Monthly Archives: January 2008


slivered chocolate
My friend said “chocolate and cherries with a simple frosting” when I asked if what kind of cake he’d like for his birthday.  Slivering the chocolate was the first step in chocolate genoise cake. I believe I will slice the cake in half, make cherry mousse to fill it, and then glaze the whole thing with cocoa glaze.



Filed under food, photos

Fairy Tale?

Once upon a time, I worked at a school that took teaching seriously, where we put time into creating thoughtful, authentic curriculum that engaged the human beings sitting in front of us and working with us. We cared about test scores as one of many validations that we were doing something right, but we didn’t let them drive all decisions about what might be best for the kids or for a unit or lesson. And our scores were good, and our kids thrived (despite occasionally claiming to hate our school for being incredibly strict), and we felt a lot of freedom as teachers. We created enrichment and remediation programs during and after school, never enough of either, but the best we could do.

Sometime when I was away, we bit the poisonous apple. I don’t know who brought the apple to the door, whether it was new city or statewide policy, or new people in new positions within the school, or old people in old positions within the school. Probably a little of each. Also, some of the clearest voices for remembering the whole child left; now we give lip service to the idea but I don’t see it in practice.

In many ways, we still work at the same school, but there’s something new in the air, I guess a greater urge towards compliance for its own sake. We are being asked to collect tons of data, to document damn near everything, to have professional binders with fourteen different sections (I exaggerate, but only slightly), any of which can lead to professional growth when handled correctly – I don’t want to sound defensive or set in my ways, because not doing these things can often be just an excuse for one’s own unwillingness to change – but… somehow it feels like doing it just to make it look done, not out of a spirit of embracing the possibilities for honest-to-goodness growth.

Recently, almost 20 of our lowest-performing kids lost their chance to choose an enrichment class because they are getting one more hour of math remediation with our “inquiry team;” never mind that these kids come in early, leave late, and already spend something like nine hours per week in math class. One hour a week when they get to do something based around their own interests and choices. One hour a week when most of them drop their behavior problems because they care. One hour a week when teachers see students differently and students see teachers differently. Is it worth giving this up for a frustrating hour of marginally useful math instruction?

Our quality review is coming up and lots of preparation is taking place. Back in September, I was asked, as department chair, to revise the science section of the CEP (comprehensive education plan). I didn’t make many changes to what we’d written in the past, wasn’t provided any information about new formatting or new expectations for the types of goals we should set, submitted our departmental revisions and they were accepted. Now, a few months later, we’re being asked to revise those goals again, by the same people who accepted them in the fall. I’m sure that they have new information that they didn’t have then – but if that’s the case, why couldn’t we just leave the CEP alone, an authentic representation of where we’re at, and then, in next year’s revision process, do some careful work about the new expectations and how they can best be expressed by each department according to its needs? How does it help us as teachers or the school as a whole to make more revisions under time pressure without much thoughtful discussion? Because the moment you begin to delve into the question of big goals for the year in a subject area, you hit sticky questions of what to measure (obviously, the performance standards, but there’s more to it than that when you sit down to make an assessment), how often, and what constitutes a reasonable standard to set as a meaningful but realistic goal.

For example: our kids are not doing fabulously on unit exams. It’s a real problem; the class averages float around 60-75%. The exams are standards-based but harder (I’m pretty sure) than the types of questions asked on the 8th grade ILS exam, which our students have done well on, sometimes very well. I personally believe it is through this level of day-to-day rigor that we over-prepare the kids and therefore don’t have to sweat the small stuff when it comes to test-anxiety, because most of our kids will get 3s and 4s, and the rest 2s, and none or nearly none 1s. So, in the past, our objectives were: (1) every kid meets or exceeds the standards on the ILS exam (lofty, but given that our first year we got 95%, not ridiculous) and (2) every kid completes a yearly science expo project that meets the standards for exit projects. Everything else we do is a step on the way towards meeting these goals.

But now, we need to add other objectives and benchmarks, I’m told. In light of all the above, we need to add some yearly checkpoints. This is not unreasonable, but does it belong in the CEP? I mean, we’re all giving yearly diagnostics and final exams, and we put that in there in another section, but besides that, don’t those unit exams count as benchmarks? Yes, but we have to set an objective. Okay, what’s a reasonable goal? The number of students achieving 80% or higher on unit exams will increase by 10%? What does that even mean? A teacher objects that this is a really pathetic goal, and it’s true. Not only is it a bit unclear how our unit exams align with the final test – and we don’t think that’s a major problem because we are being more rigorous than strictly necessary – but 10% improvement sounds sad.  Plus, I’m not sure we have the knowledge within the building of how to get that 10% improvement.  If I had it, my kids would be performing that much better already.  No one comes to see what we do and  make suggestions.  The PD provided for the FOSS kits was just to introduce them, not to fine-tune and push for greater success.  And the lines we’ve put in the CEP about professional memberships, publications, and PD are certainly not happening.  Where’s the accountability around that?  But, whatever, that’s not the conversation we’re having today, back to the objectives.  What about, 80% of students will achieve 80% or higher on lab reports? At least we can tie this to our scaffolding of lab report skills across the grade levels. We agree to it for the moment. What we really need is to sit down with people who can talk about these issues with us in a meaningful way, maybe look at the assessments we’re giving and help us make sense of how it all fits in with the city and state stuff, help us think through the shoulds of this situation… what is right if we really want to help kids? Not just what looks good or lets us check off another box on some bureaucrat’s list.

I can only express hope that this is the growing pains of a comparatively new process, that over the years it will stabilize into something where the expectations of schools are clear and reasonable, so that schools can build this sort of thinking into their longterm planning and development. But somehow, I’m not confident in this.

For the record, a consultant who works with our school and sees more of the administrative behind-the-scenes stuff DOES think that real growth is coming out of the process. So, that’s another thing kicking around in my brain as I try to resolve it all. I am never, never against pushing harder towards student achievement or asking people to change – but you’ve gotta make me believe in it first.


Filed under education, New York, teaching

An experiment you can only run once…

I’m stealing this video from Assorted Stuff, who, unlike me, has mastered the art of embedding video.  It’s some calm reasoning on climate change and risk management – not new, I had a college professor, Steven Schneider, who was all about this kind of analysis and that was 10 years ago – but worth watching and passing along.  Plus, the guy is pretty entertaining in a geeky way… and has five pounds of coal in a bag behind him.

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Filed under movies, politics, science

In which I post about science teaching…

I’m more about process and skills than facts, especially given that for many of my students, I’m really or practically their first science teacher, and I’d rather lay the foundation of skills to help them succeed in future science classes than pound their heads with details to memorize.  But I have to say, I’m a little horrified by the kiddies’ inability to memorize anything – I mean, there are some things you’ve just got to learn – life is not entirely free of memorization – and it’s such an uphill battle it’s ridiculous.  This week, I told them they had to learn six numbers by heart: human body temperature and the freezing and boiling points of water, in both Celsius and Fahrenheit.  I think these are good numbers for an educated person to know, and why not learn them now, while we’re studying temperature and weather?  But, oh boy, the quiz results were awful!  What they don’t know (yet) is that I’m going to give them those questions on a quiz again next week… and the week after… until they buckle down and stick the six numbers firmly in their brains.

It would probably be easier for them to remember if they had the experience of boiling water and measuring its temperature, but honestly at this point I’d rather they just put in the effort necessary to memorize from flashcards, given that they’ve been warned they need to know these things.  Sometimes I feel like above all, I’m trying to teach them some evolutionary skills that will keep them from being selected out of the educational pool: if that makes any sense as a metaphor.

Meanwhile, I’ve created a schedule and have two students from each class take a bag of weather instruments outside each day to record the temperature, air pressure, humidity, and more.  It’s only been a few days, and so far I would have to classify this as an unmitigated disaster.  The first day, a student ran up and jumped on her friend, who happened to be making observations at the time, and of course when she landed, she landed squarely on one of the two barometers, crushing and twisting it.  We had one day of more-or-less success, and then today, I got the bag back after lunch to find that the plastic lid had come off the thermometer – which would be fixable except that the metal ring that snaps over it was gone, along with the cap to the marker I’d put in the bag for them to write with.  I’m irritated with the kids because I don’t think it’s that hard to do this task without breaking or losing anything; I’m irritated with FOSS for giving us cheap instruments that break so easily.  I don’t have enough time to go outside with the kids everyday to make sure they are responsible, and since I’m not there, no one claims responsibility when things get lost or broken.  Grrr.

But it’s not all frustration; we did a fun experiment today, building a balance out of straws, then attaching two balloons and bursting one, to show that air has mass.  I thought it was too difficult to pull off with kids when we teachers struggled with it in FOSS training, but it turned out to work very well (the kids were supposed to design the balance idea themselves, which almost none could do, but once I showed them my set-up, they seemed to understand the concept well and enjoyed building it).

And we also started choosing topics for the science fair.  I gave them a list of about thirty questions to choose from, to make the fair more manageable and to ensure that they have testable questions.  In the past, I’ve had them come up with their own questions, but given this group’s extremely limited experience designing experiments, I think this will simplify things in a helpful way.  I’m  pretty excited about the whole thing!  If you live in NYC and want to be a judge and are not a crazy person or pedophile, please drop me a note in the comments and I’ll send you our judge recruitment email.  We need something like 20 judges, so I could really use some help (and most people I know are also teachers and can’t just take the day off to come to my school).


Filed under science, teaching

Two thoughts about food

1. I originally became vegetarian because of the horrendous environmental impact of large-scale production of meat.  Lately, I’ve strayed a little – though I still eat meat less than twice per month – but reading this article brought me back to my original commitment to vegetarianism:

To put the energy-using demand of meat production into easy-to-understand terms, Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at the Bard Center, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, calculated that if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the ultra-efficient Prius. Similarly, a study last year by the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan estimated that 2.2 pounds of beef is responsible for the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the average European car every 155 miles, and burns enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days.

Lots of my formerly veggie friends are eating meat now, many on the condition that it be free-range or organic or whatever.  I respect a wide range of food choices and will probably continue to be a little flexible at the edges of vegetarianism.  Still.  Wow.  Twenty percent: that’s six days of vegetarianism per month.  I’ve never expected everyone to share my choice, it’s more like a choice that’s easy enough for me to make that might inspire others to experiment a little with eating less meat.  The impact can be huge.

I wonder if any sort of equivalent study could be done around food packaging and processing.  If we all found ways to cut down on our intake of processed, plastic-wrapped food, even just a little, what difference might it make?

2. I made my first genoise cake tonight.  I’ve been dying to try the new cake book and invited some friends over for dinner.  I just whipped up the basic genoise and a simple lemon glaze.  Genoise is egg-based, not butter-based, and a hundred times lighter (and probably a lot healthier, since you get a whole cake from a couple of tablespoons of butter, a bunch of eggs,  a cup of flour and a half cup of sugar – compare to the cups of butter and sugar that go into butter cakes!).  Some of the steps seemed complicated but it was actually a simple, quick recipe, and the texture of the cake was so airy… The lemon glaze was a little too thin and ran over the sides too much, but otherwise, really good.  I forgot to take a picture.

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Filed under food

Wishlist (things, mostly)

triple sifter, oven thermometer, candy thermometer, metal mixing bowls, springform cake pans, this dress (the purple one), new shoe rack, poster frame, memoir/essay writing class at 92nd St. Y, guitar lessons, tickets to Paris, more gym clothes, a downtown apartment, someone to invest in my (hypothetical) (hip uptown) bakery, time, counter space, a great stereo, a wholesale organic flour supplier, more savings… *sigh*


Filed under confession, randomness


On my flight to San Francisco, I saw a kid carrying one of the much-blogged-about XO laptops of the One Laptop Per Child project. I’ve been skimming people’s posts about this project for, what, a year or two now, generally thinking that there are lots of things kids in developing countries probably need more than computers (safe water and affordable medicines come to mind), but then again, if these things are what they claim to be, and the project spreads worldwide, there’s real potential for a revolution in digital access.  And my other thought is, dang, my kids could really use these things; our four-times-as-expensive (at least) laptops are a mess after a year or two, require a full-time IT specialist whom we do not have money to hire, and are, at this point, rarely used and almost useless. Could the solution be a couple of crates full of these things? And yet another thought is, can a computer really be made tough enough to survive all the hazards of being used by kids (let alone being used by kids in less-than-ideal environments)? So here’s this six-year-old kid walking onto my flight with her mom, carrying her open laptop upside-down by its handle, and the thing just looked like when righted it would probably be okay, that she could drop it and it would probably be okay, that she could spill her juice on it and it would probably be okay. If only my laptop were that resilient. I think it’s also pretty cool that it comes with programming ability, that kids can make their own programs for it, they aren’t tied to what is already loaded.

This has nothing directly to do with the XO, but a half-hour later, the pilot was informing us over the intercom that we were delayed because a some program on the plane wasn’t working properly, and they couldn’t get the replacement program to download, and the technician was going to run to his office and bring it over on flashdrive to download manually onto the airplane’s computers. Well, maybe he didn’t actually say flashdrive, but reading between the lines, that’s what he was going home to get. I laughed, figuring it was a better response than completely freaking out that some important electronic system might be malfunctioning on my cross-country flight.


Filed under article, computer, education