Thursday, August 29, 2013

Week Three & the Friday FlyOver

I am writing this with just mere minutes left before I go to bed. It has been a long week. I can't believe I am saying that when it is only the second full week back at work with students. Although, it is technically my fourth week back working.

As I mentioned previously, I am really loving my job, the people and most of all these students. I am working as hard as I can to plan ahead and get things copied more than a day ahead of time and really feel like I am a pro. But with new curriculum it isn't always possible. Or with random interruptions to planning.

For example, I have organized my students in Economics to run a debate. It was supposed to have happened today but in 60 minutes I had hoped to give them yesterday to work as teams and develop their arguments and rebuttals, picture day intervened. I found out just before first period that nearly 1/2 my class was scheduled to take their pictures during my 2nd hour Econ class. That meant I had to adjust the schedule. In the end, they didn't have enough time to really plan, instead using much of the time to catch up their classmates who rolled back in one at a time. (I have to hand it to them, I dismissed the ones who were scheduled with a pleading request that they return as quickly as possible and not delay and chit chat. They did just that. Talk about ethical, responsible and respectful!) So I agreed to let them use 1/2 of today's shortened class period to prep and run the debate tomorrow. In all honesty, it will probably run better because they feel better prepared.

I certainly hope this is the case because my first informal evaluation is also occurring during that debate. I have given them all the tools they should need and have explained the process and amount of time each side has for each argument and rebuttal. I told them their only homework (beside their weekly essay due on Fridays) was to practice not speaking when someone else was! I'll have to update you on how this goes.

So as I sit here praying that all goes well tomorrow and for a little Spiritual Guidance should it not, I am also aware that that is just one part of my Friday. I am aiming to leave my house by 5:10am tomorrow. What?!? Yep. 5:10am. That is about 15 minutes AFTER my alarm normally goes off.

My high school has been given the chance to be on the local morning news. Our interim principal has been revving the students (and, via email, the staff) to participate and get there early tomorrow. The goal is 5:45am for everyone. The students will be forming words on the football field as the news helicopter flies overhead a few times during the 6am hour. I am excited to participate and see the kids get excited about the honor. I'll then want to take a nap by the time lunch rolls around at 11:45!

Tomorrow night is our first home football game. I'm also aiming to attend that, as well. It was tradition at Urbana and I love supporting my students and school. I'll be exhausted, glad the "informal" is over and glad that Labor Day is this weekend, allowing an extra day of rest. I am going to need it!

If you live in Chicagoland, check out or watch at 6am tomorrow. I'll be one of those folks in a white shirt. And perhaps a coffee in hand.

Enjoy your weekend everyone!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Teacher Update - Living By Ben Franklin's Version of Happiness

I read a fantastic quote by Benjamin Franklin, whose biography by W.H. Brands I have been reading over the last two summers. It reads, "...Happiness consists more in small conveniences or pleasures that occur every day, than in great pieces of good fortune that happen but seldom to a man in the course of his life."

I'm now just about done with my second week of teaching at a new school. It has been a fantastic time but also days filled with more challenges than I anticipated. I suppose that is part of the reason a challenge is what it is. You can often predict how things will go and what the stumbling blocks will be. But when you are thrust into a new environment with a minimal amount of knowledge about the daily workings of a place, only time and experience in that space will truly give you the insight as to how to best overcome the challenges that come about.

Let me share some of the best things about my new job first.
1. The faculty. I have yet to meet someone that is not helpful or greets a fellow coworker with a "hello" or "how are ya." The interim principal, who has been at the school for years, is organized, friendly and pretty funny. Last Friday just before the final bell rang at 3:20, he came on the P.A. and told kids they'd done such a great job they were being given two days off (the weekend). Pretty funny! My Biz Ed coworkers are great, too. They are personal and we've shared a lot over lunch already. I have spent more time with three of the Biz teachers than anyone else in Applied Arts or Social Studies, simply because my office/desk is in the Biz Ed office. I have popped into the Social Studies office a few times and everyone I've met has also been friendly. It's the type of place you want to work.
2. The Students. Wow, what a difference. I had some great kids in Urbana. But even with the best classroom management skills on the planet, I couldn't have had an entire class of students have notebooks out, writing down a "word of the day" and waiting for me to give them the definition while I take attendance. It is beautiful. I pass students in the hall and they say good morning. The swear words in the hall are minimal, unlike the conversations I'd hear at Urbana. There is a lot of building up and an obvious desire to learn. I'm trying to do more "student-driven" learning. Letting the kids puzzle something out or peer helping when they have questions. Then the teacher trouble shoots or reteaches. It works! These students are involved in their school. The majority of kids I've talked to about things other than classwork are in a club or sport or will be. It is refreshing to see such driven young adults.
3. The technology. Lots of technology here. A larger school and more students which means the options are a bit broader and need is greater to have more available. I used Chromebooks this week in my Econ class. I had never used one, nor had most of my students and together we all got them logged on (challenging) and learning how to use Google Docs and be productive. There are several computer labs and there are four rooms in the Biz Ed wing that are labs and nearly every class (that I know of) in Biz Ed is taught in there. Every room I teach in has a Smart Board. Again, I've never used one and I'm picking it up pretty quickly. Using virtual business simulation software, which we were going to purchase at Urbana but had never used by the time I left. Kids love it!
4. The support. The mentor program is real here. My mentor is fantastic. He emails me about the littlest things just to make sure I know about them. He checks in about something he remembered to ask me before even saying hello. He is the type of person who comes early and stays hours late and even after over a decade in teaching it doesn't phase him. The new staff coordinators are also fantastic. One of them is my social studies department chair and my evaluator. She is also checking in on me and we've got a brief meeting, scheduled by her, to make sure I'm doing okay. These are things Urbana wanted to do but I didn't feel always followed through. Let's be honest though, my mentor my first year thought that just "scheduling" a meeting and talking for a minute "counted" and he could cross that off the list. It wasn't about helping me or making sure I was doing okay. It was about meeting requirements. I hope I am living up to the expectations the school and I have set for what I am doing. There is only one way to find out! Keep pushing hard, doing my best and keep asking questions.
5. The schedule. Block scheduling is awesome! Think about it - students have just four classes per day. That is only four things to think about and study. It is the idea of specialization at work! Workers perform better when they have fewer tasks or jobs to focus on. So do students. Instead of 7 or 8 classes to study for and memorize, it is four. Fantastic. Plus, Thursdays are late start so that teachers can have PLC (Professional Learning Communities) time and collaborate with each other. We do not have to come earlier or stay later. It is just late start for students. I love it. Much more accommodating for teachers and staff. We all put in so many more hours than people outside of teaching realize. Hours of prepping quizzes, worksheets, discussion prompts, debates, searching for videos, etc. When you are teaching new preps like I am, it takes longer to do all of that. It is a change after four years of having preps fairly well planned that just needed tweaking. Besides, in 90 minute classes, you can do three or four activities with kids and they won't get bored (hopefully) in addition to give them time for practicing those concepts being learned.

What more do I need? Challenges are few when you read all of that. My biggest is just pacing. I have to get everything taught in just 9 weeks. I am striving to pace my classes about the same if not exactly the same as other teachers who are teaching Econ and Intro to Business. That is the tough part. Learning technology is pretty tough. I am new to Google Drive and Google Docs and sharing documents and the new gradebook system and all the other procedures I need to log into for test recording. I will get it all down, I am sure.

I can already tell you that I hope I get to stay at this school for a long, long time. I'm working hard to make that happen. I have wanted to be a "lifer" at a worksite since I began working. It just hasn't happened yet. Perhaps because I wasn't using Benjamin Franklin's lovely outlook on what happiness is. I think I am closer than I have been in a few years. (That is not to say there are a few things I would like to have/experience yet). I am also working hard to keep you all posted on how this journey is going. So far so good on that line item, right?

I need to go pick out my red for school spirit Friday. It is the only day of the week we can wear jeans (although I learned that Thursdays we can if we have a "Just Read" or "Be Nice" t-shirt which I need to figure out how to order.) Happy almost Friday all!

Please leave a comment. Encouragement means a lot.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Fabio Viviani - Connnecting with Tradition

Over the summer, when I'm not teaching (or moving, for that matter), I tend to watch more television than I do during the year. Last summer I begin watching a show on ABC called "The Chew" which featured some chefs whose recipes I enjoy. They talk about food and cook food - both things I love to do.

This summer I was watching and a guy named Fabio Viviani was on the program a few times. He is an Italian from Tuscany who competed on Top Chef (which I don't usually watch because they are not making food that is quick to make or with ingredients that are typically on the grocery list) and just opened a restaurant in Chicago called Siena Tavern which looks amazing!

I noticed a tweet earlier this week ( @FabioViviani ) that he was going to be at a local Mariano's Market doing a cooking demonstration for Bertolli Olive Oils. Well, I couldn't pass that up!

Turns out, Fabio is as funny in person as he is on tv and his passion for food is evident. He loves what he is doing and seems deeply committed to making cooking a part of the story. After all, in Italy food is at the gathering but not necessarily the point of the gathering. Italians celebrate with food. It emphasizes the story and the memory. If you think about your favorite meals or restaurants, they are probably your favorite because of something that happened while eating that particular dish or in that particular location.

Fabio's new book is all about the recipes he grew up with. He says they are the 300 year old recipes that his nonna passed on to him and that he is passing on to the reader. It is about tradition, simplicity and eating. Below is a story about his nonna and how making pasta is a bit different when you have a food processor. (His vision is for people to hand make pasta every week and not buy the store-bought stuff. So easy with the processor and pasta machine! It took him less than 40 minutes to make a sauce and the pasta...with lots of extra talk time in the middle.)

There are a lot of things that might ring true in that story, but the reality is, I don't remember my grandmothers ever cooking. My dad's mom tended to let me aunt do most of the work. And when with my Maternal Grandma, I have more memories of eating out or at "the Club" in their neighborhood than I do of her cooking. Although, we had a lot of great lunches with deli meat and chips and soda!

I know that from my mom's stories, she had the experiences that Fabio had in his Italian house. She describes stories of her grandma's cooking, ravioli especially. Even today she values that recipe and the meat sauce recipe that was passed on to her. I love the thought of blessing the food others will eat with your time and patience. I just pain love when people share a meal around a hom-ecooked meal. Living by myself, I almost never get to experience that.

At any rate, it was great to learn a thing or to from Fabio on Saturday. I'll continue to follow his internet "show" and Email newsletter, Chow Ciao. Hopefully he'll appear on the Chew a few more times. And I'll have to check out Siena Tavern! It was a joy to meet him. (I am glad I wore my Italian t-shirt for the occasion.)

Enjoy your weekend everyone. Buon Appetito!

Making Pasta By Hand
Fabio Viviani & I

Monday, August 12, 2013

School Year Start: Year 5 @ A New District

A Super Start

I had a coworker say to me today, "So, you would have been tenured when you walked in this year at your old school." It is a scary thought but so true. I would have had job security. I wouldn't have had to be evaluated this year. I wanted to write a little blog as I start the school year and meetings before the students come on Wednesday. So here goes.

Job security can be trumped by happiness and long-term goals. It was a risk. But I am extremely happy I made the move. As much as I have always wanted to be the person who was a lifer at a job, my life's journey has not led me down that path, at least not yet. I remember my days at Jam Productions and was awed by the length of time so many of the employees had been there. In fact, it felt like the people who were there for short periods of time or came and went quickly were not counted among the fit to be in the industry and work within those purple-hued walls (yes, every wall on the three floors is a shade of purple and all are lined with record industry status and photos of celebrities).

Yet I look back these eight years later since I left the music biz full time and realized one important thing that would never have let me stay in that job - there was no growth. There was no promotion. I was already a marketing director for my department. I suppose I could have had the chance to switch to another department or job responsibility but in no way did any job give you a chance to grow and adapt and learn (life-long learner here!!) about the changes happening around me in the business.

Since I started teaching, I often reflect about the ways I would be doing marketing now. Radio would be minimal. Direct mail would die out. Print, except for things like the Red Eye would be mostly gone. Big promo on websites, fan lists and facebook and other social media would be huge! I mean, twitter is free. Facebook posts from your company are free. Apps like BandsInTown actually tell others about your events. Email lists may be even better since those are people who sign up who WANT to get announcements. Somehow I don't think marketing budgets for shows have shrunk but the means to how those dollars are used are probably drastically different then ten years ago.

Then I go back to my teaching experiences. Getting to collaborate with staff is huge. It has been a central focus the last three days in new teacher meetings and today in our all staff meetings. Being a life-long learner is something that students and teachers need to reach for. I heard yesterday that being a life-long learner is also an admission that you don't know everything. Because no one does. But at least it means you are making strides to be smarter or deeper about the world, society or self.

Urbana was a fantastic place to grow as a second-career teacher. Even though I didn't really have anyone to collaborate with about my classes since I was a singleton teacher, I reached out to others and made an attempt to collaborate. The school was a sold rock of people who were friendly, fun and supported their kids.

I see all of these same qualities in my new Mundelein coworkers. The administration is supportive and are faces in the hallway, just like the ones in Urbana. Department Chairs are leaders and supporters. I left today with my Applied Arts chair telling me he hopes I can be in Business full time next year. I want nothing more than to be a part of this school for the next sequence of years and to know he is already looking forward for that to happen was precious sound. The Applied Arts/Business folks have been overly welcoming and we all did lunch today. The Social Studies crew I am sure is the same but I haven't had as much interaction with them much. I did meet with my fellow Econ teacher and he seems brilliant and has the content written into his teacher DNA. It will take time to for me to be more than a few days ahead of the kids, I think, as I adapt to the 90-minute block and new curriculum, even if the content is not very new.

I've seen lots of new videos that are encouraging towards teaching and funny because they ring with truth. The initiatives at Mundelein are all about rigor and making our students learners and masters of the content they study, no matter if their are moving low to medium or medium to high level of achievement. All over the hallways are motivational slogans and pictures of former students who serve in the military, made honor roll or are involved in the school. I particularly like their hallway pass system and I think it will make keeping students accountable so much easier.

My goals this year include being involved, supporting students and striving to make curriculum that is as much student-driven as it is project-driven. Powerpoints will be minimal. Student discovery maximum. And hopefully, I can develop some more life-long friendships and find people to attend football games and do game nights with me. Because I miss game nights!

 I'll write again soon as I wrap up the week. I can't wait to meet my new kids (mostly freshmen/sophomore this year) and start helping them learn. Here we go!


Thursday, August 8, 2013

Fajitas Meet Pasta Primavera

I have been participating in new teacher workshops for the past two days and have learned so many things that it will probably take me a few days to digest and sort them into some sort of meaningful blog. Of course, by then I'll have begun teaching and will probably have even bigger events to share with you that all of the experiences of these past forty-eight hours.

For now, I'll leave you with a topic that occurred to me while cooking a meal over the weekend.

This meal has become a new favorite. When I first interviewed for my job at Mundelein, I drove over three hours in the rain. I had left early, unsure how long the drive would take with such inclement weather and arrived with over an hour and a half to spare. So I found a Noodles & Company and decided to take a quick lunch. I've only eaten at Noodles once. So when I asked the employee what he suggested, he told me about their "seasonal" dish the pesto pasta. Buddy, you had me at pesto.

I have absolutely no idea why I love pesto so much. I'm not a huge fan of tomatoes (I am really Italian, right?) since they have such an overwhelming acidic taste and are a mix of weird textures when plain - squishy and crisp all at once. I really, really hate ketchup - since always - tomatoes, vinegar and sugar - no thanks! I've made some great marinara sauce but can only handle it for a day or two and then quickly tire of eating it. I can handle certain pizza sauces. White sauce, alfredo, is delicious but not exactly super healthy. Pesto on the other hand has a combination of my favorite flavor enhancers - garlic, parmesan, and especially basil, to name a few. Add in a great first-pressed olive oil and pine nuts and you've got yourself an outstanding punch of a sauce in just a tablespoon or two (I prefer two). It is a bit on the fatty side, with the olive oil and nuts, but both have healthy fats and are okay in moderation.

I've been eating pesto since I moved into the City when I first started working at Jam. I did not ever eat pesto growing up. It was always bolognese sauce. A family recipe from the gorgeous Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, home to, where else?, Bologna. My first experience with pesto was a version by Classico. It did not use pine nuts and even used sunflower oil or something else but it was garlicy and basily and I was hooked.  The downside was that I only ate the pasta with a protein and no veggies. I didn't think any would work. Of course, I wasn't a big veggie eater until recently so, please know this post is really a representative of a big win for me, nutritionally speaking.

Fast-forward to Noodles in April 2013 and low and behold a new dish. This pesto pasta was full of chicken and spinach and asparagus and red onion. It had a few walnuts sprinkled in and topped with some feta cheese. It was delicious! I have recreated that dish about 25 times since April. It is now my staple lunch on weekends (or weekdays before work started back up). I am not adding loads of veg from the fridge to beef up my favorite dish. I alternate between chicken and chicken or turkey sausages. The one below is from last weekend with a chicken sausage stuffed with spinach and mozzarella.

Now instead of a huge bowl of pasta and sauce and some protein, I have a huge bowl of veggies and meat with a little pasta added in along with the pesto. Sometimes I add in the fresh parm (I still have some that was sent to me back in March from Italy!) or I'll put feta on if I'm feeling like a little guilty food pleasure.

You may at this point be asking yourself, "What on earth does this have to do with fajitas?" If you asked yourself that then pat yourself on the back. You remembered the title of this post. Well, here it is. As I sat eating the pesto primavera over the weekend, I realized that the food I eat out most is Mexican cuisine and often I order fajitas because I like to build my own and avoid the sour creams and sauces that make the tortilla soggy. A fajita is much the same concept as the pasta dish. You have a protein, a combo of grilled veggies (Peppers and onions) and usually a flavorful sauce or condiment to add on. The carb is a tortilla instead of pasta. But the concepts are similar. Is this a sign I'm loving vegetables? Or have an affinity for a specific type of dish?

My conclusion was that what I eat across cultural cuisines tends to fall into similar categories. I like hand foods - nachos, fajitas, chips & salsa, hummus & pita/carrots. But nothing beats a good meal with a combo of carbs, protein, veggies and flavorful sauce. Waaaay more colorful than my old days trying pasta, chicken and alfredo - all the same shade of the rainbow. They say to eat the rainbow. I think I'm getting closer the older I get. Some of you may say - that's a lot of pasta to eat! Well, I suppose that is a bit true. But the portion is down and the nutritional value has significantly increased.

I'm going to continue to work on my repertoire. Maybe one of these dishes will be the one my future hubby falls in love with. I can only hope its the pesto!