Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Rant about Schools

It's the beginning of another school year.  Sue has already been teaching for several weeks, as have most of her colleagues in Arizona.  Elsewhere, they're gearing up for the traditional post-Labor Day start of the academic year.  It just occurred to me that 50 years ago next month, I was starting kindergarten.

Lately, it's become a bit of an indoor sport to bash public school teachers:  threaten their retirement, undermine or banish their unions, cut (or threaten to cut) their pay, you name it.  It won't surprise you that none of this amuses me.

Throughout my career as a college professor, I have had the privilege of teaching people who aspire to be teachers.  Not one of those students has been lazy, or lacking in motivation, or unfeeling.  On the contrary, they are driven by a sense of mission, they care about children, and they care about being good teachers.  Nobody--and I do mean nobody--goes into the profession of public school teaching thinking that it will be a cushy job that they can do for 25 or 30 years and then retire early and comfortably.  Some of my music students have started out trying to hedge their bets as performers by also qualifying to be teachers.  And while a few them have dropped performance to become teachers, most of those students don't finish the education degree.  They realize that you must have a passion for teaching if you are going to teach.

Are our schools perfect?  Far from it.  But the knee-jerk response is to blame the teachers, as though they were the only ones or even the most important ones shaping our schools.  Sadly, they are not.  If they were, our schools would run a great deal better than they do now.

You have to look at the whole system:  what about administrators who generally make things more complicated than necessary or who like quick fixes or who mistake good procedure for good teaching?  For example, it's pretty common around here for administrators to say, "If I come into your classroom, I expect to see your objectives for the day written on the board."  In itself, there's nothing objectionable about this (although I never do it in a college classroom), but do we really think that writing an objective on the board is the same as good teaching?  That's like saying that knowing your destination is the same as safe driving.

How about the school boards and other elected officials who pass policies that make life more complicated for teachers without improving education?  Ask any teacher about this:  they are buried under a mountain of busy work that doesn't contribute to their success as teachers or to their students' success as learners.  Some policies are needlessly complicated and exclude students from great opportunities:  two students from Sue's school got accepted into a prestigious summer program for actors in New York City.  You'd think the school would stand up and cheer and do everything possible to help the kids go:  they'd get to spend a week in New York studying dance and acting with professionals, get to see theater, and generally have an enriching experience.  It was a remarkable opportunity for two kids from South Phoenix, one of the poorer areas of the valley.  Rather than encouraging the students, school policies created all kinds of obstacles.  These are poor kids.  They can't afford a plane ticket or tuition in an expensive New York summer program.

One of the two boys was going to graduate in May.  Since the program took place in the summer after graduation, he couldn't receive any help from the school to cover the tuition or travel costs--even though the department has funds from things like ticket sales that they use for scholarships.  I actually don't know whether he was able to find the money to go on the trip or not.

The other student was a rising senior, so he could get some help.  In order to get at the funds, though, the drama teacher had to file paperwork to get this registered as a field trip.  Everything seemed hotsy-totsy, until it emerged that a field trip, even for one student, requires a chaperone--and the chaperone has to pay his or her own way.  She's finding all this out weeks before the trip, even though she started the process in March.  Well, after helping him raise money for his trip, she didn't have the heart to tell him that it was off, so she decided to be the chaperone--spend her own money to get from Phoenix to NY, stay for a week in a hotel, buy meals, the works.  Yup.  She's just sitting around waiting to collect retirement checks.  (I seem to recall that there were other glitches along the way, but I don't remember them accurately enough to recount them.  One problem, I recall, was that administrators would declare that something was "against policy" but couldn't produce the policy in writing.)

This is just one example.  There are thousands of others, and admittedly, this isn't the worst story out there.  It's just the one I happen to know about.

Finally, there's the world around us and how it affects schools and everyone in them.  Schools are not separate from society.  Public schools have to teach everyone who wants to come.  They can't turn anyone away, no matter how difficult their problems are (charter schools and private schools can be selective--a huge advantage if you're looking at things like overall test scores).  Because everyone goes, all the problems and challenges that people face in our society are right there in the schools.  Our expectation is that somehow teachers are supposed to be able to fix what no one else can.  Here's the latest example--Sue told me about this child at dinner tonight.

One of the students in the dance program has been particularly difficult.  She is unwilling to participate, is belligerent, uses the worst kind of foul language, and is terribly disruptive in class.  By chance, Sue and her colleague ran into the school social worker at lunch, so they asked about this girl.  It turns out that the child lives in a group home, which means that she's the state's responsibility, and the state can't find foster care or an adoptive parent for her.  How did she get into a group home?  Well, her mother is a drug addict (so she probably has some deficiencies because of her mother's drug use).  After her parents divorced, the child lived with her father.  But at some point, the mother kidnapped the child.  She abused the child.  Her boyfriends sexually abused the child.  Eventually, the mother got money for drugs by selling her child for sex.  (I have trouble telling this story:  what kind of monster turns her child into a prostitute?  what kind of monster has sex with a child--and is willing to pay the child's mother for the opportunity?)

To be fair, we don't know what kind of services this child is getting--if any.  That's because of confidentiality rules.  I hope that someone is helping her to cope with all the baggage she has from that nightmarish childhood.  Meanwhile, she is expected to function normally in school--and she just doesn't have the tools to do it.  She doesn't have the social skills or even the peace of mind to pursue learning.  And obviously she doesn't trust adults.

Oh, and by the way, people now want to tie teacher salaries to student performance--including the performance of that deeply troubled child and the many thousands like her across the country.  Social workers couldn't help that child; whatever psychologists or therapists she's seen haven't helped her; but the teachers (who have no training in any of this, mind you) are supposed to help her learn so that she performs at grade level.  Could you do it?  I know that I couldn't.

Are there some bad teachers?  Of course there are, but frankly, not very many.  They don't last.  The vast majority are hard working, dedicated people.  They have to be to face the daily obstacles that stand in the way of good teaching.  Some of those obstacles are unavoidable, but a lot of them are of our own making.

Somewhere in your past, there's a teacher you still remember fondly.  I can still name all of my elementary school teachers in order from kindergarten through sixth grade:  Mrs. Delzitt, Miss Emmons, Mrs. Cheesbrough, Miss Ballenger, Miss Hayes, Mrs. Dennison, and Mr. Galvin.  I might have some of the spellings wrong: you do forget some things over a 50-year period.  I thank all of them and owe each of them a lot for what I am now.  Next time you're tempted to bash "teachers," remember the ones who inspired you.

It's convenient to blame teachers.  They're the front line of our schools.  But as I've said elsewhere in this blog, when public services and government don't work, ultimately it's our fault for putting incompetent people in charge of them.  Remember:  we have met the enemy, and he is us.  Until we fix the world that surrounds our schools--instead of somehow expecting the schools to take care of it--we won't be able to fix education.  So let's get to work.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Too many sweets, not enough meats (a method for roasting pork)

To read this blog lately, you'd think all I ever cook is dessert.  Well, 'taint so. 

Last night I grilled a boneless pork loin using a method I've perfected over the years.  It is very easy--you just put the meat on the grill and walk away--and it comes out perfectly every time.  What's best is that the meat is tender and juicy, not tough the way today's leaner pork tends to be.

So here's what you do:

Get a boneless pork loin from your market.  (Not a pork TENDERloin--that's a different thing.  You want a long roast that's about 4 inches across.  They typically weigh 3 or 4 pounds, and they're often sold in a vacuum-sealed bag, like the one in the photo.  Some markets split them up the middle--try to avoid that.  But if that's all you can get, tie it with butcher twine--maybe after putting some luscious herbs and garlic inside.)  Season it thoroughly to your taste.  For example, you could use a commercial seasoned salt, or your favorite dry rub, or you could coat the outside of the roast with a mixture of olive oil, thyme, and garlic, then salt and pepper it generously.

Light the coals for a charcoal fire.  (I don't know how to do this on a gas grill!)  When your coals are hot, distribute them evenly on either side of a drip pan.  I light my coals in a chimney device (like the one in the photo, only rustier) with newspaper on the bottom so that I don't have to use that noxious kerosene stuff.  When the coals are lit, I put a 9 x 13" pan thoroughly covered with aluminum foil in the center of the grill--I use a kettle-type grill--and then pour the coals in two piles on either side of it.  Fill the pan about half full with water.  Put the grill in place above the pan.

Set the roast, fat side up, over the drip pan.  Cover the grill and open the vents in the grill and lid.  Now, WALK AWAY.  Go inside.  Play 4 or 5 games of Sudoku, clean the bird cage, anything--just don't mess with the roast.

After an hour and 15 minutes, take its temperature.  You want it between 155 and 160 degrees, but a little hotter is also OK (because of the indirect heat, it's hard to overcook this).  Once it reaches temperature, which will usually take between 75 and 90 minutes depending on how cold the roast was when you put it on the grill, remove it from the grill and set it on a cutting board to rest for at least 5 minutes.  Carve the roast into 1/4"-thick slices and serve with some fresh veggies and salad on the side.  We like a little dijon mustard with it.

A 3-pound roast will serve 6 people generously.

If your market carries this cut of meat, watch the price--it's a favorite for specials and will often be marked down.  I try to by it only when it's on sale.

I hope you enjoy it!  As I've said before, it doesn't have to be complicated to be delicious. 

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Recipe: Killer Chocolate Cake

School started last Thursday, so I've been up to my eyeballs and haven't had much time for the blog.  Still, why should this be your problem?  So to make up for my silence, here's a really easy and really delicious chocolate cake recipe.

It started this way (have you noticed that there's always a way it starts?):  Elizabeth observed that most chocolate cakes don't taste very chocolately, and they tend to have a powdery, dry texture.  I observe that often when I really like a homemade cake, it turns out to be from a mix, which frankly drives me crazy.  I mean, shouldn't I be able to make a cake from scratch that's as good as or better than one from a box?  (Of course, I think those box people cheat:  they put stuff in there that you would never use at home--stuff that comes from a factory where people are covered in sterile outfits from head to toe and use robotic arms to handle the products--you get the idea.)  So my mission impossible ("your mission, should you choose to accept it...") was to come up with a delicious, moist chocolate cake.  I've got a couple of contenders; I'll share the first of them here.

This one's incredibly easy.  You just throw a bunch of stuff in a bowl, mix it up, and bake it.   And the not-so-secret ingredient gives the cake an interesting depth of flavor.

Two hints about chocolate:

1.  Dutch-processed cocoa reacts differently with the leavening.  It also yields a darker result with a more intense chocolate flavor.  Definitely use it in this cake, which will come out jet-black.

2.  To be palatable, chocolate needs at least some sweetening, but the sweetener tends to deaden the flavor of the chocolate.  So something that bumps up the bitterness quotient will yield a more intense chocolate sensation.  Julia Child (where I learned this trick) recommends using coffee along with chocolate, and I do that almost routinely.  In this cake, the secret ingredient serves that function.  If you object to alcohol, use some strong coffee in place of the secret ingredient.  If you object to alcohol AND coffee, you can make a really good version of this cake with hot water, but it won't be quite as intense.

A further hint:  you can use melted butter in this recipe if you want, but I find that salad oil yields a moister-seeming cake.  It probably has to do with the melting point of the fat.  In a cake like this, the flavor of butter would be pretty well masked anyhow, so don't worry about the cake being bland if you use oil.

The secret ingredient?  Stout!  If you don't have stout, any dark beer or ale will do.

Here goes.

(click here for a printer-friendly version of the recipe)


1 cup stout or other dark beer—it’s better if it’s flat and at room temperature (or you can substitute hot coffee or hot water)
1 cup salad oil
¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder, preferably Dutch-processed
2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda
¾ teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
2/3 cup sour cream or yogurt


1.  Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
2.  Thoroughly grease a Bundt pan, and sprinkle the pan very lightly with some cocoa.
3.  Combine the stout, oil, and cocoa.  Whisk thoroughly to blend.
4.  If you’re using something hot like coffee or hot water, allow it to cool a bit.  Then whisk the eggs, add the sour cream and whisk, and finally add the cocoa mixture.
5.  In a separate bowl, combine the flour, sugar, soda, and salt.  Then pour in the liquid and stir it quickly to combine.
6.  Immediately pour the batter into the prepared Bundt pan and set it in the middle of the preheated oven.  Bake for 50 – 60 minutes, or until baked through.  The cake will fall a little on the top (which is good—it’ll sit nicely on a plate that way).
7.  After removing the cake from the oven, let it cool slightly (about 10 minutes) before unmolding it carefully on a wire rack to cool completely.
8.  To serve, dust the top with powdered sugar, or drizzle it lightly with ganache:  use about 3 ounces of bittersweet or semisweet chocolate and 1/3 cup of whipping cream.  Break up the chocolate into a small bowl, heat the cream until it is just boiling, and pour the hot cream over the chocolate.  Stir to melt and combine the chocolate.  You could add a tablespoon of rum, brandy, or other liqueur to flavor it slightly, but that isn’t really necessary.  When the cake is cool, drizzle this over the top—the ganache can still be quite warm when you decorate the cake.

I have to say, I really like this cake and think it is a match for any box cake.  Elizabeth, on the other hand, finally came to the conclusion that she doesn't love chocolate cake all that much.  She'd rather have a white cake with chocolate frosting (I'm happy to oblige) or better yet, a carrot cake.  Why not?

And even if I didn't win Elizabeth over, I got to eat a lot of really good chocolate cake this summer.  What could be bad?

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Changing Tastes

I remember hating olives as a little kid--especially the green ones.  Swiss cheese?  Ugh!  Sour cream?  Cream cheese?  Onions?  All absolutely inedible to me then.  (Interestingly, I liked liver, but I didn't like the onions that went with it.  For years I ate lox on a bagel, but always with butter because I didn't like the cream cheese.)

I eat all of these things cheerfully now and indeed look forward to most of them.  I think of them as scrumptious.

Something similar may be happening to my musical tastes.  I remember hearing Haydn's The Creation in my twenties and thinking it was a pretty silly piece--all that chirping and twiddling!  It seemed sort of saccharine and naive to me.  It was certainly not a piece I had any ambition to conduct.

Still, for a lot of very good reasons, I scheduled it for my summer choir.  I had come to like the choruses a great deal, and I thought the rest of it might be worth a second chance.  I am conducting it tonight in concert for the first time in my career, and I am looking forward to it enthusiastically--I now think it is a great piece.

Amazingly, I like it for the very qualities I found foolish before, but I have a new way of thinking about them.  The chirping is really clever and witty text-painting, and there's quite a lot of it.  To me now, it seems more like a fun game (how many hidden pictures can you find in this drawing?), like hunting for all the amusing details in the carvings on a Gothic church facade.  What struck me as decorative and uninteresting before now seems charming, and most of all, what seemed naive before now is at the very heart of the genius of the work.  Haydn's achievement in The Creation, it seems to me, is his remarkable way of presenting everything for the first time:  the sunrise is the very first sunrise; the chirping birds are the first birds ever to chirp; the roar of the lion breaks the air for the very first time.  And we watch and listen to it all with a child-like sense of discovery and wonder.

That Haydn still had that "gee whiz" sense in his middle sixties is part of the brilliance and charm of the work.  That he could portray it in music is even more remarkable.  I guess maybe I had to get to a certain age myself to appreciate that for what it is.

So what's that got to do with olives?  Well, my palate changed, and apparently so has my musical taste, which I probably shouldn't find as surprising as I do.  After all, it's probably a good thing that not all  of my opinions and judgments are carved in stone.

So if you haven't done it lately, give The Creation a listen--best of all, come to our concert tonight or tomorrow in Bar Harbor!  And try an olive, too.  You might surprise yourself and discover you like something after all.

Cooking Up Something Other Than Food!

Here's a link to the terrific piece that appeared in this week's Bar Harbor Times about the concerts I'm conducting in Maine this weekend:

Bar Harbor Times story.

In the photos accompanying the story, I'm looking very studious as I stand at the piano.  That's because I'm banging out notes in a sectional rehearsal for the sopranos and altos.

The first concert is tonight, and I'm really looking forward to it.  It's going to be terrific.  If you're in Maine, I hope you can come!