Cooking for the Fall

Ok, it’s not really fall yet. Sometimes I think the beginning school gives me minor seasonal displacement  – I think the leaves should turn as soon as the first bell rings and stay colorful until the end of October, which is not actually how it works! But despite the calendar and the temperature telling me it’s still summer, class has started and that means my energy is being sucked up by my already incredible to-do list.

After spending all day pacing my classroom and kneeling to look at student work and projecting my voice and my presence in a room full of thirty other humans, the last thing I want to do when I get home is cook dinner! I usually avoid this by cooking family-sized meals on Sundays and eating the same thing all week long. This works brilliantly – I can go to the store once a week and have tasty, healthy food every day (although I will admit I am developing a serious bias to foods that keep well in the fridge).

That is, it works brilliantly until the weekend I’m not home. And knowing that I’m planning on making an effort to adventure and get outside more this school year, I thought I’d better plan ahead a little bit more. So this weekend, I’ve been creating meals-in-a-bag that can live in my freezer until the moment I need them.

Meal 1: Cajun Shrimp and Rice

When Safeway has 2lb bags of frozen shrimp for buy-one-get-one-free, this is always a good choice. I chopped up 2 plum tomatoes, 2tbsp parsley, and 1 bunch of green onions and tossed them in a gallon bag. I also minced 3 cloves of garlic and put them in a small zip lock with 2 tsp of Cajun seasoning.

When the time comes to cook this up, I’ll make 3 cups of cooked rice (which starts as 1 cup of uncooked rice), heat the spices and garlic in 1 tbsp of butter and 2 tbsp of olive oil, and cook the tomatoes, green onions, and 1 lb of thawed shrimp together before tossing all that tastiness in with the rice.

Meal 2: Quiche

Whenever I try to make quiche, I end up making enough for two fillings and I have to freeze some of it anyway. Doing that one weekend last year inspired me to always have some quiche filling and pie shells on hand for a super easy dinner. The only caveat with quiche is that it still takes about an hour to bake.

I chopped 3-4 carrots, 3-4 sticks of celery, a box of mushrooms, a yellow onion, a ham steak, and cleaned a bunch of baby spinach. All that became the “solid filling” bag. Of course, the variations here are endless. Bacon, crab meat, artichoke hearts, asparagus, and various other left-over bits and ends have all made it into my quiches before.

I also shredded smoked cheddar, Gouda, Jarlsberg, and and Fontina cheese. I will totally admit that I splurge when I get cheese for quiche. It’s totally acceptable to use normal Swiss and cheddar instead; I just also like snacking on the cheese. This should total four cups of shredded cheese delicious-ness. The cheese does need to go in a separate bag than the other goodies. (Note that this is all to prepare two nine-inch quiches; I’ve also seen this amount of filling used to make one deep-dish quiche.)

When I go to make the quiche, the things I need to have on hand are a pie crust (sorry Mom, I definitely buy them frozen from the grocery store…), 4 eggs, and 3/4 cup heavy cream. Once everything is thawed, the cheese gets mixed in with the beaten eggs and cream, the veggies and ham get tossed in the pie crust, and the egg/cheese mixture gets poured over the top. I cover mine in foil so I don’t toast the crust too badly, and I bake it on a tray for when the egg rises over the top, at 375F for about an hour.

Meal 3: Chicken Enchiladas

This was a huge favorite at home, but I almost never make it on my own because of the effort of shredding the chicken. Mom used make the filling ahead of time and freeze it to avoid that conundrum. Like quiche, this takes a while to bake even if the prep is done ahead of time.

This starts by boiling 3 chicken breasts for 15 minutes and then shredding them with a fork. Yes, it takes time. Yes, it’s worth it. Then I go on to chopping an onion, a red, yellow, and green pepper, and saute all of that together. I mix all of this with a large can of chopped green chiles, a cup of green salsa, 4 tsp of cumin, 1/2 cup chopped cilantro, and 4 cups of shredded Mexican cheese. This is what lives in the gallon zip locks in the freezer until later.

When later happens, all I need to add are eight tortillas, chicken broth, and cream. I don’t ever remember how much chicken broth and cream, of course, but I do know they get mixed in equal parts and poured over the top of the enchiladas until I can see it at the edges. I bake this at 350F for about 45 minutes. If I’m feeling fancy I’ll have sour cream, salsa, and/or avocado to put on top when they come out of the oven.

Beyond the relief of having something to eat when I’m starving and exhausted, I love preparing food against hard times later. Last spring I re-read Little House in the Big Woods, and a significant portion of the story is taken up by Laura describing how her family preserved food for the winter. Their attic was full of vegetables and jams and cured meats.

None of the recipes I described today particularly take advantage of the seasonal vegetables, but I have done some other projects that do. Some ideas include: baking, pureeing, and freezing pumpkin or squash (which is handy for anything from scones to soup), canning jams, jellies, apple butter, and/or tomato sauce, and cooking and freezing spinach (this happens in the spring but is awesome for making saag).

Last year I wrote a bit about canning apple butter; the apples we got were from a friend in Steamboat whose apple trees went crazy. They didn’t know what to do with so many apples! But this year, a late frost killed all the flowers, and this fall there won’t be any apples. We had an interesting discussion about how it can be impossible to predict the weather and thus the crop production of years to come. Years ago, people just had to preserve as much as they could and hope it would last. Preserving food helps me tune in to the seasons and the environment, as well as our history.

Your homework: How do you usually use food to take care of yourself? What’s one thing you can do this week, related to food, to take care of yourself?

Hej då,

Jamie

Back to School

Well, I couldn’t have the nerd week in August have any different kind of a title, could I? It’s back-to-school season, and the signs are everywhere. I’ve seen parents with kids and lists in Target and Staples. The chalkboard ads are prevalent. My Facebook newsfeed is full of advice on how to finally find work-life balance, new classroom management routines, and memes about teachers being as reluctant as students to dust off the books and get back in the classroom.

I admit, I have these moments. Yesterday I rode my bike around North Table Mesa near Golden, and I was a little sad about not getting to play outside every day anymore. I love eating breakfast in my pajamas – this is the epitome of luxury for me because it never happened when I was a kid! I like getting to wear my favorite ratty t-shirts and wander around barefoot and eat peaches. Oh, the peaches!

And I’m nervous about the upcoming school year. I’m piloting a new biology book, so for the first time I won’t be directly collaborating with anyone in my school on lessons. I have huge hopes and goals for this pilot, and I know I’m going to fall short of some of them. I’m already feeling the pressure of other people’s expectations; the superintendent’s opening speech this year was all about asking us if we were willing to do what it takes to move from being very good to being remarkable. It was a very good speech! But I also remember many moments in the last two years of teaching in which I felt like I was giving more than I had to give, and I was exhausted. For me, anyhow, doing more is not the answer.

But that sentence has two keys phrases in it. First, doing more is not the answer. What I want to do this year is do some of the things I already do better than I’ve done them. It means I want to have resources posted on my website the night before kids need them instead of right before class. It means I want to use absent folders for each block rather than the folders on my desk for each class. It means I want to make mini-to-do lists for my plan periods so I don’t get overwhelmed by the incredible number of things I always have to do. It means I want to use my planner more effectively to remember when meetings are so I’m not surprised by them.

This likely isn’t a new thought for many of you. Lots of my teachers told me to study smarter, not harder. It’s the idea of efficiency, given the resources I already have.

But this isn’t enough. When I have all the normal responsibilities of a teacher, plus all the additional professional projects I get involved in, I will never have enough time to meet everyone’s expectations. I can’t. There simply are not enough hours in the day, even if I was a robot and could work crazy hours and use every one of them at top-level productivity. The second key phrase in that sentence was For me.

At the end of the school year last year, I sat down with one of our assistant principles and asked for advice. I told him about all the pressures I’d been feeling from innumerable different sources. The building goal for freshmen students was focused on literacy. The district goals were to incorporate technology and boost attendance. The building professional development was focused on project-based learning. The 9th grade transition team was focusing on social-emotional skills to help manage behavior. The Knowles Fellowship was focused on incorporating science and math practices and learning about practitioner inquiry. My work with BSCS and HHMI were about making student thinking visible and telling science stories, respectively.

And none of this exactly matched with my own personal goal, which was centered around formative assessment. This goal came out of long conversations with my mom at the end of my first year of teaching. I asked this question; what is one thing I can improve on that will make the biggest difference in my classroom? Formative assessment was the answer we came to. I could rant on and on about why I chose this, but I’ll save that tangent for later.

That’s nine goals, my friends. That’s at least seven too many to do any of them well.

My assistant principle agreed with that logic. He gave me two pieces of advice. First, he asked if there were ways I could weave any of these goals together. Could I use technology to help students work on literacy, for example? And second, he told me to prioritize these goals for myself and communicate my priorities.

This is what I meant by saying that For me was the other key phrase in that sentence. At the end of the day, I’m the one making decisions about my classroom and my life. I’m the one who decides when I leave the building and when I go for a hike. I’m the one who sets up classroom routines and designs assignments. I’m the one who gets to say yes or no to new projects.

This is both a very empowering mindset and a completely terrifying one. It’s much easier if I go along with someone else’s plan. It means I don’t have to expend energy to analyze the situation, figure out what to do, and try to execute it. It also means that if the plan goes wrong, it wasn’t my plan. But taking ownership of my goals and priorities means that I don’t have to feel overwhelmed by having so many things to do. I can choose.

One thing to remember in all of this, however, is that I am not doing this by myself. While the ultimate decision lies with me, all of the thinking and planning up to that point can, and I think should, be a group effort. I have so much to learn about the craft of teaching! Working with other people pushes my thinking in new interesting ways. Taking on someone else’s goal and plan means that I have more brain space to dedicate to executing it, rather than spending all my energy on creating it.

I don’t think any of you will be surprised when I tell you I’m actually really excited to go back to school. I love the chalkboard ads. I love the new supplies and putting my classroom back together. I love trying to spot the excited kids in the aisles at Target. I have new activities I wrote and things I learned over the summer, and I want to see how they work in a real classroom. It’s easy to get sucked into the cultural groan about going back to school, but I’m choosing to ignore it this year.

To all my teacher people who are starting back, you’re about to do incredible things. How cool is that??? And to all my people who aren’t teacher people, you do incredible things all year long. Equally cool!

Your homework this week: (wow, that sounds more natural now that I’ve been back in my classroom…) How do you balance taking advice, learning, and working cooperatively with being the end decision-maker in your life?

Hej då,

Jamie

On Being Stubborn

Happy first week of August! For a lot of my teacher friends, we’re gearing up to go back to school; the first day for teachers in my district is next Thursday, and students come back the Wednesday after that. If you’re headed back soon, best of luck!

As I say farewell to my summer, I’m thinking a lot about all my wonderful adventures this summer. I got to spend a lot of time hiking, biking, camping, and swimming in mountains all over the western half of the US, more than I have in quite a while. And in doing so, I’m getting reacquainted with a personality trait that can go by many different names. I say I’m stubborn. Tactful people tell me I’m persistent, and my brother sometimes tells me I’m being dumb (he’s usually right).

My whole family can be stubborn at times, including all four of my grandparents! I could tell you stories for days. I learned not only from them, but also from an entire childhood of keeping up. I spent a significant amount of time running around with the kids on my ski team, where the social currency was based on pulling off crazy physical stunts. I was nowhere near as crazy as some of the boys – some of them are lucky they aren’t permanently injured. But whether we were biking, skiing, playing soccer, running, or lifting, the name of the game was to push the edge.

Being stubborn served me very well in my athletic endeavors. It helped me keep going during races and get stronger during training. Even when I had a bad run or a tired day, I knew I had to get up and keep going. I know when I can push my body just a little further and when I’m really at the end of my rope.

But being stubborn isn’t only applicable to athletics. Every once in a while I find it in myself to get stubborn about a class. When I was in college, I struggled in chemistry. Especially my first semester, I took Chem 1 with a very brilliant professor who was not very good at understanding why I didn’t understand. Chem 2 wasn’t really any better. I thoroughly enjoyed organic chemistry, but still found it challenging, and then truly met my nemesis when I took physical chemistry. The last chemistry class I took was biochemistry, and at this point, I had had enough.

I decided that I was – finally – going to get an A in a chemistry class at CU. I did everything I was supposed to do; I read the textbook before I went to lecture. I did all the homework sets. I printed the slides before I went to class and took diligent notes. I drew molecular mechanisms for hours in the engineering center lobby. The more nervous I got about graduation, the more I poured all that energy into that class. Even when I was tired, or my brain felt fried, or I had a million other projects, I pushed through.

I aced that class. It was one of the more satisfying moments of my college career.

But being stubborn is, like many traits, a two-sided coin, and there have definitely been moments when I’ve clung to goals or ideas long past where I should have let them go. When I was twelve, I continued to run on a hyper-extended left knee and compressed the meniscus. When I was eighteen, I partially tore my MCL in the same knee and proceed to race on it all season. My left knee likes to remind me of this with increasing frequency these days, particularly when I’m walking downhill with any kind of heavy pack.

I also find myself doing this in my teaching. I’ll set goals for what I can get done in a day (grade these papers, write this lesson, prep this lab) and I’ll want to stay until I get it all done. What ends up happening is me, staring at the wall, not willing to walk away but too tired to really be thoughtful. I end up wasting time rather than taking a break so I could come back refreshed. This kind of stubborn is not at all helpful.

When I was ski racing I came up with a pain scale to figure out when I could push through and when I needed to slow down and take care of myself. I will fully admit that during both of the left knee incidents I described, I knew I was pushing too hard! And as I got reacquainted with my adventuring this summer, it didn’t take me long to start feeling that out again. I don’t, however, have any kind of related scale for my intellectual and emotional energy. What was it about my situation with biochemistry that helped make me successful, and when do I need to set my grading aside and do something different for a while?

Your homework is simply a more generalized version of the question I asked myself; how do you know when to push yourself and when to take a break?

Hej då,

Jamie