Monday, March 29, 2010

Thiebaud on the Brain

The wedding of a friend was held in the mountains of Santa Cruz, California, at a location with one name: Nestldown, and the main event was held in the "cabin"--a rustic, yet fine building with soaring ceilings, pine walls, and an elegantly set reception.

Over in the corner was the dessert table: one side full of cookies as the groom was from originally from Pittsburgh, and the bride corralled all her friends to bring the wedding cookie tradition to this celebration. (And yes, they had pizzelles.)

The other side was a rendition of the cake still life painting by Wayne Theibaud. My husband and I had just taken in the Thiebaud retrospective at the San Jose Museum of Art that morning, and laughed when we saw this. I waited until they cut the little tiny cake with the looping scallops of pink to have my slice of wedding cake. It was luscious lemon chiffon. The original painting is shown below, my lame snapshot of it taken when we last visited the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, where it hangs.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Tunes for a Thursday

Give this one a minute. It grows on you.

Ordinary Miracle

My friend Judy and find that it's about this point in the semester when the quirks and habits of the students are either endearing or maddening. And for some reason, this week--the week after spring break--has brought a shower of maddening quirks, with one sad one. Not somebody died sad, but teachery sad, which is ultimately a happy thing.

She had a student who had been a doctor in the Ukraine? Russia? Romania? Somewhere over there. A white coat medical doctor. Several years ago they amazingly got visas to immigrate to America. But none for their parents who they lived with. She wanted to stay. He said if we don't go, we'll never go. If we don't go, we're all lost. They went. I think his first job was something like picking up trash in schools after hours; her first was playing piano for a Montessori school--jobs that don't require English. Those kinds of jobs. Then after ten years of this he got a job near us, an hour from Los Angeles, that could support both of them, and she decided to go to school to really learn English. She was in my friend's remedial English class.

When Judy opened up her mail on Monday after Spring Break there was a drop notice from this student. Wow, Judy said. My favorite student who was so hungry to learn is gone, Judy said. My favorite student who'd made teaching the lower level class rewarding. She wrote her an email, wondering. A day or two later the return email arrived. This woman , who had come to America and had been waiting for ten years until the right moment, had been granted admission to the pediatric residency program of Loma Linda University and was going to be a doctor again.

I've been listening to Sarah McLachlan's
Ordinary Miracle song ever since she sang it on the Olympics. I think this story is one of those ordinary miracles, one of those teachery miracle stories that help me when I'm a bit dragging. We're here. Students are here. And when it all works--that the student gets to where they want to go--and we somehow knew them at some point in that trajectory, well, it's just an ordinary miracle. It's why we hang in there through the maddening quirky moments and do the grading and the lesson prep and hope and dream and encourage and push and pull.

I salute all the teachers out there, no matter where your classroom is or what your classroom may be.

Monday, March 22, 2010

An Auspicious Day

Can't imagine this world without him--for sure it's a better place because he's here, remaining calm and placid among the circus all around him.

Happy Birthday!

Thursday, March 18, 2010


One advantage of [lame] students who don't turn in their work on time was shown today, when I began grading the stack of 101 essays. They are essays supposedly analyzing the complex themes and worlds found in Einstein's Dreams, a novel by Alan Lightman (I LOVE to teach this!). There were a few who couldn't hit the side of a metaphor if they had a telescope and a repeating rifle, but most were right on target. Blessedly so.

Then, as a teacher, you begin to wonder if you're grading too easily--letting them off the hook on comma splices, misplaced commas and faulty analysis. That's when I realized that no, the [lame] students just hadn't turned theirs in! Easiest day of grading I've ever had, not having to struggle through a forest of errors, badly laid logic and wild and woolly constructions.

So, when my husband called me from work and said, let's go and look at the wildflowers in Sycamore Canyon, I changed into my walking shoes and we were off, rather than me begging off because of Too Much Grading. We've had a lot of rain this year and supposedly the wildflowers are on target to be quite showy and spectacular. They weren't, but we enjoyed them anyway. Dave pointed out all the trails that Peter and he like in this canyon, including a few that have been obliterated by all the building of warehouses (off camera, to the right).

Grading Stats:
Number enrolled in the class: 23 students (a few have dropped).
Essays late: 5.
Essays corrected: Yep. 18 lovely little papers.
High score: 97%.
Low score: 72%.
Music of choice: Ratatat's Ratatat.
Snack: Ginger Chews from Trader Joe's and lotsa water.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Clearing out the Cobwebs

Whenever I head out on a trip, an adventure, a visit there's this surge of adrenalin that picks me up and carries me through the travel, the airport hassles, the whatever.

Coming home? Only fatigue accompanies me along my way. The suitcase needs to be emptied, the photos uploaded, sleep caught up on and just a general list of Things To Do.

Only sometime later do the cobwebs of coming home clear in order to see the memories glistening on those strands like dewy jewels in the morning light. I have memories of my mother's blue blue eyes watching me. She asks about my children, demonstrating her ability to keep tabs on all those who she loves and cares about. She's up to date on everyone, not missing a beat on life events of her posterity. It's a talent. I have memories of my father leaning in for a discussion, intent on listening for the point I was making, catching it and winding up again to toss it back to me, keeping the fine art of conversation lively and active. It's a skill that I hope someday to emulate. I miss them both already, and look forward to my next trip.

My friend Judy posted about the yellows of spring last week and I came home to several fragrant stocks of yellow freesia in my garden. Temperature wise? It's supposed to be in the mid-70s today. I'm heading out Orange County to lunch with my son, then I'll do some grading. Somewhere in this day, I hope to stow the suitcase and put away the detritus from my trip.

Welcome home.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Back Home Again

There's something about coming home again--but it wasn't my childhood home. It's my parents' condominium, high up on the east bench of Mt. Ogden, overlooking the valley all the way out to the defunct flour mill towers and almost to the upper portion of the Great Salt Lake.

I never lived here, but have been here many times since they moved from the big house three streets over . As my mother likes to say, they got rid of the big house before they had to, nestling easily into this one-floor, served by an elevator, extremely efficient, very comfortable abode. Everything here has its place.

My 84-year-old father tells me that one day last week he realized, as he went to bed, that he hadn't had to fight with technology that day. The home theater worked, the car was working, and the computer/internet was up and running and fine. I understand that one, realizing that all these things that make our modern-day lives what they are, have a cost: that we are required to be handmaidens to technology. For if we do not remain patiently involved, the system may go down. It does not care if we are frustrated, or if we are trying to get the gold-medal
performance on the Olympics, or if we have a deadline, or if we desperately need to go somewhere in the car.

Emerson said, "Things are in the saddle and ride mankind."

Oh, yeah.

Encouraging the Students

The student came over to my "office" which is any free table on the second floor of the library for an hour before one of my classes, with his concern and dejection carefully plastered all over his face in his Meet The Teacher expression.

Him: "I plan to work really hard, really, but I just need an extra day for my essay."
Him: "I mean, I'm really stepping up here and want to do well.
Him: "By the way, do you have my grade?"
Me: "73%"
Him: "YESSSS!!!! Whoa, that's great. Thanks."

Miss Moved-to-Arizona-and Missed-Eight-Classes-But-Came-Back met with me last week. She, too, had the face on.
Her: "Can I still come back to class?
Her: "Thank you! Thank you!!! I know it's three weeks late, but can I still turn in the second essay?"
Her: "Oh. Bummer. Well, okay, I'll work really hard and turn in the third one on time. I'll see you Monday for peer review."
Me, after she didn't come to class on Monday:
Her email today: "I've been working on the paper for three days and didn't come to class today because it wasn't done. Sorry. Do you think I should drop the class and start all over?"

I like to encourage my students.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Parallel Sets of Knowledge

Like many teacher across the nation, I spent a few minutes reading the New York Times article "Building a Better Teacher," by Elizabeth Green (March 2, 2010).

We teachers all know that what we know is only part of the classroom experience, whether you teach kindergarten or freshmen in college. I wrote earlier about watching the series taught by Harvard's Professor Sandel and while I was interested in the content, I was also interested in watching how he pulled student comment out, used it to springboard onto other ideas, putting these ideas together, as my father, a long-time university professor, would say, in a "string of pearls."

So what makes a good teacher? The good ones--those who have "parallel" sets of knowledge know what it is that the students need to know (one set of knowledge) such as those items listed in a course outline or in an SLO*, but we also know the language--the lingo--on how to bring our students to that knowledge.

Many teachers have one set. Or they have the other (think "classroom management skills," for example). But to have both, according to current thinking, is what takes a teacher from adequate to spectacular. And that is the challenge for us all. I often wonder why we teachers flounder in the SLO swamp (can you tell I hate them?), trying to define and talk about and cram pedagogy down throats when some of us have felt like there's something more. Something that's missing in that discussion of standards, learning objectives, etc.

From the NYTimes article:
"Inspired by Ball [a teacher who has put together these two sets of knowledge in a system she's titled Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching, or MKT], other researchers have been busily excavating parallel sets of knowledge for other subject areas. A Stanford professor named Pam Grossman is now trying to articulate a similar body of knowledge for English teachers, discerning what kinds of questions to ask about literature and how to lead a group discussion about a book."

This has made me think about how well I combine the two in my own teaching. I know what I want them to know. But do I know how to describe it to my students? If I took last week's attempt to help them figure out how to write a thesis for an essay on a short novel we just read, I'd have to say in some areas I don't--especially if the looks on their faces were any indication. My mailbox is filling up with 'Is this what you mean?' sort of emails.

I do believe that some sort of struggling to gain mastery over a concept is okay. I just don't want to be the teacher who doesn't have the language to help her students gain that mastery.

*SLO: Student Learning Objective. A sample is *here.*

Friday, March 05, 2010

Higher and Lower Pleasures

slide from Sandel's lecture

I've been watching/streaming/listening to Michael Sandel's class at Harvard, from which this slide was taken; this class was filmed and put on the web. The title is Justice: What's the Right Thing To Do? and I must say I can see those Harvard students are getting a great education if this class is typical fare.

The episode I listened to this week involved choosing between higher and lower pleasures and included three film clips to illustrate the point: Shakespearean theatre, the intro to Fear Factor and a bit from a Simpson episode. Sandel then asked the lecture hall which they preferred watching. The Simpsons won. Then Sandel asked what was the higher pleasure? Shakespeare. All of this was based on the thinking of John Stuart Mill, a philosopher. But even Mill acknowledged that a person had to be trained to recognize the "higher" pleasure.

I teach at a community college, and it has been--as my friend and I joke, especially this year with all the budget cutbacks--Walmartized. Indeed we are the lowest common denominator on the college scene. But I am also product of the community college system, so I believe in the philosophy behind it. But the exchange of ideas in this streamed episode made me realize how much time I spend talking about the lower pleasure basics: how to write a sentence, how to insert a proper MLA reference, how to avoid misplaced commas, and how little time I spend with my students talking about higher pleasure ideas. True, my English 101 course is designed to teach students how to write better (the original being taught at this same Harvard university in the late 1800s) and not to necessarily discuss ideas. But the last slide really made me think about trying to do this once in a while:

I don't want to leave my classes only with satisfaction gained from a tightly-written paragraph. I want to leave them with a desire to gain more knowledge, to figure out and to find their way to--according to Mill--the higher things that can satisfy.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

This Too Shall Pass

My father, when listening to my travails, would say often "This too shall pass." I don't think he meant something like this, but how can I not resist posting this little clip? Put it full screen to really enjoy it.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Ladies Auxiliary Church Dinner

While our church dinner tonight with the ladies auxiliary didn't look anything like the one to the left--the women in the photo all in pert little hats and wide flowing skirts--we sat around round tables with real tablecloths, our fancy table setting of stemware, silver and real plates borrowed just for the occasion.

I was one in forty there tonight, but all over our church this month, women in many congregations gather to celebrate the birthday of the women's auxiliary, a proud occasion. I like this annual event, and brought my little gift to exchange, my chicken dish, and even lent them my husband to help serve, do dishes and to put away the tables and chairs at the end of the night. However they may soon ban me from the bring-a-dish volunteer.

When I was handed the recipe for the chicken dish, I inwardly groaned. It was like those recipes I used to cook in the 1970s, that always included opening a can of cream-of-something soup and pouring all over the chicken, topping with cheese and then bread crumbs drenched with butter, then baking for one hour. High fat, high sodium, low flavor. So as we stood in the hallway, the food lady and I, I asked if I could substitute the canned soup for a homemade white sauce, as we didn't keep those cans around: too much sodium.
Then do you mind if I switch it to a broth-based sauce and cut out the cheese? Lactose intolerant and low fat, you see.
Can I leave off the butter off the bread crumbs? That low fat thing again.
Yeah, whatever. Just have it there by 6:30, hot.

I made Ginger-Orange Chicken, and was served last (by my husband) which was fine with me because I didn't really want to upset the karma of the universe too much. But really. Church ladies! Time to update those recipe files. There's been a huge food revolution the last five years with Michael Pollan's books, slow foods, and locally grown food cooperatives among other things. Time to throw out a few recipes and learn how to cook the newer way. Like your hairstyle from high school has to change, so should your cooking. I didn't utter any of these radical sentiments at the dinner table, but three women asked if they could have a bite of my chicken.

Sure. No problem.

P.S. Recipe can be found *here* at

Monday, March 01, 2010


My friend Heather turned me to all the Muppet Videos when she sent me the rhapsody one. Now here's one for her.