Baker's yeast. Instant yeast.

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This year I have a student with a laundry list of food allergies, some of which are drastic enough that he has an Epi Pen.  And as if it’s not hard enough for a child of typical development to self-manage his/her food allergies, this little guy has developmental delays that made me worry I’d have to watch him like a hawk.  Turns out he’s quite able to self-manage and speaks up very nicely when there are snacks or treats to let people know he has allergies.  He can rattle off the different foods he’s allergic to and has been known to say, for example, “I don’t think I can have that.  It probably has eggs.”  His medical plan requires us to check with his mom before feeding him anything other than what she sends in, and it works quite nicely now that we clearly understand the allergies.

Cooking projects can be tricky.  But I found out yesterday exactly how much they benefit students with food allergies, even when they can’t eat the end result.  We had read “Bread and Jam for Frances” this week and the book always makes me crave bread and jam, of course.  So I brought my bread maker in to class at the end of the week and we made bread.  The recipe I use is really simple and has just five ingredients:  water, olive oil, salt, flour and yeast.  And as you can imagine, my little guy is allergic to one of the ingredients.  Yeast.  But he was involved in the discussion about the order the ingredients go in the machine, that the salt went in with the liquid ingredients and never touching the yeast because if they touch too soon, the yeast will be deactivated.  Which is when it occurred to me that he had never seen yeast, that it was probably an abstract idea that he had never been able to visualize.

So we stopped and examined the yeast I had measured into a baggy to bring to school.  The students commented on the shape, tiny little balls, and the color, grayish brown, and the fact that just a small amount was enough to make an entire loaf of bread rise.  The kids were all interested, not just the one with the allergy.  It was worth the extra five minutes it added to the lesson.

Later on, as we were watching the bread maker churn for a few minutes before the dough would rest and rise, I asked the kids to verbally sequence the order the ingredients went into the machine.  When we got to the last ingredient, the child I called on, who had raised his hand without really being sure he know the answer, could not think of what it was.  The boy with the allergy whispered to himself, “It’s on my list!” and I saw him look to the door where I have a sign listing his allergies so everyone who works with him knows not to feed him.  To help the others remember the ingredient, I had the boy with the allergy describe the ingredient to them without using the name.  He did so beautifully and the whole while had a giant smile, exposing his irresistible dimple.  Too cute!

What a learning experience for the whole group, but the best part was knowing that I had a chance to drive home the fact that a minute amount of an ingredient can provoke a bad reaction to give more concrete understanding to a little boy whose learning disabilities cause him to struggle with comprehension related to abstract concepts.  And the bread and jam weren’t bad either.


Assorted currency. Coins and notes

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As a teacher, I probably shouldn’t advocate playing hooky.  But when it comes to time with Grandpa (or Grandma, for that matter), it’s mostly worth it.  And when it comes to the only grandson, it’s nearly impossible to say no.  So periodically, Grandpa will pick up Jack for breakfast and a day “out.”  What they do is a little sketchy but as far as I can tell, the day goes a little something like this:

First, breakfast at the greasiest diner in the area.  I’m told Jack can put down a breakfast sandwich bigger than his head and then polish off a pancake or two as well.  Next, off to the antique mall where they scout out coins, pocket knives, and other oddities.  Grandpa tends to stand back, I believe, and let Jack handle himself as much as possible when dealing with the other older gentlemen who talk Jack’s ear off about the details of their special merchandise.  Jack is learning to negotiate prices from Grandpa, whose own history of bargaining has reached as far as Guadalajara, Mexico where he didn’t speak the language but carried a calculator and got merchants to go down sometimes more than 50%.  So Jack’s in the hands of a pro.

Jack is also learning to distinguish the quality of old coins and, at 9 years old, is able to tell anyone who asks exactly how much each of the coins in his substantial collection is worth and how much he paid for it.  He knows exactly how much he would be willing to sell it for, a point with which Grandpa sometimes disagrees but while he asserts his opinion for Jack to consider, he does not push Jack to adopt his opinion but to consider his own opinion carefully, be able to defend it, and stand by it.

At some point during the morning, one of them begins to poop out and need a break.  I’m not necessarily saying it’s Grandpa, but seeing as Jack is 9 and Grandpa somewhat older, you can make your own deduction.  They head back to Grandpa’s house where Grandma probably has lunch or at least a snack, because, you know, that enormous breakfast sandwich didn’t really hold Jack over as much as you’d have thought.  So they lounge on the couch eating, reviewing their purchases of the day on a lap table, and watching some questionable shows probably including something on Fox and possibly an old Double-O 7.  Grandpa tells Jack his views on the world, politics, religion, school, etc. and Jack takes it all in.

By the time I get him back, he’s been indoctrinated into the life of a retiree with eclectic interests and comes home to me full of strange language, odd ideas and a pocketful of sometimes expensive trinkets.  But he comes home floating on a cloud, having eaten up all the alone time with Grandpa, having gone a whole day without fighting for attention in the midst of two sisters with huge personalities, not having had to force his 9-year-old body to remain still in a hard seat while learning math by doing worksheets, and not having had to raise his hand to answer a question about something someone did in a story.  He learned, in a real-life setting, math like budgeting and the value of a dollar (although being an impulse buyer, he’s still working on that one…) and did things way more interesting than anyone in the stories he’s reading in his textbook.  And is that much smarter and happier for it.

Autumn Red peach.

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Admittedly, I’ve never watched the Wiggles, so I can’t be sure but I think I borrowed this title from a song on that show.  And I don’t know any more words than the title but that’s enough for it to stick in my head the rest of the night.  Boy, I’m already getting off topic.

I teach special ed.  At the moment, I have ten students with a wide variety of needs, all of whom are classified as having “mental retardation” or specific learning disabilities.  Lunch is one of the very best times with my class.  I love when my schedule works out so I’m the one sitting with them, although at the moment it’s not working out that way.  Lunch happens to be the most amazing time to tie in learning with real-life experiences.

My favorite lunchtime moment was two years ago when I was sitting in the middle of my group.  We had all finished the main portion of the meal and those of us with fruit were eating it when I noticed that there were five different fruits at the table: an apple, a tangerine, a banana, a peach and a bunch of grapes.  One of the boys had peeled a tangerine and was putting seeds on his paper towel.  So, as I broke open my peach, I pulled the pit out and laid it on the paper towel next to the tangerine seeds.  Of course, the kids noticed immediately what I had done and began discussing the pit, one asking what kind of fruit it was, others wondering what it tasted like.

Seeing their interest, I asked one of the children for a grape, split it open and extracted the small, slimy seeds, setting them next to the tangerine seeds and the peach pit.  We talked about what they looked like, how they felt, what the fruit tasted like, and on and on until the child eating an apple was finished.  Then, I took the apple and cut out the seeds and did the same as with the grapes.  They were fascinated!

The messiest part was with the banana, and the seeds are the tiniest, hardest to pick out and separate from the fruit itself.  But the kids were amazed and could hardly believe that the tiny black spots in the middle of the banana were actually seeds.  They were ooh-ing and ah-ing the whole time!

So I lined up all the seeds and we sat back to look at them.  Among the most interesting points was that the seed didn’t necessarily reflect the size of the fruit.  For example, the peach pit was the biggest but the apple was actually bigger than the peach.  And, the banana was the biggest piece of fruit but had the tiniest seeds.  We also discussed the color and texture of the seeds and the fruit itself.  Our speech pathologist would have been so thrilled!

After the discussion, I had the kids name each seed again.  With my level of academic ability and the short working memory that many of them have, it’s always smart to repeat such aspects of a lesson.  I was impressed to find that they remembered each and every piece without any prompts from me.  What a fabulous, impromptu lesson!

A real earthworm, which was simulated in the f...

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Well, ok, so we didn’t really see any lions or tigers, and we only saw some elk tracks but no real bear tracks.  But we did find an earthworm squirming from the mud into a melting pile of snow on a recent hike at my 6th grader’s science camp trip in Payson, Arizona.  And kids being kids, of course one of them stooped to pick it up and check it out.

Now, I have to say I’m not the biggest fan of earthworms, mainly because they have no eyes which I find really creepy.  However, earthworms are disgustingly fascinating and I relate to the kids wanting to examine the worm so I stopped with them, wondering why the worm wasn’t burrowed into the ground to avoid the cold.  What a great teachable moment!  And, of course, the kids led themselves through the learning.  I just chimed in when I knew something of interest that might help them fill in the gaps of their knowledge.

For example, I told them how my class dissected earthworms when I was in high school and we found out their long squirmy bodies are segmented and that mostly they are filled with earth which they ingest, hence the name “earthworm.”  The kids passed the worm around the group watching it wiggle around in their hands.  They squealed and giggled, boys and girls alike.

We spent a good five minutes, lagging behind the front half of our hiking group, checking out that fat little earthworm.  Until Mrs. Loudmouth, one of the other moms chaperoning, came back to see what was taking us so long.  And promptly screamed at her daughter to drop the earthworm as she pulled out a bottle of hand sanitizer and squirted a half-dozen pumps of the astringent on her daughter’s muddy hands.  I distinctly heard her roll her eyes as she noticed me, the “chaperone” in the middle of the raucous.  What a shame.

So, with that abrupt end to our fun and learning, I asked one of the kids in the group to pick up the poor earthworm and return him/her (technically earthworms are both, so….) to the pile of snow he/she was climbing up when we found him/her.  As we walked ahead to join the rest of the group, the kids began to wonder out loud where the worm was headed in the first place, and came to my original question about why he/she wasn’t underground hiding from the cold.  I was relieved that Mrs. Loudmouth hadn’t squashed their interest.

Now that I’m back home, I Goggled earthworms to find out that they are cold-blooded creatures who as long as they are not at temperatures too close to freezing, can handle the cold quite well.  And they do burrow to escape near freezing temps and hibernate until the warmer weather returns.  At that time of day in January, Payson was reaching temperatures in the 50s and 60s, so our friend was enjoying the nice weather and probably going for a dip in the melting snow.

iPod vending machine

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I admit it.  I’m addicted to my iPod and if I had an iPad, I’m sure I’d waste countless hours on it.  But I’m nearly 40 and while I sometimes (ok, often) choose to procrastinate while on the Internet, I do know how to prioritize and I have a broad view of the world we live in.  So when I saw a commercial in the previews of a newly released children’s DVD advertising the iPod as a method of entertainment while a mom calmly shops for groceries and the child in her cart watches a movie on her iPod, I almost threw up.  Give me a break.  I hate to sound so judgmental but seriously.  It blows my mind that a responsible parent would hand over a $300 gadget with the $20 digital copy movie downloaded to it so that a child can adhere herself to the screen and lose out on all the priceless opportunities to learn everything from categorizing items to budgeting and even more basic math concepts.  Not to mention the bonding and interaction that goes on between the parent and child while shopping.

I’ll admit one more thing while I’m at it.  Like most moms, I’ve had my share of “Walmart Mom” moments.  You know the kind.  Don’t try to act like you don’t.  The moment when you realize you’ve reached your quota of whining and begging for useless junk as you pass brightly colored items lining the shelves.  You’ve reached your limit of brother and sister bickering and poking each other.  You’ve worked all day, whether in or out of the home, and you are exhausted and on your last straw.  I know I’m not the only one who has completely lost it in the store when hitting that ceiling.  But, as tempting as it may be at those times, I would strongly urge parents to resist the desire to shut the kids up so you can get out of the store quicker and with fewer gray hairs.  While you’re there, reach for an extra box of hair color and perhaps the adult beverage of your choice.

The store, any store, is ripe with teachable moments.  For younger kids, of course, those teachable moments can be as simple as having toddlers count out 5 apples to put in the bag.  Or, teaching them how to twist a tie around the neck of the bag.  Or, taking a minute while pushing the cart to discuss why it’s important to put the bread on top of the rest of the items instead of at the bottom of the cart.  Or, better yet, asking your child to predict what would happen if you put the bread (or the eggs) under the cans of soup.

Older children may get more involved in the shopping and be sent down an aisle to select the right brand or flavor of something.   They may also be involved in finding items to go with coupons you have cut out, and then they can estimate how much the difference between the original price and the amount of the coupon is.  Before even entering the store, you could ask your child to search for coupons in the paper (or online) for specific items you need.  If you’re working within a specific budget, have your child help keep a running total with a calculator as you shop.

Children of all ages can help keep an inventory of items at home.  Just create a list of the most commonly used items and hang it in the kitchen.  Teach your children to make a check mark each time they use the last of an item or notice that an item is close to being empty.  Then, when you reach the store, that same list can be used as a shopping list for your child to help you shop.

Shopping is not my favorite task.  Actually, I really, really dislike shopping.  And when my kids were younger, I would do anything to avoid lugging them out of car seats to go shopping where they were exposed to a million and one junk food items and insta-break toys.  But when I did take them with me, I was always amazed at the quantity of prime teachable moments, not to mention the quality of the “mom and me” time.  Take advantage of those moments and watch a bright young person grow right in front of your eyes.  And leave the iPod at home!

I’d like to say that I’ve chosen a topic and will stick to it, but realistically, that’s not likely.  I can warn you already that I wander off topic.  But mainly I plan to focus on education, and while that subject sounds a bit lofty, I mostly find myself wanting to journal about what I call “teachable moments” that I’ve had and that friends and colleagues of mine have had.  My blogs will be written about my own children as well as my students and other people’s children and students.  My hope is that it will be entertaining and that it may possibly inspire others to grab hold of random moments that pop up during our sometimes long days and make the most of them so that the children we work with or live with will benefit, and that in the end, in addition to those children learning a great deal, that our relationship with those children will be stronger and richer.  Enjoy!