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.