Friday, June 15, 2012

Food That Rolls

A million years ago (it seems), I introduced The Tot (Who's Not) and The Girl to the world of crêpes. Vella Cafe has long since shuttered, but we've been to Crêpes à Latte a fair number of times since then. However, I'm kind of a purist when it comes to crêpes--or at least to my memory of them. A billion years ago, when I lived in France, crêpes were mostly a street food. We ate them hot, with jam or sugar, in a paper cone on the side of the street. None of this egg-cheese-avocado stuff. 

At one point in time, I had the recipe for crêpes memorized--in French. A liter of milk, 8 eggs and 500g of flour. Or something like that. But, I never really had the occasion to make them. If I were to make them now, I'd certainly check and double check the recipe before dumping all that together. I know just enough about baking and cooking to sense that my 18-year-old self has forgotten the butter as she committed the recipe to memory.

Recently, however, in a fit of gumption, boredom, or both, I decided to make flour tortillas from scratch. The recipe called for a comal, a Mexican griddle. Instead of investing in yet more kitchen equipment for which there is little space in my tiny Chicago kitchen, I pulled out the crêpe pan. The one that had been languishing in my kitchen cupboards since July 2009 when I bought it.  It worked beautifully.  

And thus we started our family love affair with "food that rolls." Given an hour of time, a 1/4 cup of butter, some flour, and a dearth of anything good to eat in the house, I'll happily make a batch of flour tortillas, and fry them up on the crêpe pan. They are best straight off the griddle, plain or with a bit of quesadilla cheese melted in the middle. I'm hungry just thinking about it. 

My success with flour tortillas quickly expanded to Swedish pancakes, the Scandinavian version of the crêpe (or tortilla). Unlike American flapjacks, Swedish pancakes have a rapid cook time, making them an easier choice for this not-a-morning-person mama on a busy weekday morning, for a snack that feeds a crowd of kids, or a Daddy-is-out-of-town dinner. I made a double batch of Swedish pancakes again at mid-morning, feeding The Boy, The Girl, The Kindy (The Tot), and three of their friends, in an unscripted school's-out-for-the-summer celebration. Served with three kinds of jam, chocolate sauce, maple syrup, powdered sugar, and (untouched) Greek yogurt, Swedish pancakes are more of a dessert than a savory meal, but what is more fun that food that rolls up for easy consumption? After they were done, I sat down at the table of sticky to eat some with Greek yogurt and sour cherry jam.

And so summer begins...

Thursday, June 14, 2012


My friend Melissa is my hero in the world of SAHMdom. She cooks, bakes, paints, and mothers calmly, which she manages to convey both in-person and through her blog.

As the school year winds down, and with it, my various school-related activities, I've had time to read--and be inspired by--more homekeeping-themed bloggers in the blogosphere. Like Melissa, or Marisa of Food in Jars, or Liesl of Oliver + S, or the folks at Sew, Mama, Sew, or occasionally, Young House Love, and everyone on Pinterest. Thank goodness for them.

Without meetings and action items to occupy the space not taken up by homework and kid emotions, I retreat back into my own head. And what I do to occupy my hands while I am thinking is engage in all forms of domestic arts. I'll likely never share step-by-step tutorials or photos of a project on this blog, but I'm incredibly grateful for bloggers who do, keeping the nearly forgotten arts of sewing, knitting, needlework, baking, cooking, and furniture restoration alive.

It is surprising even to me, but I do feel a sense of satisfaction in completing tasks around the house. After buying a flat of organic strawberries at the farmers market on Sunday, I've spent the week thinking up ways to use them. I've made two batches of cobbler, two batches of jam, one tarte aux fraises one batch of ice cream, and froze many individually.

Last week, I completed a twin-sized bed for The Boy, made from a set of Design Confidential plans, and refinished a side chair that I found on the street a couple of years ago. I cooked dinner. I cleaned areas that are part of the regular cycle and areas that are not. I pulled out toys and put them in the garage sale bin. I made dinner every night, and on some mornings, I actually made my children a hot breakfast (something I almost never do on weekdays). When The Girl asked me to do laundry, I complied.

I cannot really explain this flurry of domestic activity. On the surface, the explanation is that I did / do these things because they need to be done. But part of me wonders if it's my brain's way of letting go of this school year. Perhaps, in the same way that my children will use the time off from school this summer to play video games, run around outside, stay up late, and generally recharge their psyches, all this introspection and domestic activity is restorative for me.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Listening Tour, Part 3

This is old news in the world of Chicago education politics, but I wanted to finish the series for those who have been following along at home. I became intensely interested in CPS goings-on because of the funding piece and I would be remiss if I didn't mention money in my "reporting" of my meeting with Brizard.

Certainly, funding remains an issue within CPS. Everyone acknowledges this.

But in not sure the blame lies entirely on the shoulders of CPS Central fiscal mismanagement. In my opinion, funding remains an issue due to
1) TIF runoffs
2) state budget
3) federal funds shortage

I'll say right now that I haven't fact-checked the numbers Brizard gave us. I'm not a journalist, school ends in 3 days; I don't have time to do so at the moment.

A parent asked Brizard where she was really supposed to go to get more information or help when the programs--specifically, a summer orientation program for Von Steuben freshmen--that she and her daughters relied on have disappeared, often without warning. She noted that community schools don't have money.

While not addressing the nitty-gritty details of her question, Brizard responded by laying it out: the district does have money. It just doesn't have enough (me: and Von Steuben made the priority to cut the freshman orientation?). And that is a "structural" problem within the district. Brizard said that what they "advertised" with the 7-hour day assumed flat funding from the state. In fact, Illinois just cut $60 million from what they're providing to CPS for FY2013.

Illinois is funding education at the worst level in the country. That ranking is based on percentage of budget spent on education, not pure numbers. In New York, he said, the per-pupil spending was just under $18,000. In Chicago, it's half of that. According to the Illinois State Board of Education, other districts spend less than that per-pupil, but I find that hard to believe given the funding formula in Illinois. I suspect that Chicago has the highest per-pupil amount of state funds; other IL districts have a larger portion of local monies to make up the difference.

It's also difficult to compare per-pupil funding across states, as the funding formulas may or may not be calculated the same, as a quick online survey of other states' per-pupil funding shows (Michigan=$12,000, Houston=$5600).

Brizard said that just to replace the boilers in every school would cost the district $4 billion. So life at CPS quickly becomes an ongoing exercise in setting priorities and letting non-priorities fall by the wayside. And who best to do that but the principal and LSC at individual schools--not some bureaucrat downtown, Brizard said.

Another parent raised the issue of overcrowding and the use of mobile classrooms, and how they both affect socialization within a school population. It is a real issue at her child's school (Canty). What to do if your school doesn't even have a playground or green space, as is true for so many schools within Chicago? As Monica Lee reported on her talk at the PTA Advisory Council, there are some supports in place to flag and correct that. But Brizard, they know it's a problem. I got the sense that he hopes individual school communities can come up with creative solutions.

Mostly, at this point in the meeting, I felt relieved. We are so fortunate at Disney II. And we are fortunate because of a group effort. This is not to say that our school is not without problems and foibles (I'd love for my kids to have gym, art, music, technology on a daily basis, but at least they get it at all. In an ideal world, there'd be no lead paint in a building my children use daily, but at least it's covered and maintained.) Certainly, it's about priority setting and funding to those priorities and only those priorities. As an active parent volunteers I've been irritated in the past by the singlemindedness of funding to the priorities.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

...Where You Always Save More Money

TimeOut Kids Chicago didn't exist in 2006, when I started this blog. These days, I'm rarely looking for fun things to do on the weekend, but when I am, I'm so glad that TimeOut Kids has already compiled a happenings list for me.

This morning, The Girl woke up in a mood. I tell you, some days I am not sure that both of us are going to make it to the angsty tween/teen years. Which everyone seems to think are summarily awful. As I wrote another day, I think The Girl has been caught in friendship flux this year. And, unfortunately, with her personality, this means that she is fine at school or elsewhere, but bubbles into a seething cauldron of rage when at home, or with her family. I'm trying my best to soothe her emotions, but it's mentally exhausting. In fact, I'm relaxing with a glass of white wine right now.

Part of The Girl's mood was that she wanted to do something with the day. My initial suggestions (neighborhood garage sales, Wells Street Art Fair) were met with thumbs pointed down. Enter the TimeOut Chicago list!

Among the contenders were the Scandinavian Jam at the Swedish American Museum, the Chicago: You Are Here exhibit at the CAF, and my top pick: the BH&G Chill & Grill Fest with Stephanie Izard at Waveland Bowl. The winner, however, fit in with our "Saturday Sweets tradition" (gakked from our Norwegian friends): the Elmhurst Historical Museum's Sweet Home Chicago: History of America's Candy Capital.

The museum, free to the public, is in the Glos House near the center of Elmhurst. It's open on weekends from 1-5 p.m.

I grew up in the south suburbs, so I can't recall ever having been to Elmhurst before. I seriously cannot say the word Elmhurst without repeating the Celozzi-Ettleson Chevrolet dealers' tag line: where you always save more money! None of my children understand commercials, so the joke was lost on them. (Did anyone else watch copious amounts of bad non-cable TV in he 1980s in Chicagoland? When I queried The Dad as to his association with Elmhurst, his response was the word "tree.")

I even looked for mention of the slogan in the museum's other exhibit, a history of the town from the 1800s to the present. Sadly, there was no mention of it. I did learn, however, that Elmhurst started the second ever Boy Scout Troop in the early 20th century, and had GSA and Camp Fire Girls troops as well.

But back to the candy exhibit.

It was nicely done. We stopped in the gift shop/welcome desk on the way in to get a brief intro and a "treasure hunt" worksheet of sorts for The Boy and The Girl to fill out as we went. The Boy is a solid reader and could read the exhibit placards himself, but I found myself orating to a crowd as I read a brief history of the candy business in Chicago, as well as individual business histories--Cracker Jack, Williamson's Oh Henry! bar, Mars' Snickers, Ferrara-Pan (did you know the pan is the type of kettle used to make the candy?), Fannie May, Brach's, Tootsie Roll, Wrigley, Blommer's (so that's the wonderful chocolate smell drifting over River North most days!), Willy Wonka, Frango Mints, DeMet's, Bunte, and lots of others. They covered Keeler's, an Elmhurst fixture that has since shuttered. The Boy and The Girl might remember Mitchell's, the candy store and fountain that was popular in my hometown. The Boy completed his worksheet. The Girl was more interested in finding out how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop ("three!") to fill out the sheet, which is just as well. Going through the museum was an hour of relative peace and air-conditioned comfort for us all.

Upstairs, the exhibit continued with a hands-on "candy twisting" timed test exhibit (I was rotten!), a guess-that-bar station, and a couple of shorts of Lucille Ball on the candy line.

We drive through what I'd guess is the main drag of Elmhurst on our way back to the highway, stopping at a cute, yet esoteric, store called "Fit for a King" or something like that, which sold chess sets, army men, and doll clothes. We rounded off the afternoon with a pair of size-gigantic iced teas from Starbucks.

Friday, June 08, 2012


Earlier today, I received Seth Lavin's School Wonks email newsletter. In it, he refers to Jean-Claude as an alien, and either predicts or recommends that the BoE remove him from his position:

"It’s insane that we’ve arrived here. For Rahm, firing Brizard essentially means raising a white flag on his entire first year of school reform. Yet that’s actually become a less damaging alternative than the charade of acting like Brizard’s relevant or speaks for CPS."

Um, what? As you know, I like Brizard. But also, I can't believe that Lavin is calling for his dismissal already. It seems incredibly short-sighted to want to axe the first educator we've had in the job since it was created by Mayor Daley in 1995. (For the record, Paul Vallas came from the city's budget office, Arne Duncan came from Ariel charters [always as a director; never as a teacher], Ron Huberman came from the police force/city offices/CTA, and Terry Mazany is a banker.)

Hasn't CPS suffered enough turmoil and turnover? How on Earth is CPS ever going to improve if it can't suffer a leader for longer than 24 months? Really Seth? What would you have Rahm and the Board of Education do--hire yet another smart bureaucrat who leaves before he can get acclimated to this complex system? All jobs have a learning curve; how many CPS CEOs have been able to climb up it to effectively perform their jobs? In 2009, the Tribune published an article about Ron Huberman's appointment. They wrote:

"Each time, Daley has gone outside the education bureaucracy and chosen a leader who comes with new ideas and strong administrative and financial skills."

To me, Brizard seems no different from his predecessors in possession of these skills. Where he does seem different is in his willingness to listen to teachers and parents and the mayor, and his ability to know what good principal leadership and good teaching practice actually looks like.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Listening Tour, Part 2

As I wrote yesterday, I met with schools' CEO Jean-Claude Brizard last week. The event, part of his ongoing Listening Tour series, was organized by Family and Community Engagement Officers from the O'Hare and Northside High School networks.

Not surprisingly, concerns about Common Core and true college readiness were brought up by more than one parent at the event.

I've known about Common Core for quite some time and I'm confident that the standards of teaching and learning at Disney II make it well-equipped to make the change. Therefore, the Common Core flurry hasn't penetrated my radar much beyond media mentions and blog chatter about the new standards and their implementation . However, in this i am again an anomaly. It would seem that despite the chatter and explanatory events hosted by Blaine PTA, Black Star Project, etc. many CPS parents remain, well, clueless, about the new standards and what they may mean for their students.

Brizard shed some light on the process, explaining first what the Common Core is on its most basic level. He then explained that the new standards will mean more advanced teaching practices that push academic rigor. Common Core will mean true college readiness at the high school level, and high school readiness at the elementary level. As an example of the kind of academic experience that Common Core is designed to encourage, Brizard held up an exchange he witnessed at Burley. He reported that he witnessed two 3rd graders arguing about an idea presented in a book; both were citing passages in the text to support their positions. This is the kind of academic rigor that CPS would like to see across schools in the district. 

He said that his office is spending time asking things like How can they change teachers' practices to promote rigor? How can CPS improve proficiency among students? He noted that although ISAT scores are up within CPS, joy within the district is down because ISAT does not prove the type of rigor expected out of Common Core. Chicago parents are "going to freak out" as their children's scores drop.

I'm less worried about what Common Core means for my own children as the kind of academic rigor in place at Disney II is the kind that encourages students to think critically, be curious, and assimilate information in a way that builds their academic careers. This also drives success on the assessments. (The Boy, for example, is scoring in the 99th percentile on math and reading.)

However, I'm concerned about what this means for the achievement gap, and what it will mean in school's where there is no curriculum (as reported by commenters on CPS obsessed) or instructional leadership supports in place. Brizard suggested that the longer school day could address the achievement gap. Certainly true, but it does assume that principal leadership is there to guide the process of the longer school day. Brizard did specify that the schools within CPS that work--and work well-- do so because their principals are committed stewards of the school community. I've seen this first-hand. He said that the people who are best-equipped to align goals with money are individual principals--not the bureaucrats downtown. 

But the problem--as even CPS may acknowledge--in this plan are those principals who are unable or unwilling to make the alignments--or worse, who are unwilling to be transparent in the process. What is it about Tchr's school that there is no money for  curriculum or books? What is the school spending its money on? Do parents or teachers have access to the school's budget? Would they know how to read it even if they do? Does the principal provide guidance as to what all the categorical numbers mean? 

On the curriculum front, a parent asked about implementing a common grading scale across the district. It's a good idea. But: no matter how you slice it, you can't remove the human (subjective) element from grading. Brizard said he tried to do a weighted GPA in New York and it was a "very difficult" and "complex" process. He said that it's more likely that CPS will create a standard or get rid of the policy altogether.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Perception V. Reality

Last week, I had a great opportunity to meet with a group of parents and Chicago Public Schools' CEO Jean-Claude Brizard. When Brizard was first named to the post, I heard a fair amount of negativity about his methods, approach, and success rate. But: I like the guy. I've found him to be approachable, thoughtful, and well-informed. On Thursday, he ponied up to the table with myself and parents from Scammon, Taft, Farnsworth, Canty, Peterson, Jahn, Hibbard, Roosevelt, Foreman, Portage Park, and Kelvyn Park, and introduced himself as a parent of three children who also happened to be the CEO of CPS.

And then he took and answered questions for an hour.

There were essentially three themes in the discussion:
- perception versus reality within CPS
- Common Core and curriculum
- funding / resources

I'll cover the first one in this post.

I think the issue of perception versus reality is prescient. During the conversation, Brizard made a few conflicting points, a reflection of the wider issue. He pointed put that there is "a crisis of 'good' available seat" within CPS, but noted that this is a perception that can create reality. For example, he said, Lincoln Elementary has gross overcrowding, but the network in which Lincoln resides has 1,000 more seats than bodies to fill them. Why does this happen? Is Lincoln infinitely better than Alcott or other schools within the network? Or is it a perception?

I have long believed that if everyone sent their kids to the local elementary school and made the time investment, these schools would quickly because the ideal schools we expect and demand for our children. To wit: Nettelhorst, Coonley, Agassiz, Blaine, Burley, Skinner West, Hamilton, Belding, Portage Park. Taft, Amundsen, and Schurz may be next on the high school front. The problem, however, is the perception that these--or any school--are broken beyond repair. (The turnaround plan unfortunately runs against this current.) However, I fully recognize that this takes a leap of faith and it may seem easier to make the investment in a "new school" in the form of a charter.

Brizard noted that the crisis of quality high school seats is really a crisis of (mis)perception that the only H.S. worth pursuing are on the selective enrollment list. As a parent from Taft noted, this does everyone a disservice. Like CPSObsessed, I've got my eye on the H.S. piece. (And given what comes out of The Boy's mouth these days, I'd say he's thinking about it too.) The Boy is certainly on track to do well in a challenging H.S. setting, but I'm not sure that a highly competitive, non-local high school is the best choice for him, or for any of my children. I'd love to see the city as a whole rework our collective definition of "choice" and "options" so that more students and their families really can choose.

As an aside, did you know that Taft has an average ACT score of 24? I didn't. And that is a fantastic achievement for "just" a neighborhood school; Brizard shared that the college boards consider 21 to be the absolute minimum for a student to achieve college success.

But: how do schools like Taft get the word out? Brizard suggested a few things that his office is launching in the next year. One is to relaunch the principal for a day program as a culmination of a successful partnership between schools and corporations or agencies. Another is a Blueprint for Success in community engagement, which will come out in draft form in late June.

The crisis of quality seats can also be blamed for Brizard's answer to my question: is there a way to revisit the Human Capital issue of teachers' children enrolling in the SE and magnet schools where they work?

Last summer's Blue Ribbon Commission referred this issue to Human Capital. Somehow, I don't see the union fighting for this issue in their list of demands. Although the discussion at the Listening Tour indicated to me that many people do not support teacher "preference," I just can't let this one go.

I believe that giving our teachers the opportunity to enroll their children in the schools in which they teach is nothing short of good policy. It seems ridiculous to me that my 3 children can get into Disney II because of another good policy to keep families together, but my children's teacher, who has been working there for 4 years (and yes, even in the summer), cannot enroll her child through a special teacher lottery when he or she is ready to enter K. At Disney II, we are talking about 1-2 entry-level spots per year, or about 4 percent of the class. In fall 2012, the year The Tot enters K, 54 percent of the class comprises siblings.

A teacher preference policy supports keeping families together. And more than that, it benefits the school communities themselves. Would I rather have my kids' teacher available to run an after-school program at Disney II or would I rather have him/her across town at his/her child's school? What would you choose?

However, Brizard said that although the Board of Education has been debating the issue for months, there is no consensus on the issue either within the board or among CPS parents. To prove his point, he asked the Listening Tour crowd and several people said no.

I'm not going to stop asking. Will you join me?