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Sometimes I Forget That Kids are not Grownups April 23, 2012

Filed under: Education,reading,Uncategorized — bvanetten @ 2:44 am

It’s dumb, I know. But sometimes I forget. And it’s my number one frustration as a teacher. I make the repeatedly stupid mistake of expecting thirteen year olds to act like rational, mature, logical human beings. And they’re not.

And especially not at this time of year. It’s been getting harder to keep their attention and to focus them throughout an entire lesson. The “I don’t care”s and “I don’t wanna”s have become louder and more frequent as the weather has become warmer and the end of the year within sight.

So what to do?

I just started teaching a unit on The Giver, that middle school favorite. And it’s the first unit that I had responsibility for putting together, which is exciting. The students had a lot of reluctance to start the new book (what else is new), but we have been working on active reading skills (mainly annotating the text on post-it notes which are checked daily instead of reading quizzes), and although they are still vocal about their distaste for annotating, they are getting into the story. Part of that is due to the fact that The Giver is a kick-ass book. But the other part is definitely due to the fact that they are understanding it better because they are paying better attention because they have been spending so much time on the post-its.

This week (three weeks into the unit), I introduced the final assessment of the unit, which is a group project in which they create their own utopia and create an advertisement to convince others to move there. The assignment gets them to work on persuasion and well as compromising skills, in addition to critical thinking skills as they try to figure out what they need to live and the problems that might arise with “perfection.” I made a work schedule that is built into the lesson plans so that they would have plenty of time to meet with their group members and develop their ideas over time, rather than them trying to do it all at once at the end of the unit. The conversations they have about trying to create a perfect society will be as important as the final project that they turn in. I wanted their final project to be the result and reflection of several weeks worth of developed and evolving thinking, rather than a frantic evening’s worth.

Thursday was the first day that they had time to meet with their groups, and I was surprised by how well it went (after they stopped whining about their assigned groups, that is). Each student has a “brainstorming” packet that has questions such as “Where does your society get food?” and “What do they use for money?” Each session for working on the project has particular questions for them to address as a group to get them thinking about how they want their society to function.

One group I listened to was designing a society that would live under water protected by a large dome. Before I stepped in to question the logistics of this, I let is play out with the other members of the group. One asked, “What happened that people have to live under a dome?” and a second wanted to know how they would get sunlight to grow food with. While all the group members were committed to the underwater paradise idea, they were challenging the practicality of one another’s ideas and cooperatively helping to develop them.

Although they have only spent about 20 minutes working on the project so far, they are already very excited about the plans they have, especially since I told them we would have a competition. Because part of the assignment asks the students to employ persuasion skills, after the groups complete their advertisements, each will present them to the class, and the class will vote on which society they would most like to move to (they can’t vote for their own). This has added new incentive to really make the final product impressive. Their excitement has me excited, and it’s the first time they really focused on something in a while.

So I have to remember that kids are kids, and they aren’t adults. That they can be silly and dramatic and immature, and sometimes it makes me want to kill them. But they are also creative and funny and surprising. It’s also what makes working with kids more fun than working with adults.


In (mild) Defense of Bib Cards April 13, 2012

Filed under: Education,Research Projects,teaching writing,Uncategorized — bvanetten @ 7:28 pm

I had this response to a post (“What the Hell is a “Bib Card”?) from one of my peers from school:

“This post stuck out to me because I am currently embarking on a research paper unit with my students on Richard III and the curriculum would like them to do bib cards along with their papers! My CT and I are already considering cutting them, but after reading this, I’m not sure if we should! I agree with you that some of those steps in the process are ridiculous or even out of order, but I do think that there is something to be said for helping students learn to plan and organize themselves better, writing in steps and stages instead of in some flurry all at once. Jeeze, I still have to work on that and I’ve been in school for how many years? But really, what is the point of bib cards? I could see an annotated bibliography being more helpful, a list of sources to get approved by the teacher or at least referenced, but I myself have used bib cards before and I don’t know that they help me organize things any more than simply taking notes or highlighting articles does. Frankly, I think they may just be a waste of time. Like you said, choosing topics, learning how and what to research, teaching proper citation techniques, actually taking the TIME to work through the important stages of the writing process–that’s the important stuff. I suppose sometimes we have to just buckle down and do what the curriculum says (and clearly we are doing so…and willingly) but seriously, bib cards have got to go!”

So, perpetuallearner44, I have been thinking about this.

Now that I am on the other side of this project monster, I may have amended my position. MAY have.

Being the recycler that I am, this 10 bib cards, 20 note card thing appalls me. Especially when kids are writing nonsense on a card just to hit that magic number of 75, and they aren’t actually writing down anything that could help anyone write anything. And let’s get real, teachers. We can’t take the time to go through and make sure every kid wrote something meaningful on every card.

And here’s a newsflash: They KNOW that. That’s right. They know about our limitations on holding them accountable and they will exploit them every chance they get.


Some of these kids really don’t know how to do research. They don’t know what a “note” is. And they really don’t know how to organize them into something more than a random jumble of facts. The proper use of a quotation? Don’t even go there.

In this matter, the note cards help. Students can take the cards and physically sort them into piles of like information. And from there, they can come up with topic headings, which can be written directly on the card. It’s not so far of a leap from there to an outline with headings, and before you know it, you can think about a thesis. For many students I worked with, having their notes separated into physical categories made it much easier to sort and organize their information for relevance.

Then I discovered what my teacher calls the “place mat” (because of my deep loathing of the goofy and irrelevant names teachers come up with to describe the work children do, I want to be clear that I DID NOT COME UP WITH THIS NAME. I stubbornly called it an “outline graphic organizer” for the entire unit, even in the face of total student conversion to the other name.)

The place mat, as you might have guessed, is a graphic organizer for helping students fit their research into the categories of a basic outline. My teacher calls it a “place mat” because it is printed on an oversized sheet of legal paper, so it looks like a place mat (I guess). It looks sort of like a family tree. At the top is a box for the research topic, spawning from that in the tier below were 3 boxes labeled “main ideas.” Each main idea had three bubbles below it labeled “supporting details,” which would define the subtopics. Below each one was a box the size of an index card. As students sorted their cards into piles on the place mat it became much easier for them to fill out the graphic organizer’s blank spaces. This information eventually was translated onto a traditional roman numeral-style outline.

Watching the kids pair their thinking with a physical action got me thinking. The bib cards seem stupid to me. But I also know how to write an outline that I can actually use to write a good paper. Maybe if I was still acquiring that skill, the bib cards might make more sense to me.

So take a line out of every student paper I have ever read: IN CONCLUSION, I think the bib cards might have some merit. But they need to be used very carefully, with specific instructions and guidance. We need to teach students how to use them, not just complete them. And as with everything we do in the classroom, it really won’t make any difference at all if we don’t show them why   bibliographic information is useful or necessary.


Abraham Lincoln – President, Rail-Splitter, and Grammar Teacher March 13, 2012

Filed under: Abraham Lincoln,Education,reading,teaching writing,Uncategorized — bvanetten @ 7:52 pm

I needed to teach a grammar lesson with two instructional constraints. Students needed a refresher in using commas in order to write thesis statements for a research paper, but the lesson also had to be contextualized in the Civil War content that they had been researching for several weeks. We began by discussing the functions of commas when speaking and writing. Students immediately noted a difference in the functions that commas serve in writing and spoken word. They emphasized that when reading a comma aloud, one should “pause” and “take a breath.” The noted that this gives the listener (as opposed to reader) time to process information and an indication of what information the speaker finds important. They were less sure about when a writer should use a comma, but agreed that it is an indicator to the reader of pauses.  I then introduced to them the idea of using commas to create a list in writing; using commas to separate individual items on the list.

To test our idea of reading commas, I gave every student a copy of “The Gettysburg Address” with all the commas removed. I then proceeded to read the speech to them without using any of the comma punctuation. This was actually extremely difficult to do, as punctuated pauses come naturally to us after so many years of exposure to speech patterns. When I asked students what they thought about my speech they told me I “did it wrong” because it sounded “weird” and “rushed.” After some discussion we were able to come to the conclusion that there were no commas in the speech and that they were the cause of the rushed feeling of the speech. I then told students that I was would read them a copy of the speech in which there were commas, and their task was to follow along on their copy, inserting commas where they heard them. I tried not to exaggerate the pauses, and I think that on the most part, I was successful. Most students were able to get most or all of the commas that were on the original copy.

What was interesting, however, is that many students added more commas than I had written on my paper. When we talked about the discrepancies, they argued that I had paused or taken a breath in certain places, and that the commas “counted.” To expand on this idea of ‘correct’ vs. ‘incorrect’ pauses, I told the students that the copy of the speech I had was not the “real” speech Lincoln gave, as there is not “real” speech. Being one of hundreds of Presidential speeches he gave, Lincoln had no idea that this particular address would become so famous. It was less than three minutes, and he wasn’t even the keynote speaker at the memorial dedication at Gettysburg. He wrote the Gettysburg Address on a scrap of paper, which he threw away after reading. The “real” copy of the speech we recognize today was recorded by journalists present at the dedication who heard the speech and reproduced it for the newspapers. There are several competing versions of the speech recorded that day with slightly differing punctuation.  The one I gave students is the most commonly reproduced because it was later signed by Lincoln as a souvenir for a friend (known as the “Bliss Copy”). Students were fascinated by the idea that although the words were Lincoln’s, the punctuation was added by the journalists listening to his pauses and breaths. They enjoyed comparing their listening experience to that of the journalists at Gettysburg.

We talked about which lines had increased emphasis when the commas were inserted. One of the most important and obvious is the final line of the speech, in which Lincoln notes that, although the cost of the War had been great, it was essential “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Not only is this the most powerful line in the speech and the commas provide great emphasis to his words, they also denote a list of qualities that describe the government he argues is worth fighting to protect. This transitioned into talking about the ways in which a thesis statement is a list. Either a list of things the paper will address, or a list of qualities or examples that prove or describe a point. I projected some sample thesis statements for students to look at. They then pulled out their outline graphic organizers that we had been working on in order to identify they major ideas that should be listed in the thesis.

Students really enjoyed working with a primary document that related to the independent researching they had been doing in class. Not only exposure to the speech bring the content alive for them a little more, it was a new way of thinking about punctuation for many of them. Not only did it help them form thesis statements, but it inspired them toward more powerful voices in their own writing they were working on for their research topics. It was an inspiring lesson for me to teach because even though I taught it three times in one day, the conversations about the grammar in a two minute speech still varied in each class. It was nice to teach a grammar lesson that had a conversational element to it.

If you’re curious, below here you will find a copy of the Gettysburg Address with no commas, followed by the Bliss Copy. Read it aloud and see if you can guess where the punctuation goes.



“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But in a larger sense we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people by the people for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

The Gettysburg Address

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

President Abraham Lincoln

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

November 19, 1863


How Can I Help You? March 7, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — bvanetten @ 10:48 pm

In every class there is at least one challenging student. Behavior, grades, attitudes, abilities, whatever it is. The immaturity and the bad attitudes I can handle. There is one student though, who baffles me. He’s not rude. He’s not loud. He doesn’t stress me out just by walking into the room. But he is failing English and as far as I can tell, he doesn’t care. There is really nothing that seems to interest him that I have found. I was so worried about this kid.

Then two weeks ago, while the rest of the class was trudging through those research note cards, we had to have a discussion about why he hadn’t even begun. He had a simple answer. He didn’t know how. In addition to the lessons I myself had given on using books and internet sources for information, I know that the research writing process the school enforces is taught in sixth and seventh grade, so I knew this wasn’t entirely new information. Planning to challenge him with this fact, I asked him who his 7th grade language arts teacher was.

“I don’t remember who my teacher was, it’s been two years since I was in 7th grade.”

The fact that this kid is repeating the 8th grade explains a lot about his motivation and behavior. The fact that I only found out because the kid told me makes no sense.

That day in class, I took the time to go over the assignment with the student one-on-one, and we set a goal for what he would accomplish in class the next day. I suggested that instead of sitting with his friends, he sit at a table with me the following day so that he could ask for help when he got stuck. To my surprise, not only did he agree, after that he always chose to sit with me in the library.

One day last week I asked him if he was in danger of failing 8th grade again. He said he was, and I told him that I didn’t want Language Arts class to be the reason he couldn’t go to high school next year where he belongs. Since the first day I took the time to encourage him, this kid has rededicated himself to the class. His work is slow. Painfully slow sometimes. He is still very far behind the class, but he is doing everything he needs to do. In the last week he has almost completely caught up on the project. After months on entering zeros in the   because he never turns anything in, I was able to give him grades on the first two parts of the research unit, which raised his grade to a 77.

The next day in class I asked him if he had checked his grades lately. He said no, because they are always so bad. I asked him what his mom thinks about his grades. He replied that she is always mad at him, just like the teachers. When I told him his grade was at a 77 in the class I thought he was going to choke. He could not believe it. Since he has seen the positive benefits of his hard work in the form of a passing grade, he has stayed committed to working on the project every day. Sitting with him has given me the chance to get to know him, and him a chance to trust me a little more. The difference that two weeks has made has astounded me. Two weeks ago this kid pretended he couldn’t hear me when I spoke directly to him and didn’t bring a pencil hoping that would be an excuse not to work. Now he seeks me out to ask questions and get feedback, and avoids his friends whom he knows will distract him.

On Friday, I asked him for his mother’s email so I could let her know how he was doing in class. He replied that he didn’t think a teacher had ever emailed his mom about something good. I told him that he had worked really hard, and that he deserved acknowledgement, and his mother would probably like to hear about it.

His mother’s reply was ecstatic, emphasizing how meaningful it was to hear something positive about her son, and how rare it is.

To date, this has probably been my best teaching moment. I know that I have made a real connection with a student that has the potential to have real positive benefits in his learning life. It’s been so long since he had someone encourage him, and I had no idea until 2 weeks ago.

On Monday morning I asked him if his mom told him that I emailed her. He said that she baked him a CAKE. That was the first time I’ve seen that kid smile all year.


Chicken Quesadilla Soup March 6, 2012

Filed under: cooking,Martha Wannabe,soup — bvanetten @ 4:10 am

I was scanning my Pinterest board for a new recipe to try for dinner, and I came across this:

Mexican Chicken Lime Soup from

Since I left California I have been trying to recreate Islands restaurant’s Chicken Tortilla Soup, so far unsuccessfully. Normally tortilla soup is very thick like chili or creamy, but Islands’ is a thin broth. This picture had the right look, so I decided to try it.

Rachel’s ingredient list reads as such:

  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 6 skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 2 canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, finely chopped, plus 2 tablespoons adobo sauce
  • 6 cups chicken broth
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • Juice of 2 limes
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 hass avocado, thinly sliced lengthwise into 12 pieces
  • Crushed tortilla chips

Looking at the list, I decided to make a little change regarding the chipotle chilies in adobo sauce. I like the chipotle flavor, but the chilies themselves are kindof gross. Also, looking at the can at the store, I realized I have no idea what adobo sauce tastes like. After my Mexican heritage shame passed, I decided I didn’t want to put it in my soup. (Having done some research, adobo has a smoky flavor, if that appeals to you). Furthermore, Mexican food without tomatoes is weird and possibly unethical, in my opinion. So I bought a can of chunky salsa that has tomatoes, onions and green chilies, with little juice. Same goes for cheese. Come on, Rachel. Also, even though I’m from California, I don’t like avocados, so I ditched them too.

So I cut up some onion and threw it in the dutch oven with some minced garlic and olive oil:

Then I discovered something. Chicken thigh meat is gross. It took me forever to cut it up and remove the fat. So next time, I am sticking to breast meat. But for today, in the chicken went with the vegetables. I seasoned it with some chipotle garlic seasoning and the Big Three (garlic powder, onion powder and seasoned salt).

While the chicken was cooking, I cut up the cilantro with kitchen shears and prepared the limes. A trick for getting the most out of juicing limes I learned from my college roommate is to roll the lime on a hard surface. This softens the interior of the fruit and makes it easier to crush. You can achieve the same thing by microwaving the whole lime for 10-20 seconds before cutting it.

I can’t wait until summer and I can rejuvenate the herb garden planter LL made for me last year (I do not have her green thumb, but I can grow basil). I am tired of being at Giant Eagle’s mercy for fresh herbs.

Once the chicken was cooked, I added the salsa to the chicken. I started with half a can, but ended up dumping in the whole can.

So I stirred it in and let it simmer a minute to let the flavors mix (Remember that if you are using a ceramic dutch over, you always want the heat to be on low).

While that was simmering, I prepared the chicken broth.

Now, I have to say that I am OBSESSED with WIlliams-Sonoma’s concentrated stocks. I am so tired of throwing away half-used cartons of broth when I make a recipe that calls for it. I just don’t use broth enough to use the leftovers before they expire. These concentrated broths mix with water to make stock and the plus side is, you can add more to make a stronger flavor if you want. I always have it on hand, and you have exactly as much as you need.

For the soup, I combined 6 cups filtered water (1 1/2 quarts) with 4 tablespoons of the stock broth. I then added a teaspoon of ground chipotle to the soup to maintain that distinctive flavor.

I added the broth to the pot and let it simmer for 15 minutes. Then I added the lime juice and cilantro.

Whenever I’m making a soup or sauce that calls for seasoning with salt and pepper to taste, I add a tablespoon on Demi-Glace. It’s a rich concentrated sauce base that adds more complex and intense flavoring than salt and pepper. It brings out the flavors in the sauce, rather than makes the flavor more salty. I highly recommend having it on-hand in your kitchen.

When the soup was finished, I topped it with colby-jack cheese and some tortilla chips. Admittedly, it doesn’t look that stunning in the bowl, but it tasted AMAZING. FAB approved.

You can definitely taste the lime, and it has a nice heat to it. It didn’t exactly taste like Islands’ soup, but it does taste just like LL’s famous (among her children) chicken quesadillas, which are one of my favorite things she makes. When I was in college I think I ate it for dinner once a week.

So, here is my recipe for

LL’s Chicken Quesadilla Soup (adapted from Rachel Ray Everyday’s Mexican Chicken Lime Soup):


  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 sweet onion, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon crushed garlic
  • 5 boneless, skinless chicken tenders, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1 can Embassa Salsa Mexicana (even Pittsburgh grocery stores carry it)
  • 1 1/2 qt (6 cups) filtered water, 4 tablespoons Williams-Sonoma Concentrated Chicken Stock (6 cups chicken stock)
  • 1 teaspoon ground chipotle
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • Juice of 2 limes
  • garlic powder, onion powder, seasoned salt, to taste
  • Chicken Demi-Glace, to taste
  • 1 avocado, thinly sliced lengthwise into 12 pieces (optional, for serving)
  • Colby-Jack cheese blend (for topping)
  • tortilla strips (for topping)

To Make:

In a 3.5 qt dutch oven, brown garlic and onion in olive oil over medium heat (you never want to go above medium heat in a dutch oven). Add chicken pieces and season with garlic powder, onion powder and seasoned salt, as well as a pinch of chipotle. Cook through. Add can of salsa and stir to combine; cook 5 minutes to let flavors combine. Add broth and tsp. chipotle; lower heat. Simmer 15 minutes. While soup simmers, cut up cilantro and prepare limes to be juiced. Add cilantro and lime juice to broth.

If you prefer a thicker soup, you can add a dollop of sour cream or a few tablespoons of tomato sauce to thicken without compromising the flavor.

To serve, top with cheese and tortilla chips or avocado. Enjoy quesadillas in a bowl!


New Year’s Resolutions February 20, 2012

Filed under: Baking,Martha Wannabe — bvanetten @ 5:08 am

I had like a million New Year’s Resolutions this year.

One was to work out 3 times a week. That’s a work in progress.

Another was to enter more contests. I mean, someone has to win them, right?

Another was to make dinner (not thaw and hear dinner) 3 times a week. That has been an epic fail so far.

The last was to try at least one new recipe a week.

So tonight, while I was working on the blog post about bib cards I decided to make Snickerdoodle Bread.I found the recipe on Lil’ Luna’s website via Pinterest:

  • 2 1/2 c. – all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 3/4 c. sour cream
  • 1 pkg. Hershey’s cinnamon chips

The only problem was that Hershey’s cinnamon chips don’t appear to be readily available anywhere. So when my boyfriend called from the baking aisle to tell me there was no such thing, I told him to bring me a bag of Heath English Toffee Bits. I figured toffee was a complimentary flavor to cinnamon and sugar.

Besides the chips, the only other adaptation I made was to add a little more cinnamon, because I believe there can never be too much cinnamon.


  1. Cream butter, sugar, salt and cinnamon until fluffy. Add eggs and mix well.
  2. Add vanilla and sour cream and mix well.
  3. Mix flour and baking powder in a separate bowl. Add to wet ingredients and mix until all combined.
  4. Add cinnamon chips and stir into batter. Set aside.
  5. Spoon batter into 4 mini loaf pans until about 2/3 full.*
  6. Mix 3 T. sugar and 3 t. cinnamon in a bowl and sprinkle over the batter in each loaf pan.
  7. Bake at 350 for 35-38 minutes. Let cool before removing from pan.

Love pink mixer


* I enjoy muffins, myself, so I made one large loaf and a half-dozen bakery-sized muffins. Of course I ran out of papers so two don’t have them and they look a little lame, but they taste the same, so I’ll get over it. I used Baklene spray on the loaf pan and on the paperless wells. It doesn’t corrode pans and it’s less greasy than Pam.

I (and Martha, recently saw on her show) recommend using a large-sized cookie/ice cream scoop to fill the muffin tins. Two scoops per well works out about perfectly for the larger muffin tins, and it is the least messy way I have found to fill muffin cups. I know you can find them at Williams-Sonoma. They make smaller sizes too, which are good for recipes that call for 1-in size scoops of dough. LL uses them to fill stuffed shells, which is pretty ingenious too.

Here’s another Martha/LL tip for you. When you have several small pans in the over at once, put them on a cookie sheet. It makes them easier to turn half-way through the bake time, and for transferring them to/from the oven easily.

I was delighted that for once I followed the instruction exactly from a website and it actually came out as promised. I feel like I usually have to make a lot of adaptations. After trying the finished product, I can say the toffee bits worked just fine in this recipe, although I can’t say that they really add anything. I am thinking that I might just omit them altogether next time if I still can’t find cinnamon chips. That would cut down on the amount of sugar in the recipe.

The recipe came out great and was not particularly time-consuming. I wrote a blog post in the time it took to bake, and in the time it took me to write THIS post, FAB has eaten half the pan, so I gotta go before all that’s left is crumbs!


What the Hell is a “Bib Card”?

Filed under: Education,teaching writing — bvanetten @ 1:46 am

If you know the answer to this question, you were probably recently in the 6th grade.

This week, we began a research unit. Each student chose a topic related to the Civil War that they will conduct a research project on. Of course, being the Abe Lincoln-lovin’-honorary-Illinoisan that I am, I was excited to begin this unit. I also believe in a process approach to writing, ‘a la Peter Smagorinsky, which is how the high school and middle school have chosen to teach research writing to students. The students were provided with a workbook at the beginning of the unit that breaks the writing process down into steps and provides a calendar that details when each “step” should be completed. This makes it much easier for students to approach the task of producing an essay.

Only problem is, some of the steps are dumb.

Case in point: Step 1 is “Brainstorm a Topic.” Since Social Studies isn’t getting to the Civil War for another month, this was going to be difficult without giving the students any background information. [insert first ever practical use of History master’s degree here].

Step 2 is “Write a Thesis Statement.” Ah yes. All good, reasonable, knowledgable writers go directly from choosing a topic from an arbitrary list of topics they know little to nothing about, and then immediately form a thesis claim. Tell me more, workbook.

Step 3: “Assemble a Working Bibliography.” I don’t know about you, but it makes total sense to start doing rudimentary searching on a topic after I have already decided what my research will discover.

Step 4 is “Take Notes;” Step 5: “Outline.” No big deal.

Step 6: “Write Body Paragraphs.” Uh huh. Easier said than done.

Step 7: “Write Introductory and Concluding Paragraphs.”

Step 8 is “Edit and Revise.”

When my mentor teacher gave the workbook so I could start planning the unit in more detail, my inner historian researcher was highly offended. So was the part of me that believes we are teaching young people to be productive and thoughtful members of society by the time they reach adulthood. I believe it is actually irresponsible to be teaching students that they should draw their conclusions about a topic or argument before knowing ANYTHING about it. And for the majority of my students, they won’t end up writing papers or conducting research, it’s true. But they will have the power to vote and make important decisions, and they shouldn’t be in the habit of doing so without being fully informed.

Then there was the calendar. 1 class period to find books that might be useful. 1 class to take notes on the topic. 3 to outline. 1 to write THE ENTIRE BODY. And 4 to revise. Mind you, the curriculum designates 3 weeks to this project, so I guess we are just supposed to show reruns of Jersey Shore on the extra days?

I wouldn’t say I’m God’s gift to writing instruction, but I figured I could do a little better than that.

So I kept all the steps to pacify my students’ future high school teachers, but I rearranged the order to pacify my own convictions about writing. I moved Step 2 (Write a Thesis) to between Steps 4 and 5 (“Take Notes” and “Write and Outline”). I gave the most amount of days to taking notes, outlining and to writing the body paragraphs. I gave students a copy of the calendar because I wanted the students to SEE which steps are the most important based on which have the most time dedicated to them.

So on day 1, I gave them a powerpoint presentation on the Civil War, and then let them choose from a list of topics that was provided by the school librarian (who is an invaluable source of help when putting together a unit like this). So far so good. Everyone had a topic and there was only one short argument about who chose “weapons” first.

Then came Step 2: Bibliography. To do this, the workbook instructs students to complete 10 “Bib Cards.” That’s where the title of this entry comes in. I consider myself an educated person. I am capable of conducting research and writing about it. I did not know what a bib card was.

I don’t know this for a fact, but I assume that “bib cards” originated sometime back when libraries still used card catalogues. The students take a stack of index cards and record bibliographic information on them. Anyone who knew me in my History Dept. days knows that I am all about proper citations. But this bib card stuff is crazy. There are all these specific rules that the students are graded on that they get all caught up over indents and colons and there is no emphasis put on the WHY we need citations. I think that teaching proper citation techniques might make more sense after students understand the research process a little better. After doing the bib cards with the students, I don’t think they are as worthless as before, but I remain unconvinced that they are the best way to teach this to young students. They take a lot of time for not a lot of results.

While working on this post I was talking to my best friend who is a totally smart lawyer, and she didn’t know what a bib card was either. So the moral of the story is: you don’t need to know what a bib card is to be a lawyer, but you need it to pass 9th grade history class.

Ok, so I will teach it.