Monday, June 25, 2012

Deep thoughts from a teacher mom...

I spent two days last week at our summer administrative leadership retreat with my school district. This was only my second retreat, but it was the best I've been to mostly because we spent lots of time talking philosophically about the direction of our district - our next steps in our goal of continual improvement. It was invigorating and exciting to talk about possibilities and brainstorm with others that share a common goal. I've been thinking about it so much, in fact, that I decided the best way to get it out of my head (or to the next step in my head) is to write it all out.

What follows is a part educator/part mom that is in no way reflective of my employer, but instead reflects what I hope is continual professional and personal growth on my part.

This means some of you will stop reading here, and I'm okay with that.

Much of the conversation started with being the "school of choice" for parents and students. (I realize this has multiple meanings, but I'll only address one of them here.) I don't see this as being competitive, necessarily, but instead being the school that is the very best learning environment for every kid. We talked about who our "customers" are, and it was a pretty interesting conversation. Parents? Students? Employers? Colleges? Legislators (i.e. the oft-far-removed people who make all the big decisions)?

We also discussed the concept of choice. What does choice look like in a school or school district? It's easy for me to see this in the secondary world - choice is online courses, and choosing the classes that teach you the appropriate skills but interest you the most, and being able to go to school from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. if you choose, and on and on.

But in the elementary world it's not that simple. How can our elementary schools provide choices for parents and students? What choices would people even want?

One person at my table said, "Many of us are parents. What choices do we want for our own kids?"

So I started thinking about my own two Hickmans.

Tucker is a math kid. Some of you have heard this story before, but I'm going to tell it here because it's relevant. In first grade, Tucker went to second grade for math. He went every day unless the second graders were taking a test. (In first grade there are no number grades for math, so the test taking was irrelevant to him.) He LOVED it!  He loved that he was good at math and challenged in math and that he could do second grade stuff in first grade. It was (and still is) a point of pride for him.

Then he became a second grader, and he had to take second grade math again. My understanding is that second grade number grades were needed for the report card and that since he never took any tests as a first grader there really was no way to be sure he had mastered the second grade concepts enough to move on to third grade math. By the way, third grade has STAAR testing and all that other good stuff, and it wouldn't really be relevant to a second grader taking third grade math. For all I know, he stunk at second grade math the first time around, and he needed to take it again. No grades, remember?

He went to a phenomenal school with phenomenal teachers, and as a mom/educator, I understood some of the reasoning for putting him in second grade math again. There's also that weird dynamic of "we work together so I don't want to imply that I know more about your job than you do" that comes into play when dealing with teacher kids. I trusted (and still trust) the teachers and administrators at that school to do the best thing for my kid, so Tucker did second grade math again. It didn't seem like that big of a deal to me at the time.

Now, though, I wonder if I did the right thing. I know I didn't do the wrong thing - an extra year of math never hurt anyone - but was it really the right thing for Tucker?  Could he be getting ready to take fifth grade math instead of fourth? Or could he be farther ahead than that, soaking up math concepts like a sponge if given the opportunity to keep moving forward at his own pace? Did this glimpse into the ability to move faster and then the subsequent "second graders only learn this material" make him less interested or less excited about pushing himself to his absolute limits? Could this manifest itself not only in math but in other things, too?

And such is the age-old question of every parent: Did I unintentionally screw up my kid forever with something silly?

Back to the educator convo - How does choice factor into this?  More importantly, how does it factor in without tracking kids beginning in preschool and pre-determining what they'll be able to do in five or ten or fifteen years?

I'm still working on this one.

Disclaimer: Tucker's math teachers have been amazing every year he's been in school. I have great respect for them and their ability to differentiate for all skill levels in their classrooms. This is not about them, but more about the system and how it works for every kid differently. 

Then I though about Little Hickman #2, and what choices I want for him in school. Keaton is very smart, but more than that he's creative and willing to experiment and likes to DO things rather than talk about them. What choices would I make for him?  Primarily, I want him to have teachers who appreciate this about him. I want someone who realizes that when Keaton laughs, it's contagious - one of the best sounds in the world. I want someone who understands that sometimes he's not confident because he sees things differently than other people - in a brilliant, interesting perspective that I would miss if it weren't for him. I want someone who pushes him to be and do everything he wants to and some things he doesn't want to because he's the kid who gets the "work" out of the way so he can get on to the stuff that really matters (mostly fun and getting to know people - the kid has never met a stranger).

So is teacher choice the answer to choice in elementary schools?  

Maybe, but there's a part two to this story. I work at Keaton's school, and I have a part in putting kids in classes. I have the ability to choose, and - get this - I didn't.

I would put Keaton Hickman with any second grade teacher on this campus. We have two new teachers coming on board, and they are fantastic, so they are included in the "any second grade teacher" that I'm talking about. I thought about choosing and talked about choosing, but ultimately it's too hard to choose because all of the choices have so many strengths.

And here's the A-HA moment. Maybe for us in elementary schools it's not about providing choice as in "pick your teacher" but instead choice as in "the teachers here ARE the best choice." The same could be said for the environment of the school, the curriculum, the administration, even the facilities.

It's fundamental to everything we as educators do (the good ones anyway). We will love your kid, get to know him, see where he is academically, and exhaust every resource we have to help him find his own successes today and for the rest of his life.

And so the Little Hickmans parallel this entire question of choice. Tucker is about the numbers and rules and such, and Keaton is about the people. And my job as a mom is to make sure that both of them have the very best public education (and private education for that matter) has to offer. And my job as an educator is to make sure that every kid who walks into my school will have the very best public and private education has to offer.

Meeting the demands of those jobs is something we have to choose to do every single day.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Recipe Experiment Day

Ahhh...a Saturday at home. I told Trey last night just before we went to sleep that I had no plans to clean house or do laundry or do anything else productive today. I planned to be lazy all day long.

He asked if that was his hint to leave me alone all day.

The truth is Trey never intentionally guilts me into doing anything, but if he's mowing the lawn or doing the dishes and I'm curled up in bed eating popcorn and watching Netflix amid a disaster of a house, I feel like a terrible, lazy person. Just like people can't cry alone around me, I guess Trey can't clean alone, either.

We slept until a whopping eight o'clock, then stayed in bed until about 8:30 watching Fashion Police and hoping the kids wouldn't wake up. Trey made omelets for breakfast - with spinach and onions and jack cheese, and Coco Loco's green sauce - and they we delicious!

I decided to make the bed. Then I noticed there was some mail piled on the dresser and thought I'd go through that. Then I remembered Tucker's baseball uniform needed to be clean for tonight, so I started some laundry, but first I had to fold and put away all of the laundry in the dryer.

Next thing you know, our bathroom, bedroom, living room, and kitchen were clean and the pantry and refrigerator were cleaned out.

So much for doing nothing.

Then I decided to have a recipe experiment afternoon.

First, I made a healthier version of banana bread that I found on Pinterest (of course). It's healthier because it's made with unsweetened applesauce and honey and wheat flour instead of oil, sugar, and white flour.

Here's the recipe:

  • 2 cups whole wheat flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup sugar free applesauce
  • 3/4 cup honey
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 3 mashed overripe bananas


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Lightly grease a 9x5 inch loaf pan.
  2. In a large bowl, combine flour, baking soda and salt. In a separate bowl, mix together applesauce and honey. Stir in eggs and mashed bananas until well blended. Stir banana mixture into flour mixture; stir just to moisten. Pour batter into prepared loaf pan.
  3. Bake in preheated oven for 60 to 65 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into center of the loaf comes out clean. Let bread cool in pan for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack. 

Here's the result:

The review? It's pretty darn good. It's heartier than my usual recipe, but anytime I use wheat flour the result is a rougher texture. It's also just as sweet as my usual recipe, and it probably would have been even sweeter if my bananas were a little more over-ripe.  Will I make it again?  Sure!  Why not?  I like it just as well as my regular recipe and it has "better bones." Trey really liked it, too.

Experiment #2 was a recipe I also found on Pinterest. This one is roasted shrimp enchiladas with jalapeno cream sauce, only I didn't follow it exactly.   First of all, I had a chicken that I needed to cook, so I replaced the shrimp with chicken. Second, I didn't include the cabbage and carrots, but I added extra spinach because I had spinach. Third, I made layered enchiladas instead of rolled enchiladas because a) even on recipe experiment day I can be a little lazy and b) I can usually get away with using fewer tortillas if I stack instead of roll. Fourth, I just poured all of the sauce on top because it seemed silly to save some to add after they cooked. I tried really hard to stick to the two cups of cheese, but I probably used an extra half cup.

Jenny, a friend form work, made the enchiladas last week and told me that it took a long time and virtually every dish in her kitchen, so I was prepared for that. I didn't feel like it took too terribly long, but I wasn't in any hurry and didn't have anyone waiting to eat them, so I don't guess I would have noticed if they took too long. 

Here's the recipe:
Roasted Shrimp Enchiladas with Jalapeño Cream Sauce (adapted from Gimme Some Oven):
Yields 3-4 servings
  • 1 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 2 cups shredded green cabbage
  • 1 carrot, peeled and grated
  • 3 cups baby spinach
  • 2 tablespoons chipotle pepper, in adobo sauce
  • 1/4 teaspoon oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 12 (6-inch) corn tortillas, warmed
  • 2 cups Monterey Jack cheese
For the jalapeño cream sauce:
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups chicken broth
  • 3/4 cup sour cream
  • 2 jalapeños, seeded and minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Place the shrimp onto the prepared baking sheet. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil, salt and pepper, to taste, and gently toss to combine.
Place into oven and roast just until pink, firm and cooked through, about 6-8 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool before dicing into bite-size pieces.
Reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees F. Lightly oil a 9x13 baking dish or coat with nonstick spray.
Heat remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet. Add the garlic and onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions become translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the cabbage, carrot, spinach, chipotle pepper, oregano and cayenne. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the spinach just begins to wilt, about 1-2 minutes. Add the shrimp and gently toss to combine.
To make the sauce, melt the butter in a large saucepan. Whisk in the flour until lightly browned, about 1-2 minutes. Gradually whisk in the chicken stock and cook, whisking constantly, until incorporated, about 1-2 minutes. Stir in the sour cream. Add the jalapeños and garlic powder and simmer unitl the sauce has thickened, about 2 minutes; season with salt and pepper, to taste. Remove from heat and stir in the cilantro.
To assemble the enchiladas, lay the tortilla on a flat surface and spoon 1/3 cup of the shrimp mixture in the center; sprinkle with cheese. Roll the tortilla and place seam side down onto prepared baking dish. Repeat with remaining tortillas and shrimp mixture.
Pour half of the jalapeño cream sauce evenly over the top. Place into oven and bake, covered, until lightly golden and bubbly, about 20 minutes.
Serve immediately with remaining jalapeño cream sauce, garnished with cilantro.

Here's the result:

The review? Uh-Mazing!  They are super delicious!  I will make them again when I want to make something impressive! Trey sampled them and said, "They taste like a restaurant," which I think is a compliment. They are kind of thin, so I may make them in a square pan next time so they're thicker. I worried that adding the extra sauce from the beginning would make them soupy, but it didn't at all.  If they heat up well as leftovers, they will be a double win!

Side note: Because Trey was mowing I had to de-bone the chicken myself. There aren't many things that gross me out more than picking apart a dead animal carcass, raw or cooked. But I was a very brave girl and I did it. I think I only gagged twice. Trey should be very proud. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012


I can't dance.

Seriously, I can't do it. I have no rhythm.

Tonight, however, I danced my face off.

It's always funny to me how God brings people into our lives.

I met many of my very best friends at the New Teacher Induction Program in August of 2003. Chrissy, the principal at the time, was pretty insane to hire me in the first place because I had no student teaching or real in-the-classroom experience.  But she did it anyway.

I remember thinking how smart and qualified and cool all my of NTI group members were. I thought I would never fit in or be as great as them. I felt like the kid who got picked last for the team, even though I have absolutely no idea whether or not I was picked last.

In the last nine years, that group has become my closest friends. My "people" if you will. We've been through marriages and divorces. We've lost and gained personal children and student children and parents. We've gone to grad school and changed teaching fields and found things to be passionate about and learned that work isn't everything. We can be happy for each other and kindly critical of each other and we always support each other. Always. It sort of feels like we've grown up together.

Tonight we celebrated another of my people finding his perfect match - his happily ever after.

And I danced. And I didn't care it was bad and no one else did either.

Because they are my people.