Sunday, December 5, 2010

Dear people who are supposed to help me teach

Teacher musings:

Dear Adminstrator, Instructional Coach, Literacy Coach and Data Support Folks,
I apologize for not bringing this up sooner, but it is difficult when many of our conversations and interactions take place during small and irregular bits of time during the school day. I know how hard that is for you, especially when we need to talk about something complex. I remember this being one of the most frustrating parts of my coaching experiance (and it is still one of the most frustrating parts of teaching). The reality is there just isn't enough time in the day. With that being said, I would like to take this time to ask you to do a few things for me. I hope my candidness does not bother you, but I think that these ideas might really help support our relationship.

1. Before you suggest a change in my instruction, please ask me both what I do and how I do it. As you probably know, sometimes educators call the same instructional strategies different names. This might cause you to assume I don't do something like "tickets to leave" because I call them "reflection questions." This type of confusion is usually cleared up when you start by asking me what my goals and objectives are for student learning, why I have these goals and objectives and what systems, structures, instructional strategies and assessments I plan to use to teach my students. Once you understand my purposes and methods and why I chose to use them you will probably be able to make really thoughtful and informed suggestions, or maybe even provide some reading I could do that would help improve my teaching, and therefore my student's learning. I know this is really, really hard to do with the little time we have available to interact, especially when you feel a lot of pressure to quickly impart your knowledge and wisdom in this short period of time. However, it might make our interactions most efficient in the long run if you spend some time really asking me thoughtful questions and listening to me first, so that you know what my needs are (much as I have my students answer surveys and take diagnostic assessments at the start of the year).

2. Please assume that I have thoughtful and logical reasons for teaching both what I teach and how I teach it. Please also assume that I am working hard to be the best teacher I can be. Trust me - I know that not every teacher you work with has thought this out as much as you would like, and maybe I am one of them. I still remember being surprised as a literacy coach when teachers told me they did an activity in class because "it looked fun" or "well, I already had the copies." But, the reality is, everyone has a reason why they do the things they do, and if you are willing to assume that I have my reasons that would be helpful. If you start by assuming the best, we will have a far more positive interaction and you will have far more opportunities to help me grow as a teacher. Remember, teaching is hard and I am probably working my buns off. The more you respect that, both in terms of what you say and how you use our time together, the better our relationship is going to be.

3. Respect my time and day structure. I know you've been there before. Between classes I usually have to put away my projector, get a new set of materials together, talk to a student about late work and get to my next class, which is two floors away. I have two minutes to do this, and if I have to go to the bathroom, that is a whole other issue. So, I know that you might think we can walk and talk, and we might be able to if your questions or comments require only simple responses. However, if you are asking questions or making suggestions that require more thought and time (such as, "how are you teaching vocabulary" or "are you doing any preparation for the PSAT?") I won't be able to give you the thoughtful response you need because of all the other things I have to do. And then I will probably sound incompetent, when the real issue is that I'm rushed. Which will only make me more annoyed . . . you get the idea.

I know I'm not always the easiest person to work with. I tend to cut people off when I think I know what they are going to say, and I have become more and more cynical over the years about help from people who haven't taught in the last few years. So, I pledge to try and follow my own advice. I will try and assume the best about your intentions and methods, and I will try and assume you have experiance and reasons for making the suggestions you make. Hopefully this, coupled with your attempts to follow my requests will make our relationship far more effective for you, me and, most importantly, my students.
Ms. L-P

Yummy Stuff:
I have spent the last couple years learning to love greens. Now I am always excited about kale chips when the G-man makes them (he is way more exact and is better at spreading them out on the pan so they come out nice and crispy!). Our favorite pizza is caramelized onion and swiss chard on a cornmeal crust. And we almost always throw kale and collard greens in our soups and stews. But, I have never really liked just steamed kale - until last night. Because of poor baby timing we steamed the kale for the usual 20 minutes, and then we had to turn the burner off and let it sit for a while. I was afraid it was going to be way too overcooked, but it was fantastic - it was kind of sweet and didn't even need to be dressed up with gomasio like usual. So, here is our new and improved steamed kale recipe.

Ingredients: A bunch of kale

1) tear off the kale leaves from the tough stems and tear them off into about palm sized pieces.
2) Put the leaves in a bowl and fill it with water. Swish the leaves around and then drain. Do this again - and a third time if you want.
3) Put about two inches of water in a pot and then put in a steamer basket. Pack the kale in and cover the pot.
4) Put the pot on the stove and heat on med-high for about 5-7 minutes. Uncover to see if there is some steam. When you see steam turn the burner down to low for 15 - 20 minutes.
5) Turn the burner off, lift off the lid and move the kale around so that the leaves on the bottom move to the top. Let the kale sit for 10 minutes, or until you are ready to eat!

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Ups and Downs

Teacher Musings:
I've always said teaching, as a job, brings with it the highest highs and the lowest lows. The last two weeks are a case in point. Last week my students started reading A Lesson Before Dying and also wrote draft responses to an essay question about racist labeling. While I have ideas about how to adjust the roll-out of the novel and writing assignment next year, I was pretty pleased with their responses. Most students were using reading strategies we have discussed in class, and were asking thoughtful and authentic questions about the novel (rather than just simply saying "I don't get it"). Their writing is interesting, and their use of evidence and reasoning is much improved from their previous first drafts of other assignments this year. I believe that this is partly due to the improvements I made to my weekly writing assignments, which is exciting. So, last week I was feeling pretty good about things, and I was even thinking about blogging more about the successes I am seeing in regards to my students writing.

Then Monday hit - and I mean HIT. My first period was asleep, my third period spent most of the period talking about baby mama drama, my fourth period almost resulted in a book burning and my last period . . . well, I can't even write about that without using really inappropriate language. To top it off I was being observed in two of these classes. Now, I know part of this was my fault. My lesson plans weren't as tight as normal because of the short week, and I was exhausted myself and just focusing on make it though the two-and-a-half days. But still . . .

I guess it was a reminder. Just because you think you have your act together a little doesn't mean you can be lulled into a false sense of security. It was also a reminder that, as much as a I can control my classroom (or not, as Monday and Tuesday demonstrated) I can't control the rest of my student's day, which was likely filled with similarly crazy classes, a few movies and all the excitement and anxiety that comes with the holiday week. So, lesson learned. Next year I will either have a really tight and solid lesson plan or a movie. Now its just back to hoping that next week comes together a bit better.

Yummy Stuff:
Thanksgiving dinner is always fun for me, although it is just me, my husband, and now our 8 month old. This year we had Butternut Squash Timbales (Vegan Table), Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Caramelized Onion and Garlic Mashed Potatoes. This was all followed by the AMAZING Pumpkin Cheesecake from Sinfully Vegan. Probably my favorite for our savory dishes was the Roasted Brussels - of course, these are one of my favorite goodies any day of the year! However, with the caramelized onions they were spectacular - thanks for the inspiration Colleen Patrick-Goudrou (author of Vegan Table!)

Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Caramelized Onion
1 lb Brussels sprouts
3 medium onions
about 1/4 cup olive oil

1) Pre-heat the oven to 425
2) Prepare the Brussels Sprouts by cutting off the knobs/stems at the bottom and then slicing them in half length-wise. Wash them thoroughly and then pat-dry them with a towel
3) Toss the sprouts in a bowl with 2 TB of olive oil and about 1/2 tsp each of salt and pepper. Then, spread them out on a greased cookie sheet
4) Put the sprouts in the oven and bake for 25-35 minutes, flipping once.
5) Meanwhile, cut the onions in half and then thinly slice them.
6) Pour the rest of the oil in a saucepan on the stove and heat it on medium. Put the onions in and stir them around to separate the slices. Cover and cook for about 25 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes or so, until caramelized.
7) When the sprouts are done, turn the oven to warm (about 170) and when the onions are done, mix them in with the sprouts. Add more salt and pepper to taste, and keep them warm until ready to serve!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Interesting Writing? I never even thought of that!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Teacher Magic

Teacher musings:
This week I had my writing students do a quick activity that was designed to help them see the different parts of their definition essays and figure out ways to re-organize these parts to better meet their writing purpose. I had then write down all the different parts of the paper on index cards. For example, one index card might say "I quoted the dictionary" and another one might say "I shared a short anecdote about my dad." Then, the put these index cards on their desk in the order they were currently in (in their first draft) and then they mixed them up. For some students this wasn't very exciting, and it was mostly an exercise in making sure to start a new paragraph when they, as writers, introduced a new idea. However, for some of my students it was really exciting, and several discovered a new way to organize their paper once they had this view of it. One student, in particular, moved her cards dubiously, looked over them and then shouted "Oh my God Ms. Levey! This totally worked! It's like magic!" That brought a big smile to my face. In some ways it is like magic when you get a new view or a new way of looking at something, and suddenly everything seems to click. I feel the same way when I am hit with inspiration in the shower, or when I read something for the third time in five years, but suddenly I get it. Now, this same student turned in a paper that is, at best, mediocre, and I certainly haven't revolutionized the teaching of writing - this index card thing is a common strategy. However, it was an exciting moment because the student was seeing things in a new way, and seeing a larger purpose in their writing. In some ways, as focused as I am on basic skills, this moment is really what I think teaching is all about.

Yummy Stuff:
Sometimes the most basic stuff makes the best food - almost as if by magic! Case in point - pesto. Now, my Italian grandmother finds it sacrilegious that we make pesto without cheese. However, we enjoy it quite a bit, and when you make pesto from basil grown in your backyard - well, that just can't be beat!

Pesto (vegan and pine nut free for the G-man! - adapted from "Vegan Plant" by Robin Robertson)
3 peeled garlic cloves
1/3 cup almonds (or pine nuts if you are not allergic like the G-man)
2 cups of loosely packed basil leaves, washed and dried
1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil

1. Finely grind the garlic and almonds in the food processor.
2. Add the basil and process until minced. This may take a few batches depending on whether or not you have a small food processor like us.
3. With the machine running, pour in the olive oil slowly until the pesto turns into a paste.

Depending on how you are using it, you may add more oil when you heat up the pesto for pasta, or before you spread it on a pizza. This can be frozen well - we usually make a big batch at the end of summer that lasts us through the winter.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Less talking, more doing!

Teacher musings:
Earlier this week one of my students (we'll call her "Y") was describing my class to a friend. I had asked her to describe "the good, the bad and the ugly" of English class. She mentioned some nice things about how it was "fun" (ugh, I never know what that means) and that she liked how I was enthusiastic (yea!) Then Y said "but no offense Ms., but when you talk, I start going to sleep. It is because your voice is so soothing!" Now, as the mother of an 8 month old, I can appreciate the importance of having a soothing voice that lulls someone to sleep. But, needless to say, I do not want my students dropping off to sleep in class (now that I think about it, they do seem to sleep better than the 8 month old sometimes . . . sigh).

This comment underscored something that I realized anew when we entered October of this school year. The honeymoon period is officially over and students will no longer would put up with my talking for any extended period of time (such as more than 3 minutes). I'm pretty sure I have to realize this again and again every year. I always think it will take me less time than it actually does to explain something, whether it is a vocabulary word, a new concept, directions for the next task, etc. And at this same point in the year I almost always realize that I have lost the students after talking a while and that all the valuable things I am saying aren't getting through to them anyways, so I should just stop. This year I have done that several times, with some interesting results. In my English class I scrapped a whole-class discussion plan (where I would have been up front and in charge) and threw them into small groups with sentences starters on index cards and told them to talk about story they read. Lo and behold, they did! In their discussions several students were bringing up interesting ideas or thoughtful questions. To be fair there were students who were tuned out, hadn't finished reading the story for homework, etc. However, I saw far fewer blank stares that I do when I'm in the front of the room.

In my writing class I made a similar leap after several boring (and failed) attempts to have them read and critique my writing. I gave students some rough guidelines for a feedback session, got a volunteer to type up their work on my computer and project it, and let them have an actual workshop for that student's work where they gave her feedback and suggestions, which the students in charge. Again, they amazed me with their ideas and insights, but I was especially impressed by how serious they were. They gave honest and thoughtful feedback and I agreed with it. And then the student who shared her writing followed it! I was so happy that day when actual learning took place in front of me, while I stood in the back and let the students run the session.

While not every student was engaged and thoughtful in these instances, I did see more students engaged and learning than I did in the times when I was in the front of the room talking more than 50% of the class. I know in my head that I should be giving direct instruction for no more than 20% of the time (sometimes less!) and then having students do the work and the learning for the rest. However, I seem to have a hard time letting go for a number of reasons. Sometimes when I check for understanding at the end of my talking time, I realize they don't really get what I am saying or what I am asking them to do. Sometimes I simply don't realize how long I have been droning on. Sometimes I have them get to work and walk around and realize that they don't get it. However, what I learned from the last few weeks where I decided to just let them go (whether they all "got it" or not) is that a lot of learning goes on in the space immediately after I finish talking, even this time sometimes seems dicey in terms of student comprehension. It is almost as if they need me to push them off the ledge sometimes, rather than rely on me to somehow guide them off it gently. In both situations I described earlier they seemed a bit lost at first. However, I gave them some basic tools (mostly sentence starters) and when they looked to me for direction, I told them that they were in charge. And it worked - not perfectly - but a hell of a lot better than me repeating myself for the fifth time up front while Y dozed off to the soothing sound of my melodious voice.

Yummy Stuff:
The G-man continues to be in charge of our meals, with wonderful results. However, I still like to keep my hand in, usually with brunch fare on the weekends. This also ties in with my new-found love of tempeh. A year ago the G-man and I weren't really tempeh fans. I had one recipe I liked for vegan sushi from The Post-Punk Kitchen, but other than that we didn't really know what to do with it. However, I have to say thanks to Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero for converting me with Veganomicon (what? You don't own "Veganomicon?" Quick - go buy it now!! ) What these lovely authors have taught me is a bit of tamari/soy sauce and some herbs and spices make tempeh a lovely, lovely thing to have at any meal. So, here is my very slightly modified version of their "Blue Flannel Hash" using tempeh and potatoes. It makes a great brunch alongside Lemon Poppyseed Muffins from Isa's other awesome book "Vegan Brunch." And, of course, mimosas. Trust me - when you are up with an 8 month old at 6 am on a Sunday, a mimosa makes it all better!

Brunch Potatoes and Tempeh
2-3 TB of olive oil
1 and 1/2 lbs of red or yukon gold or fingerling or blue potatoes, washed, and cut up into 1/2 inch pieces.
8 oz package of tempeh, cut into 1/2 inch squares
3/4 tsp of red pepper flakes
1 1/2 tsp of fennel seeds
1 medium onion cut into 1/2 dice
4 TB of tamari/soy sauce

  1. Heat a large pan with the olive oil over medium heat.
  2. When the pan is heated, add the potatoes and tempeh and mix. Cover and cook for 10-15 minutes, stirring every 3-5 minutes to prevent sticking
  3. Add the red pepper flakes, fennel seeds and onion and mix. Cover and cook for another 10 minutes, stirring every 3-5 minutes to prevent sticking
  4. Add the tamari/soy sauce stir. Let it cook for another 3-5 minutes and serve!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

New Year's Resolutions

Teacher musings:
For teachers, January is not so much a new beginning as a chance to catch your breath for the second stretch of a the marathon that is the school year. September is our real new year. It is our chance to start anew, make glorious (and often idealistic) plans and to also pause and reflect on our work and lives and strive for balance for both. With this in mind, here are my New Year's resolutions for the 2010-2011 school year. Some are more personal, some are more professional, but I hope they will all help me be a better teacher, mother, partner and overall person.
1) Make it work. So, the writing class you were teaching has too many kids? Or didn't really get scheduled right at all? Make it work. So, your long term plans get thrown off because of a last-minute district assessment? Make it work. Rather than worrying about all the things that make my job more difficult than it needs to be, I'm just going to turn around and make it work for me and my students.
2) Focus on reasoning. This year I want to really improve how I teach students to reason, both in their thinking and in their writing. I want to try new tools and provide a multitude of examples to help them do this. I also want to stay focused on this as my personal improvement goal so that I can do at least one thing well rather than trying to do 15 things adequately.
3) Gym twice a week, long run once and out by 4. More than ever I need to keep my work from completely dominating my personal life. So, I'm going to get up early for the gym at least two days a week, and I going to try and leave school by 4 whenever possible, so that I can make it home in time to nurse my son. Over time I've learned the hard way that you can't take care of anyone else if you don't take care of yourself. So, I'm taking care of me to better care for my son and to better serve my students.
4) Take time to reflect. I've always tried to be a reflective practitioner, and in that vein I have always set aside a few minutes every day to reflect on that days lesson, meetings, etc. However, like most of my life, this was a tightly scheduled time, and I'm starting to realize that, while this reflection does help me, true reflection may not look like that. My classes on creative thinking in grad school always discussed the way that our brains need downtime to work, and during that downtime our minds make amazing connections and creative leaps. Often our best creative thinking happens when we are doing something completely different from the topic we want to be thinking creatively about. After getting some amazingly great ideas while a)nursing my son at 5:30 am, b)biking to work and c)lifting weights at the gym when I forgot my mp3 player, I've decided I really need to stop seeing these times as down-time and instead see them as the times when I'm actually quite productive. So, I'm going to stop trying to minimize this down time, and instead relax and let those creative juices flow.

Yummy Stuff:
Well, dad is now fully in charge of our meals and meal planning. But I still help out now and again :) I am trying to figure out ways to bring lunches to school that are a)yummy and filling b)don't weigh too much (since I'm biking) and c)cold, since I don't have time to heat up lunch and pump breastmilk during my 20 minute lunch break. Enter - salad! But not your typical green salad - that has not been enough to sustain my milk-producing body. Instead, I'm going to be making lentil and bean salads, and putting them on top of greens (spinach and such) for my lunch. This week I will be enjoying Lentil-Bulgur salad from the Moosewood cookbook - slightly adapted to meet the veggies that were in our fridge and my love for kalamata olives. A big batch of this should get me through the week!

Lentil-Bulgur Salad - (go Moosewood!)
1 cup dry brown/green lentils
1 cup dry bulgur wheat
1/4 cup packed fresh minced parsley
1/2 small red onion, minced
1 bell pepper (any color), diced
(cucumber and/or celery and/or tomato if you have it, diced) - this is optional
3/4 kalamata olives

Dressing ingredients:
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 olive oil
2 medium garlic cloves, minced
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1-2 TB of fresh mint leaves (this stuff grows really easily. Start some in your backyard today!)
1 TB dried dill
Fresh black pepper to taste

1) Place the lentils in a medium-sized saucepan, cover with water, and bring to a boil. Turn the heat to low, partially cover, and allow to simmer without agitation for 20 to 25 minutes, or until lentils are tender (but not mushy). Drain and transfer to a large bowl
2) Meanwhile, pour 1 cup of boiling water over the bulgur wheat and cover it and let it stand for 10 to 15 minutes until the water is absorbed
3) When the lentils and bulgur wheat are all done, mix them with the rest of the salad ingredients.
4) In a separate bowl or glass, mix the dressing ingredients, and then pour them over the salad and mix well. This is best chilled before serving - or let it live in your fridge and pull out a little for lunch every day!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

It's not rocket science . . . except when it is

Teacher Musings:
Right now I am two months into summer and five months into maternity leave, so I officially have teacher amnesia and I find myself believing that all of my greatest intentions and ideas/desires will be manifested in my classroom in September. However, my experience teaching has taught me otherwise. I will try a number of new things this school year, including using student work during writer's workshop time, having blogging be the primary homework my students do, and (hopefully!) starting some kind of mentoring program and/or cooking club and/or student running club (lets just say that taking care of a baby is exhausting, but it does leave me lots of time to dream up lots of ways to get way too busy come fall). I have been reading books about teaching writing, and I am currently completely enamored with Penny Kittle's Write Beside Them: risk, voice and clarity in high school writing which will, I hope, improve the way I approach the teaching of writing. All of this thinking and planning is part of what gets me excited and rejuvenated for the school year. I can't imagine doing the exact same thing year after year, and part of what I love about teaching is the chance to start over, try again and improve that every September brings.

Another aspect of this job I love is that it requires a lot of creative thinking and the ability to consider many complicated variables all at once. Trying to match my instructional style to how a "typical" adolescent brain is "supposed" to work is complex enough to keep my mind occupied and engaged. Then I step foot into the classroom and encounter the 20 (or 60 or 120) individual students will different styles of learning, interacting and stages of development and its enough to make your head explode. Every day I am constantly toggling back and forth between focusing on the point of a lesson, remembering different students' emotional needs, trying to be both a sympathetic listener as well as a teacher who pushes students to really achieve and remembering to eat and drink. I know none of this is really news - I've written numerous posts about how freakin' hard teaching is. However, what I have found myself thinking about recently is the aspects of teaching that don't seem difficult to understand (at least, to me). I was talking to a friend yesterday about the importance of teaching problem-solving, rather than making kids simply memorize equations the week before a test and I found myself saying "It's not rocket science - they have to be able to think." When I was reading a section in Penny Kittle's book about the way that response to literature essays are really more of a reading assessment than a writing assessment I thought "Duh! Of course it is - if they didn't read and/or understand the piece of literature, it doesn't matter how good their writing skills are - they essays is probably going to suck." I was talking to another colleague about the fact that students become better writers when they write about something they care about for an actual audience, another fact that seemed self-evident. To all of these realities I have seen in my few years of teaching, I say "It's not rocket science . . ." and then I step into the classroom with all of those teenagers staring at me, with the MCAS looming over my head, with the amount of papers I need to read, the journals I need to keep up with, and suddenly all those seemingly basic truths that are the cornerstones of my teaching philosophy seem so much more difficult. It's not that I stop believing in these things, but I do suddenly realize that believing in the importance of students learning problem-solving is one thing - making it happen is something altogether more complicated. So, yes, there are things seem basic to me, and I'm pretty much over debating them or validating them with other people. Instead, I'm ready to move on to the hard part and figure out what to do about it so that my kids learn as much as they can.

Yummy Stuff:
We are officially into farmer's market season here, and it has been fantastic! I didn't get to go to the big farmer's market yesterday since the baby needed to get home for a nap, but in the past month I have done 90% of our shopping at the various markets in our area, and it has been wonderful. I've been thoroughly enjoying raspberries and blackberries, as well as some beautiful and delicious kale and rainbow chard from a local organic farm. Buying what is fresh at the market requires a different kind of meal planning than I am used to, but, luckily, I have the time to do it since I am home for the summer. Instead of planning five meals and shopping on Sunday, I can browse the market on Wednesday and pick up what looks good and try to make up meals that use the yummy veggies and fruit. This has resulted in a couple of dinners that required a bit more creativity on my part, but with mostly tasty results! Here are two recipes that use some farmer's market goodies:

Summer Squash Orzo:
2 TB olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, minced
3 small summer squash (I used two small zucchini and one yellow squash) sliced into discs (between 1/4 and 1/2 inch)
8 oz orzo
1/2 bunch fresh basil roughly chopped (or chiffonade if you are fancy)

1. Cook the orzo according to the package directions. It usually takes about 8-10 minutes, so get the water going and make sure the orzo is cooking when you start the other steps, since this goes together fast.
2. Saute the garlic in olive oil in a large pan on medium-low heat for about 1 minute. Don't let the garlic burn, but it should be fragrant.
3. Spread the summer squash in the pan and toss to coat with garlic and oil. Let them saute in the pan for about 4-5 minutes, stirring occasionally. You can have them saute a few minutes longer if you can't fit them in one layer - just make sure to stir them around so they cook evenly. They should be softened, but not mushy.
4. Whenever the orzo is done, drain it. In a moment you are going to put it in with the squash, but the basil will go first
5. Right before you put in the orzo, stir the basil around with the squash for about 1 minute to get the flavors going. Then, pour in the orzo and stir it around so that it is coated with garlic and oil, and so that the squash and basil get all mixed in.

Serve it up just as it is! This is great warm, but it also makes a good salad right out of the fridge the next day.

Any-Veggie you like with peanut sauce
About 3 cups of any veggie you would like. I suggest broccoli, green beans, bell peppers or a mix of any of these. I used broccoli that was left over from another recipe
2 cups of cooked quinoa (we had some leftover - you can also make fresh quinoa with 1 cup of quinoa and two cups of water)
8 TB of water divided
1/2 inch square of fresh ginger, peeled and grated (a microplane is great for this)
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1/4 cup of peanut butter
2 TB tamari/soy sauce
1 TB of rice vinegar
1/2 tsp. of Asian red chili paste

1. Wash and prep which ever veggies you are using, and put them in a steamer basket. Steam them on low while you prep the peanut sauce - or less if you like them cooked less. As you are cooking occasionally (every 3 minutes or so) check the veggies and take them out of the steamer basket when they are as cooked as you like them.
2. In a small saucepan, saute the ginger and garlic on medium heat in 2 TB of water for 1-2 minutes
3. Add in the peanut butter, tamari, rice vinegar and chili paste. Stir with a whisk.
4. Add in the remaining water a tablespoon at a time, whisking with each addition until the sauce is at your desired consistency.
Serve this by putting down a cup of quinoa, half the veggies and topping that with as much peanut sauce as you like. Obviously this recipe can be altered to match many different preferences (for example - I drowned everything in peanut sauce and the G-man was far more conservative in his sauce coverage) but feel free to mess with it to meet your liking.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Teacher Voice

Teacher Musings:
I have not written a post for a few months, mostly because I have been on maternity leave. This means that I have not been teaching and have, in fact, felt rather out of the loop when it comes to my school. While I don't miss the school politics and difficult behavior issues, I have found myself missing teaching lately. I am looking forward to getting back to my classroom and my students in September, although I will miss the wonderful time I have now with my little one. There are a lot of changes going on in my school right now, most significantly a change in leadership. As I consider what this means for me and my career at my school, I have also started wondering about what larger changes in education are taking place, especially all that has gone on with Race to the Top in the last few months. I read a number of education blogs, and I have been following Anthony Cody at Living In Dialogue for quite a while and I have been especially excited by his rallying of teacher voices through Teacher Letters to Obama. As I read what he and other teachers have written it has really reminded me of what teacher's voices mean in the discussion about how society can re-shape our education system. Teachers are on the ground and we are the ones who see how policies play out on student's lives. Sometimes this means we can be almost too focused on our immediate realities, but in general I have encountered more teachers that are both able to deal with the urgent needs in front of them while simultaneously taking the long view than teachers who are stuck in their own limited reality. So when I heard Arne Duncan in an NPR interview (I think it was on Talk of the Nation) I was a bit pissed off when I heard him say he was a "teacher" ("well, really an 'educator'" as he put it, since he had been educating his whole life) even though the closest he got to actual classroom teaching experience was helping out his mom in her classroom when he was a kid. I'm not necessarily opposed to educational leaders who do not have classroom teaching experience, although I do think that classroom experience can be a huge asset for obvious reasons. What bothers me most about Ducan's response was the utter lack of respect it shows for teachers and the work they do. If you think that being in the education "field" in an administrative role (oh, and helping out in mom's classroom) makes you qualified as a teacher you really have no clue what it takes to teach - which is scary when you are making far reaching decisions that drastically impact students and teachers.
One of my good friends and I were recently discussing how frustrating it can me when you tell people that you are a teacher and people immediately launch into the their thoughts and opinions about teachers, their experiences as students and then - the final touch - give you advice about what you should do in your professional capacity as a teacher. I am happy to hear about people's classroom experiences but what I resent a bit is the idea that anyone is qualified to tell a teacher what to do if he/she has been a student. I have spent years and countless hours not only doing the work of teaching, but reading, writing, researching, thinking, meeting and engaging in countless hours or honing and improving my craft. When someone suggests that there is some easy fix to makes teachers and schools better (such as "fire the bad teachers," "don't assign busy work for homework - I hated that" or "be really tough with the kids - that worked for me!") it suggests that teaching is simple - and it is not. While I definitely need to hear the outsider perspective to keep me from getting to focused and blinded by my time in the classroom, it is important for those who are not classroom teachers to thoughtfully consider both what they can offer to help teachers and schools improve and what insights they need to get from teachers who have a wealth of knowledge and experience that is too often overlooked or barely touched.
I really didn't plan for this first post back to be a rant. Perhaps part of my frustration is due to the fact that recently I have felt like a bit of an outsider since I have been on leave. When I talk to teacher friends sometimes I have to keep myself from giving advice because I know that I am missing crucial context since I have not been in school for months. On my time away, as I consider new legislation on both the state and federal level, I do feel like the Race to the Top issue has the potential to be a positive step forward for our schools, but I have yet to see people on the federal level really tackling the assessment question. Like many others I am behind the idea of teachers being held accountable for student growth. However, the question becomes how that manifests itself. What I hope is that Race to the Top leads to an overhaul of our assessment systems that start to look at the assessment work that teachers do every day in their classrooms. Perhaps if we look to teachers first, before we look to testing companies, we can find more authentic assessment models (instead of standardized tests) and creatively think about how to use those models on a larger scale. But hey, this is just a teacher talking.

Yummy Stuff:
After my slightly snarky rant, I would like to provide something a bit more palatable - how about a yummy bean recipe! In my current post-pregnancy state I am trying to get back into shape and deal with my changing hormones, so that means returning to what I call my "beans and greens" diet - lots of veggies, fruit and legumes and little starch and very little sugar. This week for dinners we had lots of lentils and bean dishes, but one of my favorites was the black bean soup I veganized from the Easy Beans cookbook. After making it the G-man and I decided that we would like it a bit thicker and with more stuff, so we will add more veggies next time (another carrot and bell pepper) and decrease the stock a bit, but I will give out the version we made this time - it was quite good!
Classic Black Bean Soup (Vegan Style!)
2 cups dried black beans
3 TB olive oil
2 large onions, chopped
1 red or green bell pepper chopped
1 carrot, peeled and diced
4 cloves of garlic, minced
10 cups of veggie broth
4 bay leaves
1/2 tsp savory
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp dried oregano
1/4 crushed red pepper
1/2 cup white wine
juice of 1/2 lemon

1. Soak beans for 8 hours (I started them soaking when I got up at 7am and then started cooking around 5 pm). When they are done soaking, rinse and drain
2. In a large soup pot, saute the onions, bell pepper and carrot in olive oil for 10 minutes. Then, add the garlic and stir for 1 minute
3. Add beans, stock, bay leaves and savory. Simmer 1 1/2 hours (90 minutes)
4. Remove bay leaves and take 4 cups of the soup mixture and puree in a blender or food processor until smooth. Return mixture to soup pot
5. Add cumin, oregano, crushed red peeper, white wine and lemon juice. Stir well and heat until piping hot.

Monday, March 15, 2010

What I Wish I Had Known (but probably wouldn't have listened to anyway)

Mom Thoughts:
This is going to be a new section of my blog as I have recently gone from being not only a vegan teacher but a vegan mom as well! As I go through the first week and a half of my son's life, I am having some time to reflect back on what I wish I had known. Some of these are things that I don't think anyone told me about, and some of these are things that I know friends and family told me about, but I didn't really get until now!
  • Being in labor hurts like nothing else - but it will end, and I did (you can) handle it
  • Pushing was the easiest part because I had some control over it (this may not be the case for everyone, but it was comforting to me!)
  • Eat lots of iron-rich foods before you go into labor!
  • When you are in labor have at least one person in the room who has gone through it and/or that you are willing to listen to and trust
  • Trust your instincts - especially when you are overwhelmed with information from the rest of the world
  • In the first couple weeks there will be little or no pattern or routine to your life - learn to live with it. It will not always be this way (or so I'm told)
  • After giving birth about the only thing your body is capable of doing is feeding your child. Let everyone else do other stuff for you
  • Don't feel guilty or upset if you find breastfeeding both difficult and boring
  • People want to do things to help you - let them!!!
  • There are a million different emotions you can have with regards to your baby that range from frustration, indifference, joy and excitement - and you will probably have them all at various points. That is how it is - don't get stressed about it.
  • If the baby is calm and quiet but awake, you are allowed to put him/her down and do something for yourself, whether it is sleep, eat, take a bath or call a friend
  • Babies make funny faces that may or may not mean anything yet
  • Being a mom doesn't stop you from being the person you were before - its an added piece, not a whole new identity. Don't be afraid to do things you would normally do, even if others find it strange
Teacher Musings:
Well, my brain has not been fully teacher engaged recently. After a month away from the classroom, I can already feel my teacher sense atrophying as it did when I was a literacy coach - only now it is more so since I am not in a school at all. However, I did, finally, get to read through some work e-mails this weekend and give some feedback on a possible writing prompt we would use to assess student writing in grades 9-12. The prompt uses a few quotes from articles in it, but also gives students the choice of using their own experiance as evidence to write about social networking in the internet age. For me this brought up one of the issues I grapple with constantly as an English teacher. When we are trying to teach students how to develop their ideas in writing, often we are asking them to write about things they have read. Obviously this is important, since the majority of the writing they will do, both in college and in professional settings, will be based on some text they have read. While I might take issue with teaching them literary analysis as an isolated skill, I do recognize the importance of being able to craft an argument in an essay based on a text (or several texts). However, when I read the students' writing, and they seem to be struggling, sometimes I don't know if there struggle is in the writing itself (i.e. they need to be better taught how to craft an argument, etc.) or is based on the fact that they really didn't understand the text that they read. Sometimes I have assumed that students have a "writing problem" only to find out that if I ask them to write about a text that they read and understood the write fairly well. Interestingly enough, I have also found that when I "explain" a text to them (i.e. they didn't really get it on their own and I force fed the ideas from it to them) their writing about that text still seems problematic. So, while I do find it useful to assess some aspects of writing independent of reading, the two still are so inextricably linked, and it is impossible to teach one without detail with the other in the day-to-day teaching. As someone who likes things organized and compartmentalized, this has been difficult for me both comprehend, and figure out what to do. I still don't know, but I do have ideas for how to better integrate the two next year, starting with using writing to help them understand their reading (both through annotation - which I already teach - and short written responses to reading, which I started to do this year and found very useful).

Yummy Stuff:
With a new baby in the house, I have not done much cooking at all, and G-man has only done a bit more. Luckily we have amazing friends who know we are vegan and are still willing (and often excited!) to cook with us! Just a side note - babies are supposed to gain their birth weight back by the time their two weeks old - if they are not on track to do that they may not be getting enough to eat. My son gained all but one ounce of his birth weight back by one week after been breastfed exclusively by his vegan mom. Not enough protein my butt!! My point is that both me and my son are thriving on our whole-foods plant-based vegan diet and loving it!

Now, with not having a lot of time to cook, we had to strategies our meals a bit. This included getting some "easy to make" options from the store. I thought I would share some of the things we made last week (while G-man was home) for anyone else out there with limited time or energy on their hands.

  • Trader Joe's frozen pizza (veggies without cheese!)
  • Trader Joe's black bean enchiladas (again, no cheese and with yummy tofu and veggies!)
  • Trader Joe's 17 bean soup (comes in a pack with dried beans - you need some celery, onions and bell pepper with it, and I recommend adding some spices, but it is easy and really good!)
  • Homemade chili (beans pre-made before the baby and ready to go in the fridge)
  • Tofu scramble with Trader Joe's frozen stir-fry veggies (to minimize chopping time)
  • Pre-made and frozen mushroom and rice casserole (recipe from Vegetarian Times)
  • And of course whatever your friends bring you (we got some amazing dal and several rounds of Darwin's sandwiches - thank god for that! Also some friends brought us frozen cookie dough and bags of spinach - the spinach helped me build my iron stores back up and the cookies were so comforting on this last rainy weekend!)

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Collaboration and Maternity Leave Reflection

Teacher Musings:
Well, its been a whirlwind of a few months since I last posted, although the days go by much slower now. I have been officially on maternity leave for over a week, and I spent the time from Christmas break until my leave working hard to make the transition as painless as possible for the amazing teacher who is taking over my classroom. I am incredibly lucky that my students will continue to get taught, not babysat, while I am away.
In these last few months I have really found myself having to acknowledge one of my many weaknesses - I struggle to collaborate with other people. Let me be specific - I really enjoy and get a lot out of sharing ideas and discussing pedagogy with other teachers. These conversations have always improved my practice, and I really enjoy the process of taking ideas or even just germs of ideas from these conversations and making them my own. But (and you knew there was a but) what I struggle with is collaboration that involves an aligned curriculum. I am currently on a team with two of the most thoughtful and talented teachers I have ever worked with, and we have been lucky enough to have my equally thoughtful and insightful replacement planning with us for the last nine weeks. That means four thoughtful, interesting and dedicated teachers have been trying to align themselves with each other - and it has been damn hard (at least for me). What I have realized during my week of reflection (giving me ample time to read some teacher books and magazines I have been ignoring) is that part of the difficulty of this type of collaboration, for me, lies in the apparent similarity of all the people at the table. All of us our somewhat experienced teachers, but we all want to improve, and all of us know we don't necessarily have the "best" way of doing things. While we have similar goals and share some basic principles on the surface, I am starting to suspect that the actual goals and principles that drive our teaching may be just different enough to cause some tension without being able to pinpoint where that tension resides. Often as a group we will come up with a plan, or an assignment, or a reading, that seems fine at the time, but then when I go to use it, I realize that there are problems I didn't see. Most of this is due to a lack of time - we don't get nearly enough planning time together, and the time we do have is often squished between classes, which is not always conducive to real work. However, I have also realized that I have some strong beliefs and principles that drive my teaching that I was not acknowledging to myself or to the group. This meant I was pushing back on some ideas without knowing exactly why, which was frustrating to me, and I'm sure frustrating to others as well. So, in the last week I have decided to really reflect on and think about the principles that drive my own decision making on teaching, and really critically think about how those principles are useful and not useful. I am hoping that this will make me both a better teacher and collaborator next year. I think that the more transparent I am with myself and others, the more productive any planning can be.

Yummy Stuff:
Whenever I am feeling stressed or down (which has been off and on the last few months - its hard to tell what is mood swings and what is stress!) I love to have breakfast for dinner. For me, there is nothing more exciting than waffles and tofu scramble at the end of a long day - it feels like a special treat! Tofu scramble is one of those things that I have seen recipes for, but never used one recipe - instead I have taken ideas from a lot of places, but essentially made my own. So, here is one of MANY versions of a delicious tofu scramble:

Tofu Scramble:
1 block of firm or extra firm tofu (your choice)
2 tsp olive oil
1/2 a small onion, chopped
1 1/2 cup of chopped veggies (Your choice - I often use a stir-fry mix from Trader Joes, or veggie leftovers from other dinners. I suggest broccoli, bell pepper, mushrooms and carrots as a good start)
1 1/2 TB of tamari/soy sauce
1 TB cumin
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp dried ginger
1/2 tsp dried basil
1 tsp turmeric

1. Drain the tofu and crumble it over a saute pan with you hands. I like to have big chunks that break down more when cooking, but you can crumble it to the consistency you want.
2. Cook the tofu over medium heat for 10-15 minutes, stirring every once in while - not too much (maybe 2-3 times). You can drain out some of the water that will appear if you want - it will help make a firmer scramble.
3. Push the tofu to the side of the pan and pur in the oil. Saute the onions for 5 minutes
4. Put in the rest of the veggies with onion and saute for 3-5 more minutes. Then, mix the veggies in with the tofu.
5. Pour in the tamari and stir it around to coat all of the tofu and veggies.
6. Put in all the other spices EXCEPT for the turmeric. Stir around to coat the tofu and veggies
7. Finally, put in the turmeric and stir it thoroughly so that it coats all the tofu. This will give it that nice yellow look, along with some flavor.
8. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the veggies are cooked through. Enjoy (with waffles!)