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.