Sunday, June 28, 2015

Becoming a Meal Prep Master

Do you know those people who show up to the lunchroom at work and always have something that looks and smells delicious? Something that, when they microwave it, fills the kitchen with enticing aromas?

Have you ever wondered how you can become one of those people? How they find the time?

The answer: meal planning and prep.

I used to bring a Lean Cuisine meal to work EVERY DAY. When I got home, I would eat something like scrambled eggs, grilled cheese, or a quesadilla. I didn't really like vegetables or know how to prepare them.  

When I read Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food, however, I radically changed almost everything about my diet. I stopped eating most highly-processed foods (anything with ingredients I couldn't pronounce or weren't food) and upped my calories from plant foods. 

The truth is, however, this type of eating takes a lot more planning than the old way. Whether you're interested in meal prepping to save time, money, the environment, or your health, here are a few of the ways that I've found to make meal planning and prepping easier.

Get to know yourself as a cook.
If you've never done much cooking, that doesn't mean you can't change the way you eat to include more home-cooked foods. It just means you might need to experiment for awhile. Some people don't really like cooking, and so they'd rather sacrifice one whole day a week (or a month, if they are really organized!) to cooking. I love cooking and so I don't mind doing some cooking mid-week. I also like to buy a lot of fresh produce or use things from the garden, so that means that I go shopping every week (usually twice - one "big shopping" on Sunday, and one mid-week). Think about how much time you want to spend shopping and cooking. If you have a partner or roommate who likes chores that you don't, you might be able to trade some of them for food. I once had a roommate who did all the cleaning if I did all the shopping and cooking for both of us - perfect arrangement.

I use this meal planning pad from
Knock Knock for my planning
(then I use the back of last week's
 sheet for a shopping list).
Start with a plan.
Every Sunday, I sit down with my week's calendar and grab a few cookbooks, plus my Kindle so I can Pinterest. I plan breakfast, lunch, and dinner for every day, plus two snacks.

I'm one of those people who doesn't mind repeating foods I like, so I'll usually have the same thing for breakfast for a whole week (lately I've been digging a variation on these goat cheese, turkey and egg cups), and I have a routine for snacks: green smoothie in the morning, a piece of fruit and some almonds or a homemade granola bar for afternoon snack. I make the green smoothies each morning, because I don't like them more than a day old. However, I prep all of the fruits and veggies on Sundays, cutting them up and freezing them.

For lunch, I have three go-tos:
1. Mason jar salads (or other types of salad, like this bulgur blueberry mint salad I ate three days last week). Mason jar salads are great for prepping on the weekend and then popping in your lunch box, because they don't get soggy.  This article tells you the basics of how to prep them, and there are a bazillion variations on Pinterest. 
2. Homemade soups, stews, or chilis: These are more of a winter fave, when I want something warm. I usually cook these on Sunday, then portion out into individual containers for the week.
3. Dinner leftovers: I often cook one dinner on Sunday, eat it for dinner Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, then have the leftovers for lunch on Wednesday and cook a new dinner Wednesday night.

If you're planning for kids, Kristin Howerton has awesome ideas for how you can set up a situation for them to make their own lunches. My friends who have smaller kids who can't yet make their own foods, put on their plans lines for their own lunches and snacks, and those for their kiddos. More detailed planning templates for whole families can be found a quick Google away.

On your plan, jot down any notes that are going to impact your time during the week. For example: last week I was planning to make chicken on Thursday night, but I had a work event in the early evening and knew I wouldn't have any energy when I got home. I put on my plan that I needed to make the marinade on Wednesday night, then put the chicken in the marinade before I went to work in the morning Thursday. When I got home, I just had to dump the chicken into the pan and bake it.

Shop smart:
Once you have a plan for all of your meals, go through your plan and write out your shopping list. Then here's the trick: only buy stuff on the list. I can't tell you the number of times I wanted to eat something bad for me, but couldn't because there was nothing in the house. If you need to, you might want to make some rules for yourself -- I tend to live by Pollan's food rules: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

For me, the hardest part is not shopping on the weekend, it's the desire for bad stuff during the week when I'm driving around for work. Diet Coke, get thee behind me!! This is the main reason I always have my snacks planned out, so I try not to be hungry.

Invest in the right tools:
If you're going to meal prep, you can't get around the fact that you need A LOT of containers. Some of my favorites:

Mason jars: They're not just for hipsters! Mason jars are excellent for salads, as I noted above, and for smoothies, soups, or anything somewhat liquidy. The lids go on super-tight, so they aren't easy to spill.
Lunch Blox:  I prefer glass containers for foods that I'm going to heat up, but for salads and snacks, Rubbermaid Lunch Blox are awesome. I have a couple of the salad Blox, and they are also great for what I call "snack bento": you can put a bunch of different small snack items, like some tomatoes, carrot sticks, a few Nut Thins, and some hummus all together, and they don't mix with each other because of the divisions in the Blox.
Small containers and spice jars: It's good to have lots of tiny containers -- I use these more than any others, because they help you keep a handle on portions. When you use up a spice, save the jar (wash it thoroughly or the spice flavor will linger), and it can be added as another small container.
Gallon zip bags: While I try not to use many items that aren't reusable, gallon zipper bags are the best for freezing fruit, soups, cooked grains, etc. This is because they can be stacked flat in the freezer, saving space. Depending upon what was inside them, they can be washed and reused before recycling.

Use the whole kitchen.
If you're one of those people who doesn't want to cook more than once a week, make use of the entire kitchen. When you plan, make sure you have one thing you can cook on the stovetop, one for the crockpot, one for the oven, and maybe one for the grill or toaster oven (I cook whole meals in the toaster oven, especially in the summer when I don't want to turn on the real oven). This is especially helpful when you're planning not just for one or two people, but a whole family, where you'll need multiple dinner entrees.

Meal planning and prep can be a shift in thinking about eating, which many of us tend to do on the fly, or turn to convenience foods. However, it also makes life more delicious -- I like to turn up the music when I'm cooking, and it's always wonderful to wake up in the morning knowing that I don't have to think about what to pack in my lunch kit.

Do you have any great tips for meal prepping?

Friday, June 12, 2015

Dear Spokane: A Letter To My Hometown About Being Thrust Into the Spotlight of American Race Relations

Today hurts.

Spokane, WA is a small city that prides itself on being a "great place to raise a family." The kind of place that's rarely in the news. So when Twitter and Facebook blew up today with news that Rachel Dolezal, the president of Spokane's NAACP chapter has been presenting herself as black, when she is actually white, a lot of you probably wanted to turn off the internet for a few days. Within hours (minutes, maybe) derisive memes and Twitter hashtags popped up. At least one commentator pulled out the classic "Is Spokane so white that...?"

I've seen a lot of folks in my hometown on social media just pretending the scandal hasn't happened, and others asking that people not rush to judgment, or why the media isn't focusing on some positive news about our city.

If we don't turn away, though, this could be a real moment to open our minds and better understand the real racial crisis happening in our country.

Twelve years ago this month, I moved from Spokane to one of the most diverse cities in America. I was pretty dumb about diversity at that time. Not maliciously so. I was just ignorant, from growing up in a place where all of the faces I saw were white. I was constantly afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing when the topic of race came up. Over time, working in an organization that is dedicated to social justice, I began to build my consciousness of the world beyond the one in which I'd been raised.

I see this same fear in some of my friends on social media today. If we talk about race, will we say something stupid? Will we make things worse? We feel that way because one of the ways that white culture maintains its privileged status is to train white children that even talking about race is racist, thus erasing the existence of our fellow citizens who are not white.

Talking has to begin. 

It can be harmful talk if we don't do it with care, however. But it can also move all of us forward. Below are a few principles that have helped me open myself to conversations about race (these ideas are specifically directed at my white friends; as a white person I don't have any right to speak to other communities about what they should do):

1) Be an active listener. 
White people need to listen to black people in this moment. We need to hear the real pain that Rachel Dolezal's actions have caused. If you want some places to start, you can try Jonathan Capeheart's piece,  or this interview with Mitzi Miller. But sitting back and being quiet doesn't mean ignoring the story. We have to seek out and listen to voices of the black community throughout the country, including in Spokane.

2) Acknowledge white privilege.
Living in a place like Spokane, where the overwhelming number of people are white, it is easy not to feel privileged. Particularly since it's a working class town, the idea of "privilege" seems hard to fathom. However, even (or especially) in a predominantly white area, whiteness confers privilege - privilege like seeing oneself represented in the media in a positive way, seeing your own history in history books, not being singled out by the police time and time again. Rachel Dolezal has white privilege in that at any time, she could have chosen to be perceived as white, functionally erasing the experiences of those who don't have that choice. And as a prominent civic voice for the black community, she stole the opportunity for others to speak their truths. 

3) Learn more about race in this country.
In a town like Spokane (and any town, really) it's easy to go through your entire school career without ever really understanding much about the history of discrimination in our country, or the experiences and stories of people who aren't like us. We think we aren't "racist" because we haven't said or done anything that seems discriminatory. However, racism is deeply rooted in every system in our country, including housing, medical care, education, politics. With the internet, there are plenty of places to learn more. ('s Identities page is just one). There are some great books out there too. It's a classic, but it's a classic for a reason: Beverly Tatum's Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In the Cafeteria is a good primer on how racial identity develops.

4) Talk.
It's hard to talk about these things. In fact, as I've been writing this, I've wondered if I should stop typing; I've had a thousand doubts about what friends might think of these words. We're afraid of being judged. As I said before, it's hard to talk about race because the perpetuation of the system of racial privilege depends upon us remaining quiet. It depends upon us saying "race doesn't matter" or "race had nothing to do with it." Confronted with a story like Rachel Dolezal's, in which we absolutely can't say that, the temptation is to say: "Let's just wait until it's out of the spotlight." Find people you feel comfortable with to begin the conversation. Find people who will call you out if you say something that might be a micro-aggression, who will learn with you as you find answers. 

Until we talk about race and racism, our silence equals consent to a system that marginalizes our fellow humans. Ending that consent is worth a little embarrassment or fumbling as we begin to grow our understanding.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

I'm Awesome! (or what I learned from being laid off)

You might have noticed an extreme dearth of posting this spring. Let me just say, I wasn't feeling much like doing anything except eating burritos and watching TV, largely because my workplace was going through a round of lay-offs - and waiting to hear if you're going to be laid off is worse than actually being laid off, it turns out.

When they told me that my "role had been eliminated" I felt a surge of relief at finally knowing what was next for me. I know a lot of people don't feel that way when they hear those words, and that's OK too. I'm in the camp of: feel what you feel and don't feel guilty about it.

Except I did kind of feel guilty about it, because I FELT GREAT. Other people didn't, and I felt really weird whenever someone asked me (in concerned, parental tones) how I was doing. 

"I feel great," I'd say.

Then they'd look at me like I was their brave little toaster, just trying to make others feel better.

I'm no brave toaster. I just feel like this happened at the right time for me, and brought into focus a few life lessons that had been floating around in my brain but hadn't coalesced.

Life Lesson #1: I'm awesome. (and you are too).
It's a little bit of a joke in my family that false modesty (or any modesty) is not really my jam. I'm pretty honest about my flaws (loudness, clumsiness, a caffeine addiction, overuse of parentheses), but I believe in being just as honest about my strengths. Even so, it's really easy, when you've been working someplace for awhile, to forget your strengths, and focus on how what you're doing isn't good enough. I was working in a place where the culture was hyper-critical, and so I often questioned my gut. 

I'm fortunate to work in a field where good people are always needed (I completely get that this is not most people's experience of being laid off), and so being on the job market was like a booster shot of positivity. People WANTED what I had to offer. They thought I was great. They told me I was great, repeatedly. It reminded me that all of us should get to feel this way, because each of us is doing our best with our strengths. It doesn't mean that constructive criticism isn't necessary, but as a manager and educator, when I've leaned into people's strengths, things always turn out better.

Life Lesson #2: Your values are critical to your happiness
Over the past year, I'd begun to feel a disconnect between my values and what I was doing. I work primarily with low-income communities and families, and I believe deeply in the autonomy and strength of these communities. I believe that to do this work well, I must try to be anti-colonialist, anti-patriarchal, and anti-racist. This is hard, and I often fail. But I was feeling as though more and more often I was swimming upstream in trying to do community work in a way that honored people's lives and experiences.

I was at a conference when the presenter said something like: "Who you are at work isn't necessarily who you are in your anti-colonialist, anti-patriarchal work." I began to realize that I was being asked to work in ways that I felt weren't aligned to my values, and that the work I was doing outside of my actual job was more aligned to my beliefs. In looking for my next role, I was committed to finding an organization that firmly believed in the power of communities, not as an afterthought, but as a foundational principle.

Life Lesson #3: Burritos make anything bearable.

Life Lesson #4: Save money!
As soon as I knew being laid off was a possibility, I started saving more scrilla than I ever had before. Feeling like I have enough money to save was a bit of a new experience for me, but I learned that I can put a lot more away than I thought. If you haven't always had money, finances can seem like a big mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a blanket covered in question marks. It's meant to be that way -- our financial system thrives in a world where many of us don't understand what our money can do, so we don't make the most of it and threaten the privilege of those who do.

I still have a lot to learn about finances, but this situation has increased my commitment to do so - and it's less boring than I thought it was.

Life Lesson #3: Have faith
I don't talk much about religion or faith, but I do believe that if we listen to the universe, our path becomes clear. Of course, getting laid off is a shout from the universe. "Get out of here!" the universe said. 

The signs of what was to come next were a little more subtle, but no less there. A particular conversation happened at a particular time, certain people appeared to take this journey with me. The next adventure is about to begin, and of course I'm a little nervous. It feels like I'll be where I'm supposed to be, though, to learn the next set of life lessons.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Recipe: Cocoa Power Protein Donuts (Gluten-free and Vegan)

I have this rule about donuts:

I refuse to buy a donut for myself. If I opened that door, it would never close again, because I love the fluffy little sugar monsters. Not for me, the bacon donuts and the donuts covered in cereal. Give me a plain glazed or dense old-fashionedd cake donut any day. Per the rule, I will only eat such donuts if they are provided by someone else.

I was going to take a picture
of this donut. Then I ate
most of it.
However, power donuts have won a place in my diet. These are yummy little snacks baked in a donut pan and filled with good things like chia seeds and oats. Flavored with maple syrup and cinnamon, they aren't super-sweet, but they are tasty.

The regular recipe I use -- from the Oh She Glows cookbook -- isn't exactly a kids' dream, though, and while I've been staying with my family, I wanted to create a protein donut that my nephew might like as a snack. I combined my favorite flavors -- peanut butter, banana, and chocolate -- to make a donut that is still filling and crammed with goodness, but a bit more kid-friendly.

And of course, I like them too!

A few notes:
Here's what the oat flour will look like.
  • The recipe calls for rolled oats, which are naturally gluten-free. Some brands may have some cross contamination from processing, so if you're avoiding gluten, make sure that you get one labeled gluten-free. Bob's Red Mill has a brand that is readily available. In fact, I usually buy it, although I'm not watching gluten, because it's so easy to find.
  • In this recipe, you're going to process those rolled oats into flour. It's really cool to be able to say, hey, I made this flour myself.  If you don't have a food processor or strong blender, you can just purchase oat flour instead. 
  • If you're vegan, either be sure that you have vegan chocolate chips or skip them altogether.
  • This recipe uses a donut pan, which is about $13 at Target. It's been a great investment - I use mine every week.

Cocoa Power Protein Donuts


1 c. rolled oats
1/4 c. chia seeds (or, for funsies, 1/8 c. chia seeds and 1/8 c. raw millet, which adds more crunch)
2 tbsp. cocoa powder
1.5 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 banana
2 tbsp. peanut butter
1/2 tsp. vanilla
2 tbsp. maple syrup
1/4 c. almond or other non-dairy milk, plus more as needed
Mini-chocolate chips

Step 1: Pre-heat the oven to 300 degrees, and grease the donut pan.

This guy is a hot miller.
Just like you!
Step 2: Put the oats in the food processor and process until they are the consistency of flour. You just made flour! You're like a miller, or something!

Step 3: In a bowl, mix together the dry ingredients, stirring with a fork to ensure that the chia seeds are integrated throughout and any lumps of baking soda are broken up.

Step 4: In another bowl, mash the banana. Mix this with the peanut butter, then add the other wet ingredients and whisk together until incorporated.
Donut pan

Step 5: Add the wet ingredients to the dry, and stir. The consistency should be close to that of creamy peanut butter. If it's not, add small amounts of the non-dairy milk, stirring after each addition, until that consistency is reached.

Step 6: Put about a teaspoon of the chocolate chips in each well of the donut pan, spreading them out so that they are evenly distributed around each ring. Spoon the dough into each well of the pan, smoothing it out on top.

Step 7: Bake for 23 minutes. When you pull them out of the oven, let them cool for a few minutes and then turn them out onto a wire rack.

Note: Want to make a version that's just chocolate peanut-butter, with no banana? Increase the amounts of both cocoa and peanut butter to 1/4 cup, and keep the rest of the recipe the same. You will definitely need a little extra almond milk.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Part of Your Wholesome Breakfast

Remember when this was the iconic "healthy" breakfast?

The most important meal of the day, they always say.

For me, it's also the most challenging meal of the day. I'm one of those folks up who wakes up feeling both hungry and like I don't want to eat. 

And of all the meals, breakfast seems to be the one that's been most colonized by the food-industrial complex (unless you count public school lunches -- but that's a whole other post).

Breakfast food aisle. Healthy?

Pop-tarts, cereal, cereal bars, yogurt in squeezable tubes, pre-made egg sandwiches... it's all incredibly processed. Whenever I walk down the center aisles of the grocery store. which I do only to buy select items on my list, I'm astounded by the variety of foodstuffs available to start your day that are basically just sugar and chemicals (and expensive!)

But I get that it is much more convenient to pop a waffle in the toaster than to actually make something -- and I'm definitely the type of person who likes to sleep in until the last possible second. 

I've developed a list of foods that I know will make a satisfying breakfast, that I will actually want to eat, and which are convenient and quick to prepare. Usually I go through phases where I'll eat one of these things every day until I get tired of it, then switch to something else on the list.

Avocado and Hummus Toast

I guess avocado toast is a thing now? I mean, I've seen it on the menu at actual restaurants, which is a little odd because it involves just smashing avocado onto toast. I usually use a slice of Ezekiel toast, mash a quarter of an avocado on it, add hummus, and then sprinkle with black pepper. Healthy fats, fiber, and protein - what more could you want?

Chia "Donuts"

Chia donuts with some mini-chocolate chips. Recipe to come!
These are my latest go-to breakfast. I discovered the recipe in my trusty Oh She Glows cookbook; they are vegan and gluten-free, made with homemade oat flour and chia seeds to fill you up. In the book, they are made with a lemon coconut cream glaze, but I skip this, and instead toast them and put a little peanut butter on them. I also substitute raw millet for half the chia seeds, because I like the crunch of the millet. I'll make a batch on Sundays, and then keep them refrigerated for the rest of the week.

I call them "donuts" in quotation marks, because, even though they are cooked in a doughnut pan, they aren't really something that a kid would crave. However, I've adapted the recipe to be more kid-friendly, and I'll be sharing the recipe for Cocoa Protein Power Donuts later this week!

Another benefit of making your own egg sandwich -
perfectly runny yolks.
Egg sandwiches
For years, egg sandwiches were a staple of my diet. I eat them less often now, as I've cut back on both dairy and eggs. However, they will always be a favorite. I prefer to make my own, rather than buying frozen, because I can choose eggs and meat that are free(er) of bad stuff. I like to use Applegate Farms turkey sausage.

How to cook your own egg patty? Crack an egg into a mug, then scramble it with a fork. Microwave for 38-40 seconds. Then flip the egg over in the mug, and microwave for another 30 seconds. Use a fork to get the egg out -- you'll have a round patty just the right size for an English muffin.

Overnight Oats

I've shared recipes for overnight oats before, but if you haven't tried them, I definitely recommend them. These are a great make-ahead, take-to-work breakfast, and the internet teems with recipes for chilled oatmeal, so no matter your flavor preference, you'll find something to suit it.

Good Food Made Simple Breakfast Burritos

Despite wanting to start the day with something I've cooked myself, there are days when I just can't make it happen. Particularly when I know I'm going to be gone for most of the day on the weekend, I like to pick up some of these breakfast burritos that I can nuke and eat quickly or take in the car. I've tried lots of different burritos in the natural foods frozen section, and many of them sacrifice taste to the health gods. I've found my favorite in the Good Food Made Simple brand. They are free from chemical preservatives, artificial flavors, sugar substitutes, etc. 

Breakfast in Spain - traditional Sevillana breakfast.
Now that's how we should do breakfast!

Friday, May 8, 2015

Pop Culture Round-up: Spring 2015 (Angsty Parentheses Edition)

Spring, glorious spring! The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, the flowers are blooming... so why not stay inside and enjoy some pop culture fun?

Here's what I've been digging lately:

Photo credit:
Marvel on TV
Marvel's Daredevil and Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D

I've wondered for a long time why Charlie Cox isn't a big star -- he's handsome, British, and a great actor (if you haven't seen Stardust, go watch it now - unless you hate fun.). Hopefully he'll get all the attention he deserves now that he's in the very hot Netflix property, Marvel's Daredevil (I'm going to drop the Marvel now, mkay?). This is basically the super-hero show I've always wanted: it has heft - thanks to great writing, themes of sin and redemption, and the acting chops of Cox, Vincent D'Onofrio, Deborah Ann Woll, and Vondie Curtis-Hall -- plus amazing fight choreography and a film noir vibe. I'm hoping that Netflix's upcoming Marvel-collab AKA Jessica Jones does for another fave, Krysten Ritter, what Daredevil has done for Cox: given a little-known actor the part they deserve. (And if you think all of that sounds a lot like Batman, The Mary Sue did a great article on how Daredevil earns its angst.)

And if you're one of those who dropped Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D in its first season, it's definitely worth catching up now. With the introduction of Marvel's Inhuman mythology (yeah, wikipedia is essential for me in catch up with Marvel mythology since I'm not a big fan of superhero comics) S.H.I.E.L.D has added rich new dimentions. Basically - Inhumans are powered people. In the first year, S.H.I.E.L.D stayed away from putting powered people front and center, because it was about how humans deal in a world where there are superheroes. However, they've been able to introduce the Inhumans - and make some major characters Inhumans -- without sacrificing the humanity. Plus, who doesn't love Clark Gregg and Ming-Na Wen, the actors who play the beating heart of the show?

I've been pretty impressed with the expansion of the "Marvel Cinematic Universe" (that's what you're supposed to call it). It gives me hope that if anyone ever does buckle down and adapt Stephen King's The Dark Tower into a group of films and TV properties, it will go OK. 

(Seriously, what's with my use of parentheticals today?)

Concept poster by Franco Francavilla

Ex Machina

If there's one thing we should learn from comics and sci-fi, it's that creating conscious robots is NOT a good idea... or is it? In the new movie Ex Machina, artificial intelligence comes in the form of a robot with the face of Alicia Vikander and the body of the inside of a vacuum -- she clicks and whirs as she moves. The movie centers around the young man who is testing whether Ava is actually conscious, and her mad scientist creator, played brilliantly by Oscar Isaac with a super-cool beard. With only four characters, Ex Machina is an antidote to the current cinema's preoccupation with over-long, over-stuffed science fiction. As true fans know, the best sci-fi asks us to interrogate our current society to help us determine what kind of future we want to live in.

Kintsugi, Death Cab For Cutie

I know this girl who went to college with the members of Death Cab, and because indie music kids of the 90's were fiercely territorial, I've always thought of Death Cab as her band. Hence, it took me a long time to actually start listening to them. Like 17 years. Kintsugi is the perfect album for the moment we're living in right now. It's all about the existential angst of living in a world where experience is mediated through technology. (Apparently, along with parentheses, I'm really into angst right now). I'm particularly fond of "Little Wanderer," a song with beautiful metaphors about being the one who stays home and gets those digital pictures while a loved one is traveling. I also love "Binary Sea," the album's last song, which takes the existential angst to its logical conclusion, asking if we ever existed if there's no record of us.

Hozier with George Ezra, Warehouse Live, Houston TX

I was lucky enough to get tickets to Hozier's first Houston show, which he played at a fairly small club ballroom venue. George Ezra opened two weeks before his SNL appearance and before his song "Budapest" was on the radio constantly. Despite the annoyances of seeing an artist on a high from a hit single (lots of teen girls, way too many people watching the whole thing through their phones. See: Kintsugi for commentary on our need for mediated experience), it was a fantastic show. Hozier had a surprisingly delightful persona, given the (yes!) angst of many of his songs. He seemed genuinely happy that the show was going well, and his mostly-female band was excellent. I do find his fame somewhat odd, given his allusion-heavy album which references the abuses of the Irish-Catholic church, 50's rock and roll, and Plato's Cave, but I'm glad that his popularity gave me the chance to see him in person. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Racist Schools Without Racists? Research Says No.

Recently I was at a workshop with many adults who work in schools. Several high school kids who went to school in the district were also participating as assistant facilitators. 

We completed a "continuum" activity. You've probably done one of these before. One side of the room is labeled strongly disagree and the other is labeled strongly agree. The facilitator posts statements, and you move to the side of the room (or the middle) depending upon whether you agree or disagree with the statement.

One of the statements was: "Our school system is racist, classist, sexist, heterosexist and xenophobic." 

I moved over to the strongly agree side, along with one other adult (not coincidentally, she worked with kids who've been removed from traditional school settings due to behavior.) Almost all the kids moved to strongly agree as well.

This left most of the adults on the disagree side.

One of the students said to the group: "We're the kids. We're the ones living it and that's how we see it."

However, the adults didn't see themselves as racist, classist, sexist... and so they didn't see the system they were part of as being those things.

Research tells us that the kids are right. Most folks in education know that Black boys are 3 times more likely to be suspended than White boys, but fewer know that the disparity is even greater for Black girls -- they are SIX times more likely to be suspended.

Even well-meaning adults often believe that these facts are due to something in the children -- that because they are poor, or hungry, or living with trauma they act out more, hence they are suspended more often. These people don't believe the situation is right, but they also don't see themselves in the equation (or if they do, they see themselves as benign helpers.)

New research, however, shows us that it's not the kids. It's how we see the kids. (The research is new, but I think it will result in a big DUH from a lot of people).  The study published in Psychological Science, showed that teachers rated hypothetical students' behavior as more troubling if the imaginary kid had a typically Black name versus a typically White name.  The behaviors were exactly the same.

This echoes similar research related to grading, professional experiences, etc. And we can see links to today's current climate of police brutality toward Black men; it suggests that unconscious bias causes us to view behavior by Black people as more serious and dangerous than that of White people, despite evidence to the contrary.

Again, this is a big DUH to a lot of people, including those kids I met at the workshop who are living with that bias every day. 

There are no easy answers, but I think that we owe it to these kids to start admitting that the system is biased and that we are contributing to it. Our current cultural norms make it taboo to admit that we have biases of any kind. Calling out others' biases is similarly taboo. I've been lucky to work in a place where we are able to talk openly about race, racism, classism ... anything you can put an -ism on. 

It can feel hurtful and shameful when we admit that we aren't the people we think we are. The kids have already seen behind the curtain, though. And they are ready for us to come out.

Friday, April 17, 2015

The Rain. The Frogs. And me.

We're having weather. We-interrupt-your-regularly-scheduled-broadcast, flood-warning weather. 

This is Texas. That's pretty common. Once you've lived here for a few years, a flood warning barely pricks your ears.

But it's spring, and the drip-drip-drop got all the frogs singing.

Sitting in my living room, the frog songs drowned out the thunder and lightning that was such big news that my mother in Washington state texted me that I needed to be careful.

No really. Mating frogs will drown out thunder.

I went out on my covered porch thinking that I would just stand and listen for awhile. Then, I got sight of a frog sitting out in the middle of the pavement. 

I barefooted it out to the middle of the street, watching this little creature sitting there breathing.

As I made my way back to the house, I realized where I was. I live on a half-acre in an urban oasis, a haven for baby doves and color-changing lizards and bees and hawks. The empty lot that's part of the property I rent shimmered in the night light, as a temporary pond formed.

I waded out into the field, sinking up to my ankles in mud. As I did, the water - two or three inches deep at least -- shivered and braided  away from me. Frogs. Hopping away at my approach, cutting patterns into the water with their wakes. 

I stopped to watch them, and was startled into laughter by a huge BURRRRRP just a few feet away. I looked to see one of the frogs, air pocket under its chin ballooned out, preparing for its song.

After a few minutes, soaked by the rain, I waded back to the house.

Isn't it magic, when a lawn turns into a pond, when the air is full of singing, and the night gives way to laughter?

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

It's Complicated: Standardized Testing And Equity

Lately, there have been a lot - A LOT -- of thoughts about standardized testing in my Facebook and Twitter feeds. I get a couple of education briefing emails daily, and they are also chock-full of talk about testing.

Most of the talk is dichotomized: Tests = good. Tests = bad. I reject the notion that I have to be unequivocally for or against standardized testing. As an education advocate and teacher coach, I believe that intellectual complexity, while not part of the American political discourse, should be something that we strive for.

This means that if we are to find the best path for our kids, we have to be able to hold complicated ideas in our minds (as someone who is most familiar with people in education reform, I find that most of them actually do hold these sort of nuanced positions, but are mischaracterized by the opposing side, and I'm sure it goes the opposite way as well.)

We can believe that testing, as currently practiced, is biased WHILE SIMULTANEOUSLY believing that right now, it is an important tool for equity.

If you look into the history of intelligence testing, you will find that it is deeply linked to the eugenics movement, to attempts at sorting people into those who deserve power and those who don't. We know that many standardized tests are biased - I recently read an SAT question in which the test taker was asked to edit a passage about skiing, which was really challenging if you couldn't picture what was happening in the passage. I mean, how many of us have the means or opportunity to go skiing regularly? Standardized test questions are often raced and classed to focus on background knowledge that is more commonly held by White, middle class kids (or even upper middle class - per the skiing example).

However, such tests are currently an important tool for uncovering the faults in our education system. In the state of Texas, where I work, the tests are minimum standards tests, which means that they test a fairly basic set of reading and math skills. If most kids are not passing them, it means that we are not doing our basic job as educators, and if there are gaps by race, class, language status, that means that we are failing children based upon those factors. Do the tests need to be improved? Yes. But do they give us important information about the continued racism and classism in our school systems? Yes.

We can believe that poverty needs to be addressed in our society WHILE SIMULTANEOUSLY believing in the abilities of all children to succeed in school.

One of the most specious arguments leveled against ed reformers is that they don't take poverty into account when asserting that children from low-income neighborhoods can be successful. Anti-reformers charge that until poverty is solved and children are food secure, have medical care, etc. we can't expect kids to do well.

This is just false. I know it is because I've been in the classrooms where kids from low-income families are excelling (I estimate that I've been in several hundred classrooms by this point in my career). These classrooms are taught by a range of teachers - new in the profession, years in the profession. Traditionally trained and alternatively certified. They have been in schools that have huge numbers of resources, and schools that have very few. The common denominator is that they believe their kids can do it - more than that, that they believe students from low-income communities are uniquely positioned to be the leaders of tomorrow.

All of these teachers who are leading kids to excel would love it if a range of social supports were put in place for their students. In particular, in my community, mental health care is the hardest to find. However, this doesn't stop these teachers from finding ways to reach their students, to communicate care, and to teach rigorous curriculum. 

We can see the negatives of a "testing culture" WHILE SIMULTANEOUSLY recognizing that people create the culture, not tests.

People, it's real that teachers and kids are feeling way too much pressure around testing. As a teacher coach, I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to help teachers navigate relationships with administrators who want to see test prep, test prep, and more test prep. These administrators are feeling pressure from their bosses. Through all of this, I coach teachers to find a way to do what is best for kids, which is to teach a rich, rigorous curriculum that goes way beyond test strategies.

Often, teachers who are committed to this idea find themselves practicing what Martin Luther King, Jr. defined as creative maladjustment. This means that they find ways to do what they know is right for kids, while doing it in ways that, honestly, keep them out of trouble in this testing culture. They do this because they believe in kids and families, and they know that keeping their jobs is the best way to be there for those kids and families.

It's these classrooms where kids excel, not the ones where kids are just learning testing strategies. Anyone who argues that "the test made me do it" in regard to teaching a low-rigor curriculum is just wrong. It's how we approach the tests in our schools that results in the crazy culture, not the tests (but since tests can't talk back, they make good scapegoats.)

We can believe in the power and wisdom of parents.

I'm not going to qualify that one. We need to listen to parents, and not all parents have the same interests. Unfortunately, the parents who are heard most often are not people of color or people from low-income communities.

While many White, upper middle class parents talk about opting their kiddos out of standardized assessments (which I totally understand), we have to realize that being able to make that choice comes from a place of privilege. If you can opt your child out of an exam, you aren't counting on a scholarship or a magnet school acceptance that results from a test score. You aren't worried that one act of opting out could hurt your child's entire future.

Most of the parents I work with want their kids to do well in exams because they know that these are door openers for their kiddos. Is it fair that so much rides on these tests? No. But it does. Parents want us in the education field to do better for their children, and that includes helping them to excel on these types of standardized tests.

As a teacher, I hated testing. I won't lie about that. My students did well AND I taught them a curriculum that involved social studies simulations of the Oregon Trail, class-written plays, writing digital books, reading Narnia books. You might say: hey, you must have had a ton of resources. Nope. When I started teaching I had a case of phonics readers from the 70's and a box full of dittos and silverfish that my predecessor left behind. I created almost everything we had, or slowly acquired it over time (this was before Donors Choose allowed teachers to easily get donations). My students were almost all English language learners and many came in several years behind -- most of the classrooms I currently coach have similar demographics.

I would have loved it if I didn't have to worry about a standardized test, that my students didn't have to sit for days, bubbling in answer books with their No. 2 pencils. However, I knew that it was critical both to their futures and to my ability to gauge whether I was doing right by them. When their parents showed up at the classroom door, asking: "Did she pass?" I had to be able to say yes. And if the answer wasn't yes, I had to tell them what I was going to do to change my practice and help their kiddo succeed in order to go to the next grade prepared.

Until we find a better way of determining whether we are doing right by kids in our schools, such tests are going to be necessary. I'm worried that current anti-testing movements are going to turn back the clock to a time when we pretended that everything was OK in our schools. Yet, I still want to find that better way. It's complicated.