Solar Tracking

Solar Tracking
How low can you go? Snow and ice and cancelled school.

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Dreaded PD

Professional Development…just the phrase makes my heart sink. Why?  It usually feels bad—sort of thrown together, full of buzz-words and jargon, and abandoned by November.  It does not have to be this way. We can do better. I’ve had three excellent rounds of PD in twenty years as a tracher. Maybe they had something in common.

The best PD ever—five days at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, learning how to make Shakespeare come alive in the classroom. We spent five hot days in two small cement rooms, doing choral readings, physical-izing (not acting, mind you!) the words, talking about the language. We also saw FIVE plays, went backstage, heard several lectures by experts, and chatted with the actors. Oh, and we did some dancing, too. We stayed in dorms, ate out for lunch and dinner, and talked to each other constantly. And it was free, because CHS got a grant. What made it great? It was graduate school for English and Theater teachers.

The second great PD week was a stay at Reed College, organized by the Oregon Council for the Humanities. The topic for the week was the intersection of science and the humanities. About a month beforehand, I received a graduate level packet of reading in the mail, to be completed before I arrived. This series of articles required me to pull out all of my old reading comprehension strategies to fully comprehend it. It was great. The week that followed was, once again, a series of in-depth discussions, formal and informal, lectures by experts, and a tour of Reed’s nuclear reactor. We also did some weeding around the buildings while waiting for someone to arrive. Once again, we stayed in dorms, although we ate in the quite excellent Reed cafeteria.  What made this one great? Once again, it was the intellectual ideas and discussions.

The last great PD was very different. It happened the week after school was out for the summer, which is a really good time to plan a new class. It was organized around project-based learning, a movement I have always loved. It engages my students fully and allows me to say “yes, that’s brilliant!” far more often than other styles. Even my Honors Juniors love to break out the watercolors and glue guns occasionally. I volunteered for the week, working with a teaching partner. We were well matched by style and knowledge base and happy to be exploring a new class. We spent morning on some theory work, thinking about why specific strategies were effective, then, in the afternoons, we applied them and designed lessons and projects.  We went out for gossipy lunches in a cheery group. What made this one so great? It was absolutely useful—and a lot of fun.

What do these three very different weeks all have in common? First, we were treated as scholars, not teachers who need “something to add to your toolbox “(a phrase I hate!).  In their own ways, each week fully engaged my brain in the same way I want to engage my students. They were deeply  intellectual weeks. I learned new ideas and ways to look at the world. I was a student. Second, the teachers were excellent. They knew more than I did and thought about how to present their ideas effectively. Once again, they respected our intellectual capabilities and stretched our minds. Finally, they were totally voluntary. No one made me do any of it. I had total control over the time.  Good food did not hurt our experiences
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So, what would I like to see this year for PD? I would love to spend a year on American Realism, the late 19th century literary movement. I don’t quite get it so I do not teach it well. You might say we kind of skip it some years, to be honest. I would love to read some novels and participate in some discussions led by someone else and outside of the district, an expert in the field. That would be very helpful. Or, I would like to spend the year exploring the impact of poverty on my students and how we can work to reduce the negative impacts and create a more equitable school, in a meaningful way, not superficially. Once again, here are some excellent books on the topic, some serious experts in the field within one hundred miles of Corvallis.   Either of these topics, thoughtfully done, would engage my mind. Barring that, at least let me complete all of the “safe schools” and first aid trainings I need to be able to take my kids to the university library in November….


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Canning Grape Juice

Finished juice
                It has been warm lately—about 100 degrees one afternoon last week—and everything is ripe. I have spent hours in the kitchen canning roasted tomatoes and grape juice. Fortunately, both projects have a come and go rhythm to them. Once you have set up your systems, I am  free to check email or read a few more chapters for the Honors American Lit Summer Reading assignment that I, like all of my students, have put off until mid-August  (if not later, to be honest).
 I spent Sunday afternoon  in an interesting vortex of Women’s Work, canning grape juice into vintage jars collected from my partner’s mother and a friend of mine, both of whom were serious canners until their children left home. The jars reach back at least to 1976; I have eight or ten that sport Bi-Centennial designs in the glass. Some are “magic mason” jars and a few are so heavy and sturdy I think they have been around since the 1950s. I think of the gallons of preserved foods these jars have held and will hold while I pour boiling water over grapes and sugar. Preserving foods in steamy kitchens has always been women’s work—as has gloating over the full jars in the basement later.
Grapes and sugar
While the canner was steaming away, I read A Midwife’s Tale, which is close reading and research work by one of my old professors looking at the life of a midwife in Augusta, Maine in the 1780s.  By looking at the records in the diary, we know that very few women died in childbirth in rural Maine. More died from diseases that swept the town periodically. There were also some  bits of scandal revealing in the journal on Sunday—out of wedlock births, people cheating on one another, and a rape case. Small towns are small towns, no matter what the century. Martha Ballad Moore, the midwife, kept her own accounts independent of her husband; they were partners, not dependents. It is an interesting read. I worked my way through three chapters, stopping every ten minutes to empty and load the steam canner or pour some more boiling water into the jars.
 Despite electricity and glass jars, I did not feel that far away from the 18th century world I was reading about. Winter is coming. We must be ready.   

Canning
Grape Juice:
Pick a bucket of wild, deep flavored grapes—the kind that sprawl over the fence in the back alleys of older neighborhoods. Rinse them off and remove the stems. Wash a bunch of quart jars. Buy the lids before you start the project.
In each jar, tumble about a cup of grapes and a quarter cup of sugar. This is totally flexible—it started out as half a cup of each, but that was too sweet for us. A few more grapes never hurt anyone. Pour boiling water over the grapes, leaving a half inch of headroom at the top. Cap and ring. I always get a little ahead of the canner with the boiling water.
grapes
Process in boiling water or the steam canner for ten minutes. Cool, label, and put on the shelf for winter.



Monday, August 15, 2016

Old School Oven Repair

                After 65 odd years, the thermostat in our Norge oven gave way a few weeks ago. Bread was burning, cookies, cakes, and granola were impossible, and the only thing I could safely cook was roasted veggies, and then only when I opened the oven several times during the process to cool it off. Our local repair shop basically refused to come out and look at the problem because the stove was too old, so we were left  on our own—or, as the repair people suggested,  we could buy a new stove. I refused. An old stove is not that complicated and a new stove, I knew, would last ten years and need to be replaced.  We were determined—and followed a few simple guidelines to success.

Find the experts.  After being rejected by the local repair guys, someone suggested that I contact Spencer Appliances in Portland which specializes in old appliances and repairs. Mark took the thermostat out of the stove (no easy task), taking photographs and labeling wires as he went. He handed it off to me and I hopped on the bus to the big city to visit a friend and the parts store.  I felt like I was stepping back in time, visiting a Portland that was rapidly disappearing twenty years ago, when I lived there, and almost gone now. It lurks in outer South and North East, on old commercial streets. The places are doomed—there are cafes  moving in next door to both—but they are still there, with stoves and washing machines spilling outside. I walked in to Spencer’s, carrying my part. The owners looked at it, sighed, and sent someone off to the storage area. “I dunno,” they said, “It’s an old one.”   The searcher came back empty handed. I waited. The guys looked at the part again.  “I really like my stove,” I said. “Is it one of those forty inchers?” one asked. I nodded. They looked thoughtful. “Well,” the owner sighed, “There are replacement parts, if that’s ok.” I nodded eagerly. He reached for an old and battered book, rattling off numbers to himself. “This one will work,” he said, pointing to the illustration and writing down the numbers on a slip of paper. “Go to Nor-Mon on Stark. They’ll have it.” Nor-Mon  on Stark did have it, along with some advice on installation. “We used to work with nine shops between Corvallis and Albany,” the owner told me. “But there’s only two left—and one’s really changed in the last two years. They don’t work on stuff anymore. It’s a shame. Those old stoves were great. “ “I know,” I agreed.

Trace the energy flows. When I came home, proudly bearing the new—and old—part, Mark went to work.  His big task was to figure out how the electricity moved so that he could attach the wires to the right places. Despite assurances that it was quite clear and the instructions were great, this was a challenge.   He spent hours tracing wires back, labeling them, testing out theories, and moving back to his notes.  What is the voltage—is it changing? Where are the grounds?  Where does the electricity flow? Although the stove is pretty simple and he had rewired a burner last year, it was a challenge. He had made one big assumption that was WRONG.

Question your assumptions. Early on, we decided that we did not need the wire that led from the thermostat to the timer. After all, when was I ever going to put a raw dinner in the oven and leave it, setting a timer to turn on the oven hours later? I’d heard about such things, back in the day, but this was clearly against the Food Handler’s Card rules. It is just complicating matters, Mark thought.  Then he spent hours trying to see how electricity flowed into the thermostat… and realized that it flowed THROUGH THE TIMER. Once re re-attached that wire, everything fell into place.

Plan ahead.  If I had been thinking, I would have baked some bread before we turned off the oven. We would have put the nasty, dirty oven back into the yard on the first day. Mark would have changed out of his good pants before kneeling in oven grease (left by the part which should be in the back yard). Mark would have labeled everything better before he began. 

But the oven is working once more and the thermostat is good for another sixty years.  Maybe we should rewire the burners soon, before the old shops and ways are gone forever.


Friday, August 5, 2016

Lammastide-- The Early Harvest Season

                Lammastide is clearly here when, every day, I haul more food into the house from various gardens than we can eat. Even though I have designed our garden to feed us a huge variety of fresh food, not fifty pounds of tomatoes or green beans in one day, it still gets away from me in early August.  So I dry and can and pickle for an hour or so a day.

                Today I harvested a five gallon bucket of apples, a big bowl of blackberries, and a basketful of green beans, as well as a bowl of tomatoes, mostly cherry sized.  As I sliced the apples thinly and arranged them on the trays to dry, I imagined where they were going to be eaten next year. Many will go to work or school, so that we have something to chew on in the late afternoons. Some will fuel us on trail hikes. We’ll re-hydrate handfuls for oatmeal and yogurt in the mornings. I’ll carry a bag of dried fruit with me everywhere next winter. You never know when you’ll need a snack. Yesterday’s apples became seven jars of apple butter, slowly cooked down in the crockpot overnight. Tomorrow’s will be applesauce—and when that’s all done, I will roam the neighborhood scavenging wild fruit to press into cider.

                The green beans became four jars of Dilly Beans, ready to join the batch of Bread and Butters I made yesterday. Here, the steam canner comes in very handy. It is easy to haul out and can four or five jars of something, like pickles or jam, without the hour long process of heating water in the big pot. When I used the boiling water pot, I waited and collected produce, then had a mad rush of processing and canning. It was exhausting. Now, I can run a batch of something through before dinner and the shelves fill up slowly but steadily, day to day. It also saves energy!

                Blackberries are good fresh off of the vine, warm from the sun, while the chickens hope for dropped fruit. I throw some into quart jars and freeze them for muffins in the winter. I’ve made jam from the wild ones, straining out the seeds. But today, the bowl of berries is just the right size for a pie. And I am thinking of cutting little circles out of the crust so that the juice bubbles up and through. That would finish off our dinner of zucchini and tomatoes and salad nicely, especially with a little ice cream.


                I’ll be doing this work every day for the next few weeks. Roasted tomatoes and jars of salsa, more jars of dried and canned fruits and veggies, and then potatoes and longkeeper tomatoes, squashes and apples, tucked away to be eaten all winter long. A little effort now—huge benefits all winter long. It’s a fair trade. 

Apple Butter

Quarter a big pot full of apples. Don't worry about skins or seeds, but whack off the nasty bits and bugs. Toss into a large pot, add about half a cup of water, and cook quickly into mush.

Push the mush through a food mill to remove skins and seeds. I balance mine over the crockpot rather than dirtying a bowl. Add half a cup of sugar, a tablespoon of cinnamon, and a bit of allspice. 

Set the crockpot on low heat and place in  a corner with the lid off. Leave all day or over night. Stir occasionally.  The apple butter is ready when it has reduced by half. 

Can in half-pint jars. It is not as shelf stable once opened as jam, so this reduces waste. Process for ten minutes in the steam canner.