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The Importance of Focus

June 5, 2009

Teacher Musings:
So, I’m kind of embarrassed to admit it, but I just now finished reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. I had read bits and pieces of it since September, but I finally took it home and read it through. Like Tipping Point it was both fun and interesting to read. However, as I got to the end, I got to thinking about all of the snap judgements I make during the day as a teacher. On Wednesday I was giving an in-class essay that, for a lot reasons, my students were not fully prepared for. So, during the test students in one of my classes were asking questions left and right, and I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off trying to help. Often in this same class, when students are working on something they will hold up a paper in my face and say “is this good?” Unfortunately, this results in a miscommunication that has not been fully corrected no matter how much I qualify my answer to them. I will give it back to them and tell them what they need to improve on the area we are working on – for example, how they introduce evidence. My comments on the strength or weakness of this aspect may have nothing to do with the strength or weakness of their analysis, grammar or other areas of writing. But often my students see my answer as either good or bad. They also seem to think that they will get either an A or F on the assignment – and if they just “do as I say” they deserve an A.
This is a new problem for me, and I have gotten better at dealing with it, mostly by creating tools that force students to measure and evaluate their own work. But reading Blink made me think about how I evaluate student work, especially on the spot like that. My evaluation of students’ work, in the moment, often has less to do with their actual work than it should. My judgement is often colored by the student’s tone, behavior, the behavior of the people around them, the time of day, etc. In addition, I am being influenced by my feelings towards that student (have they annoyed me recently?) and my perception of how much effort that student put into their work. All of this makes it difficult to really focus on the words on the page, especially in short time. Although, in reality, these factors also influence my real grading, albeit to a lesser extent.
So, how do I solve this problem? I’m not going to get rid of all those factors. I don’t teach in a blind environment and rely so much on my interpersonal knowledge in my everyday life that it is virtually impossible for me to separate myself from it. But what inspired me about the end of Blink was the idea that, even though we have factors that effect our judgment (sometimes for the better, sometimes for worse) we can find ways to use both the rational thinking and the unconscious to make a decision. One goal I have for myself next year is to go back to doing something I was good at before – deciding what, exactly, I wanted my students reading and writing to look and sound like at the end of a unit, and then focus all of my energy on doing that. I need to narrow the field of what I am looking for in their work, and then focus all of my energy (and theirs) on improving their work to meet that ideal.
While I know that I am picking up on just one idea from Blink and making it into something that Gladwell may or may not have meant, I did find the idea that we need to narrow the information we use, rather than broaden it (sometimes) to be helpful and empowering, especially in the land of reams of data and excel spreadsheets. As I plan for next school year I look forward to focusing my attention and limiting the information I look for in student writing while miscellaneously developing a clearer model of writing so that I am less distracted by other factors that influence both my judgement and feedback.

Yummy Stuff
So, I’ve been trying to stick to the Eat to Live diet – and its been difficult in some ways and great in others. I’ve enjoyed salads at lunch, but I have to have a snack at 4 (since I have to eat lunch at 11am). But, I’ve been cutting out more and more oil, and have worked hard to eliminate sugar – the worst villains in my quest to lose weight. However, I also know myself, and if I plan a special treat once a week, it gives me something to look forward to and keep myself eating right the rest of the time. My treat last week was eggplant peanut stew, adapted from Veganomicon’s Spicy Peanut and Eggplant Soup. While this dish is not low-fat by any means, it is certainly not the worst thing you could eat, and, considering that my usual cheat would be a bagel with tofutti, followed by a vegan chocolate chip muffin from Diesel, this is downright healthy! Beware – you should plan on serving this on top of a grain to soak up the yummy coconut milk and peanut butter – its GREAT on top of quinoa!

Ingredients:
1 pound eggplant (It doesn’t matter to me, but the G-man swears by Japanese eggplant and complains when I use regular eggplant. So, if you are an eggplant snob like him, go for Japanese).
5 large shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1-2 jalapenos, seeded and minced (change the number depending on your hotness preference)
1 inch fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/4 tsp. ground cayenne
2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1/3 cup tomato paste
1 14.5 oz can diced tomatoes with juice
1 1/2 cups veggie broth (plus a 1/4 more for sauteing without oil – if you want)
2 cups (1 can) of coconut milk
1/4 cup peanut butter (I use chunky, but you could go chunky or smooth. But use natural peanut butter – no Jiffy crap allowed!!)
1/2 lb green beans, ends trimmed and cut into 1 inch pieces
2 TB lemon juice

Directions:
1) In a large stock pot over medium high heat, saute the shallots in about 2 TB of olive oil (or veggie broth) for about 20 minutes until very soft, browned and slightly caramelized. Scoop the shallots off the pot into a large bowl.
2) At 1 TB of olive oil (or veggie broth) to the pot and add the peeled and cubed eggplant, stirring to coat with oil/broth. Stir and cook eggplant for 12-15 minutes, until slightly tender. Then, transfer to the same bowl as the shallots.
3) Add 1 TB olive oil (or veggie broth) to the pot and allow it to heat, then add the ginger and jalapeno(s) and fry for 30 seconds
4) Add the cumin, coriander, turmeric, and fry for another 30 seconds, then add onion. Stir and fry until onion is slightly soft and translucent (about 5 minutes).
5) Add the tomato paste and stir fry for 1 minute.
6) Add the diced tomatoes, veggie broth, eggplant, shallots and string beans to the pot. Stir well and then add in coconut milk. Bring to a boil and then lower the head to a simmer.
7) Once the mixture is boiling, take out about 1/3 cup of liquid from the pot and pour it over the peanut butter in a separate bowl. Stir until the peanut butter is completely emulsified and mixed in. Pour this mixture back into the pot and cover and simmer for 45 minutes, stirring once or twice.
8) Remove from heat and add the lemon juice. Serve over quinoa (or other grain of your choice)

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One Comment
  1. >Marie, my dear, are you saying that your weekly "treat" is eggplant stew over quinoa?! I may have to force-feed you a carrot muffin tomorrow (yes, it's vegan, don't worry).

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