Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Wednesday Culture: Thanksgiving Food

Regular posting will resume Monday.  Happy Thanksgiving!

In honor of turkey day and the feasting which is about to commence, let's take a look at some food!  I linked to this article from The New York Times yesterday, but it's too good not to link again:

The Thanksgiving Recipes Googled In Every State

(Also, can we take a moment and appreciate the fact that the NYT just verbed "Google"? Google has definitely arrived as a household name.)

Wondering why some foods are traditional? The Smithsonian has you covered:

Where did your favorite Thanksgiving Day food originate?

Perhaps you're worried about the astronauts in the ISS, far from turkey and pumpkin pie goodness.  Never fear:

Astronauts Celebrate Thanksgiving in Space

Or maybe you've always wanted to make pumpkin pie from scratch (i.e. a pumpkin):

Pumpkin Pie

Happy eating!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Monday Guest Post: Wisdom for Teaching NaNoWriMo

Today's guest post comes from Danina Garcia, a writer and middle school language arts teacher in Washington, D.C.  As a voracious reader herself, Ms. Garcia has a talent for developing enthusiasm for reading and writing in even the most reluctant of young readers.  Her curriculum materials can be viewed at has previously written on Reluctant Readers, How to Keep Boys Reading, and on Encouraging the Reluctant Reader.

I started National Novel Writing Month as a participant in 2008, about six months before my first part-time teaching job. By the time the next November rolled around, I decided that convincing a group of middle schoolers that they, too, could be really really bad novelists was a worthwhile endeavor. Although I was only teaching a weekend English class with kids who were already swamped with homework, they positively salivated at the idea of a month of intensive creative writing, and at least two students continued their drafts for years afterward into something that was actually novel-length, not merely the extended-short-stories I expected of fifth and sixth graders.

When I took a full time teaching job in the Maryland area in a school where I could control my own curriculum, I took a look at my eighth grade class and decided it was worth the risk. I’m currently in my fifth year of teaching NaNo, and my third in this school, and here’s what I’ve learned is necessary for success.

Actually, pause a minute. Let’s define “success.” “Winning” NaNoWriMo means hitting your word count goal -- a 50,000-word novel in 30 days for an adult, something less than that for a teenager. The Young Writers’ Program website of NaNoWriMo allows you to set your own word-count goal; I’ve typically set an ambitious one for my students and then reassessed in the final third of the month.

But to justify taking much of a month in a limited school-year schedule to engage in an extended creative writing spree, I need more than just “No, it’s going to be super fun!” as my justification. So I also define success as:

  • Students achieving a newfound sense of confidence in themselves as writers. According to post-class surveys, this has happened with most of my students every year.  
  • Students improving measurably on at least 2 or 3 specific writing skills -- punctuating dialogue, organizing paragraphs, creating imagery, etc. More on this later.
  • Students organizing their time wisely to complete punctually a massive project for which there can be no extensions. More on this later, too. 
  • Students producing at least some work that can be collected and published in a CreateSpace anthology and shared with later students.

I’ve learned in my years teaching that this level of success is feasible, but takes a lot of effort from the teacher...and most of that effort happens long before your kick-off party on November 1st. The basic prep work is pretty much done for you through NaNoWriMo’s fantastic Young Writers’ Workbooks (free downloads as pdfs on their website) and they will even send you a snazzy poster for your kiddos to track their burgeoning novellas. But the motivation and organization of the month rest squarely on you, the teacher. Done well, NaNo is a project that draws a class closer together and keeps kids talking for years; done poorly, it’s a miserable slog that damages your relationship with your students and wastes your last four reliable weeks of class-time before the disjointed headache of holidays and snowdays.

So here’s how I’ve learned to do it well. Or at least much, much better.

Step One: Build It Up

This is an absurd and quixotic endeavor, and the older your students, the more skeptical they will be. You always have a few budding novelists whose eyes light up at the prospect, but most students are wary, especially if they are your guinea pig class. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t have taught NaNoWriMo my first year at my current school as a part of my regular curriculum; I would have offered it as an after-school elective club and built the enthusiasm with my core of dedicated, passionate writers. Those few passionate students of two years ago are now writing their sequels and presenting me with inscribed copies of their CreateSpace-published works, and you’d better believe that having a few novels and anthologies authored by kids only a year or two older than them has raised the noveling interest in my current group. I would have saved myself and my kids significant headaches by making NaNo a voluntary gig my first year and adding it into the standard curriculum after word of mouth had done some of my persuading for me.

My current crop of novelists were also my students for sixth and seventh grade and saw the students ahead of them noveling, so some have been ruminating on “what will my novel be…” for a full two years. I introduce NaNoWriMo the first day of 8th grade to my students and bring it up at Back-To-School night for the parents as well. Their immediate reaction is always a mix of terror and excitement, but by the time mid-October rolls around and we start the hardcore prep they have a good idea of what they’re doing and why.

The why is also crucial in teaching NaNoWriMo. You must always be able to…

Step Two: Back It Up

The Young Writer’s Program website explains how NaNoWriMo supports Common Core and other state standards. With regular, constant feedback from you throughout the month of November, students’ writing improves measurably and clearly over the course of the month. (Google Docs, Google Classroom, or a similar platform that allows you to view and comment on students’ writing without having to do a big collect-all-the-notebooks or get-all-the-emails can be a lifesaver here, not least because it lets you do a few kids every day instead of scrambling to read 25 drafts in a weekend.) However, the benefits of NaNoWriMo go beyond basic writing skills.

Unlike most of the projects assigned in middle and early high school, it is literally not possible to do this the night before. Kids have to put in the time over a spread of days, especially if you are doing regular wordcount checks or (even better) peer edit sessions. Moreover, many of your students, just like adult NaNoers, won’t be able to write the prescribed number of words every single night because of sports, other assignments, family responsibilities, and so on. I remind my students frequently that this project is a preparation for high school and for college, and just like any long running project sometimes you’ll fall behind a day or so and then put in the extra time to catch up, and sometimes you’ll have to cut things out of your schedule that you’re used to, like the after-school TV time, for a few days to do that catch up. NaNoWriMo builds students’ endurance, time management and ability to plan ahead, all vital “soft skills” necessary for success in college and career.

Since the project is happening in process and since you are less concerned with specific content (as in an essay, for example), this is also a great place to identify and clean up those gaps in students’ basic writing knowledge. I always find a few students each year who just never grasped the proper use of the comma, or don’t know how to embed a dialogue tag in a conversation, or struggle with higher-level skills like the proper use of metaphor and the subtle use of foreshadowing. While NaNo is a rough draft and is allowed to, frankly, completely suck, I always pick two or three skills per student and push them to perfect that aspect of writing by the end of the month.

Students’ reading comprehension also gets a boost from NaNoWriMo; seeing fiction “from the other side” often makes it easier for them to identify things like characterization, imagery and foreshadowing in what they are reading, and reading each other’s drafts introduces them to new vocabulary in a nonthreatening way.

You’re still asking students to do a significant amount of work for something (a rough draft of a creative writing project) that may not strike your parents or administration as particularly worthwhile, so do you research and make your case for the value of this project before you start. This is another good reason to begin with a small, relatively low-risk group that you can offer as proof-of-concept. In my case, I didn’t work as hard to lay the ground as I should have my first year, and I found myself trying to articulate this project to a bemused principal, skeptical parents, and resentful other teachers who didn’t understand why I wanted some time in our limited computer lab almost every day for a whole month or why kids were complaining about other homework when they were also writing a novel. My second year involved a letter home to parents, a quick meeting with my principal, a brief presentation to the other middle school teachers, and an extended meeting with the computer teacher and tech support person. This year my students were given first crack at computer lab scheduling without question, I coordinated “check-ins” on novels with other teachers to make sure kids had time to handle their full academic workload, one teacher volunteered to host a “write-in” for them during parent-teacher conference day when I was busy, and the principal posted a photo of one previous novelist posing with her novel on the school’s Facebook page.

In short, you need to know the real academic reasons you are trying this project with your students, you might need to try it as a low-cost experiment first, and you need to be sure you have explained yourself to and gotten the support of parents, administration, other teachers, and whoever in your building controls access to the computer lab.

Of course, there will always be days when you can’t have students write in the lab, or days when you have other curriculum pieces that need to be covered, or days when you just know as a teacher that little creativity is present in the room. That takes me to the third part of a successful NaNoWriMo Middle School Month:

Step Three: Break It Up

Creative writing is fun work, but it is work. For students who may not be strong readers, it is really, really hard work, however thrilled they are to see their ideas taking shape on the page. Give yourself and the students some breaks over the course of the month. This is a good month for standardized test prep, grammar drills, punctuation review, study skills, and other small but vital skills that you can cover effectively in a day or two and that lend themselves to fun competitions, group work, or visual aids. Since NaNoWriMo is an 8th grade project in my K-8 school, I present it to my students as a last review of everything they should have learned about writing and reading in first through seventh grade, a refresher course before the final push into high school.

My first year I overestimated my students’ worries about sharing “imperfect” work and reassured them continually that “nobody sees this but me.” However, these are kids used to Twitter and Instagram and fairly immediate feedback from the world at large -- writing in isolation for 30 days was not their style. Last year and this year I had students do their work on Google Docs and left it open for them to share with each other, and allowed specific time once a week for feedback on specific topics of writing that we had covered. My students may appreciate my thoughtful comments on characterization and gentle reminders about paragraph indentation appearing on their drafts, but it’s a peer’s “OMG DID SHE REALLY JUST DO THAT!?!” that’s going to spur them to sit back down and keep writing even when there’s something good on TV.

Peers are also an important part of the final step of NaNoWriMo:

Step Four: Wrap It Up

NaNoWriMo is exhausting for teacher and students. It drives you hard through a busy month when the darkness comes early and the weather gets nasty. Depending on the calendar, students may need to finish their novels or at least do much of the final writing over Thanksgiving break, and once November 30th has come and gone, school schedules slide quickly into the craziness of December with concerts and food drives and the general chaos of kids approaching two weeks off. It can be very tempting to throw a party on December 1st and then call it a day.

Well, my class does do a pretty good Wrap-Up Party on December 1st (activities for free here: ), our cumulative final wordcount is posted in the main hall, and students wear their NaNoWriMo Winner! pins proudly for months to follow. If that’s all, though, students eventually feel that it was an enjoyable but wasted effort. It’s time to move on, but not completely. Build in some editing time, even just once a week. Work on revisions. Require at least one “perfect” chapter from each student for inclusion in a classroom anthology, and guide the students willing to revise the whole novel through the necessary steps for a published copy from whatever self-publishing companies are sponsoring NaNoWriMo this year. Most importantly, treat the students’ novels themselves as texts worthy of discussion. Pull examples of foreshadowing, dramatic irony, dynamic characters, or whatever other literary devices you want to discuss from their work as well as the class texts. Encourage them to remember what it felt like to be the author the next time you want them to analyze mood or deconstruct a chapter. With enough work, a NaNoWriMo unit isn’t just a fun way to pass a dreary November -- it can permanently alter your students’ understanding of their own relationship to the written word.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Friday Life Guest Post: Spicy Caramelized Leek Potato Soup with Baked Chickpeas

Today's post comes to us from Windwhistler, a rambler, itinerant bodhrán performer, and occasional wilderness experiential educator. She enjoys good people, good conversation, and, as you'll see, good food.

Spicy Caramelized Leek Potato Soup with Baked Chickpeas

One of the blessings of a Northwest Summer is the abundance of fresh produce, vibrant both in color and taste. Inevitably one discovers an abundance of a fruit or vegetable they cannot hope to use before it spoils, and begins pawning zucchini, tomatoes, chilies and apples onto their friends, family, and complete strangers. Two months ago I helped a man look for his keys in the parking lot, and gave him four jalapeños for my trouble. All this to say that I had been given a bag of produce involving six leeks, four golden potatoes and a bag of fresh Thai chilies. Seeing as I’d been craving potato-leek soup for about a year, I made the most delicious Spicy Caramelized Leek Potato Soup with Spicy Baked Chickpeas that I’ve ever had. It was delightfully spicy, with a little sweetness and hearty, rich flavors. I served it to my roommate, my sister and brother-in-law, and my boyfriend, and it was a spectacular taste bud sensation! A couple of disclaimers before we dive into the soup and splash around:

First, I’ve always wanted to make chili oil, so I tried it. I’m not going to bother you with the recipe, though, because even though the oil is spicier than when I started, I know I didn’t do it right. I am sure that someone in the world knows better than I do about making chili oil, so I would only lead you astray. Godspeed.

Second, and most importantly, I’ve never made this kind of soup before and so I went in search of inspiration. I drew heavily from a recipe for Creamy Caramelized Leek Soup with Maple Glazed Bacon from How Sweet It Is: (You should make that too, it looks delicious! And then invite me for dinner.) Although I love bacon, I refuse to cook it myself. I like baked chickpeas, so I substituted that for bacon (yes, yes, I know it’s not the same, stop grumbling) and I added my golden potatoes, because I wanted a thicker, potato-ey soup.

On to the recipe!


Garlic Bulbs: 4 small, or 2 large

Olive Oil

Potatoes: 2 large golden

Chili Oil


Leeks: 6 small, 4 large

Brown sugar



Crushed red pepper

Dry white wine*: 1/3 cup

Chicken or veggie stock**: 4 ½ -5 ½ c

Half and Half: 2/3 c

Chickpeas: 1 10-oz can

Cayenne powder


*Don’t cook with a wine that you wouldn’t drink yourself. Find a nice bottle of dry white wine you are excited about, offer 1/3 cup to the Powers That Be (by way of the recipe), and drink the rest ☺

** The original recipe called for 4c of broth, but since I added the potatoes, you’ll want to add a little more liquid to offset the potatoes, depending on how thick you want it.

1) Roast the garlic! Oh my goodness, roast the garlic! (I just got on this bandwagon, and I’m so in love!) If you don’t know how to do it, start by preheating the oven to 450˚. Take a bulb of garlic and remove the papery layers that might fall off anyway. You want to keep the last couple layers that hold everything together. Next, chop the top off, so the tops of the cloves are exposed. I roasted 4 small bulbs, so 1-2 large bulbs would cover it. Drizzle olive oil over the cloves, and wrap each bulb completely in tinfoil. Stick in the oven and roast for 45 mins.

2) Boil potatoes until tender. Everything’s getting pureed, so 2-in cubes are fine. I used 2 large golden potatoes. Drain and set aside.

3) While potatoes are boiling, clean all the dirt from the leaks really, really well! Dry them as much as possible. Chop them into 1/8-inch half-circles

4) Heat olive oil, chili oil, and butter. At least 2 tablespoons of butter, and maybe 1 tablespoon of the other oils. This is a forgiving recipe, so do what you want. But the butter is key. Keep the heat med-low, so you don’t burn the butter or the leeks.

5) Add the leaks, salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper, and toss well to coat everything. Let the leeks brown for 20-25 minutes. Add a few teaspoons of brown sugar, toss again to coat the leeks, and caramelize for about 10 mins. Again, make sure the heat is low enough so it doesn’t burn. Add the wine, increase the heat, and cook until the wine cooks off.

6) Add stock and potatoes to the leeks. Bring to a boil and lower heat to simmer for 15 mins.

7) Roast the chickpeas: Heat oven to 350˚. In a bowl, add olive oil, chili oil, cayenne powder, and a little honey (maybe a teaspoon). Drain and rinse chickpeas, and then add to bowl. Coat the chickpeas well and spread onto a baking sheet. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until the chickpeas are a nice golden brown (darker than when they started).

8) Puree soup in a blender, or with a hand-held immersion blender. Return to pot, turn heat to low, and add half and half and season to taste (I had to add a little more salt, and of course a healthy dose of fresh-ground pepper, since my favorite thing about eating potatoes is to use them as a vehicle for fresh pepper, mmmmm).

9) Serve! I let people add their own chickpeas, and I had extra chilies for people to make it spicier if they chose. It was a lovely meal filled with good food, good companionship, and good wine. If only I had thought to take pictures…

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Wednesday Culture: Flutronix

It's Wednesday and I'm in the midst of getting caught up on word count, so for your NaNo inspiration, here are a couple of flute videos!  Both feature eclectic duo Flutronix, to whom I was recently introduced, and if you're in the flute world be sure to check out their videos with Carol Wincenc and Gary Schocker.

For everyone else, Sweet Dreams!

And Stacked:

Monday, November 17, 2014

Monday Writing: NaNoWriMo Week Three

NaNoWriMo Day: 17
Goal word count: 28,339
Actual word count: sad trombone

It has not been a week conducive to writing.  I haven't added up my actual word count from the belief that if I don't know, I can't get discouraged, but I estimate that I'm anywhere from 10k - 15k behind at this point.  Yikes.  This is without doubt the largest shortfall I've ever had in NaNo, and probably goes to show why you shouldn't try NaNo when you have other deadlines that must be met.

However, I still have two solid weeks (and Thanksgiving holiday!) to get caught up and I haven't lost hope.  Sure, 28k is a lofty goal, and I'm certainly not going to make up the shortfall in one day, but over a week I'm pretty sure I can catch up.  I ran into a little trouble with the sci-fi but now I'm back on track, and the hardboiled just needs a new section set up.  Is it too ambition to try to finish the hardboiled by the end of this week?  I originally wanted to write four short stories (hah hah) but it would be nice if I could at least get in two.

How is your wordcount?  Are you ahead or behind? 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Friday Life: Cornmeal Mush

In the winter, Malt o'Meal was the hot cereal of choice when I was little.  There's something comforting about a hot, creamy porridge, and I always preferred Malt o'Meal (or Cream of Wheat) to its cousin oatmeal.  When I was in Senegal, we had a sweetened millet porridge that reminded me strongly of my childhood breakfasts.

But woman cannot live on Malt o'Meal alone, and sometimes, on special occasions (or perhaps just when my mom felt like it) we would get cornmeal mush.  Such a delicious food with such an unappealing name, mush is an old dish.  Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about eating it under the name "hasty pudding" and it shares antecedents with grits and hush puppies.  Mush is quick and easy to make, can be eaten hot or cold (hot is better) and makes a delicious treat for those cold school day mornings.

Cornmeal Mush (aka Hasty Pudding)

1 c cornmeal
½ tsp salt
1 c hot milk
1 level Tb flour

Heat liquid to boiling. Combine dry ingredients and moisten with water (make it fairly thin.) Stir into the boiling milk, until it boils a few minutes. It will be fairly thick. Drop by spoonful (I use a cookie scoop) into skillet with hot oil, flatten, and sprinkle flour over the top. It will brown much quicker than cold sliced mush.  Serve with maple syrup and milk.

Happy Friday!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Alternate Histories: "Great Man" vs. "Currents and Forces"

by contributing blogger Alex Peterson

I often amuse myself and bug my wife by wondering how history would be different had different paths had been chosen. What would have happened if Harald Jager hadn't let East Germans through the Berlin Wall twenty-five years ago, signaling the fall of East Germany? Or what about if Archduke Franz Ferdinand survived the botched assassination attempt that started WWI? Or if Simon Bolivar had not lost his parents, would he still be known as "The Liberator" of South America? While these are fun thought experiments, they belie a simplistic interpretation of history that often traps us into overvaluing the importance of the individual. If you can spare ten minutes, read on to learn more about the "great man" and "currents and forces" theses, and just what the hell historiography means.

Last week celebrated the Fall of the Berlin Wall, a fortified border separating West and communist East Berlin. Over a hundred Easterners ("Ossis") were shot trying to escape East Germany over the wall and thousands were caught by the guards and razor wire. In 1989, an overwhelmed secret police officer, Harald Jäger, opened his gate and allowed free transit between the two parts for the first time since 1961. Within a year Germany had re-unified following the outpouring of joy on that November evening. It's easy to intuit that therefore Harald Jäger was responsible for a re-unified Germany. It's also wrong. Mr. Jäger was allowed to make his choice because a local politician misspoke on television. That politician was in the dark because the policymakers were new in their jobs and couldn't co-ordinate their messages. While Mr. Jäger did have a positive impact on the re-unification of Germany, he wasn't the driving force of it.

The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was a joke. His bodyguards didn't have good maps of the city, and couldn't plot a safe route away from the first attack. The heir to the ancient Austrian Empire overruled his bodyguards' attempt to whisk him from the city in favor of getting a sandwich. His car couldn't turn around when Gavrilo Princep recognized him and was unable to motor the noble and his wife away from the fatal gunshots. It doesn't take much to imagine a scenario where he could have survived. Even in such a scenario, though, it is likely that WWI would still have happened. Ethnic minorities in large empires (Russia, Austria, Germany) still wanted independence. The deep current of jingoism would still have poisoned the diplomacy of the era as well as the system of secret alliances. While some features of modern life would be different, the horrors of WWI would impact us in roughly the same way.

Simón Bolívar was a fantabulous man. He spearheaded a movement to free not just his country, but his entire continent. From 1810-1830 he broke the Spanish colonial empire and led many of the successor countries towards just, lawful countries. Part of his motivation was that he lost his aristocratic parents early on in his life and found a wise tutor who taught him according to the principals of the French (and American) Revolution: freedom and equality. But even if the Liberator had not grown up as he did, it was clear that Spanish rule on South America was failing. Taxes were down, corruption was rampant, the legal system was inadequate, Spain was occupied and conspiracies for independence abounded. With or without Bolívar Spanish rule over South America was doomed.

Each of the three "what ifs" explore the historical thesis of the "great man." History, up until about the 20th century, centered around exploring choices people made. The earliest histories, such as Gilgamesh, the Iliad & Odyssey, and the Bible, focus on individuals interacting with each other and their effects on the world. The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica put the history of the 5th-8th Centuries in the biography of Attila the Hun, under the reasoning that it was his choices that destroyed the Western Roman Empire. Around that time, though, historians began to challenge how history was portrayed. Historians studying writings of less celebrated ancients began analyzing how societies developed and interacted on a large scale instead of just how their rules did. These "new historians" developed the idea that the "great men" and the choices they made were impacted by their societies and that this aspect of history was neglected.

The early portion of "new history" concentrated on social, political, economic and technological developments on humans. Individual events were analyzed on the context of what else was happening, eventually called the "currents and forces" approach. This approach to history is now the standard practice among professionals (though victim to specialization: cultural history, history of science, history of ideas, political history, sociology, Marxist history, etc.). The new cutting edge of history is historiography: the study of how we remember the past. This approach to research tries to analyze how people lived when they were writing histories of the even further past.

In the past, historians thought of history as a simple chain of causes and effects related to human choice. Paris absconds with Helen and offends Agamemnon, setting the stage for Achilles to slay Hector and Odysseus' attempt to return home. More recent historians tried to tease out details about life for the unnamed characters in the epic war: the slaves, those left at home, the tribes surrounding Troy (which German archeologists found in modern-day Turkey), how the political system of the time allowed Agamemnon to raise so large an army. Modern historians may research such questions too, but also explore how 18th and 19th century fascination with heroic culture related to their culture of militaristic imperialism. Who knows what historians of tomorrow will study?