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.