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Friday, January 2, 2015

Sweets and Treats for the Holidays-- Part 2: A Baking Binge

I went a little crazy this year with my holiday baking. 

The almost-full spread of my holiday baking binge

Growing up, my mom always baked delicious Christmas cookies to share around the holidays: chocolate chip, noel balls, thimble cookies, spritz, sugar rollouts, and pizzelles (anise AND chocolate!) I still have especially fond memories of the pizzelles--the smell of them baking; the look of them laid out all over our butcher block kitchen table; the curve of my mom's back as she poured batter onto the press, lifted the lid to check their doneness, and used the stained spatula to take them off; the snowfall of powdered sugar dusting them when they cooled (sometimes I even got to help with that part!); the first bite...mmm.

Boxes of Christmas cookies leaving our kitchen were a part of Christmas, just as much as a Christmas tree.

When I moved out, I took her recipes with me and made and shared my own batches of most of the same varieties I enjoyed growing up. (Not pizzelles, though; I don't have a pizzelle maker. Sadly, she doesn't make those anymore, either. I haven't had a pizzelle in I don't know how long. But I digress...)

Although I've added other cookies to my baking repertoire, I've always made the core types. While tasty, it has started to feel like I was in a bit of a cookie rut. After all, there's so many kinds of cookies out there (I have the magazine clippings to prove it!)--what if I could happen upon some new favorites? What if I could spread some of those new favorites around to others, making an even more exciting holiday baking season?

Luckily, I discovered a wonderful baking blog early in 2014. I mentioned it in my last post, too, since the recipe I used for the Candy Cane Kiss cookies was found there. Do yourself a favor and visit  Sally's Baking Addiction. Sally is a great blogger. She's consistent, has fun & tasty recipes, is available to her readers, and has mastered the art of beautiful food photography! I bought her cookbook in the summer and have enjoyed making the recipes with my daughters. Of course, I couldn't keep up with all the recipes I wanted to try, so I bookmarked them (with real post its, or, virtually, on Pinterest, the greatest time suck in the world!) to revisit later.

What better time for that than this Christmas?

Visions of cookies danced in my head and in early December I was struck with another idea: what if I made themed boxes of cookies and let recipients pick the box that most appealed to them instead of making a one-size-fits-all box like usual?

Although some people I shared the concept with seemed dubious, the more I thought about it, the more excited I was to try it. I started to imagine people opening their boxes and offering trades to other box-holders: "Hey, I'll trade you some peppermint bark for an oatmeal raisin cookie!" (What? I have an active imagination.) It was thrilling in its strange way.

I decided to go for it. If it worked, yay, and if it didn't...well, at least I wouldn't wonder later if I should have tried it. Besides, what's the worst that could happen? It's cookies, after all!

It turns out I had no trouble choosing the ones that would make up this year's offerings. Not one of my staple cookie recipes, though, make the cut. With the exception of two cookies I made for the first time earlier in 2014, and two candy classics (caramel corn and pretzels), I chose a lineup of recipes I'd never made before.

Because I was making some seventeen (17) varieties of cookies and candy treats, I couldn't follow my normal schedule of spending just one marathon day baking; this year, I had to spread it out over the course of a week. I started with candy treats because they stay freshest longest-- especially refrigerated--and tackled cookies later in the week. The bulk of the baking still took place on a single weekend day, but it was a lot more manageable because I'd already finished several varieties by that time.

That night, I boxed up the cookies, used Glad Press & Seal wrap to individually wrap cookies with strong flavor profiles so they wouldn't ruin other nearby cookies (the only thing more disgusting than a peppermint cookie next to a peanut butter cookie is an Everything bagel next to, well, any other flavor bagel...), and made cute labels for each box so people knew what they were choosing. The next day--a few days before Christmas-- I hand-delivered the boxes at their maximum freshness.

While recipients did not engage in the cookie trading of my imagination run amok, they did, in fact, have a wonderful time choosing their box themes. Success!

Later that day and in the days that followed, I received a flurry of texts, emails, and phone calls excitedly telling me which cookies people liked best in their boxes. I'd started a dialogue about cookies!

Hurrah!

*** 

Here's the breakdown of each box. In case you'd like to try making some of these goodies, I've linked the treat to its original recipe whenever possible; just click on the treat name. I also included pictures of my treats and notes about each one.


The Nut-Lovers Box

As Leon Carr wrote in his jingle for Mounds/Almond Joy candies, "Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don't." In this box, I wanted to appeal to those people who feel like nuts. (haha!) Each cookie or treat features nuts, including pecans, almonds, walnuts, peanuts (well, peanut butter), and pistachios. Needless to say, people went "nuts" for these! 

Butter Pecan Cookie  These were one of my personal favorites from this year. I love pecans and these cookies pack a delicious burst of nutty deliciousness into each bite. They reminded me a little of a chip-less version of my mom's chocolate chip cookies recipe (we put ground pecans in ours) only with larger chunks of toasted pecans. I'll definitely make these again.

Butter Pecan Cookies with chunks of toasted pecans on my beautiful wedding china


Reese’s Stuffed Peanut Butter Cookie These are delicious! My mom, who doesn't even like peanut butter cookies, loves them. The dough is incredibly easy to work with, too. Sally's recipe calls for the small Reese's cups (the individually wrapped ones I show in the photo) but I make an assortment of "smaller" cookies used with that size candy and huge cookies that nest a full-sized Reese's cup within it. That massive cookie is a dessert in itself, and packs a huge punch in the calorie department, but this is a holiday treat so why not? I added a thick drizzle of melted Nestle's Chocolate-Peanut Butter Chips on top of mine. This is a recipe I tried a couple months back and, because it was such a winner, knew I had to include within the holiday boxes. I doubled the recipe so I could get more.

Reese's Peanut Butter Stuffed Peanut Butter Cookies- I cut into the one on top so you can see the surprise inside!


Chocolate-Walnut Thumbprint with Cherry Preserves Cookie I found these in Good Housekeeping magazine and thought they looked tasty. Since I usually make a more standard butter thimble cookie, I liked this twist on the old classic. Not only did my Aunt Sherry say they were her favorite cookie from her box, she said they were the best Christmas cookies she ate this year!

Pretty little maids all in a row...

Up close and personal with preserves.


Oatmeal Raisin with Walnut Cookie  I made a version of oatmeal raisin cookies last year, but the recipe I used had way too much sugar; they were cloyingly sweet. This year I tried Sally's recipe and she hit on the perfect amount of sugar. I split this batch of cookies in two, including walnuts in half the batter (to be included in my nut-lover box) and leaving the walnuts out of the other half (to be included in another box).

Chewy Oatmeal Raisin Cookies


Chocolate-Dipped Almond Biscotti  These cookies made their way into two boxes, too, by virtue of their nutty batter and utter coffee-pairing deliciousness. They were a winner in both boxes, and a cookie I was able to make during the week because they're crunchy to begin with. I left a few plain on the outside to offer a twist. Next time, I may add some dried cherries to the dough for extra interest.

Chocolate-Dipped Almond Biscotti-- coffee's best friend


White Chocolate Swirl Bark   I didn't link to a recipe for this one because it's a treat I found in the Sally's Baking Addiction cookbook. No worries, though, because it was super simple to make, consisting of melting bricks of white chocolate and semi-sweet chocolate, spreading the chocolates onto a silicone-lined pan (do yourself a favor and splurge on some Silpat mats! I received two for Christmas last year and I LOVE them!), swirling them with the edge of a knife, topping with pistachios and craisins, then popping the pan into the fridge to set. After about twenty minutes, take it out, break it into pieces (or cut it if you prefer the uniformity), and enjoy! This stuff was my Aunt Donna's favorite.

Pistachio and craisin-topped white & semi-sweet swirled chocolate


                          The Breakfast Blend Box

For this box, I kept breakfast in my mind. I wanted to create an assortment of cookies that either would pair well with one's morning cuppa, or that borrowed breakfast-y flavors or ingredients. What a delicious way to start the day!

Chocolate-Dipped Almond Biscotti   This cookie makes a second appearance here because it begs to be enjoyed with a steaming mug of something.

Oatmeal Raisin Cookie   Here's another repeat from the other box. In this version, though, I left out the nuts. Still, in either form, what's more breakfast-y than a bowl of oatmeal? Perfect for a cookie! (And bonus: When they start to turn toward the stale-phase and become more crunchy than chewy, they aren't half bad broken atop some vanilla ice cream.)

Banana-Walnut Chocolate Chunk Cookie   I was, perhaps, the least enthused over this cookie. It did, in fact, taste like banana-walnut bread which is why it was a nice addition to this themed box, but it was also consistently the last man standing on the trays. Sorry, Martha, but I probably wouldn't make these again.

Bananas, walnuts, and semi-sweet chunks - breakfast in a cookie


Chai Spiced Snickerdoodle Cookie  From the moment I first saw these cookies posted at the end of October, I knew I must make them. In fact, the idea of this twist on a classic was part of my inspiration for the breakfast box. I adore cardamom; it's such a delicious, warm spice. I put it in my homemade granola as a matter of course, and it's the "spice" part of last year's Starbucks Vanilla Spice Latte which I copied at home. Chai tea warms you from the inside and I knew this cookie needed to go in this breakfast box. Chai paired with chai? Yes, please! Note: The recipe calls for making a homemade vanilla frosting. I had planned on making it but by the time I'd finished baking all the cookies I was spent. I iced about half of the yield with some store-bought stuff, and left the other half plain. My Aunt Joy raved over these cookies and told me she preferred the iced ones. I bet she'll like them even more when I budget time to make the icing as per the recipe!

Plain or iced, chai spiced snickerdoodles are twice as nice!


Gingerbread Cookie  The happiest, cutest cookie there is. Everyone should start the day with a smile. I found this recipe and made it because my older daughter loves gingerbread. They cookies are tasty to eat but even more fun to decorate (the whole family got in on the action--we had an Eagles quarterback, a Princess Leia, and a one-eyed zombie among these more classic types) and the dough is easy to work with.

One big, happy, gingerbread family




The Candy Shoppe Treat Box

The original concept for this box was going to be chocolate lovers. But I had so many recipes for candy-based cookies that weren't necessarily chocolate-based that I revised my concept. This box was super popular, containing more of the most-raved-over recipes of the season than any other box. 

Salted Caramel Dark Chocolate Cookie  These cookies... oh my! Hands down, the most successful cookie of the season. My husband's new favorite cookie, and my new favorite chocolate varietal. My Aunt Holly and brother both loved them, asking more than once, "Do you have any more of those salty chocolate ones with the caramel inside?" That caramel inside is a Rolo candy and the salt on top is Fleur de Sel. As it were, I didn't have more because the yield for the cookies wasn't that high. Although I can't say the dough was easy to work with (it was sticky and required additional refrigeration even beyond what the recipe called for), the taste more than made up for the extra work. This cookie is going into the rotation-- next year, I'll double it so everyone can enjoy seconds!
Salty and sweet, chocolate with a caramel surprise in the center!


Cake Batter Chocolate Chip Oreo Cookie  I made these back in March when I sent them to school for my daughter's birthday (they're nut-free!); the teacher raved over them. I like them because they are a fun twist on the classic chocolate chip cookie, and they offer lots of options for customizing. When I made them before, I used a mix of white chocolate and semi-sweet chips and classic Oreo cookies. This Christmas, though, I used all semi-sweet chips and Birthday Cake Oreos (since the dough has actual cake mix in it, I was trying to really play up that birthday cake flavor). The bright rainbow sprinkles and visible chunks of Oreo help these cookies stand out and were among the first grabbed off my holiday trays, especially by my young cousins and my niece.

What's not to love in these happy candy-and cookie-packed cookies?


Reese’s Stuffed Peanut Butter Cookie   Yes, these again. I put them in the nut box for the peanut butter, but if I was forced to choose only one home for them, this box would be it. The Reese's cup surprise center makes these cookies a fan favorite. I prefer them with the full-sized cup in the center, but that's a lot of cookie; if you go that route and make a single-batch of cookie dough as per the recipe, the yield is 11 large cookies and 1 small cookie. Remember to increase cook time for the larger cookies. 

Candy Cane Kiss Cookie  I did an entire post on these cookies because I received a free sample of the Candy Cane Kisses from Influenster. I can't overstate how popular these were, especially among the kids. I would have made a second batch but my daughter ate all my leftover Kisses! I'm planning to make them again soon, though, with some blue and white sprinkles (for winter) and Cookies and Cream Kisses on top.

Fun and festive for the holiday season with just a Kiss of mint


Peppermint Bark Candy  Honestly, it just looked so pretty I wanted to try it. Who doesn't like a little mint treat, especially around the holidays? Bark is so simple to make. The hardest part of the process is waiting the 15-20 minute set-time for each layer before getting to taste it!

Peppermint Bark


Candy Cane Swirl Fudge   I'm not doing this fudge justice with this photo, but I forgot to take a close up picture of the fudge by itself; the one I'm including here is a zoomed-in shot from the full spread shown in the very first photo of this post. I made this fudge specifically to share with the baristas at Starbucks (it was gone before I finished my latte!) and the staffers at my gym. The leftovers (pictured) I added to some of the candy shoppe treat boxes in the bottom layer with the rest of the peppermint treats.

Candy Cane Swirl Fudge


White Chocolate Swirl Bark    It's candy, so I put some in this box, too.




Extra Treats  


I made a few other treats that were weren't included within the three themed treat boxes. Some of them were stand-alone gifts, and some of them supplemented other items, whether purchased or homemade. 

Caramel Popcorn   I love this Kraft recipe, and I use the individually wrapped Kraft caramels and air-popped popcorn (which I have my husband pop for me) to make it. Sometimes I add the peanuts and sometimes I don't. This year, I didn't add them in either of the two batches I made (one each for my dad and my father-in-law.) Coincidentally, on Christmas Eve my brother presented my dad a tub of caramel corn which he'd bought at a specialty popcorn shop at the mall. We couldn't resist conducting a blind caramel corn taste test. Of the six people who participated, everyone voted my homemade corn better, citing the caramel flavor as more pleasantly prominent, whereas the specialty shop's popcorn had a saltier, more buttered-popcorn flavor. Homemade wins the day!

Caramel popcorn - what could be sweeter?


Triple Chocolate & Caramel Covered Pretzels  This is my own "recipe" which consists of plenty of melting and pouring but involves no actual cooking. I use Snyder pretzels, Kraft caramels (melted), and three types of candy melts (dark chocolate, milk chocolate, and white vanilla). I lay my pretzels on two large unlined baking sheets in a single layer and pour melted candy on top of them in turn. I always start with milk chocolate, then move to dark chocolate, then to the white. As the candy melts cool on the pretzels, things harden, so I try to stir it around on the pan a bit so both sides get some coating (not that it matters too much). Then I pour the melted caramel on top. I like it to glob a little. Once everything sets, it can be broken up into chunks. This stuff is addictive and people always ask for more. I give it in its own container.

Chocolate Caramel Coated Pretzels


Peppermint Brownie Cake Pops    I took inspiration from the delightful Starbucks Peppermint Brownie Cake Pop and tried to cook up my own version. (It turns out the real Starbucks "brownie" pops aren't brownies at all but are chocolate cake with butter cream. Go figure.) I went with real brownies for mine, but used a boxed brownie mix in my Baby Cakes machine (makes perfect balls!) to make things easy on myself. Then I melted white candy melts which I flavored with some peppermint flavoring. I dipped each ball into the melty goodness and sprinkled with ground candy canes. I bagged these up in festive holiday treat bags and included them as gifts for teachers and babysitters alongside gift cards where appropriate. My girls loved grabbing them as snacks, too.
Bite sized treats

The plain brownie bite balls underneath and the pops on top

***

That's it. Seventeen varieties of sweet treats selected, baked, packed, photographed, and shared with love. 

It was lots of work (and TONS of butter-- over 16 sticks! Wowsa!) but trying so many new recipes and getting such positive feedback was wonderful.  It was gratifying spreading holiday cheer with these food gifts as people genuinely seemed to enjoy what they received. 

A fresh batch of treats breathed new life into the staid (but wonderful) tradition of holiday baking. The result of little changes was novel and personal and oh so sweet. 

Now that you've seen it all: which box would YOU have chosen? Let me know in the comments!

Wishing everyone the happiest of holidays 
and a delicious 2015! 


                         

Monday, December 22, 2014

Sweets & Treats for the Holidays-- Part 1: Candy Cane Kiss Cookies

Happy holidays!

What a delicious season it has been so far, and it's not even Christmas yet!

I've spent the past week in my kitchen baking up a ton of treats to share with family, friends, teachers, and clerks at my favorite local businesses.

I kicked off my annual holiday baking season with these delightful Candy Cane Kiss cookies. The nice folks at Influenster sent me a VoxBox which contained Hershey Kisses Candy Cane Kisses. See?

Hershey's Kisses: Candy Cane seasonal variety. #MERRYKISSMAS

Pretty cool, huh? The only thing better than festive holiday Kisses is FREE festive holiday Kisses*. I couldn't wait to try them.

My girls were eager to rip into the bag immediately. I figured trying a couple for testing purposes would be reasonable, so we dug in and started tasting. This seasonal variety is mint flavored with characteristic candy cane stripes, and for added fun, little crunchy candy bits inside (you can see the flecks of red speckling the Kisses in my picture). The girls loved them and didn't want to stop at just one a piece, but I knew I wanted to make something delicious with them so we had just one more (what? it's the holidays, after all!) and then I set about to find the perfect recipe. For me, that's usually a cookie.

As usual, I wasn't disappointed when I checked in with my favorite sweets food blogger friend Sally at Sally's Baking Addiction (www.sallysbakingaddiction.com). Sure enough, she had a recipe using the Candy Cane Kisses (two, in fact, but I went with the classic sugar cookie recipe.) For the actual recipe, head on over to her blog and check it out. But I can tell you this: it couldn't have been easier.

I made the sugar cookie dough, rolled it into 1-tablespoon-sized balls, rolled those balls into my favorite festive sprinkles, then baked. When they were out of the oven, I let them rest on the pan for five minutes before popping a Candy Cane Kiss in the middle of each one and racing to get them in the freezer (full disclosure: my freezer is full at the moment, so I put mine in the fridge instead.) The point is: get them to a cooler climate STAT because those little Kisses start to melt their minty goodness onto your cookie. While it doesn't change the taste, it does change the appearance.

Once they're set, you have a festive-looking, soft and sweet sugar cookie with the crown of mint on top. My daughters loved them. My niece loved them. Everyone who tasted them loved them! And they were so simple.

Here's what they looked like when they were done (as you can see, next time I'm going to have to make it to the fridge a tad faster. Haha.)

Candy Cane Kiss cookies

I've seen some other uses for the Kisses, too, like as a topper for cupcakes and pies. Or, quite frankly, you can just eat them plain. They're that good.

Bottom line: this was a fun seasonal treat and one that I'll certainly make it a point to buy in the future. This cookie deserves a spot in the Christmas cookie line-up and was a fantastic starting point for my holiday baking adventures.

I'll share the full line-up of my treats in my next post. But until then, this is a good one to get you started. Happy baking!



*Disclosure: I received this product complimentary from Influenster for testing purposes. However, all the opinions expressed herein are my own and are true.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Opportunity for Writers of Women's Fiction

It's not too late!
Writer's Digest via Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents blog is running its 17th "Dear Lucky Agent" contest. 
Even better? It's free to enter!
This year, the contest is open to writers of women's/upmarket fiction.
Writers submit a query letter, the first 150-200 words of their completed women's fiction manuscript, and a logline for judging by guest agent Paula Munier, Senior Literary Agent and Content Strategist at Talcott Notch Literary. 
The deadline is today, Friday, October 17th, so don't delay.
For all submission guidelines, information regarding prizes, and eligibility details, visit Chuck Sambuchino's blog. http://tinyurl.com/of5zgqz

Best of luck to all entrants. 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Actually, April is the Coolest Month

April is National Poetry Month. How delightful that there's a month dedicated to celebrating words and meaning-making. Those things deserve to be celebrated. 

Better still, within National Poetry Month there's a day called Poem in Your Pocket Day. This year, it falls on Thursday, April 24th. On that day, people are meant to carry a poem in their pockets to periodically share with others. That way, people can enjoy a poem for its own sake and come together over meaningful words. 

I enjoyed doing that so much that now I take it a step further because I want to help spread that fun around. 

My good friend Jenny--scientist, mother, and children's books lover-- has a wonderful blog called Books, Babies, and Bows (www.booksbabiesandbows.com) where she celebrates the wonders that can be found in children's literature (not to mention the joys and lessons of reading with one's kids)! She asked me to write a guest post for her blog explaining how I celebrate Poem in Your Pocket Day, and I was thrilled to share my story. I encourage you to check out her blog, and while you're there, you can read my post (published today). 

Of course, I still carry a poem in my pocket. Here's the poem that resonated with me this year, and the one I'll have in my pocket on the 24th:

The World Seems... by Gregory Orr

The world seems so palpable
And dense: people and things
And the landscapes 
They inhabit or move through. 

Words, on the other hand, 
Are so abstract--they're
Made of empty air
Or black scratches on a page
That urge us to utter 
Certain sounds. 
                         And us:
Poised in the middle, aware
 Of the objects out there
Waiting patiently to be named,
As if the right words 
Could save them.  
                           And don't
They deserve it? 
So much hidden inside each one,
Such a longing
To become the beloved.

And inside us: the sounds
That could extend that blessing --
How they crowd our mouths,
How they press up against
Our lips, which are such
A narrow exit for a joy so desperate. 

I hope you'll celebrate this year, too. Find whatever words speak to you and carry them with you on the 24th. If you're inspired to do more, wonderful. If not, just having those words with you is enough. No matter what, though, enjoy the day. I know I will.

Last night as I was drifting off to sleep, I was thinking about making a cake to add to the excitement of the day. I pictured making a 13x9 rectangular cake and cutting the two corners off the bottom so that it forms a V shape down there, like it's coming to a point. That way, it would sort of look like a pocket. I'd ice it--likely in vanilla because that's my favorite, plus it's white which is a nice backdrop for any text I might pipe on there. Though, I'll admit I did consider tinting it blue so that it looked more like a denim pocket, but decided against it.--and decorate it with my special decorating tips, piping in some sugary stitching to add more authenticity to the pocket look. Then, I'd pipe "Poem in Your Pocket" on there in another color. And then for the best part: I'd get some of those plastic things they use in flower arrangements to hold the card, and poke them out of the cake. In each one, I'd have a poem on some card stock. It would look so cute. When people cut into the confection--and, of course, no one would want to cut into such a lovely cake, but they would because cake is meant to be eaten--they'd hit the jackpot because they'd get a slice of cake AND a poem. Perfection on a plate!

(What? You don't create imaginary cakes in your head as you fall asleep? Oh, well, you should; it gives the phrase "sweet dreams" a whole new meaning!)

Anyway, I still might make that cake. If I can find some of those plastic things...

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Bloggate 2012

Well, someone has informed the newspapers of my personnel matters (a play on words, not a misspelling), so you might know about my pending job status.

In short, yes, I've been set up. For now, that's all I'm going to say about it.

In the coming days, I, like my colleagues, will administer final exams to my students-- an overall nice group this year whom I have enjoyed teaching despite the hoops I had to jump through all year at the hands of the district-- and will hope, as do all teachers on behalf of their students, that they end the semester on a high note! I, like my colleagues, will pack up books, enter final grades into the system, and finish the four zillion things that need to be done by week's end. On Friday, I, like my colleagues, will wish my students well as they leave for the summer.

Also like my colleagues, I will begin my own summer safe in the knowledge that I worked hard every day this year to prepare my students for whatever lies before them, to meet the challenges that arose daily, and to perform my myriad duties at work with pride and dignity. Though it will surely be implied otherwise, I know the truth, my colleagues know the truth, my students and their parents know the truth. I stand by my work this year, and every year before.

Last year, when the first part of this saga broke, people contacted me asking how they can help; they sympathized with some of my frustrations, but, what's more, they wrote about how they saw that problems exist in the system and how our country deserves better. As I have been waging my own battles at work every day against a corrupt system, government has continued its assault on public education. Programs and funding are still being cut; class sizes are still increasing; teacher unions are still coming under attack; good teachers are still losing their jobs because the people in charge have no idea what needs to be done.

My husband, Brian, having seen firsthand the problems that exist now (and existed even before Bloggate 2011), is running for State Representative for the 29th District in Pennsylvania. He, too, believes that there are problems in education today and wants to be part of the solution. I'm proud of him for that. (You can check out his website at www.votemunroe.com)

I've always been the kind of person who stands up for what I believe in, but the importance of doing so has been reinforced these past 16 months. We cannot be afraid to take a stand when something is wrong. We cannot back down just because someone makes something harder for us in an effort to shut us up. We cannot go with the flow just because it's easier not to make ripples. We can't be complacent or we're part of the problem. Instead, we have to be part of the solution.

The issue with my job is bigger than me. It's about freedom of speech. It's about having integrity and not compromising the truth. It's about the downward spiral of our education system and the low value that people place on education. It's about making people accountable. It's about standing up for personal beliefs and not apologizing when those beliefs aren't popular.

And, hopefully, it's about bringing people together to make some positive changes that will benefit all of us.


Monday, October 17, 2011

When Less IS More: A Case for Smaller Class Sizes

When the district had no legal grounds to fire me in the wake of Bloggate 2011, they tried to make me superfluous by encouraging students and their parents to opt out of my classes. After all, what is a teacher without students to teach? Unfortunately for that plan, my numbers--though they did drop significantly, leaving me with about a third of the number of students I would normally have had, and with only a third of the number of students my colleagues have--did not zero out.

What I was left with, interestingly, is the number of students that each class SHOULD have for optimal teaching and learning.

The way our education system is set up today, however, the trend is toward increasing class sizes, and not lowering them. Sadly, this is a recipe for failure (which is what policymakers are aiming to do when it comes to public education. After all, if the public school system fails, it must mean that the right action is in privatizing all of education and making it more of a business than it already is. What a clever plan!) Teachers have too many students and not enough time (and, sometimes, resources) to effectively do their jobs. Students are lost in the shuffle as a result of a broken system. Everyone loses.

In years past, I've had classes of all sizes-- from 1 (yes, 1; in fact, I had 2 sections of 1 student each on opposite days and I always wondered why they couldn't combine those sections to at least create a class of 2...) to 30. Now, there is such a thing as too small. 1 is too small. There's no opportunity for collaboration, among other challenges. But 30 is way too large. First, there are too many bodies in the room. Next, there are too many individualized needs and styles and aptitudes and preferences--in a class of 30, someone is always going to go unnoticed.

My classes this semester are 12, 15, and 7 students. I have gone out of my way to make the most of this opportunity, which I've approached as a unique chance to get to attempt to run class in a way that makes the most of it for my students.

Here are just some ways I've noted a positive difference with a smaller number:

Feedback

It is expected that teachers provide students with feedback on their work, so that students can use that feedback to move forward effectively in their studies. With larger classes, the quality of that feedback sometimes suffers because there simply isn't time to do the job the way it needs to be done to have the most positive benefits. Sometimes this might manifest itself in a check mark on a page or a blanket statement meant to cover the trends in the class. But with classes that are half the size, there is time to provide targeted feedback to each student on his writing, his projects, even his tests and quizzes. There is an opportunity to take the time to write comments on every piece a student hands in that is specific to what the student has handed in. There is time to conference with students on their work. Am I saying that teachers with 30 or more students don't manage to do these things in a quality manner? Of course not. Many still make it work. But it's much more difficult and may require, for instance, a teacher meeting with students before and after school, or spending hours on hours of her personal time working to complete these tasks (tasks which very often go unnoticed by outsiders who imagine that a teacher's day ends at 3pm, when, in some ways, a teacher's day is just beginning what with lesson creation, grading, and meetings taking place.) The larger class numbers may mean longer turn-around time to deliver helpful feedback or less pointed feedback being given. And, for the teacher, it may just mean more stress and less patience as there simply are not enough hours in a day to do her job the way she would like to do it.

Student Progress and Community
With large numbers, it is quite possible for teachers to have difficulty keeping track of individual student progress. Students could, theoretically, fall through the cracks. With smaller numbers, though, it's easier to keep on top of trends in homework completion, levels of participation in class discussions, and slips in behavior/interest levels. The smaller numbers make it possible for teachers to be aware of their students' work habits and intercede as needed. The small numbers also make it easier to make sure that all students are heard from in class. Does that mean that there aren't still some dominant personalities in the room? No; but it does mean that it's easier to draw students out who might normally be disinclined to talk. There's a perception that everyone talks--it's just what happens in there. With fewer students, there's more of a need to contribute because there aren't as many bodies to pick up the slack. It can even equate into a stronger class community because everyone knows everyone else; sometimes it can even feel like a little family.

Conferencing

I've been able to conference with each of my students about their progress in class. I've been able to sit down with them and talk to them about the quality of the assignments being assigned, the running of the class in relationship to their needs, and their individual levels of confusion/understanding of the materials. There is face time. And this conferencing can happen more regularly because it doesn't take place over a number of days or by appointment only. It can be integrated into a regular class period while students work on independent or group tasks. I've also found  my students more likely to talk to me privately about personal matters that may pop up, which I attribute, in part, to their comfort level in talking to me because they are used to doing so.

Individualized Needs/Pacing

Closely related to student progress and conferencing are individualized needs and pacing considerations. With smaller classes, teachers are able to consider the needs of fewer students in their class, and can let the class dictate the pacing of the lessons, instead of the need to move forward. I've been very surprised to realize how much more quickly certain lessons run with fewer students in the room. When one stops to think about it, it makes sense. But it's something I didn't consider very much until I was faced with lessons running smoothly because there were fewer interruptions or because every student was comfortable with the material and was ready to move forward. With more students in the class, it's less likely that everyone will be ready to move ahead. Therefore, at any given time, it's possible that some students are forced to wait to move ahead if most students need more time with a concept, while others are being left behind because most students are ready to move on. Some groups, too, prefer different methods of doing things. It's easier to identify and cater to those preferences when their are fewer people involved.

Communication with Parents/Guardians

With fewer students, it is also more likely that teachers have time to notice or spend time on interpersonal matters. This semester, because I have such small classes, I had time to personally email each parent who attended back to school night. It was a great opportunity to create relationships with my students' parents and help build a bridge between home and school. I've had time to email parents when their student seems out of sorts or even when their student makes a positive contribution to class.


When I was shopping around for colleges, one of the big draws for me was the teacher: student ratio. I wanted to be somewhere where I would be a name and not a number. I chose to attend Rosemont College as an undergraduate and was always struck by the individualized attention I received from my professors in my small classes. My largest classes at Rosemont were intro or survey courses (100- or 200- level)--they were about 28 students. My smallest class (an upper-level French class) was 4 students. For most of my major courses, though, the classes maxed out at 12. Sure, it made it difficult to fade into the background. It made it necessary for me to be present and engaged in the proceedings of the day. It made it necessary for me to be prepared when I arrived. (When I wasn't, it made for an embarrassing hour. But I made damned sure I was ready the next day because I never wanted to feel that way again.)  Are any of these factors BAD things? I don't think so. These are the things that students need to succeed.

I wish that policy-makers would realize the benefits of the smaller classes, and find a way to make them a reality.

While my own low class numbers was the result of an effort toward punishing me, ironically, it's been a positive experience. It's helped me to realize anew that we're operating within a broken system, and given me a chance to see another specific way we could work to improve that system.

Perhaps there should be a push for parents to opt out of large classes for their students, so their kids can more consistently get what they need from an instructional and community standpoint.