Thursday, March 29, 2012

Nature Table Update

There was some kind of wild party in the Shamrock Forest at the nature table. The chicks are still talking about it, and Bluebird has moved her nest. It looks like it was an invitation-only event.

Treasure eggs

The Easter Bunny this year is going to bring Starboy's cousins some fairy eggs. This is something that Root Children could bring from the earth as well, if that's how your family rolls.

The fairies are from Toobs, which I picked up at Michael's for a different project. There were a few left over.

I meant to put in some confetti as well, but I forgot. I thought a fun flurry of color as the egg smashed would be fun.

Using watered down school glue and a paint brush, the fairies were sealed into their eggs. They were too tall to fit in the whole way.

They were dried halfway in the egg box, but then when the whole egg was wet I just set them on the counter to dry on their feet. You have to be careful the egg doesn't stick to the carton. But they dry fairly quickly.

E. Bunny also will hide some treasure eggs for Starboy. These are eggs I've been saving over the past couple of weeks during breakfast prep.

I take care to break only the end with a knife, and dump out the egg for omelettes, then I wash the shell and let it dry. For these eggs, I've only covered the hole and less than half the egg with the glued tissue. I was worried the egg would be too hard to break with that sturdy paper maƮche on it.

The treasures are glass "embeds" (for floral arrangements or for gel candle scenes — this seems like a goofy hobby to me, but in the middle of a post about gluing paper onto old egg shells, maybe I shouldn't be throwing stones). The embeds will be great for the nature table. There also are little wooden treasures for Starboy's gnomes. You also could include glass beads.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Spring treats

Inspired by AmberLee's happy mail effort, as chronicled on GiversLog, I created a spring mail egg for Auntie Optimist, Starboy's pal Leah*, and my old college friend Haring*.

The mailing label and stamps (about $1.60, or 4 stamps--I guessed) went right on the egg, which I sealed shut with plastic tape. Inside was a handmade chick and some chocolate egg treats, with paper grass! Everyone was surprised to receive such spring fun from the mail carrier!

*Almost everyone at Egg Juice gets a code name to preserve privacy.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Tree Sandwiches

Starboy says these look like Christmas trees. I can't argue. This is a departure from our frequent triangle butterfly sandwiches, that often bring him to the table when he "isn't hungry."

Data fire extinguished

Well, it was not without harrowing moments, but Techman installed a new hard drive into my machine and used the latest backup I had, so I'm partying like it's January, 2012.

He also set up an additional wireless backup system that I cannot unplug. He was able to do this without any smart remarks, whatsoever. Which was very kind of him. I would be lost without him. To the nth degree.

I didn't used to be the kind of person who needed to be saved from herself. I guess I am slacking in my Type A tendencies. I wonder where the rest of that energy is going? It's sure not being spent on housecleaning....

Car Eggs revisited

I figured out a way easier way to make car eggs. Duh.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Nature Table Update

The Thumbstumbler requested an overall photo of our nature table, which you also can see here, here, and here.

The "nature table" actually is a cutting board covered with a playsilk. But given the bench, the scene is expanding with a pond to the south, and a shamrock forest and a nature library to the north.

It's not the most beautiful nature table on record. Meg of Sew Liberated has a great nature table in a cabinet (to keep the cat out). Waldorf Mama, who appears to own the entire incredible catalog of Ostheimer figurines, has some lovely nature scenes on their table each season. Simmy, of the now defunct Echoes of a Dream has some beautiful scenes as well—her Snowdrop Fairies (peg people) are super cute.

But it all depends on your view of the table and how it will serve your family. While it seems obvious that one purpose of many nature tables is to feed Mommy's crafty spirit, in many homes it's about what the family builds together. At our house, Starboy can play with the items but make sure they "live" at the nature table when he is finished, and it's a car-free zone. We all contribute to the table. At our local Waldorf school, the nature table is a scene developed by the teacher that is meant to develop respect--so children can look with their eyes, but not play with the characters.

Here's a nice essay about nature tables from The Magic Onions.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Data Disaster

Ironically, on the eve of the National Day of Unplugging, my hard drive utterly croaked and is completely dead in the water.

Conveniently, I hadn't backed up in...oh...months. So, lots has gone missing. And never mind the two hours I spent just before it happened creating a database of education links for the charter school that's trying to get off the ground. And I can't even bellyache about any of it since I didn't ensure that Time Machine could do its backup. I had been warned.

Techman says he can't make any of his extraordinary tips and tricks even recognize the disk, so we might not be able to recover any of it. If you know of any superhuman Mac data recovery resources, feel free to recommend in the comments below.

Coming up: Reports on re-establishing rhythm in the home, if not Waldorf-style, then back-up-every-Friday style.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Pumpkin pancakes with (shhh!) spinach

One of the recipes I really like for Starboy — and it's great for adults, too — is for pumpkin pancakes with cornmeal. I hacked the recipe to include spinach, so it's an even better breakfast or snack for the choosy toddler. Auntie Optimist likes these, because they don't make her feel hyped up on sugar for the rest of the morning.

Starboy likes his with vanilla yogurt, and traditionally he stands in his tower and eats them at the counter "like a cookie" while I take on other kitchen tasks.

The best part is that they freeze well, so I make up a recipe or two, then freeze them for a future quick breakfast that's a little better than cereal. I store them between waxed paper, then place in a zipper bag or a plastic container.

Pumpkin Pancakes (with spinach)
this recipe does even better when the batter has a chance to soak for 15-60 minutes (or overnight), which softens the cornmeal

Sift together into a large bowl:
1/2 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ginger
1 pinch nutmeg
dash salt

Stir in:
1/2 cup pureed pumpkin (I use canned)
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tsp orange zest (can be left out but much better if left in)
1 egg

Mix in:
1/3 cup milk
1/2 cup peeled apples finely chopped OR raisins OR walnuts, chopped
1/2 cup frozen organic chopped spinach (optional)

Use only 2-3 Tbsp of batter per pancake on a hot, buttered or oiled griddle. I use a cookie scooper.

Serve with:
Maple syrup, fresh fruit or vanilla yogurt.

Serves: About two adults and one or two kids. Make two recipes for four adults and three kids. Make three recipes for six adults and three kids.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Nature table update

The nature table is blooming and growing as springtime approaches, with lots of new springtime friends.

Frogs hang out in the damp grass, and sometimes near the edge of the pond.

Two turtles have joined the scene. We do not know why they are pointy.

The cherry blossoms have begun to bloom, and the squirrels are frolicking.

I know. It's a little Back East. But I haven't found any blooming Joshua Trees on Etsy yet.

The meadow bustles with spring activity. There is a shamrock bush to the side, but it was too big to fit in the image.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Spring bluebird comes to the Nature Table

Starboy has been pressing for some feathered fauna for his nature table. I have drooled over lovely wooden bird sets on Esty, and the delicious Ostheimer classics (O! The tree!), but at $7-18 apiece, that's a lot of dough for a little wood. So I promised him I would make some. How? I had no idea.

He began a campaign, and I had to get creative quickly. Or else find earplugs. So I modified the Lavender's Blue pattern, by printing it out at about 30% size, so the finished bird would be about three inches across. The scale is awful for the table, but I wanted to try a small size that wouldn't give me arthritis at my first attempt. And hey, she fits in the nest pretty well.

There is some kind of science going on with that egg of hers, eh?

Since the bird was so small, I did not turn it inside out, but hand-embroidered the piecing with a blanket stitch.

Anyone have any other quick, cute birdie projects we should add to our flock?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Almost No-Knead bread

Good grief, is this recipe a disaster. So many raves about bread in five minutes a day, inspired by Jim Lahey's recipe from the NYT, and I want so much to be that family! Fresh bread! Nourishing through the creative artistry of your two, thoughtful hands!

I've tried this recipe only three or four times, with a mixed range of mediocre results. And nevermind that it takes me a full five or 10 minutes to figure out when to start the process in order to get bread by dinnertime, without doing any of the steps in the middle of the night. I found the recipe improved with two tablespoons of sugar added (not so granola, I know, but I was worried to try honey and the flavor is so lifeless without it).

This try was the best so far: the yeast responded, the dough was alive and playful, the finished loaf light and hollow with a pleasant tone. At every step it looked as it was described, except— it is very flat, yielding a thin slice and I have no idea why. Oh except I just realized this minute: Maybe if I used a smaller pot, I would get more of a boule that is taller than wide. Duh. I may be using an 8-qt dutch oven and that may be too big?

Also, there are so many air bubbles I wonder what else has gone awry in the process. I used to work with a guy who was big into bread baking—he had starters all over his tiny kitchen and living room, on top of the TV armoire—and he had a bread guru who advised him. After a successful loaf, my friend would scan in a slice of bread, and email it to the guru, who could tell him what should be adjusted in the process simply by the shape and placement of the air bubbles.

I'm glad that guru is not around to evaluate this loaf. I don't think I have time for the litany of advice he likely would offer.

Techman deemed it a success, however, and it has made for good snacking throughout the weekend with some almond butter or peanut butter, or as toast.

But I don't think it's half as easy or successful as Pioneer Woman's garlic bubble bread. I'm also very intrigued by this Irish soda bread recipe, which I discovered at about hour 20 of the 23-hour no-knead process. (They said it was no-knead, they didn't say it was quick.)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Veggie Fries - O Mag's Parmesan Zucchini Fries

Well, after yesterday's carrot fries, I definitely had to try the Parmesan Zucchini Fries in the same article of the latest O, The Oprah Magazine. Because: Parmesan, salt and dill, what's not to like? The results were incredible. (I can't find the recipes online, but I will update this post with links if I do.)

This one was a little more involved, but totally worth it.

Preheat the oven to 425˚. Cut 1 1/2 lbs zucchini into thick fries.

Now you're going to make up three dredging bowls of various mixtures. A pie pan works great, or a proper breading tray set, or, cereal bowls. From left to right:

Bowl one: 1/2 cup AP flour, 1 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp pepper
I used the rice flour I just got for the other recipe. Like I'm going to go through a whole box of rice flour this year? Hey and it's gluten free. Oh wait. But then you add breadcrumbs. Nevermind.

Bowl two: 3 large eggs, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp pepper, all whisked together.
Techman thought these were too salty overall, so you could leave out the salt here.

Bowl three: 1 1/2 cups Panko or plain breadcrumbs, 1/2 cup grated parmesan, 1 Tbsp chopped dill, 1/2 tsp salt.
I used freshly shredded parmesan here, and I'll be honest: It didn't go very far. I probably doubled it and a few fries at the end were a bit cold and naked. Ever since reading about cellulose in pre-shredded cheese at the grocery store, I've tried to shred my own. Despite the fact that I loathe the grater.

Also, I do not use Trader Joe's panko, because it has a weird consistency, sort of like....gravel. So I used regular breadcrumbs here.

So, you're going to dredge the zuke sticks in the bowls in order, 1,2,3. Try to drain the egg off in bowl two, or bowl three gets unruly pretty quickly.

Place the sticks on a baking sheet with new parchment (trimmed to size, to avoid a dinner date with your friendly, neighborhood fire brigade), keeping them from touching each other. Bake 15 minutes, rotate the trays, then bake 7-12 mins more.

These were DELICIOUS. And go to town eating them, because as soon as they cool they get sort of soft and mushy. They are slightly revived with re-baking, but this is definitely not a make ahead snack.

By the way, Starboy had utterly no interest in these whatsoever. I think he was afraid of the crunchy consistency. Ah well, more for me!

Parmesan Zucchini Fries
April 2012 • O, The Oprah Magazine
pg. 169

1 1/2 lbs zucchini, trimmed and sliced into thick fries

Pie plate one, stir together:
1/2 cup AP flour (or rice flour)
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

Pie plate two, whisk together:
3 large eggs
1/2 tsp kosher salt (optional)
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper

Pie plate three, stir together:
1 1/2 cups panko or plain bread crumbs
1/2 cup grated or freshly shredded Paremesan cheese
1 Tbsp chopped dill (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 425˚. Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment, taking care to trim the excess draping over the side so it does not burn.

2. Set up your three pie plates as described above.

3. Working in batches, first dip zucchini sticks in flour, shaking off excess. Transfer to egg mixture and and toss until coated. Let excess egg run off , then coat zucchini in panko mixture.

4. Arrange sticks, without crowding, in a single layer on your prepared baking sheet. Bake 15 mins then rotate the pans. Continue to bak until panko coating is golden and crisp, 7-12 mins more.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Playdates with paint and puzzles

Mary Jane's mommy the Thumbstumbler invited us over for a playdate so the mommies could talk like adults for five minutes the kids could socialize. Mary Jane* is really into puzzles, so she and Starboy worked on a couple of giant floor puzzles, and played kitchen.

I brought over some spring-colored Bingo markers (or, Dingo Markers, as Starboy calls them, but I've started calling them Splat Markers) and the artists make some small works.

It's fascinating to see their different approaches, given the same tools. Mary Jane discovered that if you press the sponge marker tips together, paint drips out onto the floor.

*Starboy's friends and family get code names, to protect their privacy.

Veggie Fries - O Mag's Carrot Fries

The latest issue of O, The Oprah Magazine arrived in my box this week, and pages 169 and 201 have a couple of — it turns out — delicious vegetable fries recipes. I tried the Parmesan Zucchini Fries, which were outstanding, and the carrot fries, which also were good and Starboy actually ate some. I can't find the recipes online, but I will update this post with links if I do.

See the how-to after the jump.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

It's already happening

Years ago, when I began teaching, I ran across a sharply written allegory about the No Child Left Behind Law. Called No Dentist Left Behind, the essay hears out the reactions of a dentist whose skills will be judged by the number of cavities in his clients' teeth.

"Don't you see that dentists don't all work with the same clientele; so much depends on things we can't control?"For example," the dentist said, "I work in a rural area with a high percentage of patients from deprived homes, while some of my colleagues work in upper-middle class neighborhoods. Many of the parents I work with don't bring their children to see me until there is some kind of problem and I don't get to do much preventive work."

The dentist and the narrator go back and forth, outlining the arguments for North Carolina's education accountability law, which parallels NCLB. The dentist sums up:

"You don't get it," he said. "Doing this would be like grading schools and teachers on an average score on a test of children's progress without regard to influences outside the school — the home, the community served and stuff like that. Why would they do something so unfair to dentists? No one would ever think of doing that to schools."

Ho, ho, ho. That was 2002 when the ball was just rolling. Now, 10 years later, teachers are being evaluated according to students' standardized test scores, with Colorado, New York and Washington State most recently passing laws that tie testing to teacher reviews. Not coincidentally, the changes help the states qualify for hundreds of millions of dollars in "Race to the Top" federal funding.

To be clear, we're not just making changes to drive out good teachers, compromise our children's educational content, and reduce the professionalism of teaching, we are in a race to do it.

Already education, educators and students are suffering under the test score / evaluation process. Stories this week have the arc you would expect, but since I stumbled upon so many of them in a few days, I thought it was worth noting here. Of course, there are others, and I hope if you find some good ones, you'll post links in the comments.

• A "bad" teacher "confesses" in the opinion section of the Sunday NYT that by hopping-to whatever his principal instructed him to do during evaluations, his special education students suffered.

• Teacher Tom shows frustration that politics seems to win over common sense in education policy, and he doesn't mince words:

I used to think we were just dealing with misguided crusaders and dilettantes, well-intended folks striving to give back, but no longer. There are powerful, wealthy people who want our children to be less well-educated, more obedient, and less likely to question; they are looking to our schools to create a citizenry that is so hard at work keeping their heads above water that they don't have the time, let alone the ability or knowledge, to speak for themselves.

• The New York Times' Schoolbook blog quotes E.B. White in an anecdote about how teaching to the test doesn't necessarily yield a series of correct answers.

Diane Ravitch commented recently in the New York Review of Books blog:

No incompetent teacher should be allowed to remain in the classroom. Those who can’t teach and can’t improve should be fired. But the current frenzy of blaming teachers for low scores smacks of a witch-hunt, the search for a scapegoat, someone to blame for a faltering economy, for the growing levels of poverty, for widening income inequality.

Hmmm....and something like 76-82 percent of teachers are female, and 52 percent hold a master's degree or higher. Now there's a Ph.D. thesis for another day.

• And not as recently, Anthony Cody, on an Education Week blog, challenges the notion that teachers could elevate one in four students from poverty (through standardized tests, which prove how good the teacher is):

Teachers have already chosen to put our shoulders to the wheel of inequality. Those of us who work with children in poverty are making tremendous sacrifices to meet their needs. The reason child poverty has expanded over the past two decades has nothing to do with "bad teachers," and everything to do with the huge concentration of wealth, and the devastation of America's manufacturing base, as millions of jobs have been shipped overseas in pursuit of higher profits.
The drive to get rid of bad teachers for the benefit of the poor is a phony crusade. The use of test scores for this purpose ensures that students in high poverty schools will continue to wallow in year-round test preparation...

The interesting part here, is that the the LAUSD evaluation process ("STULL") that has been so soundly attacked, in my experience very closely resembles his description of what a strong process should be — if the principal follows it. Which takes me back to: Where are the principals in all of this? As the managers of the teachers, why aren't they being held accountable to their number one role of supporting teachers? How come there aren't more out there like Clarita Zeppie?

We must have evaluation that is sensitive to the composition of each class. You will not get this from a spreadsheet. You cannot get here with data tools. We are dealing with human beings here. We need the skill and judgment of compassionate experts. And that is what we want every teacher to be with his or her students -- a compassionate expert, able to give specific feedback, encouragement, and create a good learning environment. A school is like a classroom in this way. A good principal is a strong instructional leader, and works with his or her staff as a community of learners. What we want is for the doors in that school to be open, for the principal to be circulating, for teachers to be circulating as well, observing and learning from one another, and solving problems together. When the starting point for teacher evaluation reform is "we have far too many bad teachers, and we need to start using data to expose and drive them out," the entire process is sabotaged from the start.

How does this happen?

It's up to citizens to get schooled in the politics, the process and some details about child development, to make a difference here. We will have to vote with our feet, our voices and at the polls. But the voting will not be significant without educating ourselves about the real needs in the classroom. 

Find a teacher you know and love, today. Ask her what she thinks. Find a way to support her, and her work: locally, today...and in the big picture with your government. It is our understanding that will make a difference.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Thinking about learning

I was just reading a post from SweetGingerMama, a friend of ours from birthing class a few years ago, about her education philosophy. She was homeschooled through 10th grade. She lists benefits to experiencing homeschooling, and they are some we all should envy. They gave me some things to think about.

"I am convinced the sense of safety and security that home school provides in those very early years of development plays a major positive role in building a child's sense of worth and self-confidence."

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Nature Table

So I decided to finally establish our nature table.

I was inspired by the story about nature images in children's literature, and by a visit to our local private Waldorf school, which also sells delicious little gems and visual treats for adding interest. The pre-pre-k classroom we visited of course had a beautiful nature table.

Bubbles? Puddles? Gazing stones?

Starboy and I went foraging for nature in the yard to get the table started. The wind has been blowing, and Starboy noted that "The nature is cold today."

We don't have much growing in our yard, except for weeds and those kinds of plants that miraculously survive despite months of neglect, even in the shade.

I'm pretty sure this one is a weed.

Our nature table is a giant cutting board from HomeGoods (TJ Maxx), covered with a handmade playsilk (last year's eighth grade fundraiser at the Waldorf school's faire). I couldn't find a tray with short sides that I liked, and we didn't really have one to set aside, so the cutting board seemed like an inexpensive way to go. Our house is small and we may need to move the table around, so it seemed like a good idea to make it portable. Also If we put it away for a while, at least we can use the board to carve a Thanksgiving turkey or something. Or an enormous amount of vegetables.
I wanted Starboy to participate and feel like the table is for him. We added on Starboy's pond with fish to the side, and a duck swimming in it (the duck actually is basked in autumn sunlight, but we're not going to worry about that detail, especially since it looks like a unicorn shot with golden arrows anyway). They both seemed kind of spring-y, and it gives the little frogs a place to play.

So far it's not that impressive looking, overall, but as a process it's a great experience for him, and a creative outlet for me. I'd love to have some more trees, and I plan to work on some felt plants and birds. A work in progress.

The only challenge has been keeping the cars out of the nature table. Starboy tends to test things out by running cars through them. He's having a hard time understanding that cars aren't a part of nature—especially since we drive them through the pines to our campsites and park them there.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Song of the Snowdrop Fairy

We've been reading seasonal fairy stories to calm down at bedtime and fight the cortisol surge when we miss the time target (which apparently is 6:30 pm. How we are supposed to manage that, I don't know.). Starboy likes reading with the headlamp.

After just a couple of days of this, Starboy opened the book and said in a careful, tiny voice,

"Deep sleeps the winter!
Spring is far away...
Fair maids of February
Stand in the snow."

Another favorite is the Spindleberry Fairy, with her red berries, but he has not learned her song yet.