Finding the "it" Factor in Teaching

There's something going on in education.  

I mean there is always something going on in education... new swings in curriculum and instructions are par for the course and to be expected.  With research and study, changes will be made to make things better.  No one in any profession is ever finished learning right?  Think of all moms and dads learn everyday about how to do our most important jobs at home better :)   

But lately - there is something else going on... and I haven't be able to put my finger on it until now.

Go back to school with me will you?

Imagine your favorite teacher, the one you learned the most from, the best teacher you ever had.

Did you know that teacher was good at his/her job on the first day of school?  The second?

My guess is you did.  

When you walk into the room of a teacher who has "it" you just know. 

You know it's going to be a good year.  
You know you're going to learn and that your interests will be valued.  
You know they are going to be a mix of strict but totally fair.  
You know they will care about you outside the classroom and inside the classroom as a student, but more importantly as a person.  

You know the teacher gets "it".

Policy makers today, not educators, are trying to quantify, duplicate, publish, and sell - "it".


What is "it"?

It's a long list... but think of your best teachers - you could make a list of what made them great right?

Good teaching
Good curriculum
Good instruction
Good communication
Good collaboration
Good sense of humor
Good classroom decorating
Ability to differentiate instruction 
Ability to come in before and after school for help
Ability to teach students hard things over the course of time

... could you add 50 more things? 40?  30?  Could you make a rubric or a checklist for how to do each one of those things?

You had teachers who had "it" but could you quantify "it"?  All of "it"? 
Measure "it"?  
Teach "it"?  
Collect data on "it"?  
Fit "it" into an evaluation rubric?

I totally get it.  I get why we try to quantify "it".

Are there bad teachers? Absolutely.

Are there good teachers that could be better? Absolutely.

Are there good teachers that over time get worse? Absolutely.

But in other fields, measurement of how well a job is done is much more easily quantified.  I bet you can still recognize "it" like you can in teaching - but you can also back it up with how much product you produce, or customer evaluations, or in most cases profits.  

In teaching... you have 25 different variables in the room every 45 minutes.  And these, I promise, are the very best kind of variables.  The ones who challenge you, teach you, show you how to be better... but they are variables.

So... with good intentions (I hope) people with lots more power than teachers (congressmen, senators, curriculum development companies, millionaires, presidents) have tried to quantify what a good teacher is.  

After quantifying it... they want to print it, duplicate it, sell it, mandate it... so that even teachers without "it" can do it.

They do this with similar curriculum, scripts, tests, and lots of measures to show students are learning.

I get it I do... there is pressure to PROVE students are learning.

Big pressure.
Pressure that comes with tons of $$ for schools who show it.
Pressure from rightfully concerned parents and community members.
Pressure from students who are in a global community of learners, competing for college spots, and jobs with students from all over.
Pressure from administrators trying to keep up with what their districts are doing... who are trying to keep up with what their states are doing... 

But... in the end... I just think we are trying desperately to quantify something that changes with our students every 45 minutes.

What is "it" for one group... might be totally different for another group.

So... what's to be done to improve my profession?  How can I get better at what I do?  How can I make sure I BRING "IT" every single day?! 

What makes ANYONE better at what they do?

Teamwork... with colleagues, administrators, and community members.  We have a common goal and common concerns right... success for students?

Collaboration with other teachers.  

Providing teachers who have "it" a seat at the table... or at a lot of tables actually... tables where curriculum is being developed, tests are being made, standards are being developed, evaluations are being produced.  Get good teachers there.  Ask them what works.  Ask them what doesn't.  Trust them.

Trust people who are focused on students.  Our trust should go first to groups whose interests center around supporting student learning.  Unfortunately... students aren't money makers... curriculum, testing, books... those are moneymakers.  If those are the endgame... perhaps they aren't the right people to trust with what makes good teachers for students.

Encourage teachers who have "it" to share "it" - to run professional development on their best practices, to observe colleagues and provide suggestions, to open up their own room to observations from others, to write articles on their best lessons and activities.

Keep focused on what is important, and try, really try, to let the rest go.  Education ebbs and flows... changes with administrations, budgets, natural disasters, research.  

Know that what is important, NEVER changes, students.  

They are here, everyday, so BRING "IT" teachers, if you lose "it", seek it out from your colleagues, brush up in a night class, observe your peers, and BRING "IT" BACK.  

And try to let the rest of it go.

Sight Word Helicopters

So D is in kindergarten, and in addition to his homework (which incidentally he LOVES #sorrynotsorry) we have to "study" his sight words... 

Seemed too boring for me.

SO.... we grabbed some cool paper and made helicopters.

On each side (that the helicopter could land on) we put one of the sight words... 

He drops the whole bunch from standing on top of a chair and then runs along them and tells which word he sees! 

WAY more fun than "studying" except... the same :) 

Here are some instructions for making helicopters.


The Blind Read

I know people are all... 
teachers are out to get my kid 
and they love the common core 
and are in the job for the fat paychecks 
and they want to destroy the love of learning
and they love tests and all... but despite the negative press... lots of us aren't... I promise!! 

Here is an example of a way to make paper writing silly, fun, and FAIR.

It's easy.

Instead of names... assign (or let them pick out of basket) aliases... 

Comic book villains
Pizza toppings 
Types of cars
Bruce Willis movies
Farm Animals...

The possibilities are endless :) 

Have the kids sign in on a class roster, and just put it in a folder until you're finished grading... 

Best part... writing your feedback to The Riddler ;) 
Happy Teaching! 


Organic, Homemixed, Non-Toxic, Pest Control

So in addition to planting my veggies among my pretty petunias, marigolds, and stinky herbs that bugs hate - I have needed an additional bug repellent this year.  My plants were covered in bugs, eating up the leaves and leaving my plants looking so sad.  Neem oil was recommended to me - and here is what I did! 

This was SO easy - and SO SO effective!  It is totally non-toxic and organic (depending on the products you choose).

I used:
1 and 1/2 tsp of Extra Virgin Neem Oil
1/4 tsp of soap (any soap you use is fine - you just need a tiny amount - I used some organic Ava hand soap)
24 oz of warm water
24 oz spray bottle 

You will need to shake it each time you use it, but spray your plants late in the evening or in the morning, leaves, stems, etc.  I did it right after a rain to ensure the oil wouldn't be immediately washed away... and have done it about once every 2 weeks since.  The neem oil smells a little like old potatoes and onions, but doesn't affect the produce.  Neem oil has lots of other uses too - so check out what else you can use it for!! 



A Word on Riding the School Bus

So... it's no secret.  My D is heading to kindergarten in the fall.  I am FREAKING out.  Will he make friends?  Will he like his school and teachers?  Will he end the year as eager to learn as he begins it?  Will he be crushed that it's not Farm School?  Will he be able to open a thermos by himself?  A granola bar wrapper?

As I sat in kindergarten orientation - all of these things rushed through my mind.

Something I didn't think about at all was taking the bus.  D has been excited to get on the bus since he could say the word - no bus-related anxiety here!  But, sitting there with 40 other parents, that was really everyone's biggest concern.  Sure there were questions about peanuts, and student teacher ratios, but most of the parental anxiety at kindergarten orientation was bus related.  The principal and assistant principal, in their kindest kindergarten voices, addressed each question with love and concern. They tried to ease the fears of all of the parents who are sending their babies on this 15 minute ride of terror in the fall.  Here is what I learned:
  • They physically put each kindergartener on the bus
  • They physically take each kindergartener off the bus and bring them to their classroom
  • Kindergarteners have all kinds of tags that they wear with all of their information: bus, address, blood type, etc ;)
  • Kindergarteners sit in a special area of the bus
  • NO ONE in elementary school can get off the bus if an adult isn't waiting for them (at the end of their driveway).
Phew.  All my fears were put to rest.

But I got to thinking... not that I am in the habit of leaving my kids (5 and 2) home alone... but might I be out back gardening? Upstairs changing a diaper?  In the bathroom?  Making cookies?  Trying to stay out of the rain?

NO ONE will be allowed off the bus without a parent at the end of the driveway.  No one.  They will bring those forgotten students back to school and call you to come and get them, supervised all the while.

What exactly is the fear?

Someone is going to kidnap this 5 year old (or 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 year old... the rule is good for the whole bus).

Isn't it more likely (just using facts and statistics here) - that a child is kidnapped/abused/etc by someone they know, a parent, you know, the type of person waiting at the end of the driveway... rather than some random person following the bus scooping up every drivewayparentless, latch key, 5 year old newbie? 

Just something to consider I guess.

PS - I loved being a latch key kid.  I walked from the bus stop to my house ALL the way down the road.  When there was no adult there waiting... the bus dropped us FARTHER from home (so they didn't have to make an extra turn.  When I was in high school, my bus dropped me off over a mile from my house.  One time, I forgot my house key, and my parents worked more than an hour away from home, and it was raining, so I broke a window to get in.  #nocellphones #neglected.



Polenta & Shrimp

It's summer! 

Time for seafood, outdoor eating, gardening and eating FRESH!  

Here in New England we are fortunate to find local wild seafood pretty regularly and today we enjoyed this not-so-traditional shrimp and (not grits) polenta recipe! We have parsley and chives in our garden... and local corn is only a few weeks away.

Shrimp & Polenta
We use organic and/or local ingredients – and you should too!
1 lb of uncooked wild shrimp
6 strips of bacon

1 cup of uncooked polenta 
3 cups of water/chicken stock

1.5 cups of shredded cheddar cheese
3 tbs butter
½ cup of half and half
Salt & Pepper to taste

Handful of chives
Handful of parsley
Juice of half of a lemon
Zest of one lemon

1 cup of fresh corn off the cob (raw)
Clean, de-vein, de-tail the shrimp and set aside.

Boil 3 cups of water.  I use water because we are already putting bacon and cheese all over this dish – so I don’t find the need to have the salted flavor of stock. When boiling add polenta.  Whisk FREQUENTLY – you don’t want it to get all gross and gluey.  While whisking polenta

Fry bacon until crisp and drain.  Set aside. Don’t throw away that delicious grease! We are cooking the shrimp in it!!

Chop chives, parsley and take corn off the cob.

When polenta (according to your instructions but mostly according to TASTE) is cooked, add cheese, half and half, salt and pepper.  Whisk every few minutes until it’s time to eat, but take it off the heat and just put it next to you.

Turn bacon pan back on med-high heat.  Fry the cleaned shrimp in the bacon grease.  DO NOT OVERCOOK.  Shrimp take about 1 minute on each side… if that!  By the time all the shrimp are in the pan it is time to start turning them.  As soon as they are opaque and pink get them out - hit them with some lemon juice and zest right away!

Assemble your pretty dish!  Polenta base, shrimp on top, and sprinkle the toppings all over.  Everyone loved this dish!




Why I'm Sticking with Organic...

You've seen the articles right?

The Tyranny of the Organic Mommy Mafia 

Organic Food is not Healthier than Conventional Produce

They have inflammatory titles and talk about me (and you perhaps) as though we are FORCING people to [voluntarily] purchase organic food - because we have been deluded to believe it is higher in vitamins than conventionally produced food.  I am presented as a mom who won't allow my child to parties or to school where NON ORGANIC food is served.  Get a grip on reality people.  Honestly, people are overestimating their importance. The mommy wars are a real blast, but for real?  

In order of preference here is how we acquire food to consume in our house:
1. we grow it and eat it fresh
2. we grow it and eat it canned
3. we purchase it from a local, farm, from a farmer we know, who uses sustainable and organic practices 
4. we purchase it organic from the store

In MOST cases we buy things with few ingredients (like 5-10) and only things we can pronounce..

These articles cite tests and studies that quite frankly aren't testing and studying what concerns me about conventional foods.  Here is why we will continue to eat organic foods in my house:

  • Our government has YET TO TEST the long term effects of GMOs in our food.  Europe won't allow it into their food, Kraft and other AMERICAN companies keep them out of our exports, why should we be subject to the unknown consequences of these UNTESTED changes to our food supply?  Organic food cannot have any GMO components.
  • Organic food is produced with stricter pesticide requirements and no synthetic fertilizers.
  • It tastes better.  Don't take my word for it - eat an organic strawberry and a conventional one.
  • Organically fed animals are more likely to be fed a diet that is natural to them (ie: grass fed beef).
  • No hormones.  None.
  • Because eating "natural" food means absolutely nothing according to our laws.
  • There are some unexplained changes that have occurred since our food supply has been messed with... sure they could have been caused by cell phones, or facebook, or video games or baby formula... but the increase in ADD, autism, obesity, food allergies, is pretty damning evidence that SOMETHING is going on with our bodies... how about going back to the basics of cooking from scratch, with ingredients you can pronounce, from your backyard if possible... can it HURT?  It is bothering anyone?
In short, organic food is produced closer to the way I produce food at my house, or my farmer produces food on her farm.  It tastes better.  That's why I'm eating it.  That's why my kids are eating it.

YOU, are free to do as you wish.  No mafia is coming after you, my kids will still go to birthday parties at your house, and you know what - I DON'T even think about it when we're out and away from home.  I work only on what I can control and let go of what I can't.  You should too - organic food or not.  

It's an offer I'm sure you can't refuse... {evil laugh here}



Candied Carrots

ENJOY these!  They were one of the best parts of Easter dinner and are always a hit around our house :) 

Candied Carrots
We use organic, fair trade, and or local ingredients
Peel and cut as many carrots** as you want/have (we LOVE the organic rainbow kind… but we are growing just plain old carrots in the garden)

3-5 tbs butter (the more carrots the more butter)

1 big tablespoon of honey (no matter how many carrots you have a heaping tablespoon should be enough – the carrots themselves, cooked slowly, are super sweet)

Optional (for those who are the sugaring type…) 1 tbs brown sugar mmmmmm.

Cut your carrots evenly and put into a sauce pan with butter and honey (and sugar).

Cook over low heat slowly with a cover… sometimes we cook them for more than an hour.

Enjoy.  They are sweet… almost like candy and they are a HUGE hit!  

**In this case you really NEED organic carrots.  They are sweeter than regular carrots… I don’t know the science behind it – but if you don’t believe me do a blind taste test…



In defense of Mom Jeans

Ahhh the weekend.

A time to dress down, get comfy, and paint my new skinny jeans on.

They SO IN.


They are

They squeeze, highlight my thighs, and cut off the circulation in my feet.

As I was trying to walk in them I really appreciated my coziest pair of mom jeans.  I got to thinking about the bad rap that Mom Jeans get when in reality, they might just be the best thing I own... I mean other than yoga pants.  

Mom Jeans...

  • Go high up, like way high, past your c-section scar. 
  • Are the ones that you could never tuck into a pair of ugg boots because they are so wide, cozy, and frayed at the bottom that they remind you of your husband's old corduroy jnco pants... from college... when skateboarding was more important than class.  
  • They ALWAYS match your fave pair of sneakers you found on discount at Costco.
  • NEVER reveal even your highest thong granny panties when you bend down to change a diaper.
  • Double as a dishtowel, blanket, tissue, paper towel, eraser, pot holder, while you're wearing them.
  • Have real pockets - not those sewn shut ones, the ones you can fill with thomas trains, binkies, snacks, and tissues - full pockets also emphasize our curves which is nice.
  • Are always the "in color" - they are never too white washed, too faded, too dark, or too yellowed to wear - because they match ANY men's t-shirt you could find.
  • Don't come with ANY fake - ready-cut holes in them, any holes that do develop can be patched with other old pairs of jeans.
  • Match your favorite applique holiday themed shirts (which match your flashing earrings and necklaces).
  • Can be beachwear!  Cut them at just below the knee for a comfy pair of cover-ups for your fave skirted one piece!
  • Go so high you can actually tuck your muffin top into them, sure is bulges out below the waistline... but with the right, super tight smoothing tank top, you will NEVER notice it under my huge sweater stained sweatshirt.
  • 3 words, "Modest is HOTTEST"
  • Double as maternity jeans for the first 1-7 months of your pregnancy
What's YOUR favorite thing about mom jeans?



Sinkers and Floaters

Another snow day?

Sick day?

Day inside?

Need some fast fun?!  Pick up some of the toys that are all over your my floor.  

Scatter them around a clear bowl of water.

Add in some household items that are in your junk drawer.

Let the kids experiment with what SINKS and what FLOATS!  
(FYI this is the extent of my scientific experimentation abilities...)

Sure to get you a free (yet messy and wet) 10 minutes - 2 hours! 

Stay busy! :) Happy experimenting! 



One Ingredient Maple Candy

Looking for something else to do with ALL that snow? How about some easy peasy maple candy?  No HFCS here!  No artificial colors or flavors... just 100% pure, organic, maple syrup :) 

So take some maple syrup (straight-up people - none of that Aunt Jemima Log Cabin crap) and put it in a sauce pan.

It helps to have a candy thermometer but you can also just watch the syrup.  When the bubbles change from frothy to stiff(er), from the middle picture to the right, OR the temp hits 230/235ish you're all set.  

Pour your hot candy syrup, in ribbon, over some packed snow in a bowl or pan.



Allow kids to play with snow all over table, floor, get everything sticky, and then complain that their mouth is stuck together with syrup candy :) you're making memories people! 

PS - brush teeth.  repeat.  x2.



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