Tuesday, May 19, 2015

SmarterBalanced Rant

            May is testing month at CHS, especially if you are a junior. So far, they have lost six hours of class—a full Friday—to two multiple-choice tests for SmarterBalanced, and three hours of English class to writing a “performance task”, i.e. an essay based on several articles. They will lose three hours of U.S. history to the math “performance task” next week. If you are a slow worker, there will be more time taken from class and study periods. They have also taken the PSAT and SAT, some have sat for the ACT, and many of my students have taken at least two AP tests in the last month. All told, many of my juniors will take eleven or twelve discreet standardized tests this year, mostly in the month of May, which is also the glory days of Honors American Lit, because we are done with formal essays and are free to ponder the nature of story, of reality, of respect, and of  humanity  as we read Slaughterhouse Five and The Things They Carried. It has been a long year.
            This was in our minds yesterday as we trudged downstairs to the windowless computer lab to begin the performance task. For some reason, I am required to perform the scripted lesson before the test, but I have to leave the room while they read and write. I do not do well with scripted lessons. The question was written on the board as we walked in—something like “Where do you go for information and news? Why?”
            “Do we really have to write about that?” one girl asked, sighing.
            “Can we just talk about it?” another lobbied.
            In two seconds, we were off script. “Yes.”
            “Mr. Duerfelt.”  One student called out.
            “Yeah, he talks about the news every day,” another agreed. My task was to divide their responses into “traditional” and “non-traditional” news sources. Where does the APUS history teacher fall in that dichotomy? I put him in the middle.
            CNN,” one boy added. “Online.”
            “Oooooowwwww,” – the traditional response to anything “deep” and “intelligent” echoed through the room.
            “They want me to add these,” and I wrote Facebook, Pintrest, Vine, blogs, and smartphones, even though we all know that smartphones are the orange amongst the apples here, and we are smarter than SmarterBalanced.
            At this point, the class begins to laugh. The absurdity of the whole situation, of me, who does not own a mobile phone, use a smart board in class, and continues to show Wallace and Grommet on VHS the day before Winter Break, instructing my tech savvy class on the use of PINTREST as a source of legitimate news—like snapchat of a ninth grader’s hair is news!—overwhelms them. I read them a blurb about blogs and citizen reporters, we indulge in a moment of questioning whether “citizen reporters” are actual trained journalists, and we are done.
            “You are now ready to complete the performance task,” is my closing line, and they turn on their computers as I head upstairs to read ninth grade narratives.
            And I was struck, as I am every year in May, by how my students, how all of our students, rise to the occasion every day. We present them, far too often, with dumb stuff and they take it and run with it, creating something beautiful—or, at least, humorous--  out of the mundane over and over again. Every day, we are given moments of grace, of laughter, or intelligence. It is the greatest gift of teaching. We should not squander it on testing.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Principles of Permaculture (via southern Oregon and the backyard...)

Principles of Permaculture, via southern Oregon

Stacking Functions-- chickens help with compost
1.     Practice protracted thoughtful observation, rather than thoughtless action.
2.     Hold resources at the highest level.
3.     Everything gardens.
4.     Use locally available resources.
5.     Waste is an underutilized resource.
6.     The problem is the solution.
7.     Work where you are wanted.
8.     Work with nature, not against her.
9.     Plant natives first, proven exotics second.
10. Plant edible and medicinal landscapes.
11. Start small and diverse, harvest your mistakes.
12. Stability comes from a diversity of relationships.
13. Stack functions.
14. Distribute the surplus.
15. There is a limit to how much the system can absorb.
16. Optimize rather than minimize.
17. Design systems that self-manage.
18. Consider relative location.
19. The primary client is the site.
20. Optimize edge; begin in favorable locations.

I would ad three more:
          Be in love with your life.
          Live deliberately.

          Some years are just cabbage years. They will pass.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Planning for Solar Panels, part one

Planning for the solar panels/greenhouse has begun….I came home last week to find two men sitting in my back yard, contemplating the blue wall. One had a notebook, the other a tape measure. They were discussing building code.

We began thinking about solar panels last winter, when we went to a presentation, not because we were interested, but because we wanted to think about something positive in town for a change. But, after hearing about the rebates, and looking at our electric bill, I was intrigued. We would not need a huge array to produce all of the electricity we use over the course of a year, especially if I took down a string or two of Christmas lights. We average 8 KWH per day. I called Abundant Solar, Kirk came out with his solar gain measuring tool from the 1970s, and he studied the west facing roof of the house. Not great…then he wandered into the back yard and eyed the blue painted wall of our neighbor’s garage. “Are you thinking,” he mused, “of adding any more buildings back here?” Why yes, we were. I had plans for a green house in that space. He nodded, climbed on ladders, examined tree shadows, glared at the huge yellow plum in the middle of the yard, and began to plan.

A few weeks later, we had generated a list. The structure should:
·        Generate all of our electricity over the course of the year.
·        Provide a warm place to start all of our seeds, raise chicks in the awkward stage (too big for house, too small for coop), and shelter the beehive in cold winters.
·        Extend the growing season—eggplants and hot peppers? Salad greens in winter? A citrus tree? A tea plant or two?
·        Hold the soaking tub and provide a nicer place to bathe.
·        Allow Mark to read outside and stay warm in the winter.
·        Not mess up the already existing eating area in the nook of the house and garage.
·        Look nice. I’d like the roofline to echo the shed’s interesting overhang, which Mark built.

Once we had the list and had paced around the backyard for a few hours, we called Mark Meyer, our builder, who is a genius at taking my vague ideas and turning them into beautiful structures. He was one of the men sitting in my backyard, contemplating the wall a few days later.  He had a sketch of a bayfront greenhouse that would sit under the panels, shifted to one side of the wall, before he went home to investigate building code. Just how close could we come to that garage? We should know on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, we have begun to assemble various parts. Mark found a pile of double paned windows in aluminum frames on Craig’s List for one hundred dollars. “It looks like a good deal,” he told me. When I followed up, the seller had found three more, and threw them in for the same price. We now had a pile of windows for the walls.
I then contacted a friend who had mentioned a staff of claw foot tubs—and yes, they have three in the backyard. I am welcome to one, also for one hundred bucks. Planning has begun.

Monday, May 4, 2015

May Day

May Day—the celebration, first of fertility and then of labour in Europe—has morphed into a glorious recognition of the Willamette Valley, here in Oregon. Everything is green and growing, blooming, budding, swelling with life. Wildflower festivals and walks, plant sales, Celebrations of Natural Features—everyone is outside. We take off the storm windows and move the heavy dining table outside, settling it back into the alcove between house and garage.

May Day rituals are all around flowers, creativity, and fertility. When I was little, I made little baskets out of construction paper, filled them with flowers, and dropped them on doorsteps. Now, we begin the cycle of wildflower walks, starting on the valley floor and slowly following the blossoms higher—Cascade Head, Mary’s Peak, Iron Mountain, The Three Sisters.  We will see many of the same plants, with slight variations, as we climb the mountains this summer. I keep the lists in a notebook; maybe, someday, it will help biologists understand how our environment evolved because of climate change.  We take long walks in town as well, enjoying the long evenings. At school, state tests and prom stress out the junior class, while my ninth graders kick back, read Romeo and Juliet, and beg to go outside. Sometimes I give in. I have missed the sun as well.

The gardens are planted. Cabbages are heading up. Mustards and kales are ready for dinner. Asparagus shoots for the sky. The artichoke in the back garden bed is striving for new records in size. The chickens are laying eggs, at least three a day, and I have eggs to spare. Potato beds have hoses and mulch. The bean bed is ready to be seeded and covered with the cold frame. The vining crops are planted in four inch pots and I am restless to move them into the garden soil. The beds need a little weeding and constant trimming to keep them neat.

Our menu is shifting as the winter squashes, potatoes, and onions are all finished. Greens are coming on strong. I dig through the cookbooks to discover different seasonings to disguise the kale and mustard greens. We cook huge pots of beans to mix with the greens and spread over whole wheat toast. A little parmesan cheese or a few kippers and we have a tasty dinner. There are some new potatoes from the volunteers in the garden beds; I dig them out as I clean out each bed.  We eat eggs, creating golden frittatas and quiches. Salad every night. Mint tea for desert.  It is all lighter, leafier, greener than dinners in January and February. When we need something more substantive, we buy some fish.

Out at the wildlife refuge, everything is shining. The ponds, flooded in winter to encourage the geese, are still full and catch the sunlight. Most of the geese have moved onto summer quarters, but ducks, newts, and bullfrogs still live in the ponds. One of the old houses on the property has not one, but two beehives, one behind a loose shingle and the other in the chimney. The parking lot buzzes with air born activity. When I followed the sounds, I startled three deer on the edge of the field. Flower bloom is at its peak; we identified 52 blooming plants on Saturday afternoon. Camas turns the swaths of  fields blue.  Checkermallows flash pink. In the woods, iris and fairy bells lurk under the trees. We walk carefully along some paths, which are lined with the new, shiny leaves of poison oak.

In the evening, we return home. Mark works on his compost heap while I make dinner. Tonight, we will have a rhubarb cake, salad, and a frittata with new eggs, volunteer potatoes, and a few spears of asparagus. I light the beeswax candles. It feels too warm for a fire inside, but the sea breeze makes an outside fire feel too chilly. Never mind. We will eat, bask in the last rays of the sun, and go to bed.

Rhubarb Cake: AKA as MayDay cake. Taken directly from Moosewood’s Book of Desserts

½ c butter
1 c white sugar

3 eggs
1 t vanilla
½ cup of milk

1.5 c flour (half fresh ground wheat, half white)
1 T BP
¼ t salt

2.5 c chopped rhubarb—or any other fruit you have around

Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs. Add half the dry ingredients, then the milk, then the rest of the dry. Stir in the fruit. Bake in a square pan, 350 oven, until done. It could take a cream cheese frosting—or not.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Technology Shabbat. round two

  A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about technology Shabbat—the idea that we would all be better off if we just turned off our electronic devises for a day every week. At the time, it was a theoretical posting. Our computer resided in the cold basement and took ten minutes to warm up and access the Internet. Turning on technology took a serious effort. It was not hard to avoid for several days, especially if the weather was warm and the book compelling.

            This changed last winter. Two things happened. One, we had two huge snowstorms. Unlike New England, all of the Pacific Northwest shuts down for days on end when there is snow and ice. It’s rare. We don’t have snowplows. It’s cheaper just to close up shop and stay home. Stuck in the house, I turned to technology for entertainment. The other thing that changed was our technology. We acquired a mobile electronic device that allowed us access to the internet in seconds while sitting on the couch and produced a cheerful little chirp when someone contacted you. I was hooked. I spent hours looking at people’s photos of snow—people who lived a mile away, so it was, really, the same snow. We compared depths. We considered whether or not there would be school the next day. We liked each other’s snow. After two days, the cheery little chirp created a pavlovian response. I HAD to check Facebook, or email, to see what was happening. And what was happening was more photos of snow.

            When the snow melted and school was open once again, I had a newfound appreciation for my students' obsession with their phones. I understood, for the first time, why they could not just ignore that vibration during class. Something had changed in their mental wiring; I swear the cheery chirp stimulated the pleasure center of our brains. I also realized that I used my work email as a Prime Stalling Technique, checking for something interesting rather than engaging in grading papers. Even the chirp at work perked me up, although I knew it was often just the daily announcements.  I had to turn off the computer at the end of the day in order to work my way through the stack of papers on my desk. Something was not right here.

            So, last spring, I began the Technology Shabbat in earnest. Every Friday afternoon, when I come home, I check email, Facebook, my blog, and NOAA weather. By sundown, I turn off the device and place it on my desk in the cozy room, out of sight, out of mind.  And it stays off, often until Sunday afternoon.  I quickly came to like the peace of mind turning it off brought to me. And then I realized that—no offence to anyone—was not missing anything huge. Photos of cute puppies and good dinners, organizing emails, library reminders could all wait until the next day for my attention.  A day off is a good thing.

            So, if you want to contact us on Saturday, you’ll need to use old fashioned technology to do so. We still have our landline. Give us a call. If no one answers, come on over. We’re probably reading in the back yard.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Experiments with Vines

Vines in pots
          The warm weather has brought out the lawn mowers, lilacs, and lounging in the sun. It has also been excellent planting weather. In the past week, we have transplanted all of the starts for the summer greens bed, set out new herb plants, direct sowed a few flowers, and begun an experiment with the vining crops, like cucumbers, zucchini, and pumpkins, which like warm soils for germination and good growth.

            For the last five years, I have started these crops in four inch pots, sometimes at school, sometimes in the back yard on the potting bench, and then transplanted them in the middle of May. It keeps the starts cozy. They also appreciated the protection from slugs and pill bugs. It is a functional system. Last year, I put them out a few weeks earlier and covered them with min-cloches made from gallon milk jugs. They really liked the extra warmth. This year, I have an experiment.

            One set of seeds--- three each of all of the vining crops—were sowed directly in the ground. I turned over just that spot in the bed, planted, and then covered the seeds with a gallon jug to keep the soil warm and a little dry.  Keeping off the rain cuts down on the slug activity. The cover also keeps the cats from digging up the seeds and the rabbit from eating the new leaves.  The other set of seeds is planted in four inch pots, sitting on the potting bench. I need both sets to germinate for full crop production, but, because I started a few weeks early, if the garden beds do not survive, I can plant in pots and recoup my losses. It may even benefit the zucchini to be staggered.

            I am curious to see if, in July, it really matters. If I can direct seed and cloche cover, it saves a step, especially during warm springs like this one. However, the potting system is more flexible, allowing me to start the seeds according to the moon, not the occasional dry spell. We shall see.

Sticky Buns
Vines in bed

I use about a third of the recipe for my bread. Whole dough works better, texturally.

Melt two tablespoons of butter. While waiting, roll out the chunk of dough into a rectangle. Spread butter over all, then sprinkle with brown sugar. The dough needs to be evenly covered, but not thickly. Cover the sugar with coarsely chopped hazelnuts and a handful of raisins. Roll into a log, cut into six pieces, and place, standing up so you can see the roll, in a pie pan. Allow to rise for half an hour, bake in a 350 degree oven until golden and meltly, and flip onto a plate. Do not eat too soon or you will burn your mouth!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Moments of Being Happy

Saturday afternoon, for a series of complex reasons, I was left at our local coop with the groceries, near the magazines, for about ten minutes. I picked up Mother  Earth Living, one of those healthy life-style magazines, and landed on the page “How to Be More Happy.” Get a good night’s sleep. Eat well. Focus on the positive.  These are the positive moments of the last week.

Thursday afternoon, Parent Teacher conferences.
Not my favorite activity. They are exhausting.

I look up to see a mother-son pair heading my way. The student was totally lost first semester, but has done a 180 and is shining this semester. His work is in on time. He comes early to ask me questions. He talks with everyone. He sits down with his mom. His shoulders are back, his head up. He makes eye contact. We all smile. I compliment him on his radical change of behavior. “What happened?” I ask. His mother nods. She is also wondering. “I didn’t like not doing well,” he said. “I always got As and bad grades weren’t me. I decided I needed to work harder.” I cannot stress how unusual this is—for a ninth grade boy, on his own, to decide to do better and follow through on it. It speaks well for his future. His mother and I listen. She nods proudly. He son will be ok.

Saturday morning.

On Saturday, despite a downpour, we head for the hills and a long loop walk on logging roads through the OSU forest. There are Bleeding Heart and Fawn Lilies along the roadside. The moss is fat on the Douglas fir trees and sparkles in the sun. Dogs run ahead of their owners. I can hear the voices of my companions solving the world’s problems behind me, but I am not interested. The steady pace of the walk, rising and falling along the ridgeline, is peaceful. I have never been good at sitting meditation, but the rhythm of  walking clears my mind.


After heavy showers and clouds all week, the day is clear. I mow and trim out the backyard and consider, once again, how much bigger it looks when mowed. After raking and replacing the chairs, I check on the beehive—comb, pollen, honey, and the queen is out of her box. The hive is buzzing, but not aggressive. I cut off one branch to increase the  amount of sun on their front stoop and settle in with a book and my notebooks, dreaming of plants. In the garden, the leeks, spring greens, and peas are growing. Tulips and alliums are blooming, and the bees have discovered the comfrey and wild hyacinth blooms.  One cat perches on the cinder block in the flower bed; the other curls up on a blanket draped over a chair. The bunny chows on the freshly mowed grass. The world is peaceful.

Whipping cream will not splatter!

Coconut Cream Pie: This makes many people happy

Three parts— prebaked crust, pastry cream, and whipped cream, made in that order.

Pastry Cream:

1.5 c milk
1T butter
Start to warm in the pan. When the butter melts, it is ready.

Meanwhile, whisk six egg yolks, from backyard eggs, into .5 c milk, .25 c cornstarch, and .5 c of sugar.

Pour this mixture into the warmed milk and stir. Slowly heat the whole mixture, stirring regularly, until it thickens. Pour off into a bowl, add a splash of vanilla and a large handful of dried coconut, cover with plastic to avoid the film, and cool overnight.  Assemble right before eating.

Lap the bowl when done.