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!