
1/3 cup of almond meal (almonds pulverized in a food processor, and then sifted into the measuring cup works here).
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
2/3 cup almond or soy milk
1 TB ground flaxseeds
1/3 cup canola oil
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
2 tsp vanilla

Ingredients for Mousse filling:
6 oz of extra-firm silken tofu
2 TB plain soy milk
1 TB maple syrup
2 tsp vanilla
2/3 cup chocolate chips

Ingredients for Chocolate Ganache
1/4 cup soy milk
6 TB of chocolate chips
2 TB maple syrup

Mousse (make this first so it can chill in the fridge):
1. Crumble the tofu in a blender. Add the milk, maple syrup and vanilla. Puree until completely smooth. Set aside.
2. Pour the chocolate chips in a microwave safe bowl. Microwave the bowl on high for 30 seconds. Stir and continue to microwave for 10 seconds and stir until the chocolate chips are all melted.
3. Add the chocolate to the tofu mix and blend until combined. Use a spatula to scrape down the sides of the blender to make sure it gets all combined.
4. Transfer to a sealed container (we use tupperware) and chill for at least one hour before using.

1. Line cupcake pan and preheat oven to 350 F. In a small bowl, whisk together milk and ground flaxseed. In a large bowl, sift together flour, almond meal, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and nutmeg.
2. Add the maple syrup, sugar, canola oil and vanilla to the milk mixture and beat well. Add wet ingredients to draw, mixing till mostly smooth. Pour into liners, filling them 2/3 of the way. bake 22-24 minutes till a toothpick inserted through the center comes out clean. Cool completely on racks before filling.

1. Bring soy milk to a gentle boil in a small sauce pan. Immediately remove from heat and add the chocolate and maple syrup. Use a rubber heatproof spatula to mix the chocolate until it is fully melted and smooth. Set aside until it is at room temperature.

1. Fit a pastry bag with a wide piping tip (or use a ziplock bag with a small cut in the corner). Fill the bag with the mousse filling.
2. Use a clean finger to poke holes in the top of each cupcake. Fill each cupcake with as much mousse as you can. Use a knife to remove any excess cream from the tops of the cupcake. Spread the ganache onto cupcakes (two layers - one heaping tsp at a time) and spread it over the top of the cupcake.
3. Put the cupcakes in the fridge for a bit to set the ganache.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Why Teachers Like Me Support Unions

Teacher Musings:
My answer to this question has definitely evolved over time - just like my teaching has. When I first became a teacher I was pro-union with some reservations. I realized that my union was what was protecting me from losing my health care (or making my health care cost-prohibitive) and was making sure I could express my thoughts and opinions in a relatively safe environment. However, I still bought into the myth that unions were the reason we had poor teachers who showed movies, had game day and generally believed that "these" (read: poor, of color, etc.) kids couldn't learn.

Then I moved into a role that put me in greater contact with some administrators. At that school we had two teachers that were quite possibly the worst teachers I had ever seen. One would sleep during class - it was really the worst of the worst we hear blown up in the media. Other than those two the school was filled with fantastic educators, but the administrators couldn't "get rid" of the bad teachers. If you ask the administrators, it was because of the "union." But I watched observation after observation get done late, paperwork not filed on time, etc. The bottom line was this - there was a union process for supporting or pushing out bad teachers - but the administrators did not seem to be following it.

Now we come to my work today and I watch my students get deluged by standardized tests. I feel responsible (and in someways am made to feel responsible by the system I work in) for these test scores where 90% of my students scoring proficient isn't good enough. And there is only one reason why I can use my voice to speak up about these immense problems I see. There is one group I see out there who is speaking out against the ludicrous idea that I should have my pay, my work and the whole of my passion for an educator based on three days of testing.

The union.

So, while I don't always agree with every stance my union takes, I do support the important work my union does to not only protect the rights of me, but to also protect the rights of my students. The unions are not perfect, but they are the ones who are able to speak for teachers like me when everyone else seems to be against us, when we are the scapegoats, when others claim that I am sitting pretty with my "exorbitant" teacher salary.

That is why teachers like me support unions. To see what others said:

Yummy Stuff:
One of my favorite foods growing up was tuna melts. Needless to say I have no desire to eat tuna again, but I do enjoy yummy salty filling for a grilled sandwich. Bring on the tempeh! This weekend I had a hankering for one of these great sandwiches, so I veganized it with some already-steamed tempeh cubes. While it certainly wouldn't fool anyone sandwich tasted great, and it certainly quelled my grilled, salty craving. A sprinkle of kelp powder in the filling would add a "fishy" taste - you know, if you go for that sort of thing.

Tempeh Melt
4 oz of tempeh, cubed and steamed
2 TB of vegan mayonnaise (Nayonaise is great!)
2 tsp of dijon mustard
1 TB of pickle relish
a bit of Earth Balance (vegan butter) for spreading
4 slices of bread
2 TB of nutritional yeast

1. Using a fork, mash up the tempeh
2. Add the mayo, mustard and relish to the tempeh and mix it thoroughly with a fork, continuing to smash the tempeh.
3. Butter a slice of bread and put it down on a warmed pan (or on a lean mean grilling machine!)
4. Spread on half of the tempeh mix and sprinkle 1 TB of nutritional yeast
5. Cover with another buttered slice of bread and grill!
6. Repeat for your second sandwich (or save the filling for another time)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Finding the Trees in the Forest

Teacher Musings:
I first heard the phrase "forest for the trees" from one of my favorite singers: Huey Lewis. (Yes - I grew up in the eighties). I have always tried to embrace the idea of seeing the "forest for the trees." I think about the big picture, even when the little things get me down. For example, when I have a rough day with my classes, I remind myself of my long term goals for the year, and figure out how I can change my plans or instruction to keep moving towards those goals. When I screw up as a parent, I remind myself that it is just one moment - I need to see the big picture for what I want my son's childhood to be. When things at my work change in a way that makes my life more difficult, I try and see what the larger vision of the school is and how these changes are helping us get there.

For the most part this ability to step back and see the larger picture has been beneficial - it has helped me refocus my energy or see beyond some (seemingly) negative changes in my life. However, I have started to worry that I am missing the trees in the forest when it comes to students in my class. This year I have seventy students total - which is still a LOT lower than the 160 I used to have in California, but it is double what I had the last two years at my current school. I have spent a lot of energy figuring out ways to give my students feedback and keep them reading and writing as much as possible without getting myself bogged down in grading. This, coupled with the fact that I don't stay after school as late (because of my one-year old and some mandatory district training) means that I have had less interaction with individual students than in previous years. I'm starting to worry that I am seeing my students as a large mass rather than as individuals. This really hits home with me when I do have one of those incredibly valuable individual interactions - a student stays after school to talk about an assignment, another student asks for a "good" book to read, another student request that I read and comment on his poetry. Often in these moments I am really reminded of some of the realities my students face (taking care of younger siblings, knowing people who have been shot etc.) which is an important reminder of what is behind that sea of faces in my classroom. I also get a great dose of my students' senses of humor, their creative and problem solving abilities and their brilliance that may not always manifest itself in our classroom assignments.

I used to have a lot more of these moments when I had fewer students, when I stayed around school longer, when I was a club adviser. And these moments make a me a better teacher, because it helps me see the individuals trees in the forest of my class, and helps me remember that teaching is not about me pitted against the mass of teenagers - it is about a group of individuals (myself included) trying to learn, figure out who we are, and become better people and citizens in the process.

Yummy Stuff:
I've been trying to eat healthier, which means salads at lunch! I also have the added issue of wanting to bring my lunch for the week on Monday, since I also have been trying to bike to work again now that our snow has finally melted. So, here is what I need for a week of incredibly yummy (and filling) spinach salad

1 bag of pre-washed spinich (Trader Joe's has it for 1.99)
1 bag of whole walnuts (again, TJs)
1 bag of dried cranberries (TJs!)

Maple-Raspberry Dressing:
2 TB olive oil
2 TB maple syrup
1 TB of raspberry wine vinegar
1 TB dijon mustard

1. Put all the dressing ingredients in a small jar (I used an cleaned out yeast jar, which many people at work thought was weird - but it worked!)
2. Shake the jar for 20-30 seconds, or until all the ingredients are mixed. It might take a few swirls with a fork as well.
3. Bring everything to work and put it in the fridge (including the walnuts - cranberries can stay in your office or room if you want)
4. At lunch, pull out your bowl and fork (yes, you have to bring those two) and put on a handful of spinach, a small handful of walnuts and a sprinkling of cranberries.
5. Mix the dressing up with your fork and then pour a bit on the salad - just until there is dressing on most of the top leaves.
6. Spread the dressing around a bit and enjoy! Don't worry - a little of this dressing goes a long way!

This salad can also be perked up with slices of pear, chunks of apple or chickpeas!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Holy cow - they're acutally reading!

Teacher Musings:
When I started teaching I was very lucky to have many great mentors and veteran teachers at my school who were always willing to pass along resources. Along with many other incredibly valuable lessons, handouts, etc. (some of which I didn't even understand the value of until years later) I was bequeathed reading journals and reading quizzes. The reading quizzes were usually to assess comprehension - they were supposed to test if a student actually understood the book and/or story they read. The reading journals, in their various forms, were designed to both help students track information as they read (be it important quotes from novels, character development, theme, etc.). Most of the reading journals involved some part where students recorded specific quotes and/or summaries of what they read, and some kind of analysis/inference/interpretation of that section.

I very quickly stopped giving reading quizzes and tests in my class. They just didn't seem to be worth the time and focus they took. I might very well go back to using comprehensive tests one day, but for now I'm just trying to really focus on helping my kids not only understand what they read, but also helping them recognize the tools and strategies they are using so that they can apply those tools to new texts. As part of this pursuit I have developed a reading log assignment over the past two years that I have found really helpful. The other aspect of student reading I have been working on is having them discuss the reading in groups. I have been trying to integrate reciprocal teaching into my class, with moderate degrees of success. Several weeks have now gone by with my reading logs, my wiki and my student reading groups all somewhat functioning, and I have seen some results. To be fair, we are in the middle of a non-fiction unit where students read articles of various types about the subject of teen nutrition, so this will definitely look different when we go back to reading novels. However, I have seen more students clearly explaining the main ideas of their articles and thoughtfully analysing the author's writing choices. I have seen this mostly in reading logs, but it has also been apparent in their reading group discussions as well. As I reflect back on these developments, I think there a few factors that have really contributed to the improvement in student reading from last year.

a) Our science department has worked really hard to get students to use reciprocal teaching as well. I think I am starting to see the payoff in my classes.

b) Students have some choice in what they are reading - I often let them choose an article from a section of our reader. Several students have told me that has kept them more engaged when the reading gets difficult.

c) Students are discussing the reading in groups. In these groups, they are all responsible for understanding the article, and many of them are asking each other questions and trying to figure out the answers together. I have watched students struggle through the readings together when I refuse to give answers.

d) Students are getting immediate feedback from me on their reading logs (thanks to my new wikipage set-up). After using this for a few weeks I had a couple students actually ask an authentic question on their reading log, and then write a line such as "Ms. L-P, what do you think?" or "Could you help me understand this?" While these may not seem like deep questions, they do show a deeper level of engagement with the text, and the reading log, than student's showed when it was just something I read over every 3-4 weeks. And this engagement seems a bit more authentic - like actual readers asking questions, rather than trying to b.s. their way through an assignment.

Not all of my students are reading and comprehending the dense articles we are working with in class - heck, I can think of at least ten kids who probably didn't attempt the reading in the first place. But the students who are trying are definitely demonstrating a stronger critical reading ability than I have seen before. And that makes me excited!

Yummy Stuff:
When I first moved into my own apartment in college, I was very excited to cook. I wasn't vegan then, but I was (and still am) a huge fan of cookies. I searched online for recipes and found one for chocolate chip cookies that the G-man and I both loved. I had never tried to veganize it - not because it was hard to do, but because I was a little afraid it wouldn't work and I would be disappointed. Well, tonight the G-man had a hankering for these cookies, so we gave it a shot. They came out great, so here is the veganized version of the ultimate chocolate chip cookie recipe!

The Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookie
1 cup (2 sticks) or Earth Balance (or other non-dairy) butter
1 cup of granulated sugar
1 cup of brown sugar, packed
2 TB of flax seed meal, mixed with 1/4 cup of water
1 TB of vanilla
2 and 1/2 cups of oats (ground into oat flour - you can use a food processor or a coffee grinder)
2 cups of flour
1 tsp. of baking soda
1 tsp. of baking powder
4 oz of dark, unsweetened chocolate (like Scharffenberger's baking bar) grated
12 oz of chocolate chips (vegan of course!)

1) Whip the flax seed meal and water in a small bowl with a fork. Set it aside
2) Make the oat flour in the food processor or the coffee grinder
3) Cream together the butter and sugars
4) Add in the flaxseed meal mix and vanilla and thoroughly mix with the butter and sugar
5) Mix in 1/2 of the flour, 1/2 the oats and the baking soda and baking power until fully mixed in.
6) Add in the rest of the flours (regular and oat) as well as the graded chocolate bar. Mix thoroughly with a wooden spoon.
7) Mix in the chocolate chips.
8) Bake in a 350 degree oven for 11 minutes. Let the cookies cool on the pan for a minute or two and then transfer them to a cooling rack.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Assessment and Feedback

Teacher Musings:
There are many people in the education world who believe (and have examples to support) that the best teaching actually looks more like coaching. As a former high school athlete and former coach myself, I can really get behind this idea. At it's essence, coaching is about immediate one-on-one feedback and meeting the needs of every individual learner. For example, when I was playing basketball, we would all work on fundamentals like free-throw shooting and the coaches would work with us one at a time to help us improve. We would get immediate feedback and then get to try again, right away, which made it more likely that we would get better, or that the coach could explain any misunderstandings.

As an English and Writing teacher I spend a lot of time grading. The reality is that my students need to read and write A LOT in order to get better at both. However, they also need to get immediant feedback and a chance to improve right away, which is hard to do with four classes of 25 kids. Take my reading logs, for example. I used to have my students write reading logs three nights a week. These reading logs served a number of purposes - they provided the opportunity for students to summarize what they read, analyze a passage closely and make some inferences about their reading. However, I didn't collect reading logs every day - I literally wouldn't be able to keep up with them. So, I would check them briefly for completion and then read a few of them every few weeks when I collected notebooks. I found that reading over the logs helped me see gaps in my student's understanding of what they read (or even if they read at all) but often it was too little too late - giving them feedback two or three weeks from when they read just isn't helpful. I finally got tired of writing comments on reading logs that meant nothing, and this term I'm trying something new. I set up a class wiki, and students are writing reading logs (only once a week now, so that they can deal with internet access) and putting them up on the wiki. This weekend I read the first set, and I commented on them, right on the students' wiki page. I timed myself, and the reality is that I'm not saving a ton of time - it still takes me as long to read these logs as it did when I collected notebooks. However, grading them this time was not nearly as painful as it has been in the past. I was able to make suggestions for ways to improve the logs (or suggestions for reading strategies for the students to use) and I believe that my feedback might be helpful since they are going to read it before they continue with their next reading assignment tomorrow. Additionally, when a student shows real depth of thought, I put them on the "wiki page of the week" section, and other students can read what they wrote.

My student wiki assignment is only in it's infancy right now, and I have already run into some issues, mostly around the discussion section. But we are moving forward in a mostly positive direction, and I am really happy to spend an hour this weekend feeling like a reading coach instead of a grading machine!

Yummy Stuff:
I wanted to share some of our quick vegan dinners, so I thought I would start of with the royalty of quick dinners: pasta! This recipie is basically from Colleen Patrick-Goudrou's Color Me Vegan - an AMAZING cookbook that everyone should have. Her's is called Garlic and Green Pasta - I just call it quick and yummy :) This can be made in 30 minutes if you don't have to chase a baby while you make it.

Garlic and Greens Pasta - L-P style:
3/4 lb of pasta such as penne, rotini, farfalle, etc. (we make 1 lb and save some off to the side for baby dinners)
1 bunch of collard greens
3 TB of olive oil
5 cloves of garlic
1/2 tsp of red pepper flakes

1. Pour 4-6 cups of water in a large saucepan, cover and bring it to a boil.
2. While the water is heating up, lay all the collard green leaves flat, then slice them down each side of the stems the long ways. This should take out most if not all of the tough stems and leave you with two sections of leaves. Slice each section in half the long ways so you end up with four strips. The, slice these strips horizontally so that you end up with lots of collard "squares." Put the collard pieces in a bowl and fill it with cold water. Swish the greens in the water, drain then and fill up the bowl with water again. Let it sit while you do step three.
3. Peel and mince the garlic. This goes faster with one of those slap-chop things or a food processor, but you can also use a good kitchen knife.
4. When the water is boiling, drain the collard greens and put them in the boiling water. Turn the heat down to medium and partially cover. Let the collards cook for 10 minutes.
5. When the collard greens are about 1 minute from being done, heat up the olive oil in a large skillet on medium heat.
6. Use a slotted spoon or tongs to pull the collard greens out of the water and into a bowl (you can use the same one from earlier if you want). Then, bring the water back up to a boil and pour the pasta in (yes, the same water as the greens!) Cook the pasta according to the package directions.
7. About 5 minutes before the pasta is done, put the garlic in the olive oil and stir it. Let the garlic cook for 1-2 minutes on medium heat, and let it brown a bit (but don't let it burn!). Add the red pepper flakes for about 30 sections, then, add the greens to the skillet.
8. When the pasta is done, drain and then quickly pour it onto the greens and garlic. Stir it up until the pasta is coated with the garlic and olive oil and serve!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Process and Product

Teacher Musings:
The tension between process and product is old one. Every teacher I know has grappled with the question of how much credit to give students for their learning process and how much credit to give for the final product. In math class it may be a question of showing work and homework completion (process) and the right answer on the test (product). When it comes to English class writing this is often an issue of pre-writing and drafts where ideas are revised and edited (process) and then the thoughtfulness, completeness and coherence of the final product (product). Sometimes the tension between these two aspects of learning is rooted in grading - how much is process worth and how much is product worth? Sometimes the tension between these two manifests itself through a student's growth. By learning and engaging with the process a student might improve their writing or their basic math skills, but if a student starts below grade level, their product might only be a little less below grade level, even if they did improve.

These are all issues I have been grappling with for a while, and I am still figuring them out. However, as I teach a real writing class for the first time, I am also finding a bit of tension between these two when the process in some ways IS the product. After being frustrated with how my students' final drafts of papers were disorganized, under-developed and hard to understand, the other writing teachers and I focused one whole unit on developing ideas and getting students to REALLY revise multiple drafts of a paper (and NOT just simply re-write their first draft neatly for the final). And, in many ways, it worked. My students all produced at least two drafts, and most of them produced three. And each draft was better than the last. I watched students actually respond to my comments on their drafts, and then build on those ideas. I sat down with five students and they read their papers out loud to me and fixed their OWN spelling and grammar mistakes. On their reflections my students almost all said that they learned that revising meant adding more examples and ideas and re-organizing their paragraphs and that revising was NOT just re-writing neatly.

However, while all of the papers I read showed a significant amount of improvement from their initial start, only a few of them would be what I think a 9th grader should be able to produce. It is hard, because I don't really have a lot of examples to go from. Standardized tests are the main examples of "grade level" work I have access to, and to see what I think of those, check out my last post. Many of my students struggle with sentence structure, vocabulary, grammar and spelling. However, I have seen a lot of improvement both in this paper and the last six months in these students' writing, due in large part to their amazing ESL teachers. Also, in this last writing assignment my students really developed their ideas more. The result was not total brilliance or even complete coherence, but it was significantly better their their previous writing, especially since I really pushed them to add detail on their own and not just wait for me to tell them which three sentences to add. So, in the end, I have evidence that my students learned a lot about how to improve their writing through a process, even though the product is not really anywhere close to where I think my students need to be.

The tension between process and product is a hard one for many reasons, but one of the main reasons I struggle with it is that I (and my students) are really judged but our products. Ideally, the process should improve the products, and, as my current papers show, it does. However, this doesn't necessarily mean that if the process is followed thoughtfully and effectiveness that the products will automatically be correct, ideal or even "good enough." When I think about what I learned in high school, I realize that what I really learned and developed was my process. I learned to write multiple drafts and to get my ideas out first, and then develop and refine them. I learned to try all the problems in math and to figure out why I did them wrong so that I could get them right later. I learned to read and re-read when I didn't understand something in a way that allowed me to "get it" later on. In many ways, what I needed in high school was help and guidance through the process of learning, along with some basic skills and knowledge along the way. In college I desperately needed to process to gain the knowledge my professors had to pass on. I know my high school experiance is and always will be different from my own students' experiences for a number of reasons. But this last unit really showed me that process has value. I believe that because we did this unit and will continue with some of these practices, my students' writing products will continue to improve, and maybe even be brilliant, but only because we focused on and valued the process in and of itself for a while.

Yummy Stuff:
I think one of the reasons I love cooking is because it is a process that you can improve over time. I have really enjoyed learning how to mix flavors, make substitutions and even create my own recipes all from following other recipes and learning what works. And of course, the result is a wonderful product - yummy vegan food! Here is a recipe from Easy Beans by Trish Ross that the G-man and I have messed with over time both veganize it and to boost some of our favorite flavors:

Snow Chili

1 large onion, chopped
4 cloves of garlic, minced
3 TB olive oil
1 8oz block of tempeh, cubed (and steamed if you worry about a bitter tempeh flavor - we don't!)
3 cups of Vegetable Stock
3 cans (or 4 1/2 cups) of cooked white beans
2 tsp of chili powder
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1 TB of dried basil
1 avocado (optional)

1. In a large saucepan, saute onions and garlic in oil over medium heat until tender but not brown (about 5 min)
2. Add the rest of the ingredients and simmer 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Feel free to add more stock if the chili starts to look dry
3. Serve it in bowls topped with sliced avocado. This is also good with corn chips!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

No More Playing School

Teacher Musings:
It's that time of of year again. Standardized tests are around the corner (at least for Language Arts) we're back from the holiday break and I'm starting to hear "don't we do anything FUN in here? Why do we have to WRITE so much" in my class entitled "Writing Workshop." At least on Thursday when this was uttered for what feels like the umpteenth time the student caught herself and, before I could say a word, said "I know, I know. It's called WRITING class."

I do push ahead with a smile on my face, and I do tell my students over an over again how the work they are doing will a) develop their thinking b) help them succeed in their future high school classes c) help them pass the standardized graduation test (my least favorite response) and d) help them be successful in college. And sometimes I honestly mean this. Sometimes the assignment I'm really giving them, or the text they are reading and analyzing, is going to help them directly with one of these goals (that they student may or may not buy into). Even better, sometimes the thing they are doing really will push their thinking and get them to have one of those precious and vital "aha" moments.

But here is the dirty secret - sometimes we are just playing school. Sometimes we are doing an assignment that I am compromising on so that I "look" like I'm doing productive test prep when I know it won't make a damn bit of difference for the kids who need it the most. Sometimes I'm scaffolding an assignment in a way I know won't get them to think because we don't have the time (or the stamina) to discover how to really organize writing - all we have time for is for them to write things in boxes. Sometimes I'm giving them homework because, gee, everyone else gave homework and I don't want to be perceived as the "easy" teacher.

With all the insanity swirling around education - heck, our country - right now, I'm at a decision point: do I stick with teaching and education as my field or do I jump ship, because there is no sense in hanging on for the next 3-5 years (where standardized tests, class sizes and outside responsibilities are going to skyrocket, and my pay will probably stagnate or decrease if I don't add enough "value" to my students' test scores) if I'm not in it for the long haul. I've been thinking about it a lot lately, and I really think I'm in it for the long haul. I will weather the coming storm and hope to make it out on the other side. But I'm done playing school. I'm done doing things for show in my class, and I'm done putting my kids in a box. My students (and every other kid in our school system, black, white, rich, poor and everything in-between) needs choice, empowerment, opportunities and reasons for deep thinking and space to develop and change his or her ideas. I know this is right, I've seen it work, there are studies that support these ideas, yet I still have been scared to speak up and do this. No more. The gloves are off - if it's not encouraging their thinking, I'm not doing it.

Now, let's see what the heck happens on Monday.

Yummy Stuff:
I've been thinking a lot lately about "30 minute meals." I'm a big fan of 30-minute meals and always have been. A lot of my cookbooks have recipies that are labeled as "quick" or "30 min or less" and Vegetarian Times (one of my favorite magazines) always has a 30 minutes or less section. But nothing, NOTHING, irritates me more than the recipes that say "30 minutes or less" and then list all the ingredients as "1 cup diced onion" and don't account for the time it took to chop the dang onion. Now, some of them call for pre-chopped food from the store, which is great if you have a big enough food budget for those luxury items. However, we do not. So, I've been trying to think about what actual 30-minute vegan recipies look like in my house. I've decided they come in two categories - recipes that take 15-30 minutes to prep but then more time to cook (without much attention) and recipies that are actually ready, from start to finish (a la Rachel Ray) in 30 minutes. I'm going to start timing myself when I cook meals so that I can see how long these things actually take me, and I'll share some actual 30 minute recipes soon. However, in the meantime, her are some tricks that the G-man and I use to make cooking a bit faster, especially on weeknights:

Dinner in Minutes tips:
1) Plan a menu. I know many people do this - we make a list of meals on the weekend, and then get the groceries for those meals usually Monday or Tuesday (since the G-man can go to the store during the day. We used to do this all on the weekend). This helps us stay focused, and we rarely have the "what the heck do we have to eat" problem, so we don't waste valuable time staring at the fridge in search of inspiration.

2) Chop veggies ahead of time. Easier said then done, I know. I always aspire to do this on the weekend, but rarely do. However, when I am making soup on Monday and it calls for diced onion (as do the majority of things we make) I chop up three onions and then stick the rest in the fridge. This helps a lot.

3) Cook, prep and clean simultaneously. This is a big difference between me and the G-man, although he has started to see the light since he has been the primary cook in the last few months. I usually am prepping vegetables, tofu, tempeh and/or spices, etc. while the first part of a meal starts cooking. 90% of what we make starts with onions sauteeing in olive oil - so I get that going first and then do a bunch of other stuff while the onions are cooking. Sometimes the onions don't get stirred as much as they should, but I've found that, so long as they don't burn, it's not that big a deal. Also, I make a MESS when I cook - but most of the things I cook have to sit and simmer or bake for at least 10 minutes when they are all put together - which is usually just enough time to load the dishwasher, get pots soaking and throw away the peels, stems, wrappers and other trash.

4) Forget the measuring. This is another one that the G-man might yell at me for, but I rarely measure spices. A while ago I used measuring spoons to measure out a tablespoon, teaspoon and 1/2 teaspoon in my hand so that I would know what it "looked like." So, when I am making things now I usually just use my hand and eyes to "measure" spices and herbs, which saves a little time and a number of dishes (since those little spoons can add up). I should note that I DO NOT do this for baking. It's easy to fudge a bit with cumin or basil and not ruin your meal. The same cannot be said of baking soda.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

On the right path

Teacher Musings:
About a week ago I was all geared up to write a post about how frustrated I am with how standardized testing is affecting my students. I actually don't have that many problems with the test itself, but I am super frustrated by the way the "low scores" at my school (just below 85% proficiency in a class of about 100 students) have had a negative impact on what and how I teach my students. With that said I'm trying to have a more positive outlook, so I'm going to post about a recent success instead, since writing about the above topic will only make me cranky.

This school year I have been focusing on moving my students towards exhibiting more thoughful reasoning and more analytical writing. Recently I chose to have my students write two analytical paragraphs about a passage in "A Lesson Before Dying" rather than writing a "whole" essay. Please keep in mind that their two paragraphs took up about 2 pages (typed, double-spaced) and this saved a lot of time and energy on both my part in theirs where we didn't have to worry about a "hook" or other such things for a introduction, which I have found students getting caught up at the expense of their actual analysis of the literature. Students had to analyze either the tone or the character development in their passage and then explain what they thought the author was showing us about racist labels or the dealth penatly through this tone or character development. I did a lot of little things along the way that mattered (as any teacher would know, the little tools, sentence starters, and timing make a huge difference) but I wanted to share a few of the things I did that led to some of the most thoughtful analysis I have seen in a long time. For example, one student wrote "In this passage Gaines creates a tone of resignation" as her claim. Another student, an ELL student who struggles to get words on a page sometimes, wrote "Gaines gives short sentences like "death by electrocution" and that's it. He doesn't say "I feel bad" or "I will try and help you." This shows that Jefferson life transformed into sadness." While this is not the most sophisticated use of language, I am excited that it shows how my students are thinking about how an author uses language and sentence structure to send a message, and that word choice, sentence structure, etc. are deliberate choices an author makes. It is still not where I want it to be, and it is not the great writing I know my students are capable of, but I am still excited becuase I think it is a step in the right direction. So, here are some of the key choices I made that I think really helped push my students to some deeper thinking:
  • As we have been reading students have been pulling out interesting passages of THEIR choice and writing about them. I had them chose one of these passages to write about.
  • I gave students sentence starters to get their "claim" or "paragraph theses" written.
  • I gave students list of tone words, and we did an activity where students created a continuum for tone words.
  • I offered graphic organizers of various sorts, but did not force any students to use them
  • I wrote a model paper of my own and shared it with students - we analyzed it as class
  • I told students they needed to have twice as much "analysis" as "evidence"
  • I gave them two whole class periods just to write. We were in the computer lab, which I think helped focus some of them, but just having the time to write and conference was HUGE!

Sometimes when I talk to colleagues they are aghast at how little my students seem to write. True, my students don't generally write 5-7 page papers in my class (at least not yet) and this is a problem. But I have my students write and revise a 1-2 page paper every 1-2 weeks, and, while this literary analysis assignment I've discussed might seem small (2 paragraphs - really!) it was thought-provoking for both me and them. This was the first time I have assigned anything resembling true literary analysis and NOT received 2 page long summarizes of a book, or random quotes sprinkled here and there with no real point. Like I said before, it is not where I want to be, but I finally feel like I just moved onto a clear path after a very long walk in a confusing forest.

Yummy Stuff:
Every Christmas growing up we had my grandparents and aunt and uncle over to my house and feasted on cold cuts, gnocchi, stuffed peppers, tyropitas and desserts galore. I still remember the first Christmas when I went to my husband's house and they had turkey, or when I heard that other people had ham - I was so confused!! Chirstmas was time for an Italian feast, as far as I was concerned! Well, times have changed in many ways - now we are vegans on the East Coast, and my parents and sister fly out to our house to spend Christmas with us and our new little guy. Ever since we have been out here I have tried to veganize my favorite Christmas dishes with some success. My Grandmother's tyropitas were always some of my favorites - a savory cottage cheese, Parmesan cheese and egg filling in a wonderful crispy phyllo pocket. The first year I veganized this it was super bland, but (much like my work with my students) trial and error has led to some success. This year my vegan tyropitas were a success, and I'm thinking that it might almost be time to make them for grandmother next time we are out to visit them. Although nothing can measure up to Grandma's cooking!

Vegan Tyropitas:
1 lb (14-16 oz) of firm, regular tofu
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 tsp of agave
1 tsp dried basil
8 oz container of vegan cream cheese (I use Tofutti brand)
2 TB of nutritional yeast
salt to taste
1 package of phyllo dough
1 cup of vegan butter (I love Earth Balance!) melted

1. First you are going to need to make the tofu ricotta (adapted from the Uncheese cookbook). I suggest doing this a day or so in advance. Break the tofu in to large chunks. Then, place them in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 5 minutes. Then, drain well. (This is also a good time to thaw the phyllo dough, or put it in the fridge to thaw overnight).
2. Chill uncovered in the refrigerator until cool enough to handle. Crumble and place in a bowl with remaining ingredients. Mash or blend the mixture until it has a fine, grainy texture (similar to ricotta cheese) Cover and chill several hours or overnight (will keep in fridge - covered! for about 5 days)
3. In a medium bowl use a fork to thoroughly mix the tofu "ricotta" and cream cheese. The final mixture should be goopy without huge chunks. Then, completely mix in the nutritional yeast and a pinch of salt.
4. Unwrap the phyllo dough and unroll it on a sheet of foil. Cut the dough in half width-wise. Then, pull off one of these half sheets and set it on the counter. Cover the rest of the phyllo with another sheet of foil, and top that with a very damp (but not dripping) dishtowel. This will help keep the phyllo from drying out, but with out getting it sticky and wet. (Thanks for the trick Grandma!)
5. Put the half-sheet in front of you so that it is long-ways going up and down. Then, put 1 TB of filling about one inch up from the bottom of the sheet , right in the middle. Brush butter all along the edges of the dough.
6. Fold the bottom of the dough over the filling and brush the whole fold with butter
7. Fold the left side of the dough over the filling square (like you are folding a shirt) and brush with butter. Your dough should now be 1/3 as wide as it was.
8. Fold the right side over the filling and brush with butter. You should now have the dough folded in 1/3s and it should be 1/3 as wide as it was originally
9. Fold the bottom part into a triangle and brush with butter - then fold it up brush with butter. Continue until you end up with a triangle. (This part is like folding a flag). Brush the entire triangle with butter and put in baking sheet.
10. Take off the next 1/2 sheet of phyllo and continue.
11. These triangles can be frozen, or you can cook them right away. Either way, bake them in 375 degree oven for 10-15 minutes (fresh ones sometimes take 20 minutes). They should be a bit browned and crispy on top when they are done - and yes your pan will be full of melted butter.

I know this sounds complicated with the phyllo folding, but trust me, it's worth trying! My directions might weird, but try a few and I bet you'll figure it out!