Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Roller Coaster is Making Me Tired

The past five days have been a serious lesson in regaining balance. On Thursday, I didn’t like myself very much after a comment I made to a student. It had been a long day, and this student just so happened to ask one of my least favorite questions. It wasn’t his fault that he was Asker #85. It’s a normal question for an eighth grader. But I snarked in response, and felt like an ass. “No, We’re Not Watching a Movie” was my response, and I’ve read it to my classes by way of apology, so hopefully things are mended.

Friday, I got the bittersweet, but mostly sweet, news that one of my closest friends will be taking the English position I’m vacating. This is brilliant news; she will be amazing, and the room will continue to be filled with books, which makes me irrationally happy. But, whew, I’m really leaving, aren’t I? (Mrs. P, I could not be happier that you’re taking over!)

On Saturday, we discovered a fair amount of damage done to our fagarden (I know, it sounds like a swear word in Italian…which might be why it has so grown on me) by the two-legged variety of animal. It took about three or so hours to put back what had been torn asunder, and I lost about a fourth of the plants I had already put in. We kept hoping that we’d find out the damage had been accidentally caused, but some hopes are simply that, so it looks like it was just vandalism.

Then we went out and bought a new tractor. This is really good news. Though it is surprising that it’s good news, because if you had asked me about tractors five years ago, I would have given you a blank stare. The younger, less cool me didn’t know how awesome tractors are. Let’s forgive her.

On Sunday, two of our neighbors who had heard about the garden came by with a “We’re so sorry!” gift of a dozen eggs, asparagus, and a roasting chicken from the Essex Farm. Faith in humanity: restored. Melissa and Rebecca, you are wonderful human beings. I’m so glad we’re getting to know you. You add to the reasons we can’t wait to move.

On Monday, I worked so hard in the fagarden, it hurt to drive the car the four hours back to Massachusetts.

And now we’re up to today. I love my students. I’m really tired. I made an amazing dinner (if I may be permitted to say so) and I’m downloading a Journey’s Greatest Hits c.d. Steadily getting back on track.

So, dinner. We bought a lamb from a Vermont meat company that we first came in contact with at Boston’s SoWa Market, Westminster Meats. We love them–Desna is awesome to work with, and their product is delicious. You probably already knew this, but add it to the list of things I’ve never thought about: when you buy a whole lamb, it comes with lamb ribs. I’ve never seen such things, let alone cooked and eaten them. I did some web-searching, and found a super-simple recipe over at Serious Eats. If you’d like to try the original, head here.

After reading the comments, I decided to cut back on the water. I used a cup and a half, which, when combined with the amount of dried fruit, gave me a just-right amount of sauce. I adore sauce, though, since I like to pour it over rice or potatoes, swipe it up with bread, and just plain marry it with carbs/starches. If you don’t have these propensities, you might just need a cup of water. I added a small, peeled, smashed garlic clove to the onions as I softened them, and I used a mix of apricots, dates, and figs, because I didn’t have enough of one to make the called for two cups.

Instead of making the recommended rub, I used a Ras el-Hanout spice blend that I had made for another recipe. I used about a teaspoon on each rack of ribs; we had two, for a total of about 4 pounds.

Which brings me to the thing that might make people balk at lamb ribs. They are quite possibly the fattiest things I’ve ever seen in my life. And I know a lot of people will shudder, but I cut most of the fat cap off of the meaty side of the ribs. I left a very, very thin layer. Because while I know fat is flavor, there is nothing appealing (to me) about a dish swimming in cups and cups of rendered fat. (Well, okay. Duck confit. But that’s different. No, really. It is.) As it was, there was still a hefty amount of fat in the finished dish, which I’m solidifying so that I can peel it off. I’m going to use the remaining fruit and sauce to jazz up rice one night.

And the lamb and the fruit and the onions? Glory be, they were tender and melting and luscious, and the house smelled like a spice bazaar. If you like lamb shanks, you’ll like lamb ribs. Head over to Serious Eats and give this one a try! (You can also see a picture there, since I forgot to take one.)

Here’s to lamb ribs, restored faith, and the return of balance. Please.

“F” standardization (profanity restricted until I no longer teach)

Raise your hand if you agree with this sentence:
“Everyone’s experience should be the same.”

I suspect you balk at it, much like I do. The most amazing thing about being human is that we are individuals. We can read the same poem, listen to the same song, eat the same meal…and have different experiences. I do not smell, taste, hear, see, or touch the same way that you do. And that difference is beautiful. If you rub my back, I’ll be yours forever. If you touch my stomach, I’ll injure you. But how many people feel the reverse? (I know my dogs would vote stomach every time, but I’m focusing on people.)

I read The Fault in Our Stars by John Green and fell in love with Hazel and Augustus, and cried at the end. Jordan said, “Meh.”
Who’s right?
We both are.

I walk in the woods and notice the small. My husband notices the big.
Who’s paying better attention?
We both are.

Wendell Berry said, “The world is wide and wonderful, and we do not know what we will need to know.”

But if we all know the same things, then what is lost?

The drive in this country to standardize everything (kids, food, stores, the environment) is the most misguided, frightening, Big-Brother-Control-Freak behavior that it is possible has ever existed. And who does it benefit? (Hint: Not kids, food, stores, or the environment)

It benefits those who stand to make the most money from this standardization, which is not the largest percentage of the population. We keep hearing that as a nation, we’re falling behind, and standardized tests are the answer.

We’ve been hearing that for about twenty years now, since right after I began teaching. And you know what? Since those standardized tests began, things have gotten worse. Just listen to the news, and the government officials pushing those tests. If we “build a better test, they will learn it.” If that’s true, why hasn’t it worked yet? We’ve had twenty years to tweak and adjust. Is it possible it isn’t true?

Standardized testing will not improve the United States’ standing in the world, because it stifles the very creativity and originality that is necessary for continued forward movement. If every child is having the same experience in every classroom, then where do we leave room for Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking and Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau? Some of our most lauded, celebrated, and loved intellectuals were (are) as non-standard as they come.

I know we need base-line standards that students can meet. I’m not an idiot. They have to read. They have to write. They have to think. But this obsession with more and more testing, and shiny new standards, and insisting that every teacher does the same thing so that every student has the same experience, is out of control.

And, I’d like to smugly point out, impossible. I don’t care if teachers read from scripts, students still don’t have the same experiences.

Because we are individuals, and do not see the world the same way.

And that is beautiful.

No, we’re not watching a movie

Forgive me.

I saw your face fall
after my flip answer of,
“Have you met me?”

But, you see,
there is so little time left.

I have so little time left
with you,
and there is still so much
I wish to teach you.
So much I want
to prepare you for,
to share with you.

It is easy to forget
you are fourteen.
You meet every challenge,
you push, and push
because you want
to do well.

It is easy to forget
you are fourteen.
Forgive me.

Time is running
like water on windows.
It fractures and divides,
but there is never more.

I lose you
in thirty-two and a half days.
And there is still so much
I want to tell you.

But this wise woman I know said,
“I hope they’ll remember that
while there are things we must do,
there also must always be room for play.”

We still aren’t watching a movie.
Forgive me.
But we can play,
and breathe,
and fall into words
and take a break.

In the time remaining

If I had more time,
I would find for you
the perfect book.
The one you swim
d
o
w
n
into, so deep
the only light you see
comes from the illumination
of the words.

If I had more time,
I would find for you
the perfect poem.
The one you commit
to memory,
hold onto so tightly,
recite so quietly
when you need its strength.

If I had more time,
I would find for you
the perfect pencil.
The one you use
to write your story,
crossing the boundaries
of margins,
overflowing with your becoming.

If I had more time.

Instead, in the time remaining,
I will bring you books, poems, pencils.
I will help you see that you
must be your own searcher.
That illumination, strength, and becoming
are paths I can start you on
while I wave, smiling, cheering you on,
receding
into your past.

Balance

2014-05-11 08.19.08
Awake far too late,
I’d like to be writing
but
instead I’m paying bills.

Life is this:

find the balance between
what you
     must do
and what you
     want to do.

I want
   to teach
and
   grow things.

I do not want
to standardize
   anything.

I want
   to rhapsodize about asparagus
but
   I must go
to bed.

Fagardening

Hello, farm.

I find I often say “farm” self-consciously, even when I’m saying it in my head. Our land did used to be a farm, so it’s true in that sense. But to talk about what I want to do as farming seems a bit grandiose. On the other hand, to simply call it gardening doesn’t seem big enough. Am I farmening? Garfarming? Fagardening? 

Lord, that last one sounds like an egregious swear word, in Italian.  So no, I’m not fagardening.

I don’t know what to call it, but I do know this: I’m really excited to get started. The school year of the very long goodbye has been emotionally draining, and I’m ready for the transition. I feel like a traitor to my kids for saying that, but this has been hard and painful, and I’m ready to let the scabbing over and then scarring/healing start.

We continue the season of long beginnings tomorrow. Into the ground: cabbage, escarole, Swiss Chard, broccoli, and cauliflower seedlings. Probably in the rain. But it will be okay.

It will all be okay.

Too cool for the likes of me, or tag with eighth graders

2014-05-04 13.02.41

“O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”

Seventy!
It was seventy degrees out today, and sunny! Callooh, callay, indeed!

The kids did round two of three of MCAS this morning. The boredom almost lulled me to sleep, but they were just squirrelly enough to need my attention, and keep me awake. I have a good group–minus one kid who I’d say is a knucklehead, but he’s so entertaining that I can’t help but love him–so the time is as painless as standardized testing can be.

We tested from first period through fourth, and then on our eighth grade schedule, we had fifth period, lunch, and then sixth and seventh. My fifth period class gamely dove into the silent reading we had scheduled, but “spring is the mischief in me,” and I couldn’t focus. The sun was coming in through our window-wall; the sky was blue; we’d been sitting, mostly silent, for four hours… I put my book down, and said, “Let’s go play outside!”

We were only outside for about 20-25 minutes, but it was enough time for Sarah to somersault down the hill, Julie and I to chat about her dad’s tattoo, a quick conversation about whether or not it was meadow-pause or menopause (the girls brought it up, not me), and a rousing boys’ game of tag. It was enough time for me to feel warm, and enjoy watching them be kids.

Eighth graders are an odd breed. They are a balance of too cool to be hanging out with the likes of me, and, well, somersaults and tag. I’ve mentioned this before, but my life would not have been as good without these on-the-cusp kids.

When my fifth period thinks back to me, I hope they’ll remember what I will about today. Sarah’s somersaults, Andrew slipping as he reached out to tag a slithery Jamie, and Amanda, with a chain of dandelions woven into her hair. I hope they’ll remember that while there are things we must do, there also must always be room for play. Love you, kiddos.

Alien life-forms, bumblebees, and dinner

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Spring is showing signs of sticking around. The bumblebees are always one of the first signs that there will be warmth again soon. When I first moved to the Northeast, and saw those zeppelins flying around, I was terrified. I thought people were feeding bees steroids. (They might live in Florida, too, but I never saw one there.) I could only obsess about how it would feel if one of those suckers stung me. Now, I’m always ecstatic to see them. And that loud, humming buzz makes me smile. How could I not love such an ungainly, enthusiastic creature? I was thrilled to see two of my favorites–Nanking cherry blossoms and a bumblebee–in front of the house the other day.

The planting continues, with a Gala apple, two Montmorency cherries, a Seckel pear, two high-bush blueberries, and an assortment of ornamental shrubs. One of them, speaking of enthusiasm, is a forsythia. Ohhh, that yellow! I read a very respected gardener’s opinion of forsythia early last winter; she called them gaudy, among other things. To that, I have one thing to say: pssshhhttt. Whatever.

I seem to have settled on my early spring planting uniform:
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I might like bright colors. I might also not care too much about matching when I’m gardening. If this next phase of my life isn’t working out financially, my fashion sense indicates that I could always be a clown, no?

But here’s hoping that this next phase includes cooking for others, and doing tasty farm-to-table things. A recent, simple recipe that we had is something I’d be happy to pay for in a restaurant. It involved a lion’s mane mushroom, which I had never seen before last week, when we got our CSA share. We had one lion’s mane, one oyster, and one large shitake. The lion’s mane is definitely one of those, “So, who do you think first looked at that and thought ‘Hey, I bet that tastes good!'” foods. I had to look it up, because I was sure someone had made a mistake and given us an alien life-form. But, nope.

It turns out that they hold a ton of moisture, and it’s wise to squeeze that out (yes, squeeze away…it can take it…just don’t wring). I took the blogger’s advice and sliced the mushroom thinly, then seared it in olive oil and butter.
2014-04-30 17.59.29
After searing it and the oyster mushroom pieces, I set them aside and slow-cooked an onion with some red pepper flakes. I tossed in a rinsed can of cannellini beans, some salt and pepper, and towards the end, I wilted in some spinach. If my husband wouldn’t have protested his lack of dinner, I would have eaten the whole pan myself. Simplicity in a skillet, and so delicious. The lion’s mane was a little chewy, the oyster mushroom was meaty, and there was a lot of savoriness to the dish. I might actually seek those crazy looking things out, next time I’m at a grocery store.
2014-04-30 18.37.56

On the shoulders of giants

Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” and I can relate. Teaching is an odd profession. Much of what we do is solitary: the planning, the grading, the getting ready for classes. Another large part of what we do is with an audience much younger than ourselves (at least, after some of us get past the just-graduated-from-college-and-am-teaching-Seniors phase, which I’m glad I missed). And a chunk of our time–the smallest–is spent collaborating with other educators. And yet, ask just about any teacher and s/he will tell you that another teacher, or even more likely, many other teachers, have been tremendous influences. This is no less true for me.

If I’m being honest about all of the shoulders I stand on, I have to go back to elementary school. Mrs. Levering (4th grade English) and Mrs. McAllister (5th grade English) helped support my love of reading and the English language. Mr. Herring (7th grade social studies) and Mrs. Thomas (8th grade social studies) taught me a love of history, but also that teachers were people, too. Mr. Vice (high school history, twice, for which I will ever be thankful) taught me that, not only were teachers people, but they could feel very deeply about many things, and it was that variety that helped them be stronger in the classroom.

Finally, Mrs. Staples, my high school chorus teacher, taught me the tough lesson that sometimes, it doesn’t matter how good you are, or how worthy you are; if there is someone out there who is better, then they’re going to get the part. If you want it, you have to work for it. And even then, it’s not guaranteed. She also helped reinforce the lessons that Mr. Vice instilled, about teachers being human, and needing wide-ranging interests and things about which they are passionate.

The teachers that I have worked with as colleagues have been numerous. In twenty-one years, at three different schools, you meet a lot of teachers. There are too many to name here, but in each place, there are teachers (and administrators) who gave generously of their time, knowledge, and compassion. Without them, I would in no way have been the teacher I turned out to be.

If there is a single “entity” that influenced my teaching, though, it would have to be Janet Allen and “The Geese.” I had the honor, pleasure, and joy of working with this committed group of educators for over twelve years, first in Janet’s “It’s Never Too Late” Literacy Institutes, and then as a writer for the reading program “Plugged into Reading.” They remain some of my closest friends today, and they are the teachers who stand on my mental pedestals when I think of who I wanted to be most like. Janet’s compassion, humor, and love of all things literacy (and her love of us) shaped me more profoundly than maybe anything else in my life, other than my parents/family, and she gathered together a group of men and women who forced me to think, question, and constantly challenge myself. I would have been a paltry teacher indeed without them. Actually, I would have been a paltry human without them. Their influence extends far beyond the classroom.

But I can’t forget my students. I have taught middle school for my whole career, primarily eighth grade. And even on the days that I didn’t like them very much, the love that I have felt for these beautiful human beings, these vessels of promise (and, let’s be honest, for a lot of them, body odor) has made me a better person. Children mirror what we show them, and my students taught me very early on that I wanted to like what I saw in that mirror. Because they trusted me, I was compelled to be a better person. They have never failed to reflect back the love I felt for them, which has been perhaps the best lesson I learned as a teacher. Gandhi said that we must be the change we wish to see in the world. Gandhi said it, and my students helped me to understand it, and hopefully, in some small measure, try to live it.

I have indeed stood on the shoulders of giants. And no one knows better than I that my life, both inside and outside of the classroom, has been the better for it.