Friday, May 1, 2015

A quick guide to teacher appreciation

Teachers, like most people, love appreciation.  Very conveniently there is a whole week that most schools seem to celebrate.  It is amazing and usually full of carbs for teachers to eat.

However, there is a trend where *it seems* like teacher appreciation is a little bit more about mom-craft-ambition than it is about *actually* appreciating the teacher.

So, I've created this little guide.  I'm probably a jerk for doing so. But, just go through the questions.

1.  Is your idea for a gift a handwritten note from you or your child?
Yes: PROCEED.  Even better if you can cite specific examples of your child's success in that teacher's class, because that becomes something to include in your teacher's portfolio for evaluation.  Really, this is the best and most amazing gift you can give.  Just take the time to type or write out a specific note of appreciation and it will seriously make your teacher's day.
No: Eh, can you do this anyways?  Seriously.  Evaluations are stressful and it's always awesome to have some praise to show our evaluators.

2.  Is your idea a gift card?
Yes: Make sure it's a reasonable amount.  Like, under $25.  Some districts have limits on a total a teacher can accept, otherwise it becomes a potential for favoritism. Winning ideas?  Starbucks and Barnes and Noble.  B&N (or Amazon) is helpful because we can use it to buy books to teach with.
No: That's ok.  Nothing beats a handwritten note, which is FREE.

3.  Is it flowers?
Yes: Proceed, but please include a vase.  Otherwise, she'll probably be emptying out the pencil cup to stick them in some water, or putting them in her water bottle that she's supposed to drink from so she doesn't get a UTI (like her doctor has told her to do a million and one times).  Even if it's just a jar.  For the love of all.the.things, please send in flowers with something that also holds water.
No: That's ok.  Have you started writing your handwritten note yet?

3.  Is it teacher-themed?  Like some kind of home decor with apples?
Yes: STOP IMMEDIATELY.  Do you give your accountant an appreciation gift of calculators or a framed print of a screenshot of Quickbooks?  I'm not sure how this idea started, that teachers like things decorated with apples, but... that's not what my house looks like.  My classroom doesn't have that stuff either.  Think about writing a handwritten note instead.  It's FREE. And your teacher won't have to figure out what to do with this.

3.  Is your idea handmade?
Yes:  Is it from Pinterest?  See Pinterest guidelines below. If it is edible, proceed, with awareness of any potential allergies.  Anaphylaxis is NOT a way to appreciate your teacher.  The best edible gifts, IMO, are chocolate, cookies, muffins, and homemade jam.
No: See above.

Let's review a general list of guidelines of ideas for teacher appreciation from Pinterest:
----If it is made of school supplies, but is NOT ACTUAL USABLE SCHOOL SUPPLIES, stop.
For example, I have kids that always lose crayons and are always asking me for crayons.  Giving your teacher a couple of boxes of crayons that she won't have to buy herself on her next trip to Target is a better use of crayons than making a crayon wreath (we've all seen them, just search on Pinterest).'s really cute.  And took a lot of time.  But if a kid needs a blue crayon, I'd rather have a blue crayon to just give him. If you love it that much, make it for outside of your front door.

Better idea?  If you really want to go all balls to the wall on school supplies, think about getting your teacher some nice supplies that aren't for kids to use.  A new set of dry erase markers for her use on the whiteboard, or a nice set of Sharpies, or some Post-Its... LIKE CAN A TEACHER EVER HAVE ENOUGH POST-ITS? NO NEVER... or some pretty binder clips or file folders.  Bonus round: Ask her what supplies are low that she needs for kids to get her through June.  She'll probably ask you for glue sticks.  Super bonus round? Offer to make her these.

---If it took you longer to think of OR Google a cute saying than it did to put the gift together, STOP.  Your kids are cute enough that your teacher probably doesn't need cute sayings.  And don't just give me something because you found a cute saying.  I don't like mints, for I don't care if you think I was MINT to teach.  (Does anyone consider that misuse of words like that has the potential to drive a teacher crazy after she spends days of her life correcting grammar?)  Use your time to write a note of appreciation about how I was meant to teach, with specific examples.  Again.  It's FREE.  Better yet, just CC that letter of appreciation to your teacher's principal.  That will REALLY make her day.

The exception to this is PTAs.  PTAs usually do an amazing job appreciating teachers, and it's usually with stuff like this.  Our PTA gave me some mints with that saying.  It was so nice, actually--an unexpected surprise for the whole staff.  It is really wonderful when our PTA appreciates us throughout the year and during this week, even with cute little sayings attached to Izzes and candy bars.  But the PTA is appreciating a whole staff.  If you are just appreciating your child's one teacher, can you please direct your time and energy into writing a note instead of picking out a cute saying?  Or a card, or have your child write your teacher a quick note.  If you're going to spend the time looking at all the ideas on Pinterest and picking one out and printing out a cute tag, for your one teacher, just use that time instead to write that note.

Some final thoughts on teacher appreciation: this profession is anomalous in that it takes it's appreciation week very seriously.  Part of it is because we love it, and part of it is because families like to show appreciation.  But the hype over this week is concerning because sometimes I think an attitude of appreciation lets us off the hook in having a larger discussion.  What I mean is... we distract ourselves by appreciating our teachers from larger, more tangible ways to appreciate teachers.  Teachers are trained and skilled professionals, most with advanced investors, or accountants, or engineers.  Yet we, as a society, don't appreciate those professions  in the fanfare way we apply to teachers.  We just pay them a salary that communicates what they're worth.  I wonder if teacher appreciation is some unconscious way that we absolve ourselves from the guilt we might feel about how much time our teachers take away from their own families and money spent away from their own household budgets if we seriously thought about it.  If we really think our teachers are important, join the lobby for better wages, or even just lobby for more state funds to reduce class size and hire more staff and provide better programs for students.

So you know that letter I've been pushing you to write?  Write it.  Type it up.  Sign it.  Give it to your teacher.  Give it to her administrator.  And then edit it to add a little paragraph to explain to your legislators how much you value public education, and then send it to them--as many legislators as you can.  That's an awesome way to appreciate your teacher.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Legislation in WA and Assessment

In Washington state we've had some pretty remarkable things happen over the past couple of years that really illustrate the tango between educators, the public, and policy makers.  In 2012, the state supreme court ruled in McCleary v. Washington that the legislature had not fulfilled it's own self-imposed obligations to fully fund state education.  They were given until 2018 to complete full implementation of adequate funding, with the expectation that each year more and more is enacted that approaches full funding of public education. Furthermore, in 2014, the legislature was held in contempt because they couldn't pass their own bills that would have fulfilled the obligation in the McCleary decision.  Some funding bills are getting through, just not enough to satisfy the obligations in the decision.

In what I can only imagine is a reaction to the demand for more funds, the legislators are passing bills that include "accountability mechanisms."  The 2013-14 SB 5237 more or less says, "We're giving you all this money for early childhood education, so prove that it's buying us results by third grade."  Spoiler alert: the bill had enough opposition to just barely prevent it from passing.  No one is wrong to demand that when they invest funds, they see results.  We should be able to prove that we are positively impacting the learning of the students we teach.  This bill, however, goes so far as to demand that students who score "below basic" on the statewide reading test be automatically retained in third grade (See section 2(2)).  

(More about the bill even though it didn't pass: it also requires that districts design a policy that allows for these retained third graders to move to fourth grade mid-year if they are reasonably confident the student can pass the fourth grade test.  This could mean a student does third grade, then does third grade again from September-January, but then goes to fourth from February-June because the school thinks the child can pass the fourth grade test. So we go from retaining behind grade level students to having them skip some or most of the next grade??! Crazy.) 

The biggest problem in this bill is retention.  When we educators try to argue retention, people hear our opposition as if we think we should just shuffle kids along without regard for their success.  In reality that's not how we feel at all.  Of all the questions that educational research has tried to answer, there is no ambiguity in the research when it comes to retention.  Retention offers no benefit to students, and may in fact be harmful.  This article does a fantastic job of explaining the issues of retention. The author justly represents the position of those of us opposed to retention: just as retention isn't a solution, neither is shuffling kids along.  We have an obligation to provide them with intensive and strategic support that helps them progress.

In the Washington legislature, they seem to have backed off of the retention issue, but they have not backed off of their love affair with "accountability mechanisms" (that's the language in the bill).  Or maybe they still are keen on retention, but they learned from last time that they can't get away with explicitly writing it into bills. there's a new bill, with some of these ideas from the old bill snuck in.  (Clever legislators.)  The full text of the bill is available here.

If you read the bill, it sounds very sensible.  It requires school districts to support kids who aren't reading at grade level by third grade (yay), including lots of meetings with parents and sharing strategies schools are doing to help the child catch up (also yay).  There is a lot of research that supports meeting a third grade benchmark--kids who are still behind in third have a more difficult time catching up.  The problem comes with how the bill sets up this accountability mechanism.

This bill requires that students be identified by their scores on the state assessment in reading.  First problem: scores aren't typically available before the start of next school year.  The bill does suggest that retention and summer school (ESY) be considered--but neither of these options can be used when scores haven't historically been available until August, and even then, they are unofficial.  That timeline was for our old state tests, which were very short compared to the new tests, so I wonder how much longer results will take!  Second problem: these tests are brand new.  Washington state uses the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium to test student achievement on the Common Core State Standards.  These tests are HARD.  On the math test for fourth grade that we used as practice before the field test, we were able to review eight questions in about an hour--and the review was rushed.  In the morning class, I, the teacher, got three of the eight questions wrong.  In the afternoon class, we again did the same eight questions, and I STILL got one of them wrong after doing it, reviewing it, doing it again, and reviewing it again.  This test was confusing.  

If you are interested in trying the test yourself, I can't encourage you enough to do so!  This link provides the portal to the Smarter Balanced practice tests.  Even though it asks for a log-in, just click "Sign In." Start with the third grade reading test--the one that will trigger the measures in the new bill.  After you sign in, there are a series of windows that have confusing codes.  To take the reading test, you need to select "Start G3ELA Practice Test."  There is another option for an "ELA Performance Task", which you should also look at, because kids have to take and pass that, too, as part of their reading score.  I should also point out that all of these screens and menu options are the exact thing that kids see.  Is it confusing to you?  Would it be confusing to an eight year old?  Yep.  

Here's a screen shot of the first question.  The passage is the text on the left.  

I honestly do not know the answer for the first question.  I see one sentence that clearly supports the conclusion that children and adults can work together...but I'd have to take a best guess for the second sentence.  Also my best guess at the directions is that I'm supposed to click two sentences.  It's possible that the question actually wants something different!  I don't know.  

In addition to the murky test itself, student scores fluctuate each year because of "cut scores".  Generally, because each test year has a different test (including variations of the same test within the same year), the score required to pass is generally redefined specific to the test.  This article from the Washington Post offers an excellent critique.  While the article refers to ETS, the Smarter Balanced test is not (to my knowledge) ETS.  However, Smarter Balanced does (to my knowledge) use cut scores.  

When trying to find information on cut scores on the Smarter Balanced website, I came across a PDF of scores from last year's field test (the one I administered to my fourth graders).  First, let me be clear: the Smarter Balanced tests are rigorous.  I support rigor.  But I do not think these (any) tests give a complete picture of what a child can do, nor do I support the use of this test to determine things like retention, as the legislature originally proposed.  Both the unpassed bill and the revised, passed bill trigger actions for students scoring a Level 1, "Below Basic". That's 35.5% according to the PDF!  (Really think about this in the context of the original bill: is it really reasonable that 35.5% of students are performing badly enough that they should be retained???) At the other end, only 38.1% of students actually passed the test, scoring a level 3 or 4.  Really think about this too.  I find it hard to believe that even someone who thinks American schools are terrible would also believe that 61.9% of students (almost 2/3) of American students are failing.  At some point we really do have to pull our heads out of the sand and see the big picture.  Does this data align with our experience, or is the data flawed?  Are the data tools (tests) flawed?  

Education, in general, really benefits from the collaboration of all stakeholders--students, teachers, administrators, parents, community members, legislators.  But we also have to be thoughtful about reforms and examine if the reforms are (1) practical, (2) meaningful, and (3) reliable. While this bill is certainly well-intentioned, it is neither practical, meaningful, nor reliable.  

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Curriculum, Standards, and Common Core

This is a first--writing a professional piece on this here blog.  Content might be inconsistent--crafts! education! stories!--but sometimes I just need to get things off my chest.

Have you noticed these days that everyone (maybe "everyone" is about elected officials) is an expert on education?  I mean...we all went to school, so we all know what it's like, right?

With all these folks talking about education and trying to make policies and insisting that our educational system is broken and we need to fix it, there's quite a lot that's presented that is misleading or wrong.  One of the more common misunderstandings is using the words "curriculum" and "standards" interchangeably.  This is where the whole argument against the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) gets muddled--opponents accuse the CCSS as taking away local control by dictating a curriculum.

This is inaccurate.  The very simplest explanations of these terms are this:
standards: uniform learning goals for students, generally grade and subject specific
curriculum: the material chosen locally, by the district and/or teacher, that gives students opportunities to meet the learning goals (standards)
CCSS: the Common Core, a set of standards that have replaced state-written standards in over 40 states

As a working teacher, I have a bit more to add to those definitions.  Standards have been around forever.  If a teacher is teaching a unit and that teacher gives a test at the end, somewhere along the line she had to decide what was going to be on the test.  The tested material is the learning goal for the unit--the "standards".  With the "standards based reform" era we're currently muddling through, standards became more official.  States were required to very explicitly decide learning goals for all subjects and all grades for the students attending public schools in that state.  They were also required to have a standardized assessment.  Until Common Core, all of this work was done at the state level and supported by federal grants as well as state money.  Isn't it pretty amazing, when you really think about it, that this same process was done in each state and the District of Columbia?  I'm all for job creation, but to think that federal tax money went to fund the same work in 51 states to write standards and create tests and grade tests...That's a little crazy.

Here's the thing about these standards.  The big picture view for most of them is that they're pretty similar.  First graders in Texas aren't going to have radically divergent learning goals from first graders in North Dakota.  High school biology students in California are probably going to have to learn the same principles as biology students in Massachusetts.  The Common Core standards were written collaboratively with folks from 48 states.  They look and sound different than the way most states had previously written their standards--more on that below--and as a result have caused some discomfort.

First, though, it needs to be said that Common Core is only math and language arts.  States are still in charge of their own history, social studies, and science standards.  It's frustrating to me to hear people complain about the lack of local control because they still have it.  Changes to reading and math are not going to be dramatic--it's not like kids are going to learn to count in sixth grade and multiply fractions in kindergarten.  There's generally a pretty uniform progression of skills for reading and math.  CCSS doesn't change that.

CCSS was written a little differently that most states wrote their standards, and so they ended up being a little unfamiliar.  Folks writing the standards started out by articulating all of the things an American high school graduate should be able to do if they are to be considered "college and career ready".  Then they more or less worked backwards, trying to figure out what the steps would be in developing those skills across a student's entire education from K-12.  I suspect that this approach is what left a bit of room open for the criticisms that the CCSS are not "developmentally appropriate" in some areas for elementary kids.  And, yes, I get it--the standards articulate that young kids should be doing things like "citing", "researching", and "evaluating".  It's tough stuff.  In contrast, the process many states used to develop their old standards was writing standards based on what most people in the state were doing anyways at each grade level.  (That is grossly oversimplified, I realize, because certainly there was attempt to make the standards meaningful, but the approach was generally vastly different from how CCSS were developed.)  The standards tended not to include those rigorous words.  Note that I'm pretty neutral on CCSS or state standards or whatever because standards are here to stay--it's not proven that having standards grossly improves the quality of education (and at times I'd say it's reduced the quality of education).  Unfortunately the window to fight standardization has closed.  This article voices some legitimate criticisms with the standards, lest you start to think I'm fully on the standards fan-wagon.

Here's the meat: CCSS are learning goals.  Not curriculum.  Curriculum is what a district or teacher decides she needs to teach for students to meet the learning goals.  For the language arts standards that say that kids should be researching, they don't dictate that kids have to research a certain topic.  Most districts don't, either--so if a class is really interested in composting and earthworms, the teacher is free to decide to craft the students' enthusiasm into an opportunity for them to learn research skills.  The next year, perhaps her class is intensely interested in space, with a small group that is bored by space but loves horses.  Great!  Those become part of her curriculum to teach research skills.

I have to step way back, myself, because I've always looked at curriculum with a big picture view.  I don't remember what I learned in elementary school.  I remember I did a report on rainforest animals in third grade.  I remember we studied the counties of New Jersey in fourth grade, and we each had to research a county, come in with a cake cut in the shape of that county, and have ideas to decorate it to represent information about the county.  I couldn't actually tell you what I learned about Mercer County, NJ, but obviously the cake made an impression!  I firmly maintain that curriculum does not matter in elementary school.  Generally a half-decent teacher can make any curriculum work.  Curriculum is only truly consequential is if we want to limit learning goals to the  memorization of facts. Standardizing curriculum would be making standards that say things like, "Students will study the life cycle of salmon," and students' learning would measure their recall of facts about salmon.

Instead, I believe the job of teachers is to use curriculum to inspire and build enduring skills.  Do my students need to be able to retell the life cycle of a salmon when they're 45 years old?  No.  Instead, though, we use salmon (a topic that was chosen locally because it is relevant to our region) to illustrate different life cycles, introducing opportunities to compare and contrast.  Students gain an understanding that there is a diversity of life on the planet.  Students learn to observe and adopt the habits of scientists as we raise salmon in a tank in the hall, eventually taking them to the river.  In addition to enduring skills, the local relevance of salmon allows the unit to come alive for students--they can be inspired and passionate about their learning in ways that other topics can't ignite.  As much as my class might love pandas, we don't have local access to pandas and scientists that work with pandas and panda conservation efforts and habitat management--but we do have that with salmon.  Similarly, I don't teach Cinderella so that students can remember the plot.  I teach it to give them opportunity to read Cinderella stories from around the world.  They learn to compare and contrast.  They learn how authors can be inspired by the writing of others.  They learn the really awesome idea that there are stories like Cinderella that exist in multiple, unconnected cultures around the world.  Curriculum should only ever be a doorway, an entry point, into crafting enduring skills and sparking curiosity.

When I think about the enduring skills I want my students to have, I think about things like creativity, innovation, the ability to evaluate the merits of an argument, the discernment to know when a source of information is true and reliable.  The best teachers have always been able to craft these skills in students through their artful use of curriculum--it certainly takes more skill and effort to do this than it does to teach facts and processes.  The good teachers at least realize this is what curriculum is for--to craft skills, not kids who can recall facts.

Looking at CCSS in comparison to the old state standards, the CCSS seem more rigorous.  They've attempted to articulate and spell out these enduring skills and the learning that needs to happen each year to make sure students leave school competent consumers of information with a solid mathematical understanding.  Again, it's not perfect by any means. This was not the education I received when I went to school.  All that crazy math that parents see on homework they don't understand and post on the internet for others to affirm how bad it is?  It represents a shift where it's not enough to just memorize multiplication facts and a process for multiplying 48x95.  When we pull our learning goals and our curriculum out of a focus on facts and, like is emphasized in CCSS, into an emphasis on developing deep understanding and enduring skills, we open the door for kids' future success. Whether the CCSS actually increases kids' future success remains to be seen.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Valentine Specimen Canvas

This little 3-ish year sabbatical from blogging sure worked out great.  Lots of changes in that time!  I can't wait to resurrect this blog and update it with new content.  I've got so much I want to add.

For now, though, a cute little Valentine craft if you're itching to get something cute up.

We designed this craft when we hosted a fundraising craft night for a group of families in our community traveling this summer to Tijuana, Mexico, to build two homes for homeless families.  Our local families that travel bear the costs of travel but raise money to buy all of the building supplies.  For two homes that adds up to about $32,000.  Quite a bargain when you consider that it pays for TWO houses...but quite a bit of money when you think about fundraising that amount in less than a year.  Read more about this trip (and donate online!) through this site.

The canvases are very simple!  I used my Silhouette Portrait to cut out the hearts, but it's certainly not necessary.  Our initial canvases were made with hand-cut hearts!  We did a version with stripes and a version with ombre.  We used 11x14 sized canvases.

For the stripes version, it is essential to paint a base coat (white).  Allow to dry, then tape off stripes.  Paint over the seams of the tape again with white.  This really produces a crisp edge without any bleeding.  Then paint in the stripes with black, or whatever color you want to use.

For ombre, I found it takes a little more skill and patience to end up with something I was happy with.  I definitely found I was more satisfied with my ombre when I tried to create it with a pretty light color (pink or gray) fading into white.  When I tried a deeper shade of pink or a darker shade of gray fading into white, I just wasn't as happy with how it turned out.

For the clothesline detail, I just used a black sharpie.  So much easier than trying to paint it in.  For this clothesline style canvas, I would have added a little LOVE script in the bottom lefthand corner--either with marker or cut from paper on my Silhouette.  I just didn't have time for that detail while we prepared for our craft night!

What we discovered when we had our 45 crafters making this project is that diversity is a beautiful thing.  I would estimate that fewer than five crafters actually did the same project we had on display.  There were variations in the hearts they chose (we had hundreds cut from different paper to choose from), in the arrangement of the hearts on the canvas, and in the colors.  We have a bunch of photos posted in the Facebook event--feel free to click around for more ideas!

The file of directions can be opened through this link.  We tried hard to make them user-friendly!  The directions also include a Valentine garland.

If you want to make that, too, the banner pieces are made from upholstery webbing.  It's like a thick burlap used to support cushions on chairs.  It can be purchased by the yard in the notions or upholstery section of most craft and fabric stores, usually for less than $2 a yard.  We used felt for the hearts and bakers twine to stitch it all together.  

Did you open the directions?  Do you love the fonts?  Me too.  The title is MTF Epic, the subtitles are MTF Magical Marilyn, and the body text is Hello Doodle Print.  Download the awesome MTF fonts here.  Download the Hello fonts here.  By the way, you don't need to be a teacher to access Teachers Pay Teachers, where the Hello fonts are found.  There are lots of great downloads for free or pay of clip art, borders, and fonts...and you're supporting hardworking teachers!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Buffalo trip

We had a busy couple of days.  We just got back from attending our family reunion in Buffalo, NY, and other than the insanely long days spent traveling, it was a great time.  We were "convened" and there was no excuse for missing the reunion, so everyone was there.  I haven't seen some of my family for something like 15 years, and it was great to reacquaint myself with them (obviously a lot has changed in 15 years, primarily that I am now a full adult rather than just emerging from childhood).  For our first day, since reunion events weren't scheduled until evening time, Nishant and my cousin Eric and I went downtown and checked out the Albright-Knox Gallery, ate some Indian buffet, and toured Elmwood Avenue.  We did reunion stuff Friday night and all day Saturday, and then on Sunday the two of us checked out Niagara Falls.  I'd been as a kid a couple of times, but Nishant had never seen it, so we couldn't pass it up.  Despite being a HOT day for Western New York, we had a great time at the falls. 
We did the Cave of the Winds tour, which takes you "under" Bridal Veil falls.  They give ponchos and sandals because you get so wet!  I was so happy to see that they recycle the ponchos. :-)
Nishant on the Hurricane Deck--this was about as close as we got while still feeling comfortable enough to take out the camera.  At the corner of this deck is where you can really get drenched under the falls.  I think Nishant really likes this photo because it's the ultimate "I was there" photo.  He also likes this next photo...
...because here I am, looking like a dork (he really busts out laughing when he sees this).  We decided on this narrative to use years down the road: "Well, kids, your mom and I were there at Niagara Falls.  She might look like a dork, but her ponytail didn't get wet at all, and that's something to be proud of, really proud."
We walked to Canada over the Rainbow Bridge.  I always enjoy walking to another country, but really I was completely disappointed by the Canada we found.  Whatever city we were in had this huge tourist strip--for everyone else who walked to Canada, I guess--that was like being at the Jersey shore.  Sure, there's the nice falls (or beach at the shore), but then there's a wax museum! Lots of overpriced restaurants! Ripley's Believe it or Not Museum! Mini golf! Arcade! Ferris wheel! Buy Canada souvenirs, lowest price anywhere!  (And just for the record, they really were Canada souvenirs...not Niagara Falls, but Canada.  Does anyone else find that just a little funny?  Like, who buys that?!)  And also I should note that among all this were more than a handful of schwarma places mixed in.  And this was all you could really get to if you were on foot.  A more authentic Canada experience was more than a walk away.  
Oh, I'm sorry, you can't see the international boundary line in this photo?  That's because it's my hair.  We didn't plan it this way, but this shot is pretty clutch.  The view from the bridge and the Canada side of the Falls was worthwhile, in spite of the crazy tourist stuff we had to put up with.  It entertained me that to leave Canada, you have to pay 50 cents.  They have a turnstile and you had to feed it 50 cents for it to unlock!  Seriously, Canada?  I have to pay you 50 cents to leave?  
(Really, I think it makes a lot of sense since it costs them $$ to keep a border crossing for pedestrians.  So my thinking should really be: Seriously, US?  You just let us schmucks in for free without defraying the cost of your 4--yes, 4--customs officers for pedestrians, while Canada defrays the cost of its ONE officer??)

We had a great time.  And, of course, before flying out Monday afternoon, we stopped at the epic Anchor Bar.  At the reunion, Nishant was able to enjoy classic Western New York food--Friday fish fry, and chicken wings on Saturday (when we go back we'll have to squeeze in some beef-on-weck), but no visit to Buffalo is complete without a visit to the Anchor Bar, home of the original chicken wing.  There is nothing like a wing freshly prepared (still crispy) and smothered in Bleu cheese dressing.  Another thing that I thought was interesting is that they weren't invented until 1964!  I think it's pretty amazing that it's become a nationally-known food that is replicated ALL OVER--even chain restaurants dedicated to it--and it's really quite new on the scene.  Also it's amazing that they were invented by the owner's wife when she was making a meal for hungry folks in a pretty empty kitchen--so she used what she had and came up with wings.  Even though Buffalo isn't known as a tourist destination, it's got enough to satisfy any tourist.  The city has some beautiful architecture, and I love the skyline.  I'm already looking forward to our next visit. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A few thoughts on how working at a winery is different than teaching.

Hello, there.  It's been a while, I know, as some patient readers have reminded me.  Life has been a little busy recently with some home improvements--I'm in the middle of redoing the craft room, and also our shower broke, so I've also been in the middle of that mess.  Plus, cherry season announced itself and I just HAD to pick cherries (20 pounds) and make jam (31.5 jars of bing and rainier jam plus some Amaretto-bing jelly).  Not to mention the usual frenzy of the job search and everything else life.  But finally, I feel motivated enough to throw a post out there, specifically in regards to my new (very, very part time) job at a winery.  For clarity, my job is to pour wine tastings, sell wine, be nice to everyone, and occasionally prepare menu items in the kitchen, as well as keep the tasting room clean and tidy.  And so...

How Working At A Winery Is Different Than Teaching (or in the case of 1,4,5, Similar)

1.  Both jobs are Customer Service Jobs:  At a winery, we want to make our customers happy.  Happy customers buy wine and come back to buy more wine.  To keep them happy, this is what I do: A.  Wear makeup.  Pretty faces sell more wine than ugly ones.  B.  Flirt, but in a way that is charming rather than skeevy.  Everyone, men and women, like to get attention and feel like someone else likes you.  C.  Act out every encounter as if it is a first date--include complements, tell interesting stories, but most importantly, pretend to be REALLY interested in what the folks on the other side of the bar are saying. 

In contrast, teaching was a job where we had to appease our many "stakeholders".  Mostly this just meant listening to unreasonable demands, and then figuring out a way to present a solution that appeared as if you were giving the stakeholder what they wanted but didn't require me to seriously compromise myself.  Sometimes this worked.  I usually ended up compromising myself. 

2.  Adults Are Here For Wine, Not To Whine: In teaching, there are a few events that immediately cause my chest to clench with anxiety.  These events included a blinking light indicating a voicemail, emails longer than one short paragraph (because a paragraph is all you need to write to tell me that you're picking your kid up, but disputes over discipline and grades always require more), and anytime a parent showed up.  There were a few notable exceptions to this--some parents didn't cause anxiety--but most did.  With only a small handful of exceptions, the adults I saw in teaching were generally in front of me to whine.  In a majority of the cases, they were legitimately whining, and had roles been reversed, I, too, would have talked to my child's teacher.  But no matter how legitimate the grievance was, it was still up to me to find the solution.  Solving people's problems--even worthwhile problems--is stressful.  (Because if you don't solve it satisfactorily, they really will be back to complain.)  I completely accept that this process is part of the daily work of a teacher, and parents should always be the advocate for their children, and should always insist on the best for their child--but still, solving people's problems is stressful.  Mostly this is stressful because I am a perfectionist and I can never make everyone happy.  Life, in general, is stress-inducing because I just want to make everyone happy and that is an impossibility. 

At the winery, I see a very different kind of adult.  First, most of them are coming from another winery, so they are making a fun day out of tasting.  It would be difficult to upset them.  Second, they are coming to drink wine!  And no one is making them drink it, and they don't have to take time off from work to drink the wine (like some parents do when they have to deal with their child's teacher)--they are here during their leisure time for a leisurely activity.  It is just a very nice change. 

3.  We Drink Wine Because It's Our Job, Not Like It's Our Job:  There were many times when some teaching friends and I would meet up after work for a drink.  We had even selected the best place to get a margarita after many tastes at different establishments, and we would sit there and drink like it was our job.  (Please note that our idea of "drinking like it was our job" was to have a small margarita with lots of chips, nurse it throughout dinner, and then drive home after we were absolutely sure all alcohol had been metabolized.  We teachers lived on the edge.)  But I am almost certain that most evenings of this nature started by us ordering margaritas, and then one of us saying, "I am going to drink this like it is my job!"  And we did.  Slowly and with caution. 

At the winery, drinking is my job.  Not on the job--no, that is certainly not professional.  But to sell wine, I have to know wine.  To know wine, I have to drink wine.  I'm lucky because I work at a winery where I can honestly sell every product there--there isn't any bottle that I think is bad.  In fact, I would say it has some of the best wine I've enjoyed, and there's nothing on the list I don't like a lot.  But the more familiar I am with the wine (which means, the more I drink our wine), the better I know its qualities and can sell it.  At a meeting last night, I asked the winemaker how to tell if a bottle has reached its peak, or if it should continue to age.  The response was that (1) if you really like a wine, you should buy a minimum of 6 bottles so you can taste it as it ages and still have some bottles for when it's peaked, and (2) you'll be able to tell when it peaks after you've gained a great palette.  How do you gain a great palette?  The Real Answer To This Question is to taste 10,000 wines.  Somebody figured out that 10,000 is the master number for gaining "expertise", and it seems consistent...they say teachers hit their stride at about 5 years, which would be about 10,000 hours in the classroom.  To speak a language fluently, they say you need to study it for about 7 years.  I think I probably hit my peak fluency in French at around 10,000 hours of study/practice, which was expedited by time spent in France.  So, yes, drinking is my job--or at least, tasting is my job (I can always use the bucket).  I've got a long way to go towards mastery. 

4.  Professional Development Is Fun And Games:  In teaching, most professional developments took one of two courses.  There were those that relied heavily on interactive activities, which usually meant having the teachers do some version of the task they're trying to get you to do with your class.  It also often meant engaging a group of teachers in "team-building" exercises.  One memorable exercise involved standing in a circle, shouting people's names at them, and throwing around a rubber chicken.  (It's really amazing to think that they paid me my salary plus the wages of a substitute teacher so that I could do this.)  The other track of professional development was to sit in a large lecture hall and have a guest speaker or consultant tell funny stories that turn heartwrenching OR yap at you at doublethespeedofnormalspeech and promise you that ifyouonlydothese20amazingthingseverydayinyourclassroom, your kids will be smarteranddobetterthaneveryoneelseincludingAlbertEinstein.  (Really, one such fast-talker consultant would say, "Come'ere, look!  I want to show you this!" when really all he was talking about was the projector screen which we were already looking at and he was already standing next to.  Come here, look at my PowerPoint!)

At the winery, and this goes back to number 3, professional development is tasting wine.  Tasting wine and listening to stories about how wine is made and grown, and stories about how the winemaker started making wine, and listening to stores about how the owner started the business...all pretty interesting stories.  Because, as the owner said last night--and I think it may have been a slip, but really it should be a legit term if it's not already--we are "storyselling".  Telling great stories and helping customers feel like they are a part of our winery and inviting them to be insiders is great for selling wine.  Not to mention that we really like our customers and want them to hang out and be part of the winery and really become insiders!  In contrast to teaching's "fun games" that are often part of professional development, this professional development was just actually fun. 

5.  Free Stuff and Discounts:  As a teacher, there were usually lots of discounts.  The ones that I often used were things like getting 10-15% off at the bookstore or getting discounts on office supplies.  As a teacher, however, the discount is not a job perk because it's just discounting things you need to buy for your classroom (like books and paper) that the school isn't providing.  Even if it's not an absolute necessity, it's something that will enhance your teaching and make your classroom better.  Discounts usually are for things that, if I wasn't in the job, I wouldn't be buying--because I buy them for my job. 

As a member of the "wine industry", guess what I get discounted?  WINE.  This is fantastic because wine is a leisure activity and it also happens to be my job.  (Children's literature and notebook paper weren't really great leisure activities.)  I like that this job allows me to maximize my disposable income on things I like buying, rather than that kind of annual allotment of my disposable income that I will need to spend on classroom supplies.  This situation, much like wine itself, is quite refreshing. 

This concludes the beginning of my list.  And the end of my blog post for you hungry readers.  I'll try to write more regularly!

Friday, June 3, 2011

A few things

It's been a while, I know.  I get asked about this--when are you going to blog??!  You three readers out there are quite demanding.  ;-)  (and I love you for it)

Why haven't I been blogging?  Usually absences come down to two reasons.  I could be really busy.  But if you've been reading my blog, you know that's not really the case.  I'm up to my ears in free time.  The more likely reason is this: if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say it at all--if I go away for a while, it's usually because anything I could think of writing about would be about how much I hate xyz, or how xyz frustrates me... and while I'm not very good at keeping that kind of thought for consuming my mind, I try not to let it out on my blog.  Unless, of course, I can present it with some humor for your entertainment.  So...I'm working to get out of that funk and get back to entertaining you.  No doubt the mild weather will help. 

This is just a check-in to share with you some fun things I've found recently:

1.  Free fonts: This is one of the best sites ever and I'm so happy I found it.  FREE FONTS!  Yes, free.  And they are true-type so they actually work in just about everything.
 Be sure to hop over to  I downloaded them last night (very clear instructions posted on their site) and already used them in a couple of projects.

2.  Kassel and Kate: My cousin Jake married Mary Kate and she is the best.  Mary Kate is friendly, works to get to know people, and says only nice things.  Really, I can't recall a time she's been negative about someone.  Not to mention that she's smart and engaging and has a darling little kiddo. She and her friend have started up an e-zine with the goal of living authentically and encouraging others to do the same.  If you need any more convincing, they also have great giveaways.  If I didn't already love Mary Kate enough, I do respond well to bribery :-) 

So please check them out!  I bet you'll want to keep going back.  I'm so excited for them and this project, and I'm excited to see it grow!

3.  Vanilla frosting: I've been playing around with cake pops recently (check out  In the quest for a delicious vanilla buttercream, I tried out a recipe on epicurious.  The reviews were all glowing.  I was so skeptical because the frosting called for granulated (not powdered) sugar...which was unusual but not really weird.  But then the frosting ALSO called for a cooked and thickened mixture of flour (a lot!) and milk.  When's the last time you made frosting with flour?  But hands down, it was the most amazing, light, fluffy, flavorful frosting ever.  To me, it was like the best Italian meringue buttercream with all it's yumminess, but I'd much rather heat flour than deal with the trouble of heating a sugar syrup and partially cooking eggs.  No thanks.  

Surely I've left something off...but for now, I've got to cram for tomorrow's exam.  Enjoy your weekend!