Month

July 2015

A Teacher Talks High Stakes Testing

IMG_4104The American public schools, the place where every child is given free education and high stakes exams. The quality of said schools varies greatly by outside forces-home life, neighborhood dynamics, and income levels. Teachers, who have no say in who enters their classroom, what baggage they bring, or what learning styles they’ll be accommodating, are dumped on for the inability to make every kid pass an exam they’ve never seen. No matter the circumstances, every student is given the same test.

Why has American public education removed real learning from the classroom and replaced it with a focus on high stakes testing? Are kids better prepared for life now than they were 15 years ago? My journey as an educator says they’re not.

I started my career as an eighth grade English teacher in 2000 and MCAS was just beginning to sink its fangs into the classroom. I was 24; it was my second career and I was so excited to leave the world of business to teach; I planned to make a difference. I met my kids annually with homework on night 1. They moaned and groaned, but the letter they wrote me that first day was my way into their heads. I not only learned about their writing ability, but I instantly had ways to connect (if Marcus liked baseball I’d incorporate it into a lesson), I saw their strengths, they told me their perceived weaknesses. I stayed up all night pouring over these letters, commenting and grading them, all the while excited to help these kids gain the confidence and academic skills needed for high school. The mandated, high stakes tests don’t take these kids, their weaknesses, their likes or dislikes into account, they just focus on whatever facts are deemed important.

For 180 days a year, I “performed” 4-5 “shows” each day; all centered around English- reading, grammar, writing, and speaking; each customized for those kids who gave me insight into their heads from their letter on day one. I met with students, by my suggestion or of their own desire, during my 42 minute prep period; often forgoing bathroom use, lunch or any actual prepping for upcoming lessons. I met with students after school whether or not my contracted time was up. Often I used this time for academic support, other times I was just a trusted adult ear to listen to friend or family problems, discuss a great book they’ve read or give feedback to budding writers on the novels they had begun penning. This small group time built trust, and helped the kids who came to see me thrive academically. Smaller classes would make more difference in tuning out future teachers, doctors, lawyers, builders, artists, politicians, custodial engineers, than any exam.

Every night, for the nine years I spent teaching, even when I was started out and was saddled with student loans and making a mere $32,000/yr.  with a Master’s Degree, I brought home a bag filled with assessments, books to introduce, and ideas for plans to create. Assessments created by me or co-workers ; or pulled from teacher resources that paired with books we used in class were what I used- teachers are professionals trained to create curriculum after all. I tailored assignments to meet IEP (individual education plans) requirements and even for the kids without IEP’s who I saw had deficits, and I did this in stealth mode so no kids felt academically inferior. I worked late into the evenings, full days on the weekends; grading, revising, and creating materials that suited the learning styles of the learners in front of me. And I loved it!

In nine years I saw a mixed bag of society come through my door. My students came from varying family structures as well as economic and racial groups. Some wanted to learn each and every day, some had outside issues preventing them from learning that day or many of the days I saw them, some were simply apathetic and nothing I could say or do would motivate them, but they all got my best attempt to support them.

I gave my 100+ students all I could to help them become first and foremost independent thinkers and fervent learners. Second to that I hoped they’d let me guide them through the rich curriculum the school had in place; so they’d leave me ready for high school. And they did, often returning to tell me that my expectations helped them manage high school classes. In nine years, not once did they return to mention how well the MCAS prepared them for high school.

As time went on, standardized testing took up more and more valuable classroom time; the results becoming more and more important, with annual improvements in scores taking over for actual improvements in the kids independent thoughts. Preparing for my kids was replaced by analyzing test scores. Teaching became about parroting rather than connecting. I decreasingly had time to connect with kids and I increasingly dreaded the 180 school days. I also dreaded the professional development set-up for us; no longer was it about reaching students; it became about driving test scores. So, when my son was born in 2009 I took a year leave then decided my kids would be my only students; I resigned the following spring.

The more I read about high stakes testing the happier I am with my decision to walk away. In Massachusetts, MCAS is suddenly old news and PARCC is on the upswing. Adding dollars to the pockets of companies creating, selling and processing test scores. Cutting back on teaching and assuming every person is the same. Contradicting what teacher’s are trained in- differentiating learning.

In a recent Boston Globe article, Sarah McKeon, Framingham public school teacher and co-president of the Framingham Teachers Association sums up standardized testings shortfalls in this quote, ” How can we be told to differentiate learning for our students, but then give them a standardized test? Each student is unique and cannot be standardized”. I couldn’t agree more. Some kids will excel in areas others don’t, just as adults move along in varying career paths. We’re all wired differently and we all have strengths and weaknesses. I believe that we can improve our weaknesses, but we should let our strengths shine. And a standardized test, that does not account for any of that, should not be the end all be all of our educational system.

Colleges and employers agree that those leaving high school are not prepared for the real world. They have unrealistic expectations from years of scoring well on standardized tests and getting medals just for participating. Why continue the standardized test-based classroom culture that turns out adults who can’t hack it, often enlisting their parents to call professors and employers when things don’t go their way?

-Just a passionate, opinionated educator seeking better for her kids, Jess

Share your thoughts on high stakes testing with us via Facebook: Amazing Matriarch, Instagram: amazingamtriarch or Twitter: @AMatriarch;  Tag us on social using#amazingmatriarch

5 Free, Family Friendly, Fun Things To Do Around Boston This Summer

This summer, the team at Amazing Matriarch has been hard at work finding FREE ways to fill your days with activities that every member of your family will enjoy in and around Boston. Read on to find five of our favorite ways to entertain our kids when we just don’t want stay home or fork out serious cash for an activity.

1. Splash Parks

Not only are these water areas a way to cool off on hot summer days, most are FREE! Make time for favorites in the center of the city like the Rings Fountain on the Greenway or the squirting frogs at the Frog Pond. Or enjoy FREE parking along with your FREE water park at one of the parks in the suburbs of Boston. The city of Waltham has 8 spray parks, most in locations with easy parking, and many that are fenced in. And Belmont, MA is home to Beaver Brook where you’ll often find someone from Amazing Matriarch enjoying the water followed by a game of catch and picnic on the expansive lawn on the other side of the Brook. We like Boston Central’s comprehensive listing to find new spray parks to explore.

2. Bike Paths

Cape Cod Canal
Cape Cod Canal

With a new bike rider and a 2 year old who thinks she’s the coolest on her tricycle, I tend to be cautious about where we go to ride bikes. Many paths are packed with riders who find “newbies” a bit annoying making it a bit scary for those who are just learning. However, there are several trails that will have your young riders moving along with confidence.

The Cape Cod Canal is a waterside oasis for riders, walkers and anyone looking to enjoy the sea breeze. With FREE parking on the access road between the Bourne and Sagamore Bridge you can easily bring your bikes down the stairs, directly onto the trail that hugs the non-Cape side of the canal.

Having been detoured there recently when a nearby beach lot was filled, my kids had a blast zooming around while more experienced riders passed them with ease and cheered them on. Clean restrooms are conveniently located along the path.

After, enjoy a pre-packed picnic under a shady tree, bike to the end of the trail (with more experienced riders- or pay to park within the beach reservation) and take a swim at Scusset Beach. Or drive across the street to one of the clam shacks on the other side for a taste of summer by the sea.

Recreation Sundays on Memorial Drive are a favorite for Bostonians. With the wide road with scenic Charles River views open for biking, walking, running or rollerblading you can be sure there’s plenty of room for bike riders of all levels. Open late April-November annually, this section of Memorial Drive allows you to detour into Harvard Square for shopping,  a libation or a bite to eat.

Experienced riders can continue along the paved pathways for the miles that lead to the Esplanade and into Downtown Boston. Explore the city by bike then head back before Memorial Drive reopens at 7pm.

Zipline @ Joey's
Zipline @ Joey’s

3. Playgrounds

Some summer days require little activity on my part. For those days I head out on playground explorations with my little ones. Being zero budget meccas of fun playgrounds can entertain my kids for hours without any creativity or activity on my part. Often, I enlist a friend with kids to join me so we can chat while our kids run wild (I do get looks of horror from first time moms who find my hands-off, solve your own problems approach to playground parenting appalling, but I’m ok with that). As someone who’s always seeking something new I get tired of our lame local playgrounds and head out to find other cool spots for my kids to frolic.

Luckily, there’s no shortage of playgrounds around the city and in the suburbs. Some are simple with swing sets and slides, while others add extra excitement like zip lines. Leave your local playground for the day and seek out something special. You won’t spend a dime and your kids are sure to be beat by the time you leave.

Joey’s Park in Belmont is tops fro a range of activities to suit all ages. A zip line, where amazingly, even on a crowded Saturday, you’ll find kids patiently waiting in line for a turn and helping toddlers who try to cut in the kindest of ways. Lots of climbing structures, tires to hop from and even a musical feature sit alongside an expansive lawn and tennis courts. Your kids could play all day at this amazing FREE playground.

The playgrounds along the Charles River Esplanade are awesome! With a variety of climbing structures and pathways for kids to ride bikes all while within your view; if watching more than one, you’ll feel in control and at ease while your kids get some energy out.

4. Take in a movie outdoors

Two Boston spots make it their mission to bring you outdoor movies for the family all summer long.

The Hatch Shell, located along the Charles River, offers Free Friday Flicks. Pack a picnic and your kids and head into the city to sit alongside the Charles taking in a movie and the view for FREE, with little worry that your little ones are too loud or rambunctious for the “theater”.

Music and Movie Fridays at the Boston Harbor Hotel are geared towards a more mature audience, but are still fun for families with older kids. Enjoy harbor views from the pier and enjoy movies from your youth or even your parents’ younger days.

5. Free Fun Fridays

Probably the best FREE fun you’ll find around Boston takes place on Fridays with 70 Free Fun Friday events happening throughout the summer. For 10 weeks, starting the final Friday of June, you’ll find 7 different free activities for families throughout the entire state. Visit old favorites or discover new spots without spending a dime.

-On a mission to save you money all summer long, Jess

Share the free activities that keep you going on long summer days with us via Facebook: Amazing Matriarch, Instagram: amazingamtriarch or Twitter: @AMatriarch;  Tag us on social using#amazingmatriarch

A Quick Tutorial to Create The Hair Bow Hairstyle

Part 4 in a 6 part series

Moselle Sath, creative stylist at Shag Boston, sat down with team Amazing Matriarch to create some quick hairstyles that women on the go can achieve in minutes.

The Hair Bow

The bow is a timeless accessory that has been worn by fashion icons since before the turn of the century.  It was only a matter of time before the accessory evolved into the actual hairstyle itself. Whether you want to throw your hair up quickly on a hot summer day, have an important meeting that you want to dress to impress or are going to be out and about in town during fashion week, the hair bow is a versatile hairstyle that is sure to turn heads.  This style is perfect for mid – long hair and would also look great as a mommy and me fashion.  Take a cue from one of my favorite style icons, Minnie Mouse and try out this simple hairdo for your next look on the go.

What you need to create this look:

  • Hair Dryer or Flat Iron
  • Brush
  • Clear Elastic
  • Bobby Pins

Step 1:

Blow dry your hair or use a flat iron to straighten your locks.  This step will result in a clean and polished look once your bow is complete.

Step 2:

Step 2
Step 2

Gather up all of your hair and start securing it in a ponytail on the top of your head.  When you have one more piece of elastic to wrap around, instead of pulling your hair all the way through, pull your hair about 75% through the elastic creating a loop with your hair and leaving about an inch between the elastic and the ends of your hair.

Step 3
Step 3

Step 3:

The loop that you have created should look like a very loose bun.  To form the bow, you want to divide your looped hair into 2 sections.  Press one side of looped hair flat against your head and secure with a bobby pin (from top to bottom).  Then repeat with another bobby pin from bottom to top.  Once the 1st side is secure, repeat these steps for the other section.

Step 4:

Hair Bow - Step 4
Step 4

Once the bow is secure on each side, take the loose strand of hair hanging and wrap it around the middle of the bow to polish off the look.  Secure this strand of hair with bobby pins.  Make sure you tuck in all the strands of hair so you are not left with any fly aways.

Step 5:

Finally you want to fluff out your bow to give it some volume and finish it with a bit of hairspray so it will keep shape throughout your entire day.

– Just one active lady sharing some fun ideas to add variety to your everyday hairstyle, Thia

Try this look on you and your mini me!  Share your hairstyles with us via Facebook: Amazing Matriarch, Instagram: amazingamtriarch or Twitter: @AMatriarch;  Tag us on social using#amazingmatriarch

Oysters & White Wine – A Guide to the Perfect Pairing

Amazing Matriarch is here to help you host the perfect oyster & white wine paring be it for your next party, or a night in with your special someone.

The Oysters

The best way to pick oysters is to do a taste test; whether it be with a marked, mixed dozen at home or at a local raw bar (check out the 10best oyster bars in Boston or search 10best.com  for ideas in your city from other local experts) a sampling will hep you decide what you want to serve.

There’s been a battle between east and west coast oysters for years, personally I find oysters from each coast equally enjoyable, while my husband prefers the more mild flavors and smaller since of west coast oysters. The difference between oyster from each coast is that you’ll find large, firm, meaty morsels of high salinity in the shells of east coast oysters and a slightly sweet melon and cucumber flavor in the smaller, more delicate west coast oysters.

A mix of both is always nice, but  as an east coaster with easy access to briny delights from local waters year-round; who buy into the fresh is  best when it comes to food (especially raw seafood) movement, I recommend sourcing oysters from local farmers and seafood shacks.

Popular east coast oysters, that are easily accessible and worth shucking at home include:

Oysters on the half shell at home
Oysters on the half shell at home
  • Wellfleet – large, meaty, clean tasting with excellent salinity
  • PEI, Malpeque– tender, the brininess and sweetness are in balance
  • Island Creek– rich, fatty meat with a buttery finish in a deep cup
  • Blue Point– medium in size with a mild ocean flavor, meaty and from in texture

Popular west coast oysters worth seeking out include:

  • Kumamoto– cucumber flavor, deep cups, small in size
  • Fanny Bay– strong cucumber flavor, meaty and firm

Serve shucked on a platter of crushed ice or alongside shucking knives and gloves (oven mitts work well) for a more casual “shuck your own” event.

The Sauces

Meeting Chef Justin Shoults
Meeting Chef Justin Shoults

Whatever oysters you choose to serve and however you choose to serve them, be sure to have a sampling of sauces on hand:

  • Tabasco: the watery nature of tabasco allows for a hint of heat without too much bulk to overwhelm the oyster’s texture
  • Lemon wedges: technically not a sauce, just a squeeze of lemon over your oyster is all you need to counterbalance the salinity of what’s in the cups
  • Cocktail sauce: “beginners” eat oysters with cocktail sauce, but those who truly enjoy the oyster prefer to eat it without as the heft of the this sauce. It’s strong flavor and dense texture can overwhelm the oyster (do not even think of putting on west coast oysters) so use sparingly.
  • Mignonette– this vinegar based sauce is easy to prepare and can be altered using various add in (herbs, type of vinegar, & flavoring agents like ginger). My favoirte, simple mignonette to make is from Ina Garten and Food Network.
  • Herbed Creme Fraiche– This is delightful on both east and west coast oysters where the mild flavor enhances the oyster; a sorel laced version I tasted at a seminar presented by Brine’s Chef, Justin Shoults at the 2015 Nantucket Wine Festival was perfect, but other herbs can easily be subbed in, just be sure to puree the herbs as to avoid a chunky sauce.

 

The Wine

Sampling of whites with oysters
Sampling of whites with oysters

I typically pair my oysters with a bottle of Veuve Clicquot. Luckily, when participating in the Flight of the Oyster tasting at The Nantucket Wine Festival there was an expert (Philippe Newlin) on hand to create a perfect pairing with  dry to sweet Bordeaux; changing how I look at my at home raw bar drink selection forever.

Six that worked well:

  • Sirech Les Deux Terroirs Blanc 2013, Pessac-Leognan
  • Chateau Marjosse 2013, Entre-Deux-Mers
  • Chateau Carbonnieux Blanc 2013, Pessac-Leognan
  • Chateau Cos d’Estournel Blanc 2013, Medoc
  • Hauts de Smith Blanc 2012, Pessac-Leognan
  • Chateau Suduiraut 2007, Pessac-Leognan

Pour your sips and savor the oysters finding the combination that calls to you and filling that glass to the top.

-Helping you rock the raw bar, Jess

What’s your favorite oyster pairing? Tell us via Facebook: Amazing Matriarch, Instagram: amazingamtriarch or Twitter: @AMatriarch;  Tag us on social using#amazingmatriarch

 

 

Become a Summer Supper Superhero: Grill Once, Eat Three Times

When summer days are filled with outdoor fun, dinner preparation often falls through the cracks leaving this matriarch feeling not so amazing. My default to dinner is ordering pizza, hitting the drive through, whipping up mac n cheese or hot dogs day after day. Committed to ending the cycle of sub-par summer food, I’ve been testing recipes that can conquer multiple nights with simple tweaks that are no more difficult than boiling a box of mac n’ cheese. Grill once and have the making of dinner for three nights- a Monday’s mixed grill, taco “Tuesday”, and a pasta bar.

Night 1: Mixed Grill w/dipping sauce

Choose several meats to grill and lightly season with olive oil, salt and pepper (so you can alter their flavor profiles for future nights). My most recent variety pack included chicken cutlets, pork tenderloin and sausage because each cooks quickly, is enjoyed by all members of my family and offers versatility to transform in different dishes with very little effort.  Whatever you do, grill enough that you’ll have lots of leftovers.

Grill to your liking and serve alongside a salad  (tomato, cucumber and feta & watermelon caprese right now and coleslaw are in my current salad rotation) or a selection of grilled veggies, which will double as add in for your pasta bar and taco toppings.

Since the meats are very lightly seasoned, add a few dipping sauces for a little more “umph”. Cooking Light’s July issue has a recipe for Nuoc Cham that’s easy to prep and stays fresh for several days; it’s healthy and flavorful and works well on everything. My kids will eat anything dipped in ranch dressing so I put that on their plates, alongside my favorite bottled BBQ sauce for a trifecta of fun sauces that everyone can agree on.

Night 2: Taco “Tuesday” (or any day)

tacos-245241_1920 Chop some leftover chicken and pork tenderloin, quickly warm in a skillet and sprinkle with taco seasoning (you may need to add a touch of water to incorporate the sauce into the meat). To save sodium make your own:

  • 2 tbs chili powder
  • 1 tbs cumin
  • 1 tsp coriander
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp paprika (hot, smoked or regular)
  • 1 tsp red pepper (if you like some spice)

Store in an airtight container to use when needed; add 1 tsp cornstarch to keep from sticking if it is humid. Or save time; buy a packet at the grocery store.

While meat is warming (about 5 minutes as to not overcook), wrap soft taco shells in foil and place in oven, set to 350; when oven has preheated shells will be warm.

Serve with your favorite salsa, guacamole, cheese, sour cream and leftover salad from Monday (a spicy slaw tops tacos nicely).

Night 3: Pasta Bar

spaghetti-709337_1920Set up two or three sauce options, dice  and warm (the microwave works well) the remaining meats and place in separate bowls. Sauté vegetables (or use pre-grilled veggies from night one) while pasta cooks. Then set out for everyone to make their own pasta creation.

My kids love pasta with “red sauce” so I typically keep a container of my homemade sauce frozen at all times, but when I run out and it’s too hot to even think of making more I turn to a jar of store bought. Rao’s wins taste test after taste test but comes with a hefty price tag ($9). My kids are just as happy chowing down on Ragu and at a much lower cost, I’m happy saving.

A tip to buy the healthiest sauce available is to read the list of ingredients, check preservatives, sodium and sugar content and try to buy a sauce that has very few ingredients.

I enjoy a fresh pesto and if I don’t have some on hand I buy a container from a local farmer’s market or Whole Foods. If you’re inclined to make your own, pesto freezes well if you divide the olive oil and drizzle some over the top in an airtight container adding the cheese when it has been defrosted.

My husband’s favorite is alfredo sauce; it’s tasty but not waistline friendly. I trick him by providing all the flavor with fewer calories using a tried and true Food Network recipe that I can prep while the pasta is cooking. I like to mix my alfredo with a pinch of red pepper and a tablespoon of tomato sauce.

Pair with a leafy green salad (use the bags to save time), a tall cup of cold milk for the kids, a glass of wine for yourself then sit back and enjoy the creative combination your family puts together without any complaints for the third night in a row.

-Making it easy to feed your family when the weather’s warm, Jess

Tell us how you simplify supper-time via Facebook: Amazing Matriarch, Instagram: amazingamtriarch or Twitter: @AMatriarch;  Tag us on social using#amazingmatriarch

 

Handmade American Flag Lanterns Perfect for July 4th

 

With 4th of July rapidly approaching I wanted to create some red, white and blue party décor that I could use at our family celebration this weekend.   I headed over to Michaels Art & Crafts and after a little while cruising the aisles hoping to find some inspiration for my decor, I came across some jumbo sized mason jars.  This particular brand, Ball, is made in the USA and I thought they would make a great base for party lanterns.  I knew I needed an American flag displayed somewhere at our celebration, so I decided to paint the stars and stripes on the jars to create handmade American Flag lanterns.

This project was very simple to craft and the added bonus was the wallet friendly cost at the end!  Follow our easy steps to create your own American Flag inspired lanterns.

Here’s what you need:

  • 3 Mason Jars (any size will do)
  • Painter’s Tape
  • Paint for Glass (I used Annie Sloan Chalk Paint)
  • Circular Foam Brush
  • A Mini Star Lever Punch
  • Rope (a thin size for the base of the Mason Jar and a thicker size for the handle)
  • Clear Glue
  • 3 Candles (make sure these will fit into the nape of your jar)
  • Sand (optional)

Step 1:

Clean the outside of the mason jars with a damp cloth to remove any dust or dirt on the surface before you begin painting.  Let them dry completely.

Step 2:

Once the jars are dry to the touch, you can begin placing your painters tape.  Since I had blue and red paint, I placed the tape where I wanted the white sections to be.  I took the lever punch and started punching little stars into the painters tape and placed each star on the jar one at a time so they were evenly spread out all around the surface.  I then started placing the stripes down on the other 2 jars making sure they lined up but also eyeballing it as I went.  Rub your finger over all the tape to ensure it is securely in place.

Step 3:

Start painting the blue paint onto the jar with the stars and the red paint onto the jars with the stripes.

**Note** – I ended up using a circular foam brush to apply the paint because on my first try with a brush all you could see where the brush strokes when I was finished.  I switched to the circular foam brush and applied the paint in a dabbing motion and this presented a more smooth finish when the paint dried.

Let the first coat of paint dry completely.  Annie Sloan Chalk Paint dries really quickly, so that was ideal for me to complete this project in an hour and a half.

Step 4:

Once your first coat of paint is completely dry, you can then apply your second coat.  Let your second coat of paint dry completely.

Step 5:

Once the paint is dry, remove the painters tape.  You may need to clean up the edges of your lines a bit in case any paint bled under the tape.  I used a cotton swab for this process.

Step 6:

Use a sealer to place over your jars so that the paint that you applied will stand the test of time.  Let the sealer dry completely.

Step 7:

Now that your sealer is dry, you can start adding the rope to the nape of your jars.  I used a hot glue gun with clear glue to secure the rope in place.  Begin with one layer of the thinner sized rope for the bottom of the jar neck to the top stopping along the way to secure with glue.  Next cut a small handle (or large depending on your preference) out of the thicker sized rope and glue each side of the handle to the mason jar.  Finish with one more layer of the thinner sized rope over the handles.  Repeat this step for the rest of the mason jars.

This American inspired party décor is an inexpensive way to put a unique twist on your celebration and it will last for many years to come.

– Just one proud American whose heart beats true for the red, white and blue, Thia

Share your July 4th party decor with us via Facebook: Amazing Matriarch, Instagram: amazingamtriarch or Twitter: @AMatriarch;  Tag us on social using#amazingmatriarch

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