Friday, September 28, 2012

Using Youtube in the ESL Classroom: Karaoke and more

Youtube.  What would I do without you?  Where would I get my cute-things-doing-cute-things fix?  Where would I get to hear news segments in autotune?  And where else, pray-tell, can I watch 36 seconds of a baby eating a watermelon from the inside?

Youtube is a cool tool in the ESL classroom.  Here's how I used it.

Watching Short Student-Selected Youtube Videos

Sometimes, I let my students choose youtube videos to watch.  The idea was that they would talk about it, and then so would the rest of the class.  This didn't always work as well as I had hoped.  Oftentimes the kids didn't have much to say, or didn't want to say much.  I heard "I like it," quite a lot.  If I asked "Why?" they would say something like, "Because."  So much for student talk time...

And, they had some issues following the criteria for selecting a video.  Here were my guidelines: It had to be in English, it had to be less than 4 minutes, and it had to be "appropriate".

No matter how many times I said it, there were a few kids (and classes) that always (and I mean always) chose something that broke one of the rules.

Here are a few examples:

The Fail Videos

These contain minimal English, aren't always appropriate, and are always so so long and excruciating to watch.  Basically, Fail videos consist of something terrible (usually physical) happening to someone.  I spent a lot of time having moral dilemmas with my eyes closed before closing the tab.

The Sad/Funny/Cute Baby Animal Videos

The sadder the better, so they can laugh and go "awww" at the same time.  And babies (animal babies, no less) totally speak English, right?  So it's educational.

The Really Disturbing Videos

If you didn't think the Fail videos were bad enough, try the Happy Tree Friends series.  One of my 8th grade classes was obsessed with it.  The first time they put it on, I had no idea.  It sounds so sweet, so innocent, but as you can see from the video above, it's not.  They played me, and then I threw up in my mouth, and reduced all of their grades by 1 point.

The list of youtube video offenders is endless: Best Of Family Guy compilations, Counter-Strike videos, and many many videos involving troll-face.

Including this one:

I never really got troll face.  I still don't.  But my students are all about ... it?  Him?  Hmm.


Karaoke is so much fun with younger classes.  Start with a group song that most people know.  Use songs with lyrics on the video in karaoke style, but don't use videos without vocals.  Many students need the vocals in order to sing along and to build their confidence.  My karaoke classes were like parties, we all had such a blast!  And we all know kids (and everyone, really) learn best when they're having fun.  I teach best when I'm having fun, too.

my 7th grade girls singing their hearts out

Prepare a list of go-to songs in case your class is quiet and no one steps up to the plate to choose a song.

Popular songs for my students included:

Rolling in the Deep - Adele
It's My Life - Bon Jovi
Let it Be - the Beatles
Coldplay - Paradise

Choose a song in their native language and try to sing it!  They will love this, and maybe, if you're lucky, they will help you.

This was my Hungarian song of choice:

Listening Activities with Music

I often turn to youtube for my listening activities (I will post some of these soon), and it saves on paper because the kids are able to see the lyrics visually.  The downside is that sometimes the lyrics are incorrect.  Also, while I am a fan of trees, I also think some kids function much better with a piece of paper to hold.  It also gives them a place to write notes and translations, if they need to.

Cute, Funny, or Controversial Clips

I show cute or inciting video clips.  This ranges from anything between a gay marriage stance to the baby eating the watermelon from the inside.  Why?  Either to prove a point, illustrate an accent, spark a debate (ha ha ha, yeah right), or just share something ridiculously funny/cute.

Grammar Points

If you are looking for videos to help you teach grammar points, check out this guy's blog.  He has tons of grammatical lesson plans that go with movie clips, all of which you can find on youtube.

. . .

I'm curious how you all use youtube and videos in the classroom, and if there are any particular videos you found that went over well in the classroom.  I'm also always happy to see any cute or funny videos you want to send my way.  As long as it's not Happy Tree Friends.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Ghiro Tondo: Magical Moments on the Family Farm in Italy

Northern Italy, near Lake Como.  A scramble up a rocky trail and a path that winds up into the mountains will take you to Ghiro Tondo.

When I found Ghiro Tondo on HelpX and e-mailed Ruby, the farm-mama, she said I was nutty enough to enjoy life on the farm. 

Look at this place.  Green trees as far as the eye can see, and alps in the distance, fog humbling their grand presence.  A duck pond, which the girls enjoyed more than the ducklings.  A simple warm house decorated with mosaics on the outside and murals on the inside.

Scraps of paper litter the floor.  Joy, 5 years old now, asks incessantly for "Disegnas!"  The volunteers who were here the day I arrived (and left the next) told me about a book I could use to copy the designs, and Joy fingers the pages carefully before deciding which disegna she wants me to draw.  "Something easy," I tell her, but it never is.  I begin drawing and her face twists in disapproval.  Sometimes she scratches out my failed design; sometimes I do.

In time, and with lots of practice, I improve.  I outline and she colors.  We make puppets from the popsicle sticks left over from the girls' ghiaccioli.

the disegnas

Joy & Jess
I stay in a yurt, painted the happiest orange you could imagine.  One night, their friend Cristian stays.  I have music playing on the speakers, but I turn it off with the lights.  In Italian, he tells me I can leave it on.  I tell him the animals will be our music.  Crickets and cicadas chirp and the duck family rustles beneath us.  An occasional dog barks.  If you listen close, you can hear the stars breathing.

In the morning Cristian tells Ruby he was waiting for the animal music.  Ruby translates this to me, and I am doubled over in laughter.  "I meant music from the outside world!"  He thought I had a CD, and waited for it to come on, only to look over and find me sound asleep.

"Questa sera," tonight, I tell Cristian, laughing.

We drive to the other side of the mountains and walk to pick wild blueberries.  Amy and I take up the lead.  She kneels to try and catch every grasshopper.  We don't talk much, just hold hands we we walk, and switch when they get too warm.

Near the end of the walk, she sits on every stone large enough to hold her.  Her eyes meet mine and she sighs, tired.

lake como

Eventually we catch up to the group and pick berries in the hot sun.  A few more kilometers and we'd be in Switzerland.  Maurizio, another family friend, tells me Switzerland "Is like one beautiful garden," but I am glad to be in the wild with this family, for now.

I had planned to leave for Switzerland to enroll in a Vipassana course, but I didn't quite make it.  The bus never came, so I ended up back at the farm, and stayed for another two weeks.

Was it fate?  Or just the incorrect bus schedule I got from Ruby?  Maybe both.  ;)  Thank you, Ruby!

Life at the farm was simple and sufficient, which isn't to say it was easy.  Eggs came from their chickens, who wandered free; milk, butter, yogurt and cheese from the cow, Amma, and her baby, Theresa.  Sheep were moved every so often so they had new grass for grazing and enough shade.  Animals were tended to, as was the garden and land.

Food came from the garden, from neighbors and friends, from shops who couldn't sell the products.  Food came from Sam's fiery hands, deft in the kitchen, playful and sober.  Cooking is his art.

homemade pasta and pesto

Reggae blasted through the house as we played with girls, swept up paper scraps, and washed mountains of dishes.  Hot water came from a fire you had to stoke every few minutes, and the soap was no joy or dawn, but a soap the family made.  Washing dishes was often a greasy occasion, but nothing harmful went down the drain.  I learned a lot, too: ash paste (ash + water) and pasta water both help cut the grease.

When we weren't washing dishes or picking berries or splashing in the stream, we tried to watch Zeitgeist from the pink futon, but it never loaded entirely.

Mostly, though, I got to be with the girls.

me and vida
I sang spirituals, folk songs, and mantras as Vida fell asleep in my arms.  When she was really tired, she warbled, a song that vibrated from within.  Then her breath slowed and her body heavied in my arms.

In the beginning, my heartbeat quickened as her naked legs got closer and closer to the steps on the porch.  A true free-range baby, she crawled and tottered around naked and with a smile on her face, putting things (the dirtier the better) in her mouth, exploring her beautiful world.  Eventually my heart beat relaxed as I did, and as my connection with her deepened, so did my trust.

happy as can be, at the top of the steps.  ooh baby baby it's a wild world!
Joy & Amy

I miss these wild girls and this amazing family.  The girls peed wherever they pleased; scooped into the mud from the duck pond and "washed" the rocking horse with it; were free in their bodies and on the land.  And for kids who run around half (or wholly) naked most of the time, they had more wardrobe changes than Cher.

Joy corrected my Italian, and helped me with pronunciation.  We communicated beautifully, a blend of my broken Italian (at least 65% hopeful Spanish words) and their broken English.  We learned to count in both languages; we can both go up to at least 11.  But most of the communication came from a different place.  We didn't need words.

And for 2 1/2 days, we didn't use many words.  Ruby offered a small Vipassana for us when I missed my course, and we stayed quiet and smiling for a few days.  I even got to wear tank-tops and make eye contact.  The day I took the kids to the lake wasn't as quiet as the others, and when Cristian arrived we spoke some under the stars.

Have I mentioned the stars here?  The sky is spherical, a dome scattered with bright light.  My neck hurt from craning.  Some nights fireworks from nearby summer fiestas sounded in the distance, a couple of evenings treated us to thunder and lightning.  

Fresh air, crickets singing, and stars.  These might be the only ingredients to a happy life.  

Oh, and this:

Amy, Ruby, and Vida

And this:

Joy, Sam, and Amy making pasta

And this:

I am steeped with gratitude for a wonderful couple of weeks on this farm and with this family, sharing moments of presence and laughter belly-deep; chasing the girls and the chickens; sharing wine over dinner and tea in the afternoon . . . and for the mountains of dishes, because enlightenment (or so they say) comes sometime before, after, or during the dishes.

I love you my soft-world tribe, my dead-fish-flow tribe, my nutso tribe.

I'll be back to finish Zeitgeist.  Let me know when it's loaded.  ;)

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Best Cake I Have Ever Baked (with chocolate, lavender, and red tea)

Last summer, Megan and I picked bushels of purple blossoms at New Oak Ranch lavender farm in Ojai.  I love lavender, and gazing out into the fields, something about it looks so majestic.  A sea of lavender, blossoms singing in the wind . . . unlike the actual ocean with its frothy crashes, this sea is soothing.

Projects abound.  Lavender sachets for closets and drawers; lavender lemonade; lavender scones.  While searching for recipes, I found one that caught my eye: a lavender chocolate cake infused with black tea.

This recipe is not my own, but a recipe from Amanda at  She calls it Fudgy Earl Grey Chocolate Cake, but this title doesn't sound decadent or delicate enough.

The cream cheese frosting is infused with lavender for a delicate floral note.  I opted for a Lichee Red tea from Teance, which added to the floral flavor, but not in an overbearing way.

This cake is moist, with a complex flavor that changes as you indulge.  Rich, sweet chocolate meets lavender and the dark flavor of tea.  The cream cheese frosting brings a lightness, and ties it all together.

More than just delicious, this cake is simple.  This recipe also makes equally delicious (and cute!) cupcakes, which only need less time in the oven.

Don't be surprised if you find yourself planning a garden party around this cake.

The recipe is below, but my changes are here: 

Instead of Earl Grey, I used a Lichee Red tea from Teance.  Play with this.

I skipped the ganache and instead used the cream cheese frosting as the middle layer.

For the frosting, I didn't include (or have on hand) a lavender extract but instead I infused the powdered sugar with lavender.  To do this, simply combine lavender blossoms with powdered sugar in a container and let it sit for a few hours, or even days.  Then, remove the blossoms.

Or, if you are short on time, you can sift the powdered sugar with lavender blossoms, and mash the lavender against the sieve to extract flavor.

As you can see from the photos, flecks of lavender blossoms freckle my cake.  I love this look, and if you do too, just add very finely crushed lavender to your frosting (or if you decide to sift lavender with your powdered sugar, flecks will come through this way).

Decorate with lavender blossoms as you wish.

A Chocolate Cake Recipe, by Amanda
Fudgy Earl Grey Chocolate Cake
Tea leaves from 6 bags of Earl Grey tea, ground into a fine powder using a spice mill/coffee grinder
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter
1 1/4 cups cake flour
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/2 cups (packed) brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
3 eggs
2 cups buttermilk
Lavender Ganache (recipe follows)
Cream Cheese Frosting (recipe follows)
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease two 9-inch cake pans with butter then line the bottoms of each pan with a circle of parchment paper. Set aside.
Place butter and tea powder into a small sauce pan over low heat. Cook for 10 minutes until the butter has melted and the tea flavors have infused into the butter, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and let cool for 10 minutes.
While the butter is cooling, place the cake flour, cocoa powder, brown sugar, baking soda, baking powder and salt into a large mixing bowl or bowl of a stand mixer. Whisk to combine evenly.
In a separate bowl, beat together the eggs and buttermilk. Add buttermilk mixture and the cooled tea-infused butter to the bowl with the dry ingredients. Whisk or beat until just combined. The batter will be slightly lump and that is okay. Do not over work the batter or the cake will be tough and dense rather than light and fluffy.
Divide batter evenly between the prepared cake pans.
Bake cakes at 325 degrees for about 30 to 35 minutes, or until a toothpick stuck into the center of the cake comes out clean with only a few crumbs but no batter.
Cool on a rack for at least one hour. To remove cakes from pans, run a knife around the edges of the pans to loosen then place a plate over each cake pan and invert onto the plate. Peel off parchment paper and discard.
Place one cake onto serving dish. Tuck strips of parchment paper under bottom edges of the cake to protect the serving dish from getting messy while frosting.
Evenly spread the ganache over top of the first cake. Place the second cake over the ganache bottom layer. Evenly spread cream cheese frosting over the top and sides of the cake. For best results, use an offset spatula. You may not use all of the frosting. Once frosted, carefully remove and discard the parchment paper lining the bottom of the cake.
The cake can be stored, covered, at room temperature for up to 12 hours before serving or refrigerated for 2 to 3 days.
A Ganache Recipe, by Amanda
Lavender Ganache
4 oz heavy cream
6 oz good semi-sweet chocolate, chopped in chunks (or chips)
1 tbsp sugar
1/4 tsp lavender extract
Place chocolate and sugar in a heat proof bowl and set aside.
Heat cream to a simmer in a small saucepan over medium heat. Pour simmering cream over chocolate-sugar mixture. Let sit for 60 seconds then whisk until all chocolate is melted and the ganache is shiny and smooth. Add lavender extract and stir until incorporated. Let chill for 20 minutes, until thickened slightly, before using as a filling for cake.
A Frosting Recipe, by Amanda
Basic Cream Cheese Frosting
2 (8oz) packages cream cheese, at room temperature
1 stick butter, at room temperature
16 oz powdered sugar, sifted
1 tsp good quality vanilla extract
1/4 tsp salt
Place all ingredients into a large mixing bowl or bowl of a stand mixer. Beat at medium speed until smooth, scraping down sides of bowl as necessary.

Happy baking and happy eating!


Saturday, September 8, 2012

Where is the Softer World?

I found the softer world this summer.  Have you read that poem, by Mary Oliver, called Mindful?

by Mary Oliver

Every day
I see or hear
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle

in the haystack
of light.
It was what I was born for -
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world -
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant -
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help

but grow wise
with such teachings
as these -
the untrimmable light

of the world,
the ocean's shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?

. . .

I found it in this book I am reading, a book left in a mailbox for me (along with wasabi nori and a sweet note) from Megan.  Twelve by Twelve is essentially about a guy who does international aide work in developing countries for a decade and then comes back to the States and into "the flat world" as he calls it.  He feels so lost, unsure of how he fits, and if he wants to fit.  He hears of a woman, a doctor, who takes the lowest pay possible, and lives in a 12 x 12 dwelling in the woods.  Her life on this wild land, only 5% of which is developed, is simple.  She invites him to live there while she is away, and he says yes.  His life changes, or he does.

I am in the middle of it, still, but it resonates so much with me.  Because this summer, I found a softer world, the world Mary Oliver speaks of, and the thing is -- it's not just softer.  It's a different world.  Different than this one anyway.  I know many people who are living good lives in the States - rich, deep, fulfilling lives.  I know it's possible to live well in many places, but I don't really want to do it here in the concrete and capitalism.

This country makes me itch.  I don't want to slather calamine lotion on it.  I don't want to scratch.  I want out.

And this softer world?  It really exists.  I found it on the farm in Italy this summer in the wild chestnut forest.  This cheese-making, unschooling, self-sufficient family taught me so much.  When you are sweating, in the sun, eating from the garden, drinking from the stream, chasing little wild mostly-clothes-free kids around green grass, squishing green chicken poop with your feet, your mind just kind of drops and something else takes residence.

I suppose I sound naive now, cliched at the least; all this talk about another world, a softer world, but I had it in my hands, my mouth.

I didn't come back to the States with the intention of staying here permanently, but I don't want to trash my precious moments here writhing in angst and running in place.  It is taking every ounce of my will-power not to waste away my days doing internet searches, back in the squirrely space of searching and seeking.  This is a dangerous space, as I can attest to from experience, because you are likely to say "Yes!" to a plan that isn't in your heart.  The ego, a true Type A, loves plans.  Titles?  Even better.  Anything with a capital letter (Teacher, Writer, Girlfriend, Student) is just fine.   And is there a schedule to go with that?  Now we're talking.  When I start creating spreadsheets, I'm calling my sponsor.  That'll be you, K. 

These days my steps are careful to non-existent; my mind, as Anne Lamott says, is a bad neighborhood I try not go into alone.  Although right now I am on the edge, ready to chop my hair off and hop on a plane, I know enough to wait.  Sometimes you trust and jump (like when I quit my job), sometimes you trust and sit.  It doesn't score you as many cool points, it doesn't ease your itchy skin or jittery limbs (at least not at first), but nothing ever got any worse when we just sat still and breathing.

I came home with a vision for my life and now is the time to trust in that vision, trust that life will move through me, that life is moving through me.  So even though my breathing isn't going as deep as my heart, there is one thing I know for sure.  It's not where I'm going (sorry guys), but it's that my feet?  Yeah, these beat-up things from hoofing around Italy this summer -- they're meant to be on earth.  Soft, cakey earth.  Just gotta find the right chunk.  
. . .

Or, an alternate version of this entry might look like this:


Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Triple Citrus & Ginger Marmalade

Something about living in the middle of a citrus orchard inspires me to get into the kitchen more often.  The navels weigh heavy on the trees, round, scarred, and warmed from the sun.  The wind is lemon-scented, if you can catch it through the dust.  Whether I gather my fruit from the ground or the tree, it feels so good to know where my food comes from, to know that my hands were the hands that picked it.

Looking out this morning, at all those fallen lemons, at our pomelo tree weighted with round blushing fruit, I was inspired to make marmalade.

I've never made marmalade, but I grew up around my mom making jams, and we made jam this summer at the farm in Italy.

My first thought was to make a pomelo marmalade.  It's a little late for pomelo, but jam is forgiving.  I remembered that Marica from Wasabi Honey Bee posted a recipe for Grapefruit Marmalade and Pomelo is in the grapefruit family, after all.

But here's the thing.  I love to cook and bake, but I don't really follow recipes.  This is why this entry does not include a recipe.

I used Marica's recipe and photos as well as a recipe for Ginger Apple Marmalade from Sunset as my inspiration, but the rest was that magical blend of intuition and experimentation.

Gravenstein apples sat in the fruit bowl, and as far as the citrus?  Steps away in the orchards outside the house.

So out I went, searching for fallen fruit.

Using apples meant that I didn't need to include pectin, as apples contain it naturally.  I added freshly grated ginger and a couple of cloves, but mostly I let the flavors of this fresh fruit sing. 

After peeling, chopping, grating, simmering, and stirring . . .  Behold!  Marmalade!  

It set up on this cold plate with a perfect jammy consistency.

Now I've heard a few things about how you know jam is "set" -- run a spatula through it and if the line stays for a moment, it's done; if the jam is smooth on the back of the spoon, it's done; when it stops bubbling, it's done.  

I didn't try any of these things; I just knew.  Of all the ingredients in the kitchen, this one is perhaps the most important: trust.

So there you have it, or there I have it.  Triple Citrus & Ginger Marmalade.  Tart, sweet, slightly bitter and with the spicy warmth of ginger.  I will be making marmalade again soon.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Ode to Teaching English in Hungary

School starts tomorrow in Szeged, only this time, I'm not there.

Looking back on my time as an ESL Teacher in Hungary, I don't know how I survived.

198 students.  4 schools.  Language barrier.  Lack of formal ESL experience.

But then, I remember these faces, and I know how I made it through.  Fueled on the smiles of these kids, lit by their light, their spirit.


There were days I sat on the desk, legs swinging as I sighed and bit the inside of my mouth, just waiting for the yelling to stop.

There were moments of quiet work, or confident conversation.

My students wore blindfolds, created mazes from desks, and gave directions.

We sang karaoke (popular songs: It's My Life by Bon Jovi and Rolling in the Deep by Adele) and played games.  I have never played so much Pictionary.  I have never had so many conversations about 'free time activities.'  And don't get me started on hangman.

I have mixed feelings about teaching, as you may have deduced if you've been reading for awhile.  The "agenda" makes me uncomfortable and frankly, teaching is hard.

But one thing I have no mixed feelings about?  The kids.

So this year I am gone from their lives, but I will always remember the year we spent together, chair-hurling and all.

Because how can you do anything but love faces like this?