Monday, December 29, 2008

Still Life with Cookies

Sarah and I love our desserts. And we love the New York Times. So when the NYT came out with a recipe for the "perfect" chocolate chip cookie, we really had no other option than to take on the baking challenge.

Aside from the fact that perfection is no easy task in general, the NYT likes to make things difficult (difficulty always increases the levels of erudition). No cracker-toffee recipes there. So just in case you haven't read over the recipe yet, I'd like to point out that it not only requires fancy (and expensive) chocolate, but two kinds of flour (neither of which is all-purpose) and coarse salt. These just aren't ingredients we have in our pantry. Even worse, there is a 24-hour chilling time, so you lose out on the instant gratification aspect of chocolate cookies that comes from a 10-minute baking time. Can these cookies really be perfect if there's no melted chocolate by the time I'm done licking the beaters and doing the dishes?

The answer is yes.

They were the perfect combination of a crunchy crispy outside shell, with warm gooiness on the inside. 70% cacao does make a difference, especially when melty. Very much worth the time.

As a side note, however, they only had this godlike quality when fresh out of the oven. The extras that we made and didn't eat until the next day were still good, but had lost the crunchy/chewy dichotomy. They tasted more like regular cookies that one might make with all-purpose flour and Toll-House chocolate chips. The good news is that we froze some of the dough, and the freshly baked cookies from that batch were as good as the originals. Lesson learned: only bake a few cookies at a time (or eat a lot of cookies at a time).

If you're interested in trying the recipe yourself (because you probably have cake flour and bread flour that you need to use up), I highly recommend pairing the recipe with the instructions from Baker's Banter, one of my favorite baking blogs. They have interesting commentary, as well as step-by-step pictures so you know if you're doing it right.

In the end, the cookies can really only be described as works of art. So here we present to you "Still Life with Cookies." Original painting coming soon, so start deciding on your auction price.


(You may be wondering why this recipe was posted in July and I'm writing at about it at nearly six months later. The answer is that I'm pretty behind on everything in life, blog posts included. So expect a lot of miscellaneous pictures to show up in the next week or so. Or maybe never.)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Minds of Urban Youth

In Algebra we're working on multiple representations of linear equations and the kids are nearing the end of the unit, so they're pretty skilled with it. Most can go from any representation (graph, t-table, equation, or situation) to any other without any steps in between. I'm very proud of them.

Today they were working on a team challenge where part of the question was to come up with a situation that could be described by graph/t-table/equation they already had found. One group got the first part of the problem pretty easily, but got completely stuck when they were trying to make up a situation. I talked to them about what we mean by situation (real-life example) and reminded them of the situations we've been looking at over the past few days (mostly bank accounts that earn or lose money). They were still stuck, I think because they were trying to figure out what the negative x-values could mean in a real-life situation.

Then a lightbulb went off in Y.'s head. "I've got it! Chickens!" Her teammates looked as confused as I was until she continued, "A chicken lays four eggs every day and..." the other students seemed like it had suddenly clicked for them too. So I walked away. The situation they came up with definitely made worked, but really egg-laying chickens was the first thing they came up with? If this is what's on the minds of urban youth, I feel like I should throw out everything I've ever thought about culturally relevant pedagogy.

Disappointed; Still Hopeful

I don't know much about this Arne Duncan guy (and there are certain people who I'm very thankful that's not). But when I heard the announcement that the new Secretary of Education is someone other than Linda Darling-Hammond, I felt like someone had punched me in the face. It actually felt like a personal insult. I got that feeling you get when someone breaks up with you. What's wrong with me?

As cheesy as it sounds, this is the first time I've actually believed in and trusted the people (okay, maybe just person so far) in power, so it feels that much worse to be let down. Is every bad decision Obama makes over the next four (eight?) years going to affect me so personally? Is he going to shatter any faith I have in public servants if he's anything less than perfect (which he obviously will be). It's like the fairy tale is coming to life, but now the reality sets in. President-elect Obama, please don't break my heart.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Get Out of My Head

Yesterday my geometry students were whining (again) that I am making them do too much work. Specifically, they're going to be doing a Problem of the Week (POW), which involves not only solving a difficult problem, but doing a fairly extensive write-up about how they solved it. It's a lot of work, but it's not unmanageable, and I'm giving them a week to do it. When we did the last POW, only about a third of the class turned one in, and since they're worth the equivalent of five homeworks, it made a big impact on their grades.

So in all their whining yesterday, they said that I shouldn't assign the new POW because a lot of them just aren't going to do it. I replied that that's their choice, but that it will have the same negative impact on their grade. I reminded them that we're spending the entire 90 minutes on it on Friday, so they'll have a lot of time to get help, etc. T. yelled out, "You're going to make us all fail." Um, no. Me assigning work doesn't make you fail; you not doing the work I assign makes you fail. Then E. somehow knew the exact words to push my buttons: "That's going to make you look bad, to have so many students fail. You're going to be embarrassed. And as a first year teacher too!"

Thanks, E. Thank you for knowing exactly what I'm thinking and voicing it so publicly. My obvious reaction was to lie and say that I didn't feel bad explaining to other people that my students got F's because they didn't turn in major assignments. Lying seems to be an important weapon in my teacher arsenal, especially when kids are being obnoxious. I told my second block yesterday that no, I was not about to cry, I was turning red because I was getting frustrated with them. How do they know the exact things that will drive me craziest?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Mine's Better

Over the break I bought Michigan and Stanford pennants to put up in my classroom. College-going culture, blah, blah, blah, they look cute.

Today in the middle of class when I was giving instructions (when else?), N. pointed to the wall and yelled out, "I'm mad that you have that up there!"
Me (and 1/4 the kids in the class): "Have what? Where?"
N: "That Stanford flag."
Me (and half the kids in the class): "Why?"
[Here I'm expecting him to say that he's a Cal fan or something like that]
N: "Because I have one"
Me (and about 3/4 of the kids in the class): "And?"
N: "I had one first."
Me (and now pretty much the whole class): "And?"
N: "Actually I have two."

N. is totally that six-year old who finds out that his friend has the new G.I. Joe and has to make sure that everyone knows that he has twenty G.I. Joes and the new G.I. Joe dream house and everything's special edition so nobody else can ever get it, ever.

At least the rest of my class has matured beyond age six and is now averaging closer to eleven.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

San Franciscans: R Crazy

I'm glad I'm not voting in San Francisco. I would be seriously annoyed if I felt like someone thought I should spend any time even considering Proposal R. On the other hand, it is totally worth your time to read the arguments. One would think that the haiku alone would be enough to convince voters, but I guess they really needed five printed pages worth of "information."

To quote one of my native-born San Franciscan friends, "I think that if other people knew what goes on here, they'd expel us from the country."

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Outside my Window

While I was grading papers today after school, there was a maintenance guy coming in an out of my room trying to get my wireless connection set up. I had my back to the window, so when Maintenance Guy and exclaimed, "What is going on?!" I had no idea what he was talking about. I turned around and there, about 20 feet outside my window was a police officer standing behind a tree, pointing a gun at a car. He wasn't the only one. There were a whole bunch of officers in various places, with at least four pointing guns toward this car. A guy got out of the car with his hands up, and slowly walked backward toward the group of police, where they handcuffed him and put him in the back of one of cop cars. Guns never flinching, this repeated with the other two passengers. Then the police, still pointing their guns, searched the car, but appeared to find nothing of interest. There was a lot of discussion by the police, an ID check of at least one guy, and a lot of car searching (although no dogs involved). After about 30 minutes, the police opened up the cop cars, uncuffed at least two of the guys (I'd gone back to grading by this point, so I'm not sure if the third was released), who got back in their car and drove away.

I don't really know how to feel about all of this. I'm pretty sure that the guys who were driving the car were not our students (they looked too old, and our principal stayed out of it), but there's no reason to think that they're not connected to the school in some way, whether as alumni, through a sibling, etc. Even if they have no direct connection, having guns drawn on campus--at a time when a lot of students were still around--doesn't help the already hostile environment we're feeling on our campus this year (more on that later). All I can really feel right now is unfairness. Unfairness that some students couldn't walk home today because there were guns pointed as they walked out the door. Unfairness that this probably wouldn't be an unfamiliar sight to many of my students. Unfairness that everyone who drove past saw a slew of police cars in front of a school that already has a reputation for being "ghetto" and unsafe. Unfairness that these were three Latino guys being pulled over by 10+ white police. Unfairness that this is something I even have to think about when I'm trying to focus on my students' learning. Even more unfairness that this is something my students have to think about when they're trying to focus on just being teenagers.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Adventures in Phonetics

Right now we're working on big proportional reasoning projects. One option is about figuring out how many pennies a giant cockroach could carry if it were human-sized. (Yes, we do have live cockroaches that we lasso and attach to a cup full of pennies, but that's another story). The project is pretty writing-intensive, which can be a challenge especially for my ELL students. One piece of this is spelling. Although I don't mark students down for spelling mistakes, sometimes they can lead to misunderstandings of what idea the student was trying to convey.

A., who is nothing but a sweetheart, was working on the cockroach problem by making a t-table. We talked about how she should label the columns, and decided that one should say "pennies." But the combination of her poor spelling and her rushing to finish the problem led her to leave out an 'n' and the second 'e'.


Thursday, October 02, 2008

Disproportionately Awesome

Right now in Algebra we're working on proportional reasoning and the various strategies one can use to solve a proportional reasoning problem. On Friday and Monday, groups wrote their own proportional reasoning problem and then displayed the different ways they could solve it. Here are the highlights:

This group was having trouble coming up with a problem, so I asked them what kinds of things they're interested in. One kid said "shopping." That's easy--there are lots of things you can do with proportions and shopping. "Okay, so what about shopping?" I asked. "Like how much something might cost?" They chose another approach.

In this group, they didn't have much trouble coming up with their problem, but they started out with a given that Yesenia has three boyfriends in one month. I encouraged them to pick more difficult numbers than one. They said three months, so I asked, "So how many boyfriends would she have in three months? Five maybe?" "Oh, no!" one girl responded. "That's definitely not enough boyfriends in three months." My favorite part of this poster is that the points on the graph aren't just points, but hearts. "Because it's about my boyfriends."

Sometimes Good Things Happen

On Tuesday, there were two good teaching moments:

1. E., one of my geometry students stopped by after school to get work that she was missing. I can't remember what led to her comment, but out of nowhere she said, "Ms. L., you're my kind of teacher."

2. I., an algebra student, was sick on Friday when we took our first test. She took it on Monday after school and I made her stay until she'd answered every single question. When I gave it back to her on Tuesday, she broke into a huge smile--she got a 74/75. Unfortunately I wouldn't let her take it home, but she took a picture with her phone to send to her dad. So cute. Even better, as she was walking out, another teacher overheard her saying, "That's the highest grade I've ever gotten on a test!"

Of course this all happened on the same day that kids were stuffing each other into a giant backpack and screaming about cockroaches, but I'll take what I can get.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Four-Week Reflection

On Friday, I had my two algebra classes reflect (individually) on how the first month of class has gone. The feedback was interesting and surprisingly different between the two classes.

From my sheltered class (all English language learners):
"I like it when we learn by working as a group because every one knows something what someone might not. It's hard for me when we learn by individual because we don't know everything."
"One new thing Ive learned is 2 be more loud, graph, not to be shy :) Thanx u"
"One new thing I've learned is to work the rest of the people of the group without being shy."
"I like it when we learn by groups because we get more ideas of how to solve something. It's hard for me when we learn by individuals because I can't get ideas from others."
"One new thing I've learned is working with a team"
"One new thing I've learned is that i noe algebra bruh"
"I like it when we learn by presenting things because we get to learn people's ideas."
"One new thing I've learned is how not to be shy to do preseteations"

From my mainstream algebra class (not English Language Learners):
"It's hard for me when we learn by talking in groups about homework because we don't always agree on answers and it creates arguments."
"I like it when we learn by whole class discussions because we all have different ideas and when we hear everyone thought it helps us all in a way."
"One new thing I've learned is nothing! I already knew everything."
"I like it when we learn by ourselfs because it's light weight challenging"
"I like it when we learn by working in groups because it feels like I am not by myself."
"I like it when we learn by presenting projects because it's cool to see different ways to do stuff."
"It's hard for me when we learn by working all together because people are talking very loud and I can't understand some of the stuff."
"I like it when we learn by individual work because I learn my way so I learn faster and better."
"I'm unclear about why we only work at our groups. I need help understanding why you don't give lessons."
"One thing I've learned is that we all have to work as a group. One thing I already knew but I've gotten better at is getting along with others."
"It's hard for me when we learn by group projects because I've always been an independent worker."
On the reflection I put a list of "ways we've learned together" so far and asked students to put smiley faces next to things that helped then and sad faces by things that make it difficult for them. One student put frowns by everything.

Thanks for the feedback. Maybe a good teaching would take this feedback and interpret that I need to be giving more direct instruction to my mainstream students. They want a teacher who lectures with example problems and sends them on their way? I can do that. But I'm not going to. I feel my challenge is not how to adapt to being the kind of teacher they think they need, but how to adapt them to my being the kind of teacher I think they need.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Day 1

About 20 minutes before the end of my first block, Y. called me over:
"Ms. L. do you like me?"
Me: "Yeah!"
Y: "Really?"

At least I know they're not afraid to ask questions or speak their minds.

(Block 2 (Geometry): Nobody threw a chair at the wall. Success.)

Sunday, August 24, 2008

A Room of One's Own

Here's a cute story:
Last year I came to visit the school where I'm working (the one with the bad interview, if anyone was wondering (it wasn't actually as bad as I made it out to be, but it made for a funnier story when it sounded that bad)), I was observing in an algebra classroom and talking to some of the kids. One boy asked if I was a teacher there and I told him no, but I hoped to be. He asked me if I'd seen all the construction they were doing, and suggested that maybe I could have one of those rooms. Awwww, see how sweet the kids are at my school?

Fast forward to last week; our department chair informed me that I would in fact be in one of the new rooms, F-4. Unfortunately, there was a small downside: they wouldn't be ready until Friday morning. That's Friday as in three days before the first day of school. That was fine, though, because I was busy with so much other training and orientation stuff. And then we actually were able to get in late Thursday afternoon.

My room was beautiful. Windows all along the back wall, cabinets and bookshelves lining another, and whiteboards covering the remaining two. Or at least there would be whiteboards at some point. There was even a place to hang a projector from the ceiling and plugs all over the floor. There was also a lot of STUFF. I got passed down all the stuff from a teacher who had left, and since he'd been in a portable with no built-in storage, I had three large cabinets, a decent-sized bookshelf, and about four filing cabinets along with all the tables, chairs, etc. I could barely walk around. Still, this was all okay because the school had hired movers to finish the furniture situations, so it would be removed. I started to separate the furniture I wanted from what I didn't, and discovered that none of the filing cabinets--or even some of the big storage cabinets had been cleaned out. As a result, I now have a hot dog cooker, a chess set, and some prayer candles in my backseat waiting for a trip to Goodwill. I learned a lot about this departed teacher that I had never been curious about. By the time I left on Friday, I had separated, unpacked, and stored pretty much everything I wanted to keep. The excess furniture was still in the room and there were no whiteboards or bulletin boards, but I went home, fell asleep, and was pumped to really get everything settled on Saturday.

I got to school, envisioning a classroom I could start arranging and mentally decorating the walls. As I was getting out of my car, my phone rang. "Hi, this is Sarah from the English department? So... I was in F-6, but since my journalism class needs to use the laptops everyday, I was actually supposed to be in the room with all the plugs. So we need to switch rooms." Luckily, my colleagues are all fantastic, and all the other teachers who were there pitched in to get the rooms switched. Four hours later, I was at the point where I'd been when I left on Friday. And I still had no bulletin boards, and somewhere in all of this I needed to do some curriculum planning with other people.

By the time I left school at 8pm on Sunday night, my room was to the place where students could come (thank god, since they were showing up in less than 12 hours), and I was ready as I'd ever be to start the year completely exhausted.

All my fun borders and posters will go up someday, I swear.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Let the Anxiety Begin

All summer long, my friends have been busy doing things like planning curriculum, shopping for their classrooms, and generally getting ready for the upcoming year. Me? Not so much. It worked out well for my procrastination that I didn't know what classes I was teaching or even if I'd have a classroom. However, it turns out there's a downside to shirking responsibility for two months. All the freaking out that my friends have been experiencing all summer long has been condensed for me into two short weeks (this is not to imply that all freak outs will cease as of August 25, but that the nature of said freak outs will change after my first day of teaching).

Last week was "Algebra Week," when my department spends five straight days tweaking the algebra 1 sequence. As soon as the department chair told me on Monday morning what I'd be teaching, the anxiety surged through me to the the point of psychosomatic reactions. At one point on Monday, I looked down at my hand to find it shaking uncontrollably.

On Wednesday, I met with the Geometry team and one thing the veteran teachers mentioned was to be explicit with the students that this will be a more intense course than algebra was, with a faster-paced curriculum that includes nightly homework. On Wednesday night, I had my first teaching dream of the new school year. It was the first day of school, near the end of my geometry class. I was trying really hard to use positive classroom management techniques (even though in real life they'd told me that classroom management would be much less of a concern in Geometry), but there were a few boy who were being obnoxious. I passed out the first homework assignment, and when I told the kids that about the increased homework load, one boy threw a chair at the wall. I snapped and yelled at him to get out, complete with a grand sweep of my arm and a finger pointing to the door. So much for positive classroom management.

In case that dream wasn't haunting enough, on Friday a conversation came up about when teachers had had to break up fights at school. One of my colleagues mentioned a teacher who had to break up a fight on the very first day of school--because a student threw a chair at the wall. Good lord. I do not like the precedent/premonition that this is setting.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Border Crossing

Bjorn and my plan was simple: there was a bus direct from San Jose to Managua that would leave early Wednesday morning. We'd get in around two or three, find a hostel, and bum around for the next few days. We had passports, credit cards, and a Lonely Planet, which long ago I decided is all you really need. Upon reflection, it's clear that this conclusion was made while traveling in a first-world nation.

We hit our first obstacle upon arrival at the TicaBus station where we informed that not only had we missed the bus we were planning on taking, but that all buses for the rest of the day were booked. No matter; we walked over to the TransNica station. There we were informed that all buses were booked until Saturday. Another bus station with had Nicaraguan flags and a sign that said "Managua" informed us that they only go to Panama. I wondered if we'd somehow ended up on a new reality TV combination of the Amazing Race and Candid Camera. Fortunately, it turned out we were right next door to the bus terminal for Penas Blancas, the Costa Rican town on the main Costa Rica-Nicaragua border crossing. If we couldn't get to Nicaragua, we'd at least get as close as we could.

The bus ride itself was fairly painless and involved fewer chickens than we'd expected. Lonely Planet promised that the border crossing would be easy as well and that we might even be able to take a golf cart from one side to the other. I fell asleep for most of the ride, so I was only half awake when we stopped at a cement building surrounded by lines of people and were told to get off the bus. Welcome to the border.

There were no signs indicating what any of the lines were for, but there were hordes of "coyotes" carrying wads of cash and promising they could help us across the border. Being cheap, poor teachers, we politely declined by pretending we didn't speak Spanish (not so much pretending for me) and got in a line that some other people from our bus had joined. I don't know what the other lines were for, but eventually we ended up with stamped passports and found ourselves back outside the building.

Now what? Where were these golf carts that would take us to the Nicaraguan side? Where were the buses we could catch from here to Managua? Partly because we were being bombarded by coyotes and partly because we didn't know what else to do, Bjorn and I walked the 1km through the weird DMZ-ish area to Nicaragua.

I like to consider myself at least a somewhat seasoned traveler and feel like I know what to expect at passport control, customs, etc. Again, this is a conclusion that I clearly came to under more posh conditions. The only other time I have entered a country not by air is going into Canada, so I would now like to make a list of things that the Canadian border has the the Nicaraguan border does not:
1. Friendly Canucks
2. Any semblance of order.

On the other hand, Nicaragua did have many things that Canada does not: a small group of unmarked cement buildings, a lot of children begging for money, and a creepily persistent cab driver who was clearly excited about the prospect of swindling some Americans. Despite his creepiness (or perhaps in service of it), he gave us the immigration forms and took us to the cement building where we paid US$5 for a passport stamp. There were no customs whatsoever; if only I had known ahead of time so I could have smuggled something in.

In an attempt to get away the persistent cabbie, Bjorn went in search of a less creepy cabbie and found a very nice one who said he would take us and a Dutch family to Granada for only $40 total. Seemed like a good deal, he swore that he could fit us all into his car, and he had a limp so I figured we could take him if he tried to kidnap us. Outside what I guess would be considered passport control, some people told us we had to pay another $2 in exchange for a "tourist card" to keep with our passports. It definitely didn't look legit (another small concrete building) but it also didn't look any less legit than the people who had stamped our passports. Two dollars seemed a small price to pay for avoiding a hassle and getting a bonus piece of paper for my scrapbook.

Our non-scary cabbie loaded Bjorn, me, the Dutch couple, and their nine-year old son into his car. As he peered through the view-impairing crack in the windshield and rubbed two wires together to start the car, we headed off into the sunset. Our Nicaraguan adventure could finally begin.

My Favorite Part of Costa Rica

Bjorn: "You wanna go to Nicaragua tomorrow?"
Me: "Sure."

"Canopy Tour"

When you envision a "tour" of the rainforest canopy, what comes to mind? Hanging bridges? A helicopter ride? Careening from tree to tree on a long metal cable?

I am pleased to add ziplining to my growing list of adventure/stupid activities that I've braved.

Catarata de La Fortuna

Well, the waterfall in La Fortuna kind of deserves its own post. While there wasn't any brilliant story to accompany the trip (except maybe the torrential downpour that showed up just as we got there, left while we swam, and returned just as we were leaving), there was a beautiful waterfall that I took a zillion pictures of.

Costa Rica: Muy Bonita

Oh yeah, I went to Costa Rica for two weeks in July.

Honestly, I don't have time to recount the entire trip, so you can check out the pictures yourself. You probably aren't going to check out all 500+ anyway, so now you can scroll through at your leisure. The captions explain some stuff.


As was mentioned in one of the comments on a previous post, I seem to have left cookies out of my list of things I've cooked this summer. It's not so much that I am any good at baking cookies, but more that it's a specialty of the house where I've been living. Bill, who is generously letting Mark and me house-sit, is a often known as "The Cookie Guy"--and with good reason. We learned very early on in our supervisory group that he will never go anywhere without little ziploc baggies of freshly baked cookies. They are the most delicious and memorable calling card ever. He brought them for everyone in our supervisory not just at weekly meetings, but whenever he would come out to Mission to observe, and pretty much whenever he would stop by Stanford (it was not unusual to find a bag in my mailbox). Other recipients include the guy who runs classes at the Mac store, the mail carrier, and a waitress at one of their favorite restaurants.

It should be noted that these aren't just something off the back of some Tollhouse chocolate chips (not that those aren't delicious). No, this recipe took six years to prefect and makes about 90 cookies per batch. Of course the specifics are too special to post here, but let's just say that the base calls for semi-sweet chocolate, white chocolate, and toffee chips. Additional ingredient combinations are numerous and continue to be experimented with.

So when I got the keys to the house, I also got a copy of the recipe and the metaphoric keys to the KitchenAid mixer and the "cookie cabinet," an entire section of the kitchen literally overflowing with every kind of cookie filling your mind can fathom. The recipe wasn't so much permission to bake these cookies, but a mandate to keep the kitchen smelling delicious all summer.

I've even taken to carrying around cookies with me when go to friends' houses or other places. One of my favorite memories from this summer was when I got home from Costa Rica, and Mark asked me--on the car ride from the airport--"Will you bake cookies when we get home? I haven't had any in two weeks because you've been gone..." I might be turning into Bill. But there could be worse things.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Happy Birthday, America

For the 4th of July, Sarah and I went over to the San Jose America festival and caught the fireworks in the park near the Steingruebl pad. Most importantly, I got to try out the fireworks setting on my camera:

Don't you love that we celebrate our independence by mimicking the explosions of war?

Ah, Summer

So you would think that with absolutely nothing to do, I would have taken the time to update this blog with all the things that happened in that last ridiculous quarter at Stanford--our trip to Angel Island, my students letters to math, the final days of teaching, reflections on my students, Oprah's graduation speech, my teaching plans for next year, etc. etc. But why would I do that when I can do all the things summer is meant for?

In the past two weeks, I've been taking advantage of living in suburbia (my extremely generous supervisor is letting me and an another STEPpie house-sit). So I've taken some bike rides, visited the library, read on a lounge chair in the sun, gone swimming, and just sat out on the deck watching the hummingbirds.

And then there's the cooking. I kind of feel like I'm playing housewife because my roommate works everyday, and I've been doing a lot of cooking for us. We have a fabulous kitchen, plus a garden with fresh herbs, rhubarb, squash, tomatoes, and beans.

Rhubarb muffins:

Baking powder biscuits:

Mushroom asparagus tart:

Asparagus chive quiche:

And proof that I really have too much time on my hands, homemade hamburger buns:

Don't worry, my roommate has fallen into his traditional gender role and does the grilling:

I could get used to this teacher summer thing.

Sunday, June 22, 2008


If nothing else, this past year has been one of reflection. Reflection on what I did five minutes ago, five days ago, five months ago, and 25 years ago--and of course how that all influences the way I teach. In yet another bout of reflection, I decided to take a look back at the ways I have developed as a teacher (and a student) over 12 months in STEP. With the help of Wordle, my current favourite website, here is a pictorial representation of my past year, based on important documents I wrote. (click for larger versions)

First, the resume and personal statement that got me into STEP in the first place:

Summer began with writing my "math autobiography". You can see what was--and was not--important to me.

In our "Centralities of Literacies" everything finally clicked when I re-framed math as a means of reading and writing the world. Here, my final reflective journal from the three week class.

In Equity & Democracy, I didn't write anything too earth-shattering, but Ray McDermott's three levels of cultural analysis rocked my world.

Fall brought the five million page case study on one of my students (with the pseudonym Malik):

And my favorite assignment of the year, a deep dive into what it means to assess for conceptual understanding in a math class:

Finally, in Classroom Management I made a first attempt at verbally articulating my teaching philosophies. Worst assignment ever. At least up to this point.

By winter I designed an entire unit plan (guess what it was about?)

And I wrote a grading policy that I could use in the ideal world

Spring brought PACT (Performance Assessment for California Teachers), which topped the classroom management plan as the worst assignment ever. It was long and painful, but it got me my teaching credential.

Finally, I summarized all my reflections over the year in--what else?--a summary reflection. Actually, it does a pretty good job reflecting what I think my year was about.

Obviously, these are all papers and writings on different topics, so it's hard to compare across them. However, I still like the trends I see. In particular, my favorite is the growth of the word "students" throughout the year. I like what this meta-analysis says about the kind of teacher I'm becoming.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Stick a Fork in Me

I guess I'm not quite "well done"--I still have to teach until Thursday, but on Monday I did some printing and CD burning and I was done with all my Stanford coursework. Right now it just feels weird not having anything to do. I'm not sure what to do with myself when there's nothing I should be reading, writing, planning, revising. I guess this is why they invented sleeping, something I feel like I haven't done since last June.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


N. (not the N. I usually write about) is definitely what I would consider a success story. In addition to coming into the year with very low math skills (like most of my kids), he is also an English language learner and is designated with special needs. Until about late February/early March, he barely ever talked. At all. He took a month-long absence from school to visit relatives out of the country, and when he came back there were some concerns that he'd forgotten most of his English. He only nodded when I said hello and asked how he was doing. He never asked for help, and barely responded with more than one or two words when someone tried to give help. Yikes.

Then something changed. N. started smiling in the morning when I would ask how he was doing. By coincidence, I sat him with O., another English language learner (who is not really hindered by language), and the synergy blew my mind. N. talked to O. more than I'd ever seen him talk to anyone. They even started teasing each other, which was by far the most social I'd ever seen N. Then he started to understand the material a little bit, and from there developed the courage to ask for help with the parts that were confusing. He started coming in at lunch and after school for extra help and extra practice. Then everyone in the class got the impression that he is ultra-smart, and his academic status shot through the roof. The result? He got over 100% in the second marking period. The even better result? N. has made himself a part of the class. He interacts with other students, he talks to me about his interests outside of school, and the other students care when he's not there.

Now for my favorite--and completely selfish--result: this morning N. got to class early (as he has started to do) and he asked me where I would be teaching next year. When I told him that I won't be at Mission, his face fell. Despite all the ways that N.'s newfound success should indicate my own success as a teacher, it was not until this conversation that I actually felt like I'd contributed to his growth. N. is an amazing person who could be successful in any class, but it's my success that he feels like I'm the one who brought it out of him.

Thank you, N. What more could I ask for in my student teaching year?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Summer Plans

Summers off? That's questionable. Somehow, half my summer has already been sucked up by professional development and planning for the upcoming year, and that's just the official stuff. I also plan on doing a lot of reading and re-reading of everything I've learned this year and all the other things I want to learn before I have my own classroom.

So somewhere in there I want to do something that's not related to teaching. I'm looking at two different options right now. The first is traveling. Obviously, it's hard for me to pass up more stamps in my passport, and the current possibilities are looking pretty amazing (Costa Rica? Cuba? Peru?). On the other hand, a two week journey to another country would leave me with very little time for doing absolutely nothing--something I desperately need. I'm fortunate to be living in a beautiful house this summer with lots of great opportunities for cooking, watching TV, sleeping, reading, and general lolling about. If I were to just stick around here, would I regret passing up the travel? Would I end up getting bored? Or if I did head south, would I have to wait another year before I had time to myself again?

With all these airlines going under, I'd better make my plan soon.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Heat Wave

It is HOT. It's hot as... well, let's just say it's probably best not to repeat the ways my students were completing that sentence. For the past few days it's been in the 90's, even up in San Francisco, the city that has no summer. So of course the kids reactions are completely over the top. I could do without N. and S. throwing wet washcloths at each other, but mostly it's just a lot of whining. O. came into my room on Thursday morning complaining that it was way too hot to do anything. I just couldn't feel sorry for him when (1) it was 8am and probably still in the 70s and (2) he was wearing black jeans, a black sweatshirt, and a black knit cap. Finally he took off his sweatshirt and quit whining, but I couldn't help but point out his ridiculousness when halfway through class he put his sweatshirt back on, complaining that he was too cold.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

One Year On

Exactly two years ago, I stepped on a plane in Sydney, crossed the ditch, and disembarked to make a new life in what quickly came to be my favourite country in the entire universe (sorry, USA). Then, exactly a year ago, my visa told me that if I ever wanted to come back to New Zealand, I'd have to leave. So now it's been a year since I ended my traveling adventure and came back "home."

Oh Kiwistan, how I miss you. I constantly dream about your breathtaking scenery, your unbelievably kind residents, and your generally awesome national self-image. When I'm not checking airfare prices, I'm counting down the days until the end of my five year comittment to teaching in the US. I listen to the podcast of Prime News everyday, and try to read the the New Zealand Herald when possible. I'm trying my best to maintain my connection, but life seems to get in the way.

This is not to say that I'm unhappy with where I am now or that the past year has been inferior to the previous one. This year in STEP has been just as--if not more--life-changing than any other. I've made amazing friends, learned more than I could ever imagine, and I don't plan on leaving any time soon. I love it here. So what do I do about the fact that two places I love so much are so far away, both geographically and emotionally? Do I really have to choose between the Bay Area and the Bay of Plenty?

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Secret Lives of Teachers

N. (yes, that N.): "Ms. L., that shirt you're wearing, sometimes it looks like there's a little bump on your stomach. It looks like you have a bellybutton ring or something."
Me: "That's because I do have a bellybutton ring."
N: "No way! I never would have thought you would have a bellybutton ring."
Me: "Why not?"
N: "I mean..."

Sunday, April 27, 2008


Given my heritage that traces to India and the Mayflower, Passover is obviously a very important tradition to me. All my travels meant that I haven't gotten a chance to celebrate in a few years, so it was really important to me to attend a seder this year. But why attend when you can host? I spoke with 1.5 Jewish friends out here, and STEP Seder 2008 was quickly born.

I have been very spoiled in my seder experiences to always have ridiculously delicious food. Not wanting to break this tradition, I obviously turned to my Japanese surrogate mother for help. She lovingly typed up all her recipes and scanned in the haggadah. Now it was up to me to see if I could recreate the magic.

I fully subscribe to the motto of "Go big or go home," so I took on the gefilte fish and matzo ball soup, while my co-hosts Danny and Sarah made the brisket and harroset, respectively.

Okay, so I didn't make the gefilte fish from scratch. Maybe next year. In Jerusalem.

Gefilte fish loaf deemed "delicious" by real Jews.

Matzo ball soup deemed "delicious" by many, deemed "as close as I'll probably get to Mayumi's" by me.

Danny decides if this is how the brisket is supposed to look (the answer is yes).

I give at least 60% of the credit for the AMAZING brisket to Danny's mom, who coached from Chicago.

And from there the event spiraled into a frenzy.

Beginning about 36 hours before showtime, I was on the phone with Sarah and Danny pretty much nonstop. "Um, four more people just responded to the evite." "Is anyone else going to bring food? Will we have enough?" "You don't happen to have a roasting pan big enough for eight pounds of brisket..." "Okay, now two more people want to come." "We only have four chairs." "Does anyone have a working printer for the haggadah?" "Are you kidding me? How are you going to add your name to the evite list an hour before it starts?"

Not to mention the most seder-threatening disaster of them all: The Great Matzo Shortage of 2008. I called about 15 different stores until a lovely woman at the Redwood City Lucky's told that me I was, well, lucky. So I made the drive and found the familiar sight of shelves with nothing but macaroons and a large empty space. I guess I probably should have been a bit more suspicious when the woman on the phone asked me if I was looking for "the kind in the jars."

As the clock ticked down to 7pm, nothing short of a Pesach miracle occurred and somehow it all came together. The guest list finally settled (and came with food!), a STEPpie who's originally from Palo Alto offered her family's table and chairs, and Sarah's parents, who had happened to buy a box of matzo three weeks earlier, supplied us with enough for the afikomen.

The table, ready to go.

Seder plate, complete with genuine lamb shank.

Seder table, now with guests.

Afikomen hunt. Danny (dad for the night) hid it in one of our textbooks--where else?

Kieran sports his prize for finding the afikomen, a remnant from our last ethnic holiday party.

It turned out to be one of my favourite STEP events we've had all year. It was the first seder for a lot of people, but everyone was eager to participate and learn. Of course it will never be the same without Mayumi's cooking, but it definitely made my spring feel complete.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Rememberance (of sorts)

Kiwi food is interesting. Some is good, and some is very British (take that as you will). Nonetheless, I miss it dearly (BTW, if someone can find me lolly cake in the US, I will pay you a not insignificant sum of money). I knew that this would happen, so I left New Zealand armed with the Edmond's cookbook, the quintessential Kiwi cookbook.

Unfortunately I've done a pretty bad job of doing much cooking at all this year, let alone cooking from Edmond's. But I couldn't pass up April 25th without digging it off my bookshelf and whipping up some ANZAC biscuits. So delicious.

My makeshift Godzone kitchen. Unfortunately I had to settle for "all-purpose" instead of "standard" flour, and "shredded" coconut instead of "dessicated." But note the electric kettle and coffee plunger in the background--I feel so Kiwi.

Into the oven

The finished product, of course with the Edmond's cookbook.

Oh, and I also paid homage to those lost at Gallipoli and in the nearly 100 years since. Much love to the ANZACs. And to the biscuits baked in their name.


Today is the National Day of Silence, a day dedicated to bringing attention to anti-LGBTQ harassment and bias. This year is dedicated to Lawrence King, a boy from Oxnard, CA who was murdered because of his sexual orientation.

The GSA at Mission has been promoting the Day of Silence and has posted flyers around the school telling people to wear pink today in support of the GSA Honestly, I didn't expect many of my kids to participate, and I even braced myself for teasing or harassment of those who did wear pink, including myself. And I didn't really expect many, if any, students to try the silence.

How this day is turning out has been a much more than pleasant surprise. One of my students walked in this morning, saw my pink shirt, and said, "Oh no! I forgot today is pink day!" In my other class, two kids came in dressed in pink--two who I definitely would not have expected--and three are participating in the Day of Silence. And they're really sticking to it, not to mention getting other kids to talk about why those students are silent. It's much more powerful than I imagined.

I can't even tell you how proud I am of these ninth graders taking a courageous stand (many of them as allies) in a school that I feel is still very homophobic. If they're this powerful at 15, I can't wait to see what they do next.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

"Everyone was White"

Mission High School tries to promote college and exposure to higher education as early as possible, so yesterday a bunch of the ninth graders took a field trip to UC Santa Cruz. My students mostly reported good times (except for O., who whines about anything one could possibly whine about), so I asked if it was a place they'd consider going to college. The unanimous response was negative. Why? "Because everyone there was White." They described what they had seen as they walked through campus and ate in the dining halls: "It was like 90% White people and then maybe 10% Black people and then nothing else."* "Too many white people."

It fascinates me to contrast this reaction to the one I know many White people have upon arriving at college: being overwhelmed by the diversity. How interesting the way our worlds and perspective change when we set foot on a college campus... What I don't know how to explain to my students, however, is what this type of change would mean for them. For White students who suddenly enter a space where they're in the numerical minority, it can be a culture shock, but they can also rest assured that their cultural dominance will be maintained. White, upper-middle class values will still be privileged, especially in academia. But what happens to my students--who are already excluded in so many ways from the culture of power--when this marginalization is magnified so noticeably? I do want my students to pursue things beyond high school, including college, but I wonder what it means for them that the only options for college are ones that value a culture they've been excluded from. Do they have to trade in their culture to be "successful"?


*UC Santa Cruz lists the following racial breakdown of their fall 2007 freshman class: 47% Euro-American, 25% Asian American/Pacific Islander, 18% Chicano/Latino, 3% African American, 1% American Indian, 6% Not stated (U.S. residents). Does this mean I should give a lesson on calculating percentages or a lesson on (mis)interpretation of statistics?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Musical Math

When my students started screaming/singing during class today I told them to save it. We'd be singing later. Today was the day I summoned all that camp counselor energy I never used and made a fool of myself in front of a bunch of kids. Yes, it was quadratic formula day. There's no way around it, the quadratic formula has to be memorized, so the song is the most painless way of learning what really is a pretty ugly equation.

You can sing along too (to the tune of Jingle Bells):
X equals (jingle bells)
Negative b (jingle bells)
Plus or minus radical (jingle all the way)
B-squared minus four a c (oh what fun it is to ride)
All over two (in a one-horse open)
A! (sleigh!)

This was kind of the perfect day to learn the song because they have been driving me crazy for the past week or so by banging beats on the tables, so finally they had a way that we could all agree on for them to get the beats out of their system. I also got a little reminder of how much they all know, like, and care about each other. I had sent N. out of the room earlier in the period (this is the same N. who started and still uses the phrase "What the feasible!"), and when I told the class that we were going to be singing, they insisted that I let N. back in. He is definitely our class clown (in a good way), so they felt it was wrong--and I agreed--to exclude him from this rare instance of teacher-sanctioned silliness.

After we practiced the song a few times, they all complained about how lame it is. I told them (1) if they can come up with something better, I'll give them extra credit and (2) it may be lame, but I guarantee they'll never forget it.

Oh, you thought this post was going to be about the harmonic mean or something like that? No, just a co-opted/corrupted version of Jingle Bells.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Shoo In

I had my first job interview today. This was an extra-scary one, too, because it was with the whole math department. More importantly, I can't remember ever applying for something that I want so badly. The stakes were high, and I was so nervous I haven't been able to sleep for two days.

I was ill-prepared from the start. I got home from school today with only 15 minutes before I had to leave, so was completely flustered and smelled like school. I didn't have any samples of my or my students' work nor could I think of a single story to represent my teaching skills. I even had an outdated resume that failed to mention a prestigious fellowship because my computer is broken and I didn't have time to get to the computer lab. If someone had offered me a bet that I would vomit sometime during the car ride and/or interview, I would have placed a not insignificant amount of money on that wager.

Then the interview began. One of the first things out of my mouth was accusing one of the teachers (whom I had only met a few minutes before) of smoking pot. Then I pulled out an Equations game to reveal the true extent of my geekiness while simultaneously insulting the math skills of another teacher ("That's your solution? My kids would kill you."). I implied that the amazing conversations their students produce are just the kids' way of playing the teachers' game. It is entirely possible that I had poppyseeds stuck in my teeth.

They said they'll be in touch.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

McWay Falls

After some more sketchy details about when the beautiful waterfall would be open, the final conclusion was that the only way to find out would be to just go down there. So on Wednesday afternoon we drove down to Julia Pefiffer State Beach again and fate was more on our side this time (although it seems fate was on our side before, given that it sent us on the amazing Ewoldsen Trail).

The best word I can think of to describe McWay Falls is "magical." I'll let the pictures say the rest.

The view in the other direction wasn't too bad either.

I wasn't sure I'd gotten enough pictures, so I took some video too.