Monday, September 29, 2008

Not Very Happy New Year

Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, begins at sundown tonight and, try as I might, I'm not feeling festive.

I was talked into being one of the co-coordinators for child care. It's a huge undertaking, but I was assured that I mostly needed to do prep work and organization and that there would be plenty of volunteers. Of course that's not the case and I will be spending more than 6 hours sitting at a table checking kids in and out while their parents, some of whom volunteered to do one whole 45 minute shift, enjoy services. Sometimes I love our hands-on congregation but other times (like now) I feel very resentful. Not a good place from which to contemplate the new year.

There's been no frenzied cooking to fill the house with rich aromas. We won't be having family over for a special meal. My husband and children will usher in the holiday at a big, festive congregational dinner, surrounded by our friends from the synagogue. I will be at work. It's funny how the calendar shakes out. Many years, Rosh Hashana falls during my September break and at at least one of the services is on a weekend. Not so this year when every evening service falls on a work night. I get two paid days each term which I can take for illness or holidays. Anything else and I have to decide whether it's worth losing a night's pay and right now, nothing is worth that. I'm taking off two nights next week (mostly so I can supervise the child care) and hoping I don't catch a bug between now and December 15. Of course if I were of the dominant American religion, none of this would matter because everything stops for Christian holidays What teacher ever has to work on Christmas or Easter?

I've always loved this time of year which feels perfect for a new beginning. Everything is changing, the light is bright and clear, and the air feels filled with promise. Despite the kvetching I'm trying very hard to find that sense of optimism and renewal this year amid all the little details and obligations. For any of my readers who are also welcoming a new year, I hope it's one of health and joy for you and your family.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Not a Rant

My writing this week has been rather kvetchy, hasn't it?

So now it's just a public service announcement for fiber people:

Just in case this wasn't already on your radar, The Oregon Flock and Fiber Festival takes place this weekend at the Clackamas County Fairgrounds. It's a huge gathering of fiber artists, vendors, and furry animals that's become an autumn tradition in our family. I have a small sum of money set aside to purchase a few goodies from one of the many small producers who wil be there but I may end up completely overwhelmed though in a very good way.

Students and Hookers and Cops, Oh My!

Two of my new students walked into class last night empty-handed. I insist that my students keep all their work in a binder and bring it nightly and to make this easier I even give them (freecycled) binders. When I asked these students where their notebooks were I got a heated tirade in Spanish about the police, jail, and prostitutes. I decided to revisit this after class when I had a bit more time, gave them paper and pencils, and proceeded to teach my class.

Afterward I got the full story. It seems that these two kids (both under 18) were walking home from class Wednesday night along SE 82nd Avenue, the busy 4-lane street on which the community college where I teach is located. 82nd Avenue is not a lovely street. It's known primarily for its blocks an blocks of used car lots, fast food restaurants, and tiny mom-and-pop, primarily immigrant-run storefronts. Oh, and hookers. Since the city allowed the "prostitution-free zone" to expire recently business has been up. It was pretty wild along 82nd Avenue this summer. All I experienced during my commute was eye-popping amounts of flesh, but local residents are furious at the activity taking place on the side streets, in front of homes, and behind businesses.

With all this background, you can probably already guess what happened. The boys were walking along 82nd to catch the bus when they were approached by a woman looking for business. They rebuffed her offer but apparently she followed them and kept pestering them at which point, wouldn't you know, Portland's finest show up and everyone was taken to jail for the night. The boys had everything taken from them including their school books and the cash they had in their wallets. They are hoping to recover these things by the weekend as this is all the money either of them has. They think they might need to go to court but they aren't entirely sure since no one explained anything to them in Spanish. That's the part that kills me. If our police department doesn't see the wisdom in providing basic Spanish language training to its officers or, better yet, hiring bilingual officers, couldn't they at least hire some interpreters?

And, more to the point, don't the police have better things to do? I understand that area residents are upset by the growth in prostitution and dismayed that the city let the admittedly effective prostitution-free zone expire, but the police are maybe overreacting.

The summer before last, while the zoning was still in effect, a young Afghan woman I'd known for over a year as a student in our program, was delivered to the doors of the school in a police car. She explained to me that she had been riding the bus from her workplace to school. On this very hot day she decided to get off the stifling bus at the McDonald's on 82nd to get some water and then walk the remaining blocks to school. Now, if you were to judge a girl's profession purely by how she dresses, you might get the wrong idea about this girl given her fondness for heavy makeup, big hair, high heels, and tight-fitting clothes. Regardless of how she looks, she's a deli clerk at New Seasons with a whole bunch of brothers here and a fiance in Kabul who wouldn't be too pleased if they found out the police thought she was a "working girl". Luckily we were able to vouch for her with the police. I don't know what (if anything) she told her family because I don't know if she ever understood why she'd been stopped.

I am not necessarily anti-police by any means. My brother was a cop, after all. But I do think that with all the power they have, they must be better trained in how to communicate with non-native English speakers. As for prostitution, it's been around an awfully long time. I don't think we'll be wiping it out in East Portland anytime soon.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Nice Surprise

Maybe all the dire economic news is getting to me. For the last few weeks I've been cooking and canning, stocking my shelves and stuffing my freezer. It helps that a friend said I could come pick as many apples and Italian plums as I wanted. We now have applesauce, plum jam, and numerous containers of slow-cooked tomato sauce to brighten our winter meals.

After I filled the slow cooker one last time this morning I sat down and caught up on some of my favorite food blogs. 101 Cookbooks had something called Nikki's Healthy Cookies which caught my eye in that they're both wheat-free and vegan. I personally love my wheat and never turn down dairy or eggs, but I often find myself in the position of needing to feed people on more restrictive diets. I recently read Shauna James Ahern's Gluten-Free Girl and found it a real eye opener, making me both grateful for my relatively easy diet and full of compassion for those who have to turn down so many of the things I regularly enjoy. However, I am as yet unwilling to invest in a pantry full of the expensive and esoteric alternative baking supplies her baked goods call for.

I used to regularly be part of a knitting group that met weekly. I loved getting up early on Wednesday mornings to make the treat of the day be it cheese scones or babka. As time went by numbers dwindled and the steady members adopted increasingly restrictive diets. My ability to bring food to share was limited either to frankly unsatisfying packaged gluten-free "treats" or fruit. I realize that this shouldn't matter but it really affected my feelings about these gatherings.

All of this is getting back to the point that even though I don't require gluten-free vegan treats, people that I love do and I'm happy to have something to feed them which is why I went back in to the kitchen today out of sheer curiosity and I am glad I did. These cookies are a delicious combination of appealing flavors and textures with ground almonds, coconut, and mashed banana. They're even sugar-free (apart from whatever chocolate you use). Sugar free? Vegan? Wheat free? I know, I know...they sound far too earnest to be tasty but you'd be silly not to try them the next time you have some bananas going brown in the fruit bowl.

And--here's a real news flash--Mr Pickiest of All Picky Children turned up his nose at these on his first pass through the kitchen but then came back, no doubt for the chocolate, and pronounced them "better than they look"! Given that this boy has some kind of built in sensor that calculates nutritional value and then rejects anything high on that scale, the fact that he happily downed a handful of these tasty nuggets is really saying something.
Nikki's Healthy Cookies on 101 Cookbooks. Yum!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

While I'm At It

Yesterday I shared with you my feelings about the problems inherent in "merit based" teacher pay. Today I'd like to talk a bit about Measure 58, another Bill Sizemore gem.

The Oregonian
Measure 58, one of five measures on the November ballot authored by Bill Sizemore, would prohibit schools from teaching English learners in their native language after one year in elementary school or two years in high school.
There are numerous problems with this proposal, not the least of which is Sizemore's familiar attempt to restrict teachers' and schools' flexibility to do what's best for children.

Ideally we'd be offering all LEP (Limited English Proficient) instruction in their first languages along with English language classes, allowing them to grasp core content information at roughly the same pace as their native English speaking peers. Research shows that students who develop their first languages fully, including reading and writing, are better able to fully develop their second language skills. Those whose first language literacy skills stop developing around the time they enter school are less likely to thrive academically.

Unfortunately we don't have teachers qualified to teach in all 40+ languages found in Oregon's schools so pure bilingual education can't be offered equitably. Instead most school use some form of "sheltered instruction" to make content comprehensible to LEP students, my program included. More and more we are expected to focus less on straight English and incorporate content areas like math, social studies, science, and more.

Mainstreaming in English-only classrooms works for some LEP students and is a total failure for others. That's why there are alternatives like my program. Measure 58 would limit students' access to programs like ours and reduce our ability to meet each student's needs, artificially forcing them to perform according to a predetermined timetable. Because each student is an individual, teachers ad school districts need the freedom to teach each student in the way that works best. This is a difficult enough goal to achieve in the public schools. Measure 58 would make it even more so.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Merit Pay for Teachers?

I spent some time this morning listening to our local public radio station's call in program. The topic was upcoming Ballot Measure 60 which seeks to eliminate seniority-based pay for teachers and instead base teacher pay on classroom performance. Here in Oregon we've already defeated a similar measure but good old Bill Sizemore just won't give up in his fight against the greedy, incompetent teachers bringing down the public schools.

As one of those teachers, I have no problem with accountability. I don't get to make it up as I go along (though some nights it sure feels like that). I need to follow the standards set by our state department of education. But let's be clear. When they talk about basing my pay on "classroom performance", there won't be thoughtful, individualized, ongoing assessment. They're talking about standardized testing which works out to a brief snapshot of how a student takes a test on a given day.

My students are not exactly what every public school teacher dreams of. They are almost exclusively poor, most have little formal education, and, oh yeah, they don't speak English. Many of them are not only supporting themselves, but sending money back home as well. These young people have little in common with the overachieving students in affluent schools and they work a whole lot harder. With all the demands on their time and attention they aren't usually academic superstars. Their progress is often so slow it's all but invisible to anyone but the teacher who spends 3 hours a night with them. And has done so for the last 12 years. It's not going to show on some stupid test written by some overpaid educrat in an office somewhere.

The problem with merit pay is that it will reinforce much of what's already wrong in the public schools. Those teachers in more affluent neighbors whose students come from well-educated families always show better test results. They'll get the bonuses based on a lot of factors that have nothing whatsoever to so with their teaching. Meanwhile the teachers who work with the less advantaged students will rarely see the kinds of test scores that will earn bonuses, thus punishing them for factors that have nothing to do with their teaching. And the gap between "good" schools and struggling schools widens.

I started a new term last night with a lovely group of eager, delightful students. This term is notable in our program because the administration has decided that our English program will now include 2 hours a week of math. That's right, I am now teaching math. Never mind that apart form working with my homeschooled children I have no experience teaching math whatsoever. Never mind that I have no training in teaching math whatsoever. This is the order that came down and I am expected to fumble along and do my best. Orders from on high are not that unusual and, given that I have no training and no support, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be earning any merit-based bonuses for my teaching this year no matter how much extra time and effort I put in trying to figure out how to teach math to ESL students.

I'm most definitely not in this for the money but I also don't think I should be punished for the type of students I work with and for the decisions of my superiors. I hope those of you reading this in Oregon will take a look at Measure 60 and then vote against it.

Not Exactly Tasty

Normally I only write about the tastiest things from my kitchen but cold season is rapidly approaching and I decided today was a good day to share a great (but not exactly tasty) recipe with you. I wrote about it nearly two years ago on my other blog but I know I have some new readers who might appreciate this.

The Tonic is a fearsome brew of garlic, onion, horseradish, cayenne, and turmeric steeped in apple cider vinegar and eventually sweetened with honey. It's like salad dressing for Satan, really. It's hard to choke down but this stuff works. With its powerful combination of natural germ-fighters, it will kill the bugs that try to make you sick.

This needs to sit for3 or 4 weeks before it reaches full potency so run out and find yourself some fresh horseradish root today. Then when those sniffles start up in late October you will be prepared.

The recipe is here. Good luck.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Egg Curry

Thank goodness for Colleen who is not only responsible for my first taste of egg curry (made by her Indian mother-in-law)--she also reminded me to give it a try and gave me a copy of her favorite Indian cookbook where I found the recipe. What a friend!

I've made egg curry twice now and it's been absolutely heavenly: rich, complex, and hearty. I served it over basmati rice steamed with a cinnamon stick and a few crushed cardamom pods and it made a perfect meal.

This low budget cookbook is packed with a huge variety of recipes but leaves something to be desired in terms of instructions so I tried to re-work the recipe and make it somewhat more user friendly. Nonetheless, it may look a bit daunting. Full disclosure: the first page is just ingredients. But it's really not that hard and most definitely worth every ingredient.

You'll find my adapted recipe here. After typing all that out I think it might be time for another batch.

Self Portraits?

Not so much. But how about that sweater?

This is my first ever sweater for myself. I run way too hot for sweaters but this yarn is soft enough to wear next to my skin, eliminating the need for an extra layer. It's a simple top-down raglan based on this pattern but given that I lack a cylindrical upper body, I resorted to a bit of completely made up shaping and got lucky because it worked out perfectly. There's enough space where I need it without huge saggy shoulders. The arms are short enough and the waist ribbing is snug enough to keep the sweater from stretching and dragging. I'm so happy with this sweater that I don't even mind having knit it twice.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Keeping my Chin Up

I try really hard not to get sucked into despair but sometimes I really can't avoid the fact that it really looks like everything is going to hell in a handbasket. Money is becoming a huge issue for us and I know we are in good company there. Even before today's financial meltdown, it had become apparent that it's going to become more and more difficult to stay on top of the bills, pay the mortgage, and still buy decent food for our kids.

So how do I cope? It's the little things, really. Today I managed to scrape together $15 for Planned Parenthood. I made the donation in honor of Sarah Palin. And had the acknowledgment card sent to McCain campaign headquarters. And do you know what? I feel a while lot better!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Iron Artist

I'm not sure why, but I've been in a bit of a slump and feeling like there's nothing new to write, no new photos to take, nothing new to make. Some attitude especially in the middle of a three week break!
I got a bright jolt of color today which might turn things around. The boys were asked to join a friend's team for the Iron Artist competition. The money raised benefits SCRAP which, like the swifts, is one of those uniquely quirky Portland institutions. Each team was given a box of materials and three hours in which to design and build a one-of-a-kind sculpture. Judges offered feedback, handed out demerits, and happily took bribes. It was a wildly colorful day of costumes, music, art, and particularly rich people watching. My camera was in constant use. We all had a fine time and are already looking forward to next year. Big thanks to Babs for inviting us.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Saving Summer

I've been on break for two weeks and cooking up a storm. I have lots of tasty things to share with you but my photos have been stinky and I haven't found the time to tend to my blogs. I know--excuses, excuses.

One of these days, I'll sit down and write out the recipes for egg curry and piroshki, I promise. But until then, I have a late summer/early fall offering to tide you over (and make you very happy) in the meantime.

Is your garden overflowing with tomatoes? Mine is. Plus I was lucky enough to get a vacationing friend's CSA delivery for two weeks--more tomatoes! Though tomato sauce is a staple food around here, the thought of gently simmering a cauldron of tomato sauce for hours on end just didn't appeal to me during these warm late summer days. I inevitably get sidetracked while simmering sauces, resulting in a not-very-lovely scorched flavor. Mmmmm....

Wouldn't you know, the newspaper's food section came to my aid with a story on preserving summer's bounty with that most dowdy of devices: the crock-pot. Maybe you have one of the snazzy new ones? Mine is an earth-toned relic of the 70's complete with line drawings of herbs on the outside. It was old when it was given to me years ago but still works perfectly well.

The crock-pot method of making tomato sauce has numerous advantages. Your sauce can cook down to perfection without stirring because it won't scorch. It won't send bubbles of thick sauce all over your stovetop and your forearms. And it won't heat up the entire house on a late summer day. Having used the crock pot for apple and pear butter in the past, I knew it had potential in helping me handle the tomato avalanche.The recipe included in the newspaper wasn't quite what I wanted so, in classic form, I fiddled a bit as I went along, adding lots of garlic and upping the onions. I would imagine that bell peppers would make a fine addition.

I filled the crock pot with large chunks of tomato and cranked it up to high. Meanwhile I browned onions, garlic, celery, and carrot in a large skillet and then tipped it all in to the crock pot along with a bunch basil and another of parsley. The original recipe suggests throwing everything in the crock pot but I wanted a deeper flavor so I opted to brown the onions, celery, garlic, and carrots in a skillet. It was no big thing to use the stove for 20 minutes.

I covered the pot, and let it simmer for a couple of hours. Then I propped the lid slightly open with a wooden spoon so moisture could escape and proceeded to cook for 10 hours or so. Once cooled, I ran everything through a food mill to remove skins and seeds. I added a bit of salt to taste and then packaged everything up for the freezer. Filling my 6 qt stockpot gave me about 8 cups of delicious sauce.

The fist batch was made of all different types of tomatoes including many juicy slicers. The sauce was very tasty but took longer to cook than my second batch which used only paste tomatoes. It hardly matters. This is about the easiest thing in the world.

If you don't have a crock pot, ask around. Someone you know is bound to have one lurking on their pantry shelves. Offer them a pint of sauce in exchange for the loan. And then hang onto it and make another batch or two. I hate to say it but winter is coming. I know I want to go into it with a bit of summer saved.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Election Fatigue...Already

I already wrote about how Obama didn't thrill me but since we've had Republicans on Parade for the last week, Obama's looking pretty good.

I've been doing a lot of research trying to figure out just who Sarah Palin is. Joe Biden may be a crashing bore but at least he's not a gun-toting, book-banning, mean-spirited evangelical liar.

In an effort to promote critical thinking in my children, I made them listen to Obama's acceptance speech and then took them out (because we have no TV reception) to watch McCain's speech at our favorite cafe where the other viewers made for a memorable experience. Now at least my kids understand that it isn't only their parents who roll their eyes and groan when Republicans are talking.

I found their responses very interesting. While hearing McCain talk for the umpty-millionth time about his POW experience and watching all the teary listeners on TV I wondered why it was that I couldn't make myself care. The Dark Lord said later that he couldn't understand why virtually all McCain talked about was his POW experience. "It's not like that made him qualified to be president", he pointed out and I realized that was pretty much my view, but in the succinct language of a 15 year old boy.

Meanwhile, despite all the Palin family bombshells, I found out something fascinating on the other side thanks to my friend Ruth. It turns out Michele Obama has a rabbi in her family! I realize it's neither here nor there, but kind of interesting nonetheless.