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.

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