Pancake Dreams, Childhood Memories

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There were two things I never experienced knowingly until I went to college: fake butter, and fake maple syrup. Furthermore, whether you call them pancakes, griddle cakes, flapjacks, or hot cakes, most of us share the same image of this popular American breakfast dish. This was not the case for me.

We called them pancakes. We ate them for breakfast. But in fact, I grew up eating crepes. My grandmother learned to make them for my French grandfather; my father took over the tradition, and today for the first time in quite a while, I am returning to it. I haven’t made crepes in ages, but yesterday the craving took me over, and I realized that the “pancakes” that were commonplace in my household were foreign to my children.

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stack of homemade cornmeal pancakes, my son’s favorites.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good American pancake! We make them all the time with variation: whole wheat, buttermilk, cornmeal, white light & fluffy, and so on and so forth. Growing up, eating thick pancakes was a novelty, in which we would daringly engage at a diner (almost always disappointing), or at a friend’s house where the concept of chocolate chip pancakes or pancakes from a box was an uncontemplatable yet delicious sin. But back to the real story…

There was never a recipe. We learned by watching the various ingredients go into the blender, and we appreciated the results with the first bite from that thin little pancake with the perfect balance of creamy tenderness and golden crispiness. My grandmother wielded two small non-stick skillets in her house and she would make crepes in tandem. My father’s pan of choice, and mine as well, is a low-lipped cast iron frying pan, perfectly seasoned, never washed, and used exclusively for crepes.

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My cast iron crepe pan

The tradition, however, was the same in both households. Crepes in my family are served fresh and hot, and eaten right away while they are still at their most delicious. Whether we were offered “pancakes” for breakfast or we requested them, the system worked as follows: The quickest child would claim the first pancake, even with the knowledge that sometimes the first one would not be sheer perfection while the pan temperature was adjusted and the cast iron fine tuned its seasoning with the current flame. The claim was staked by simply shouting “I get first!” In turn, someone would call second, and the last child (there were three of us), would obviously be third. At my grandmother’s, she would make crepes just for us, perhaps eating one for herself at the end. When my dad made crepes, he worked furiously providing crepe after crepe, with my mom in fourth place, and my dad eating his fill only if there was a lull in the lineup or if we had all eaten our fill.

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The lineup of plates in the crepe serving frenzy

It wasn’t that we each ate in isolation. The flurry of activity in the kitchen meant that we essentially ate together, moving from table to the serving lineup and back again, keeping our place and the system running smoothly, with only occasional arguments about who was next.

Looking at recipes and uses for traditional French crepes, there is no doubt that our crepes and how we eat them have been hybridized. I am not afraid to add a hint of vanilla extract and a pinch of salt to my recipe. We enjoy them ladled with melted butter and authentic maple syrup. Bon appetit!

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A Fundamental Difference

When I started this blog, my son was in school and I was swept up in the fight against excessive testing and standardization in public education. I continued this fight passionately, well after we pulled our son from school and began homeschooling, a choice that is a perfect fit for our family and one that has quite surpassed all expectations. In short, the homeschooling journey has been extraordinary.

My voice in all things public education has diminished and lately almost wholly disappeared, namely because I felt like my opinions didn’t matter anymore. I mean, who am I as a homeschooling parent to tell public school parents and teachers what their business should be? I resisted the ‘our world/ their world’ mantra for quite a while, but over time became exasperated as the tension between these two worlds became too much and I realized that clearly the allies for whom I had been fighting did not see the unity between our two worlds as much as I did.

I still believe that all children, regardless of the type of educational environment they find themselves in, deserve a meaningful education in which they play a primary role in their own discoveries. I still believe that parents have the right to be fully involved in their children’s education, and I still believe that teachers ought to have the freedom to exercise their expertise in the classroom. But for me, the fight against testing and top-down control became just a tiny part of what does not work in public education, at least not for me or my kids. And I realize that, while my opinion might not mean much to those that choose to remain committed to public education, I am still entitled to my opinions.

Even now that I linger at the sidelines when it comes to discussions of public education, they surround me everywhere I go. Sometimes I feel like I learn more about how people really feel as a fly on the wall than I ever did as an activist leader of a major Opt Out group. Whether I’m waiting outside my kids’ gymnastics or getting my hair cut, everyone seems to be complaining about education.

There are many topics of discussion but one of the most common items of complaint is homework. I watch children being proctored by their parents in between activities at my local YMCA all the time, their tired faces and sighs as they fill in blanks and erase spelling mistakes. I hear parents talk amongst themselves how every night is a battle, how their kids are so tired, how they don’t see a point to homework for a first grader. One of the parents, who happens to be a kindergarten teacher, said if that happened to her kids she would refuse the homework. Another second grade teacher spends the hour waiting for her own children in activities, correcting the homework of her second grade students. Why has homework became such a contentious topic and one where parents and teachers feel they have no choice but to simply comply? Why are so many elementary teachers assigning homework and why aren’t more parents opting out of this distraction from life when experts assert that homework in the younger grades provides no benefits to learning and all parties see the chaotic fallout of the homework trend? See here, here, here, and here, to get you started. But it’s not just this anti-establishment homeschooling mom who is complaining! Teachers have begun to stop assigning homework, and parents who see the ill-effects are refusing to engage in the homework cycle.

Last year, I had the privilege to attend a presentation by Alfie Kohn at nearby Walton Central School, where my my own pedagogical ideologies were confirmed as Kohn spoke of education without homework, without testing, and without grades. And this is where my journey, my deep philosophical beliefs about what education can and should be like for children breaks away heavily from business as usual in the classroom. It isn’t just about the excessive testing or whether Common Core math is good or bad. These issues used to be the big deal for me, and I couldn’t understand why parents did not opt out, or why teachers thought the Common Core was a good idea. I now see a more fundamental difference: whether one takes the tests or not, whether one likes close reading or not, whether addition takes two steps or ten, children are being forced out of their childhoods in an overly structured system that disallows the input of the learners themselves and sterilizes the entire process of learning.

I overheard another conversation between parents last week. The second grade teacher parent asked the other parents about registration for an activity that would structure her children’s spring break days. She then stated that after witnessing her kids “going crazy without structure” during a recent snow day, she couldn’t bear to think about an entire week of them being home “without anything to do.” Before I continue, let me state that my opinions are simply that: opinions. I make decisions that are right for my family and would never directly criticize another parent or teacher for making a different decision. We all parent differently, I realize, and the beauty of teaching is that all teachers  should be allowed to exercise their own unique teaching methods and personalities. But for me, hearing this conversation was shocking. To me it was the ultimate confirmation that the decision to homeschool is the right one for us. I don’t give tests; my kids don’t have homework; largely, they learn what they want and when, and are thriving academically, socially, and mentally in this environment! But the core of my beliefs stems from the notion that kids nowadays are being robbed from their childhoods and natural tendencies with a constant over-structuring that begins when they stagger out of bed in the morning, continues through the school hours, extends to the pre-dinner homework battles, and rolls over into any free time they might have had to themselves.

If my children were in school, I would most certainly opt out of testing, and say no to homework. That is my right as a parent. But how could I possibly preserve childhood without the freedom my children have at home to be themselves and make their own decisions?

Wheat, a journey of pride

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Yesterday, I ground wheat berries from our own harvest! My family and I have been experimenting with the highs and lows of growing our own supply of hard red winter wheat. This is our second harvest.

We’re not farmers by any means, just a family on a journey to self-reliance with a passion for food that is homegrown and natural. We went into this knowing the labor and agreeing that we were not going to invest any money in fancy equipment. We’ve made many mistakes and learned from each one. Our original 1/32 acre plot has since grown to a whopping 1/8th of an acre (and switched locations to allow the original plot to rest). I sometimes wonder if it’s worth all the labor, the trial and error, when I can order a 50 lb. bag of hard red wheat berries online for a very reasonable price.

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hard red winter wheat berries, harvested late summer 2015

It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it in my opinion. To grow something, to await the wonder of germination from something in stasis and ostensibly barren of life, never ceases to amaze me. After planting our winter wheat in late September, days later we witness a carpet of vivid green. It grows for a bit, and then it stops with the arrival of the short winter days. Winter wheat needs this cold period, and in the spring it takes off again, this time continuing its journey upward to becoming a mature plant with offspring of its own. We watch the stalks turn golden and the heads start to bend sideways, an indication that the seeds are ready for harvest. Then the real work begins (the labor that makes me doubt this endeavor sometimes!). We harvest, we thresh, we winnow. And then we have something amazing — pride in our work, a sense of accomplishment. Oh, and of course bushels and bushels of nutritious wheat!

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weighing the freshly ground flour to make bread dough

We haven’t purchased store bread in almost six years, except occasionally while I was pregnant with my now four-year-old daughter, when the smell of yeast made me even more sick than I was in general during those months. We’ve been grinding our wheat for the past two years, but this is the first year I will be baking extensively with my own homegrown wheat. The first year yielded little more than enough to save for seed the following year. We’ve been gradually building a supply of heirloom seed over the past two years, and this year there is surplus!

For many this journey may not be worth it, but I enjoy a challenge and I enjoy hard work.

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stretching & folding the dough before a second rise

We’ve always kept a big garden that provides fresh vegetables throughout the summer and enough surplus to put by for leaner months. Growing wheat has been something my husband and I have always talked about. I love the sense of accomplishment of working the land and producing food myself. It’s one of the few things that always makes sense to me.

There’s nothing more satisfying than the smell of baking bread. And there’s nothing harder than waiting for freshly baked bread to cool enough so everyone can enjoy that first warm slice with butter!

 

[edit: after posting this on Facebook, a friend commented with a link to this very interesting article, called Bread is Broken. It seemed appropriate to post it here as well!]

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four 13″ loaves, baked in un-lidded pullman pans.

 

Oscar’s Spectacular Soup

My son’s first blog post. He’s 7 years old. He decided a few months ago to make a soup, so I guided as little as possible and let him make all the decisions. He wrote down his recipe in his journal, and the soup tasted pretty good! Then we talked about how to improve the recipe for a final version and about the idea of making a big recipe poster as a homeschooling project. He liked the idea. He remade his soup, again with very little interference from me. The result was a delicious, simple soup, within the capabilities of a 7-year-old, and some good writing practice at the same time!

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This is my recipe for a really good soup. I hope you try it. There are a lot of vegetables included. I made this soup all by myself. I even cut the vegetables myself. We grew all the vegetables in our garden. I help take care of the garden. My soup is healthy and delicious.

Here is the recipe for my soup. Here is the recipe for my soup.

This picture shows me cutting vegetables. This picture shows me cutting vegetables.

IMG_2412 Here is my rough draft for the recipe.

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Keeping the Doorways Open

Mac Barnett, children’s book author and self-proclaimed liar to children, opens his TED talk with a quote by Pablo Picasso.

We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth or at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.

I listened to a podcast of Barnett’s TED talk in the car recently. It was one of the most endearing TED talks I’ve heard in a long time, full of humor and sincerity and passion for his subject. When I wasn’t laughing out loud, I was smiling ear to ear. That he poked fun at Venn diagrams had me hooked on his sense of humor, but I also connected deeply with what he was saying. Art, books, stories, myths–they get us to a place somewhere between truth and lies, a place he calls wonder, a place where some semblance of the truth causes us to suspend our beliefs and embrace the story and the characters. We know they aren’t real; but we know that they are real. Stories are a doorway for us to enter into worlds where our understanding of truth can be beautifully and artfully molded. But as Barnett explains during his lively presentation, these doorways should not just be to allow us to enter; they should allow the fiction to escape and come out into the real world. He says that kids are the perfect audience for literary fiction.

Coincidentally, Barnett discusses his first job at a pirate supply store, a front for a publishing company and writing center located in a San Francisco district zoned for retail, because pirates happen to be the center of my own lies! The importance of art and authors and the work being done on Valencia Street in San Francisco merits discussion, especially in this time of academic rigor, a monoculture of standards, and the reduction of free play and creativity. But that is for another post. My story begins with a normal childhood obsession with all things pirates.

I think my son was around 4 when I began the myth I had been a pirate. His fascination with pirates, with treasure, and with the concept of exploration and discovery, led to treasure walks around our village. In his four-year-old mind, X naturally marked the spot so I would wrap pennies in white paper and mark the outside with a bold, red X. These I would carry in my pocket while we walked. It was easy to distract him while I tossed a wrapped penny into our path, or set one on a nearby wall or tree stump. It was also easy to direct his attention to these treasures should he miss one. He was four; the myth was simple!

His infatuation with the small treasures that seemed to appear all over our village piqued his curiosity and he began adding his own elements to the story, deciding that our house was inhabited by ghost pirates that he claimed must be the ones leaving the treasures because they knew how much he loved treasure. He questioned me constantly, and my mundane adult answers simply did not interest him. He ignored them and kept asking. So I told him a lie. I told him I used to be a pirate, and while I couldn’t be 100% sure, it was most likely that there were pirate spirits visiting us from members of my old crew. It was at that point that pirate messages began appearing under his pillow or taped to his bedroom door, always written in scrawling pirate script on torn pieces of paper, which I dutifully translated for him.

All of this culminated in a pirate treasure hunt for my son and a few of his friends. My son received a note in advance notifying him that he would soon receive a map by mail for him and his friends so they could locate treasure of their own. Years earlier, in my artist life before children, I had cast handmade flax paper, which was still stored in my studio. On this, I drew a map of our village in India ink, designating spots of interest that would be part of the treasure hunt. I antiqued the paper and mailed this to my son along with instructions for him and his friend to meet at a certain time, in a certain place.  This, of course, was our house, and the parents of the children were informed of the ploy in advance.

That morning, I left my son home while I went out and hid clues and small treasures at different locations around town. The children were given an initial clue, which upon solving would take them to a location in the village, where they would find a small treasure and yet another clue. There were gold coins in front of the bank, Jolly Roger flags by the flagpole at the school, a key at a local business, small shovels at the ice cream shop called Get the Scoop, and the final clue was from the village major who lived across the street from our house. He directed them across the road to follow the dotted line to the treasure.

My husband had secretly built a wooden treasure chest, which we filled with trinkets, fake coins and gems, as well as inexpensive compasses and telescopes. While we were out following clues, he buried the chest in a predesignated location and marked the spot with an X. The children were thrilled to see a dotted line painted across our lawn. They ran to follow it to the X, and immediately began excavating the earth underneathThe key they had obtained while clue following fit into a large cast iron padlock that I had found on Amazon, and that now securely locked the chest.

My son talked about this adventure for months, asking more questions, and being easily satisfied with quick answers, such as What was your ship called?”

“It was the Magnificent.”

His interest in pirates slowly dwindled. His fifth birthday party was pirate themed, but his intense interest in the notion of his mom as a pirate died away. He still has the chest and the lock, where he keeps his own treasures, but the cheap items from the treasure hunt gradually lost their appeal. It was obvious they were fakes and I didn’t expect the truth of the myth to last for long. There even came a time when he asked me if his dad had built the chest, a fact which I wholly denied! For a while, there was little talk about pirates, and very few questions.

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My son will be eight in January, and it makes sense that he doesn’t believe. But for some reason, he has rekindled his interest in my life as a pirate. He doesn’t believe (he can’t believe, right?); but he does believe. He wants to believe. I answered his question about my pirate name. I told him my pirates never use their real names. I was Mavis Dae. He asked why I don’t have any treasure. I told him pirates forfeit their treasure if they choose to go back to civilian life. He inquired about an old brass key we have in our house. I have no idea where it came from or what it’s for, but when I told him this he would not accept it. So I told another lie. I told him that when pirates hide their treasure they deliver the key to a retired pirate who has no knowledge of the location of the treasure is hidden or what it contains. I also told him that the map is delivered to yet another retiree, and that only the captain knows the identities of the two and that one day pirates might come looking for the key on behalf of their captain.

My son wants to hear stories about those pirate days of my life. He laughed when I told him how I had once tied the leather bootlaces of a pirate captain while he slept so I could raid his cabin, and how he fell flat on his face when he awoke to find my thieving and tried to stand up. My son keeps my pirate secret, but is thrilled to tell the story when I give him permission to tell it to a trusted friend. He still laughs when he tells the bootlaces story. I’m not sure if he really believes, but I know that choosing to believe and being part of this reality is more fun than not believing. And I will keep going with the myth, with keeping the doorway open for as long as he wants it that way. Because why shouldn’t children have the opportunity to believe in fiction, to embrace the magic that stories create?

In the words of Barnett, “It’s a little bit of fiction that has colonized the real world.” I hope that even when my son is grown, that the treasure chest his father built will still contain a little bit of the magic that helped shape his childhood.

To Stampylonghead

Dear Stampy,

My son begged me to post this note to you. I agreed on the condition that he finish his math. The math is completed, so here it is:

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He’s 6, so let me translate. The first page says:

Stampy (the symbol in the upper left corner is a heart)
come
to
my
birthday.
January.
OSCAR (my son’s name)
there’s
cake!
For
you!
in
America.

Page 2 is obviously a drawing of your minecraft persona standing over and gesturing toward a cake (“kake”). Oscar says you really like cake!

Cheers,

Oscar’s mom

My “rabble-rousing rhetoric” for the day.

I was recently directed to a Newsday article by Anne Michaud titled Don’t waste your vote on Stop Common Core. While her article simplisticly reduces the conversation about education reform to a  he said, she said… or rather a  we say, they say  debate, I was struck once again by the missed opportunity of many of the commenters to debunk Michaud’s talking points with intelligent reasoning. Instead, commenters spent more time arguing various points with each other that had nothing to do with the article. I see this more and more, especially in my state of New York where a debate has been heating with the nearing gubernatorial election, and the Stop Common Core ballot line.

Much of Michaud’s article is a replay of pro-reform rhetoric, straight from the mouths of state education officials and a rehashing of the state’s so-proclaimed call for the reduction of testing in our schools. (Stakeholders know that in actuality testing still dominates education and drives instruction by focusing too much on quantifiable data). Michaud celebrates the “higher standards” of the Common Core and ends her article with this proclamation: “I’ve seen my high school-age daughters more engaged by their assignments than ever before. That’s not a course I want to reverse.”

I’m sure that’s true, but the article overlooks the big picture–socio-economic status. Ann Michaud is undoubtedly an educated, respectably employed, involved parent. She’s white, and let’s not forget that by virtue of her race, she is given a big advantage in the world of success and achievement and opportunity. In other words, Michaud belongs to the world of privilege and that means that her daughters would most likely succeed academically no matter what standards, what tests, or what curriculum were thrown their way. It is now widely known that poverty and other situations outside of the school play a larger role in the academic success or failure of children. So-called higher standards will not solve this problem.

Common Core isn’t about high standards, states like mine had high standards long before Common Core was adopted. Common Core is about control. It’s about telling teachers what to teach and in many ways how to teach it. The expectations laid forth by the backwards mapping of education have been shown by experts in childhood development to be inappropriate, especially in the early grades. We’re pushing children to learn concepts earlier and earlier and at rates that are not natural for many. One doesn’t need a report to understand this; just talk to members of your school community. There is little joy in learning anymore. Stress and anxiety among students and teachers abound. Michaud downplays and oversimplifies opposition to the Common Core and believes it exists magically, completely unrelated to other issues of testing and teacher evaluations. Schools have become test preparation centers because of the accountability structure associated with school reform. In a rush to align curriculum to Common Core State Standards, many districts in my state have adopted poorly written and uninspiring curriculum lesson plans called modulesSo, while Michaud’s daughters, and perhaps other children of privileged backgrounds might be thriving, there are indeed many who are not–who are in fact suffering daily.

Michaud’s article assumes that opposition to the Common Core comes from uninformed, complaining parents who just don’t get it, or perhaps by teachers who are afraid of being evaluated. She calls it “wonderfully rabble-rousing rhetoric.” While that is certainly one effect by a very small percentage of those who possess a myopic focus on single issues, or last night’s homework, the vast majority of those opposed to Common Core are acting from a place of good intentions and a vast amount of research into these issues. What surprises me most about reformers who downplay the public’s concerns is that they fail to acknowledge that opposition is coming from across the nation, from people everywhere, from all walks of life, from all professions. Our specific concerns might vary, or might be ranked differently, but when such a vast oppositional movement occurs with such force, as that against education reform, it’s time to start listening. It’s time to start admitting that there might actually be a problem.

How one defines that problem is an individual thing, and there is a wealth of resources available to help one accomplish this. Real experts in education like Diane Ravitch, Yong Zhao, Carol Burris, Susan OhanianMarion Brady, FairTest.org and many others have written extensive commentary on the subjects of Common Core, standardization, testing, scripted curriculum, data collection, Charter schools, and more. But it is abundantly clear that Common Core and the other ill-effects of the reform agenda are not serving the public the way they are touted by reform supporters, such as Ann Michaud.

Whether one chooses to vote against the Common Core in New York State either using the Stop Common Core ballot line or by supporting one of the other gubernatorial candidates who are also opposed to Common Core, or whether you choose to fight back by opting your child out of testing, you have a voice in this debate. The worst thing you can do is remain silent and comply with a system that you see hurting your child daily.