Sunday, August 5, 2012

Boozy Dulce de Leche Ice Cream

This has been the summer of ice cream. I love good ice cream, but commercial ice cream isn't so good. Way too much sugar, not enough fat and cream - and then there are the stabilizers, preservatives, thickeners and so on. Who wants to eat that? Well, I have to admit that in matters of ice cream and resistance of crappy chemical food, I can't say I've generally had the high ground. I've always wanted to make good home made ice cream, but it was never good enough to justify the effort.

After doing a bunch of research, I decided that my ice cream maker wasn't up to snuff - that it didn't put enough air into the cream while it was churning. So I kind of gave up.

But then, I went to a lovely dinner at Michael and Elme's house and they had superb homemade ice cream. Their secret? The Kitchen Aid stand mixer ice cream maker attachment. I bought one immediately, and it's been life changing.

My favourite Haagen Dazs is Dulce de Leche. I thought it was wonderful until I invented this one. I made 4 batches in a row and it's really, really good. Sweet, caramelly, creamy, with just a dash of alcohol to keep it from being cloying.

About Dulce de Leche: DdL is a sweet prepared by slowly heating sweetened milk to create a product that derives its taste from caramelised sugar. You can buy dulce de leche if you live in a Latin community with really good stores. Otherwise, make it yourself. Don't buy the Hershey brand - way too sweet! It's so easy to make that there is no reason buy it.

You need to make the dulce de leche the day before you want to make the ice cream. It isn't a lot of work at all, but it takes a while. I like the slow cooker method, but there are alternatives: Check out this link. Buy two cans of sweetened condensed milk. For the record, PC brand sweetened condensed milk makes way better than DdL than Eagle Brand. No idea why. I've used both and was shocked by the diference.

About the cocoa: If you live in Toronto, I strongly recommend that you make the journey to Soma in the Distillery District and buy some of their cocoa. I promise that if you've been using grocery-store cocoa (who hasn't?) all your life, it will be a revelation!

better pictures to come!
About cream: Did you notice about three years ago that the shelf life of cream suddenly drastically increased? The wonders of ultra high temperature pasteurization. And the addition of guar gum, carageenan and various other thickeners because UHT pasteurization seems to remove all the creaminess from cream by breaking down the proteins. If you really want sublime taste, texture and food value, try to find some cream that has been pasteurized the old fashion way. Having said that, normal cream is hard to find, and this ice cream is out of this world, even with UHT cream.

Boozy Dulce de Leche Ice Cream

3 cups table cream (18%)
2 cans evaporated milk, converted into Dulce de Leche
2 egg yolks
teaspoon vanilla
couple splashes of Brandy (you could use Bourbon, Frangelico or Amaretto if you have it on hand)
couple more splashes of cream
one teaspoon good quality cocoa
one tablespoon chilled butter cut into four pieces
pinch of cinnamon
couple shakes of salt

1. Make the ice cream base: You started with two cans of dulche de leche. Put the entire contents of 1 can, plus half of the second can in a medium sauce pan (or put it all in a measuring cup, and use 3/4 of the total amount, reserving the final 1/4 for boozy caramel ripple). Add the cream and a shake or two of salt, turn on the heat to medium-high and bring to a low boil (more than a simmer, but less than a rolling boil). While heating, whisk the mixture to break up the DdL and encourage it to dissolve into the cream.

(If you don't mind using more dishes, you can use your blender to mix the dulce de leche with half the cream before heating.)

2. Keep the mixture at this very low boil for as long as you have patience to stand there and stir it - up to 15 minutes. This evaporates out some of the water in the cream and improves the texture of the final product.

3. Put the egg yolks in a smallish bowl. Slowly add a ladle full of DdL and cream mixture, whisking it into the eggs. Add a second ladle full the same way, then stir the eggs back into the pot.

4. Bring back to a simmer for two more minutes whisking, whisking, whisking. Make sure you get in the corners!

5. Remove from heat. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon vanilla. Cool on the counter, then put in the fridge to chill over night.

6. Make the boozy caramel ripple: Put the remaining Duche de Leche in a small saucepan. Add a generous dollop of brandy, turn the heat on high and whisk to dissolve the DdL in the brandy. Add about the same amount of cream as you did brandy, the cocoa, cinnamon and shake or two of salt.

We're going for a thick sauce-like consistency here. If its too runny, cook it until it thickens a bit. If its too thick, add a little more cream.

When you are satisfied with the consistency (and you don't have to be too exact here), take the sauce off the heat, stir in 1/2 teaspoon vanilla, two tablespoons brandy, then whisk in the butter one piece at a time. If you want to, buzz the sauce with a mix master or whiz it in your magic bullet to make it perfectly, gorgeously smooth and frothy. Chill overnight.

Next day, freeze the ice cream in your ice cream maker according to manufacturers instructions.

When you remove it from the ice cream maker, the ice cream will be about the consistency of soft serve. Pack 1 third into your freezer storage container. Add 1/3 to 1/2 of the sauce (use your judgement - how much depends on how much you made). Pack in the second third and more sauce. Don't worry if you don't use all the sauce. Pack in the rest of the ice cream. Freeze in coldest part of the freezer for about 4 hours.

Eat! mmmm...

This ice cream is divine by itself, but if you are in the mood for something truly decadent, make a little spicy chocolate sauce by melting 2 ounces of good quality bittersweet chocolate into 2/3 cup of cream and adding a quarter teaspoon each of cayenne pepper and cinnamon. Cut up some strawberries. Serve a scoop of ice cream, pour chocolate over, and sprinkle the strawberries.

Oh, and there is probably some left over boozy dulce de leche sauce. It makes a wonderful and decadent addition to coffee. Enjoy!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Bacon and Egg Risotto

Some cooks are like ninjas. They’re flexible, well trained, fast, and unobtrusive. I’m not a cooking ninja. I’m more like a luchadores, a masked Mexican wrestler - over the top in all ways. And the first part of luchadores almost looks like the word “lunch”, which is part of why I like it.

Anyway, I’m not a subtle cook - and this recipe is not subtle at all. I read a recipe for bacon and leek risotto with a fried egg somewhere online, and the idea looked amazing (Jeff and I often eat eggs for dinner), but the execution looked - well, dull and ricey. So, I vastly increased the bacon (because something with four strips of bacon can only be improved by the addition of an additional pound), added loads of garlic (because, like bacon, garlic improves everything it touches), and added two additional leeks. And I poached the eggs rather than frying them sunny-side up because I hate that uncooked egg slime on a sunny side up yolk.

And so we ate the bacon and egg risotto and fell in love. But there was a lot left over. So the next day, we had it again. But my tradition with risotto is on day 2 (and beyond), I make rice patties from the leftovers and fry them in butter until they are gorgeous and crusty and golden on the outside. The poached eggs then reside upon these crispy circles, with asparagus and salad on the side.

I haven’t done it yet, but next time, I intend to use the risotto patties as a base for smoke salmon benedict - bacon risotto, generous layer of smoked salmon, poached egg, hollandaise - it will be sublime.

About the bacon. I’ve been thinking about bacon a lot lately. I can’t like the usual grocery store bacon. It’s full of yucky chemicals and water, and mostly tastes like salt. Who knows where the pigs have been or what they have ingested? On the rare occasions I buy bacon at the grocery, I at least buy the nitrate free kind. It has actual flavour and is missing at least some of the chemical shitstorm that is mass market bacon. I also buy bacon sometimes at the St. Lawrence market - its made of actual meat by the butchers. But most of the bacon I eat comes from my meat CSA - my friends at Stoddart Farm offer amazing bacon with wonderful flavour from pastured berkshire pigs. And I have been experimenting with making my own bacon - in the european style (to avoid the nitrates), which tastes more like pancetta than classic bacon, but is darn good. My point here is that if you want the risotto to really taste good, buy some decent quality bacon!

About the coconut oil. I’ve been using this in cooking more and more. It’s an awesomely healthy fat that isn’t damaged by heat (the way olive oil is). I use two kinds: simple organic coconut oil and organic processed coconut oil. The processed has all the flavour and fragrance of coconut oil removed, but maintains the health profile. If you don’t have coconut oil, use butter. I usually use a little of each.

About the eggs. Did I mention that my friends at Stoddarts sell organic, pastured, eggs? The yolks are dazzlingly bright orange and taste fabulous. Why settle for factory farmed eggs?

About the parmesan. At least buy the kind you have to grate yourself rather than the pre-grated kind. One, it tastes WAY better and because it is not desiccated, it integrates more easily into whatever you are cooking. Two, the rind is the secret ingredient for homemade stock, so it MUST be saved (more about this in a future post).

Bacon, Garlic and Leek Risotto
1-1.5 pounds bacon (sliced and cut into lardons)
3-4 large leeks (cleaned, quartered lengthwise and sliced very thin)
5 cloves of garlic (finely chopped or pushed through a press)
butter/coconut oil
2 cups of arborio rice
6 cups chicken broth
½ - ¾ cup freshly grated paramasan
A twist of fresh lemon juice
salt and pepper
eggs (there should be enough risotto for at least ten eggs, make as many as you will eat for this meal)

Slice the bacon slices crosswise to make matchstick-size pieces. Sauté in a skillet over medium heat until the bacon is quite crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain in paper towel.

Leave the bacon fat in the pan, and sauté the leeks until they are beginning to soften (3 minutes), then add the garlic, and stirring, cook for another 2-3 minutes until the leeks are soft.

In a saucepan, melt a spoonful or two of coconut oil and or butter. Add the Arborio rice and stir, coating each kernel with the oil. Toast gently until fragrant, (or until ever so slightly browned at the edges).

Add a cup of broth to the rice and stir five or six times. As the broth is absorbed and evaporates continue to add ½ to ¾ of a cup of broth at a time and stirring, stirring, stirring after each addition.

After you have added 4½ cups of broth, add the bacon and leeks to the rice and stir well. Continue adding another cup of broth, then stir in the parmesan, lemon juice, a spoonful of butter, and a generous shake of pepper. Taste it to see if it needs salt (depends on the parmesan and the kind of broth you used). Adjust the seasonings, while trying not to eat all the rice directly out of the pot with a spoon.

Take the rice off the heat, cover it, and put it aside.

Poach the eggs: Bring about two inches of water to a boil in a deep skillet. Add a generous dollop of white vinegar to the water. Break the eggs in one at a time.

You have to be speedy here, because the eggs cook quickly. Add the last half cup of broth to the rice, stir it in, and spoon however much you want into a shallow bowl (pasta bowls are perfect for this). The rice should not be fluffy - it should be just a little soupy, and should slump rather than sit up when you put it into the bowl. If it is too firm, add more broth.

I like poached eggs with the white cooked, but the yolk runny. As soon as the whites are fully white and opaque, turn off the heat and use a slotted egg turner to remove the eggs one at a time. Blot each egg on a little paper towel to remove the water as you transfer it the top of some rice. Jeff and I like two eggs per bowl.

Part 2: leftovers:
Left over rice goes into the fridge and will keep adequately for a week.

When you are ready to eat your left overs, prepare patties by measuring out about 4 heaping spoonfuls of rice and firmly shaping it into a “burger”. I use a burger press because I happened to get one in my Christmas stocking one year, but use whatever method works for you. Make the patties about ¾ inch thick and about 4 inches in diameter.

Heat a skillet and add 3 tablespoons of butter and a dollop of coconut oil. Add the rice patties and fry in the butter until dark golden on the bottom. Flip the patties and cook until golden on both sides (adding more butter if needed)

Be careful when you flip the patties - they are quite delicate and break easily (although if they do break, just stick them back together and move on). When they are cooked, plate them and top each with a poached egg.

You could also add lightly steamed garlic spinach and mushrooms, asparagus, holladaise sauce, smoked salmon, or whatever else you like on your eggs.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

PBL Diary – Three weeks in. Ups and Downs

It’s been a busy three weeks in my BTT class. The teams have started their projects and are running fast with them.

I love watching kids struggle. No – not because I want them to suffer, but because wrestling with an idea or task both deepens their learning and develops true self-confidence – nothing like succeeding at something hard to make you believe in yourself.

They started with charters, and then plans. The parts of the plan they had the hardest time with were the Assumptions and Risk sections. My fault, perhaps, since I focused their project management training and practice on requirements and task analysis. At 13 years old, they have some trouble making abstractions into unfamiliar territory without being explicated taught how.

We got a good lesson on Risks, though. Nobody identified the risk that we might lose our wi-fi connections. Although we have a computer lab to use, it is quite ancient, and many of the students bring laptops, pads, smart phones and so on, - and use them like crazy. I guess we just take ubiquitous wi-fi for granted, because we were thrown into a tizzy when the school’s wi-fi went down and stayed down. Apparently, TDSB is putting too much load on our service provider. Anyway, we have all had to adjust to making do with our painfully slow lab computers and WITHOUT instant in-your-hand communication and file movement. If we want to tweet, we have to sign on to a computer! I was tweeting 30 times a class from my ipad. Now I have to interrupt and make announcements – it’s distracting for everyone. It’s been very annoying, but also a very instructive event in terms of how overlooking a risk can impact a project.

After getting the planning done and approved, the teams have started sprinting. And they are building good stuff. An internal student resources website is already complete and in use. Likewise, the Project Office website is serving as a repository for all our work. The documentary teams are making everyone’s lives interesting with all their filming, and this week they started interviews and some editing.

There is a lot of action!

The interpersonals on the teams are also interesting. On one team, the scrum master and film director are at each-other’s throats, but today they actually sat down (without my prompting) and had a heart to heart and appeared to work out their differences. We’ll see in the next couple days whether they genuinely managed to come to an understanding.

One team (the team that had already delivered the student resource website) is like a well oiled machine – I’ve seen professional software development teams that weren’t as organized and that didn’t communicate as well as this lot. I give the leader a lot of credit – she is doing an amazing job - but I’m also impressed to see how other members of the team have stepped up and taken initiative.

This team did have a bit of a bump today. The websites are quite accessible from inside the class since there are groups of people working on them, in what we thought was a trusted environment. Someone thought it would be funny to add some rude commentary to the website, as well as an inappropriate video. The kids whose work was defaced were really, really upset. I think they genuinely felt violated that their honest work was treated with such disrespect by someone in their own class. They had been so proud – not only of the good job they had done, but because the site was being used daily for something real - by all the grade nines to help them with their summative projects. We were able to fix it quickly and easily, of course, but I think the kids were really hurt. My next job is to track down who the perpetrators were. I have a pretty good idea who, but if they lie when I ask them, I don’t have any proof.

My second well-oiled machine is the Library site team. I put all the ESL kids on one team. This was a slightly eccentric choice. The usual is to spread the ESL students out to force them to speak as much English as possible. I decided in technology class that I wanted them to put their energy into their projects, rather than into language acquisition, and it’s been amazing to me how the students have bloomed, and how fantastic their work has been. Without the language barrier to invest their energy in, they have been free to be creative. They all speak Mandarin, and there are two team members that speak Mandarin and English fluently, so they are able to translate instructions and questions. They are like different kids. Instead of being all quiet and reticent and not participating, they are all chattering a mile a minute – exchanging ideas, discussing solutions, laughing and getting excited about their work. The best part is, they are completely organized (their project management artifacts are all in English, and they are excellent!) and their site is looking fabulous – they didn’t just cobble things together – they actually innovated and came up with some amazing ideas. This would never have happened if they had been forced to work in English.

I have also noticed this week that the teams are beginning to exchange information and resources. My experience has been that this step represents a new and better phase for team working, but that it doesn’t always happen. But yesterday the PR team overheard the documentary team moping about some film they weren’t be able to get, and jumped in with an offer to provide the film – which they had been able to shoot, but for a different purpose. Today, the two teams agree to pool all their film and they set up a Google Docs space to make it available to everyone.

Within the next two weeks, I should be seeing nearly done work from all the teams. I am excited. But more important, so are they!

Friday, April 6, 2012

PBL Diary - T minus One week - Lego City and Beyond

Project based learning in the technology classroom diary: T minus one week

After spending 3 weeks teaching my grade 9's project management using Scrum, we finally moved on to Alexey Krivitsky's terrific and well-known Lego City simulation. Lego City Scrum Simulation  Although I've done this in the workplace, I didn't have any idea how it would go with a bunch of 13 year olds!

But project management is routinely located at the edge of a cliff - you get used to problems you'll figure out how to solve when you get to them, and the vast, unknowable future that you pretend to wrestle into a so-called "plan". This activity felt a lot like that! But we did it anyway.

 We didn't have any special Lego pieces, but still managed to create a pretty good looking city, complete with churches, mosques, low and high rise apartments, houses, cars, a courthouse, a hospital, an arena, shopping malls and traffic.

These took a vast amount of Lego, which I sourced at Northern Technology - a small injection molding plant off Markham Road. They are really decent people with great prices for Lego knockoffs. Northern Technology

 The point of the whole exercise was to let the students try the scrum process from end to end. I often find students don't automatically connect content with application. They can calculate burndown charts, and do requirements and task analysis, but when we started the simulation, they couldn't just reason out how to apply all the skills they had just learned. I had to take them through step-by-step. My hope is that when they start their large project assignments, they'll be able to transfer everything better having done the simulation.

Fortunately, after an initial run through, they appeared to get the hang of how everything fits together.

One observation I make about the finished cities. I have two classes. The class whose city is on the left is the class that typically is a lot harder to work with, and their class average is about 10% lower than the class whose city is on the right. And yet the left city has way more buildings done - they were both faster, and did a better job building stuff to meet requirements. This is educational theory in action - many, many kinesthetic learners in the left class. They are not so great with book work, and they have a hard time sitting still, but give them something active to do and a little competition and they shine.

 The video is a bit crappy. Eventually we'll have a lovely documentary of our project based learning experience (since making such a documentary is one of our projects) - this is just raw footage.  The discussion isn't quite as structured as I would like, but they get it done!

The only downside of the Lego experience is the sheer logistics nightmare. 15,000 pieces of Lego plus 32 kids equals unmitigated mayhem. Thirty-two is a slightly bigger than optimum group, too. Twenty would be better, but one has to work with the class one has.  I also had a problem getting them to stop - although I used to have that problem with my staff doing development work as well, so it's not like it's an unrealistic result. (I am reminded of a young software developer named Rain. I would send her home at 8 o'clock and watch her leave through the front door. I would go back to my office, and she would sneak in the back door! HAlf an hour later, I would spot her and send her home again. Repeat. Eventually, I would just go home!)  Finally, I had to be really clear that their marks would be for their status charts (sprint plan, burn down and notes from the retrospective, rather than for their building). They'll do anything for marks - even put down the cool Lego and meet for 5 minutes!

Anyway, we did planning, plus two sprints - each sprint of three 10-minute "days" - held "daily" standup meetings, made status charts and had a review and retrospective at the end of each sprint. I think the review was the funnest part (for me at least!). I think I (gleefully) only accepted two things from the first sprint - which led to both whining and much more focus on getting the requirements right for the second sprint.

The kids had the hardest time with the sprint retrospective. They often have a hard time generating ideas from scratch, and, since they are only 13/14, they haven't had the workplace  experience that helps you get a sense of what a good process should feel like. Maybe next time I'll try to find a way to model it better. Or maybe I'll just let them learn the way I did - the way all my colleagues did - by experience. A horrible, poorly planned project with crappy requirements and a useless product owner is a good teacher of how NOT to do something.

So if we think about teaching them using the "gradual release of responsibility" model: I taught them, they have now practiced with guidance, and I believe they are ready to work independently.

I met with a former colleague last week - he is still in the software development biz, still running teams - and he was so delighted that I was teaching the kids scrum. He said that he was always frustrated by how hard it can be to teach to adults! I think there are two important differences: 1. The kids are in school - so they are in learning mode. 2. The kids are so much less uptight and ego driven. I ask them to try something, they try it. They aren't yet locked into their ways.

So next week, I'll be doing overviews of all the projects, and getting the students to apply for the projects and roles they are most interested in. I want them to see what there is to choose from, and to think about their own learning goals. By the end of next week, they should all have their project assignments.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Crowd Sourcing Really Cool Student Activities - Can you help?

I’ve originated and started a project at my school that I want to talk about, and ask for some help with. This post is a bit long, but I hope anyone reading it will hang in!

This year, I teach Grade 9 BTT and Grade 9 English at an International Baccalaureate (IB) Junior High School in the TDSB. And we are non-semestered, so I have the kids for the full year.

BTT is actually called “Communication and Information Technology” and it’s stated purpose is to familiarize students with typical business applications. There are some problems with this – the main one being that the school computers are all running on Windows XP, and just as an example, we are running Office 2003. At home, the students and I are all running up-to-date operating systems and software. It seems a vast waste of time and effort for me to teach them in detail about software they stopped using four years ago, and that will be even more obsolete by the time they leave high school.

I also have a problem with the way the BTT course has been typically designed by the teachers who teach it: 6 weeks of Word, 6 weeks of Excel, 6 weeks of PowerPoint, click this button, pull down this menu, blah, blah, blah.

I think this type of pedagogy doesn’t meet the needs of our students in today’s technology environment. I think it encourages slow, non-adaptable thinking in a time when technology change is so fast that it’s crucial that students (and teachers, but that’s a topic for another time!) be nimble and resourceful in their approach to and use of technology.

My solution for this year – Call it “Candace-BTT 2.0” is to move to project-based instruction.

* * *

Zoom over to IB English. Since the IB program requires us to create cross-curricular units, I convinced my sister Grade 9 English Teachers that we should do something more interesting than “Tudor Times” for our year-end Culminating Activity. Instead, we are going to do a TED-like conference (see if you aren’t familiar with TED – you’ve been missing out). We are calling the conference “Toronto Tomorrow”.

Students will use this article: How Toronto Lost it's Groove as a jumping off point, and be expected to do deep research about a topic related to the future of the City of Toronto, and then to present a TED-style talk about their topic. We have 7 classes of grade 9s – each class will be invited to nominate 7 members to represent them in the conference. So, we will have 50 students talking about:
  • The Faces of Toronto (changing demographics and immigration)
  • Transportation
  • Architecture and Building
  • Greening the City
  • Art and Performance
  • Taking Care of Each Other (Charities and charitable events)

Students will have to write a proposal for their topic (that includes visiting and photographing whatever they are studying), research it, create slides or a prezi, rehearse, present to their classes and write a reflection about the process. The chosen 7 from each class will participate in the general conference.

* * * 

Meanwhile in BTT, I’ve been teaching project management using Scrum to the kids. They have developed requirements, created backlogs, done task analysis and estimated using planning poker. I’ve taught them how to use burn down charts and project status boards to track their work. Next week, will be doing the LEGO City Scrum simulation – they will use SCRUM to manage the task of building a city out of LEGO – this will give them a chance to run the whole process from end to end, and to practice the various ceremonies that come with Scrum.

After that, they divide into project teams and start working on real world projects. By “real world,” I mean that the projects are not “made up activities for school”, they are actual projects that will be used by people and they have real deadlines (not just, we have to finish this so we can move on to the next topic).

The first set of projects is to support the Toronto Tomorrow Conference. We will need PR (including a plan, commercials, letters, invitations, posters etc.). There will need to be a website that showcases all 50 of the presentations as well as other information about the conference. This will be a public website. We will be making a documentary about the conference as well (which will also be posted on the website), and a documentary about the BTT class and project-based learning. We also will need some small stuff, like a system where 170 students can sign up for a specific topic, and find all the required documents.

The second set of projects is similar – instead of the conference, the artifacts will all be related to the Annual Talent Show (A weird title considering how popular, important and excellent it is – but whatever).

We also have a couple smaller projects, notably, to create a “Student Voices” website for the school, and to create a new Website for the library.

The students will apply for roles on these projects based on their learning goals and interests. As certain projects finish, students will join other teams. The teams will create a document management repository. They will work with a variety of product owners to sort out requirements, decide what technology they are going to use based on what they are doing, figure out how to learn it, and then use it to create their deliverables. They will estimate their tasks and create a schedule. Some teams may include students that are in different classes – we have become quite good at on-line collaboration, so they will continue to use that skill. Kids who are interested in management will be assigned as scrum masters, and I have some other tasks for them as well – including setting up the 360 degree review process using tech like “survey monkey" or something similar.

The Culminating Activity for the course will be to hand in a formal project closeout report for any project they participated in.

I said that the beginning I need some help with these undertakings. One of my goals is to get kids to meet people in the community who are experts in things they want to learn. If you can suggest an idea or volunteer just a little of your time, I sincerely hope that you will do so:

  •  I need a software developer who can be available by email once in a while to answer occasional questions from students about coding web-pages and flash or DHTML (and possibly help them debug if they get stuck). Mostly, I think they will be using Weebly, which is drag and drop, but there is the ability to add your own widgets and customize the code. I have a couple technically-minded students whom I believe will want to go beyond simple drag and drop web development. I don’t see any reason to hold them back just because I’m not an expert.
  • UI design for humans. I know a fair bit about this, and they’ll be doing research, but I would love to have a professional that they could contact for an opinion, or perhaps an outside review of their page designs.
  • Documentary films – is there anybody out there who could do a documentary film-making workshop? Or direct me to some good resources about how to make documentaries? I know how to use the software (the kids will choose from Movie Maker, iMovie and Final Cut Pro), but I can’t offer much guidance on how to make a good documentary.

For the Toronto Tomorrow Conference

We are looking for more topics for the kids. Urban Planning Toronto has been amazing – they have supplied about 70 topics. But they don’t know everything going on in this city.

If you are involved in or know of any causes, events, artists, musicians, historical buildings, new architecture, community gardens, innovative technology, tree planting, web initiative, ANYTHING – all the amazing things that enrich the fabric of our city please tell me what they are. If you have a contact, that would be even more helpful.

Thank you to anybody and everybody who can help!!!!

Updates on these projects as they unfold.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

My Top 10 List of things I like to do over the Christmas Holidays

Since I am now a teacher, I get Actual Christmas Holidays. I wasn’t too happy about the scheduling this year - they started on December 23, which doesn’t leave a lot of time for cooking, shopping, decorating and gift wrapping. On December 15, the whole thing felt so much like too much pressure that I decided we weren’t having a tree this year. But now that it’s January 1st, and I don’t have to go back to work until the 9th, I’m liking the schedule a little better.

I love holidays (and holidays, really). Here are the top ten things I like to do over the Christmas holidays.

10. Think about the people I miss

I really, really miss Marc. I know I didn’t typically see him or be in touch every day - or even every week. But the world has a Marc-shaped hole in it. (That’s actually a joke, which Marc would have gotten). I miss his sarcasm, his humour, and access to his vast collection of recipe books and his rather excellent wine cellar. I miss noticing his great clothes, which I only bothered to do because he loved it when people noticed his great clothes. I miss his Christmas baking baskets, and Christmas lunch somewhere fancy, and shaking my head when he said “Christmas! Christmas is here!” like a besotted four year old. I miss looking forward to seeing him and I miss not wanting to cry when I think about him. One of the problems with being a “X” and married to another man is that there is no socially acceptable outlet for ones grief. And so it stays.

I miss my grandparents. I miss them as much as I always did - but time goes by, and I would say I don’t miss them as often as I did when they were newly gone. Christmas really brings back memories. But I find the memories are not too specific. I mostly remember feelings - feelings of love and safety and anticipation and happiness. I was just thinking that I could be a grandparent soon. Neither of the kids are anywhere NEAR getting married and having families, but they are 21 and 25. They COULD. And it’s amazing to me that I am quite a bit older now that both of my grandmothers were when I was born. I thought they were SO OLD. But I’m not old - and I guess they weren’t really, either. But they always seemed so wise to me, and so willing to listen without judging.

9. Stay up late, and sleep in
Now that I’m depressed....on to a new topic.  This is actually a Jeffry thing. Typically, we go to bed at 10:30 and get up at 6:30. But on holidays, we stay up as late as we want and get up at 9 am. I’m generally a happy morning person who prefers to go to bed and rise early, but there is something deliciously decadent about staying up late and especially about sleeping late. 

I just read over what I wrote. The fact that I find staying up and sleeping late “deliciously decadent” does not mean I need more thrills in my life. It means that I have the ability to appreciate, indeed to revel, in all the wonderful moments as they come along. Really.

8. Getting caught up on my work at school, and think about my job.

I know, I know. I spend a lot of time thinking about my job. And I haven’t posted a single thing about it since September. I’m at a Junior high this year, which I am just okay with. It’s a dream school in a wealthy, neighbourhood. It’s well funded and very well run by an excellent administrative team. The other teachers are terrific and the students are well brought up White and Asian kids. I am teaching in an International Baccalaureate  program (which is great for the resume). This is the kind of posting that most teachers would fall all over themselves to get. So why is it so much less fun and rewarding than my school last year?

It comes down to 3 key issues:
  • I see 228 unique students every week. Last year, I saw 45. Having fewer students means that you have time to form relationships with them, think about their learning and how you can work with them and interest them. With 228 students, learning there first names is a huge accomplishment, and all of them get the same program, whether of not it’s what they need. I’ve noticed that a lot of teachers like this arrangement just fine. However, although I haven’t completely found my style yet, I’m pretty sure that forming strong, constructive relationships with students is one of my key strengths and I really miss being able to do it.
  • The pace is too fast. Seven, 49-minute periods per day; I teach 8 unique classes. I feel like all I do is run like a maniac from room to room and class to class with no time to think, plan, be creative, finish anything or reflect. I really miss doing all those things, and I feel like the kids miss out on my best because I have to dash somewhere right now.
  • The kids themselves. Don’t get me wrong - they are perfectly nice. But some of them are in grade 7 and 8, and I am so not into it. I really want to teach in a high school!
One of the great things about holidays is that I do get a chance to reflect a little. I have done some things this year that I am quite happy with. For example, I teach two sections of BTT (aka, Grade 9 Information and Communication Technology) and I’m having a lot of fun with it. I keep saying I want to be an English teacher rather than a Business teacher, but the business classes are more fun to teach. 

Anyway, I decided that rather than teach them how to use programs, I was going to teach them how to be resourceful computer users. I don’t see the use in teaching them step-by-step how to use programs that will be obsolete before they graduate from highschool. So they have projects, and part of each project is that they have to identify an appropriate piece of business software to use, find a means of learning how to use it, learn it, and then do the project. 

A recent project was to put them in groups where half of the group was in one class and half in the other, and they had to use online collaboration software to make an infographic and write a research paper about a topical subject. It worked GREAT, and the infographics are incredibly good - some of them are better than professional ones I have seen around the web. 

After Christmas, I’m going to teach them SCRUM so they will also be responsible for project managing their teams, and we have 2 really large projects that will each require multiple teams. The projects are real. One is a variety show that the performing arts classes are putting on at the Veteran’s centre and the other is a conference (BIG Ideas) that I am doing with all the grade nine English classes. The BTT kids will be handling advertising (including online ads, radio spots, etc, as well as planning the campaigns), creating a website, shooting a documentary about the process, filming the events and project management. The students can choose what role they want to explore - creative, technical or management and be assigned to a team on that basis. Should be a blast.

OK, I went off topic a little. Despite some things I don’t like about my current position, I obviously have tons of enthusiasm for the profession. I just need to find exactly the right school for my strengths and interests.

I have no more time for writing. In the next installment(s) of “My Top 10 List of things I like to do over the Christmas Holidays” stay tuned for:

7. Think about the future
6. Watch movies
5. Sit in front of the fireplace reading a book and drinking wine, while Jeffry does the same
4. Eat and drink what I want.
3. Did I mention cooking?
2. Spend time with people I like (while avoiding those I don’t)
1. Make New Years resolutions