My internal calendar is based on the school year. For me, the year begins in September and ends in August. The beginning of the end comes in May/June, however, when various semesters come to a close, and it's almost time for vacation, which is the well-earned coda of the year for educators.
Things are winding down for me. There's one more month of consulting in public schools. I have two more weekends of blitz-style cramming with my tutoring student, who's preparing for finals. And this week, I gave the last session of this semester's graduate seminar for the teachers I teach. We did one last classroom activity, had a celebratory viewing of everyone's final portfolios, and wrote course reflections.
I brought brownies to our last class. I always do a little pot-luck sort of thing for the last session. If I had a bigger apartment, I'd have my students over. As it is, we have a little party in the classroom. Why do I seem to want and need this festive feeling at the end of term? Possibly because I have such mixed feelings about letting my students go.
When I was a classroom teacher, whether it was kindergarten or 11th grade, I always fell a little bit in love with my classes. Now that I teach on the graduate level, that happens with my grad students as well. New teachers are wonderful. Don't believe everything you read in negative press about teachers and schools. For the most part, teachers work incredibly hard and are extraordinarily thoughtful and reflective. The endemic problems in our school system have more to do with societal ills that are ignored by politicians, and the entrenched difficulties of old bureacracies than with the caliber of teachers. Each term, I have the pleasure and privilege of meeting weekly with a dedicated group of people, young and old, who want to learn the art and craft of teaching. My subject is usually the teaching of writing or the teaching of literature, but it's always about teaching: forming relationships with people who learn from you (and teach you, too) as part of that relationship.
For me, teaching is sort of like brownies. I never teach a course the same way twice, and I rarely make the same brownie recipe twice. The reasons are different, however. I'll never teach a course the same way twice because my students are different each semester. They have different needs; they ask different questions. So the articles we read in response to the questions change. The novels we read together have to fit interests and ideas, so they change from term to term as well. The syllabus changes in order to fit the learners. I once dated a guy who was a financial wizard, buying and trading millions (millions of what, I don't really know). When he heard I was a teacher, he told me about a math course he'd taught at Yale. "I teach the material, not you," he told his students. "Whether or not you learn the material is your business." "How funny," I said when he told me this. "I'm just the opposite. I teach the students, and if they're not getting the material, I find another way to make the information accessible to them."
I'll never find one perfect formula for teaching, nor would I wish to. With brownies, it's another story. I do love brownies, and I think they're the perfect thing to bring to a celebration, especially during the busy work-week. I can whip up a batch of homemade brownies in no time, and I've always got the ingredients in the house -- unless I'm trying out an esoteric recipe with unusual ingredients, which is sometimes the case. You see, I have not yet achieved brownie greatness. It's a quest. If I could just find the brownie recipe that would be my holy grail, my lost chord -- a brownie that would be amazingly chewy and yet deeply chocolate; one that makes my eyes close of their own volition and my body resound with the quiver of taste and texture nirvana. A brownie that would so satisfy my inner judge and jury that they would finally give the unanimous verdict of Brownie Perfection.
For this semester's end-of-term potluck, I adapted the recipe "Greenwich Village Brownies" from the newest edition of Maida Heatter's Cookies. I upped the chocolate, added cocoa for even more chocolatey goodness, and substituted a mix of molasses (thanks Derrick!) and wildflower honey for the corn syrup, which I'm trying to avoid. My hope was that the syrup element would enhance the chew factor, and it worked pretty well. I'm almost there with the perfect brownie. If you know any other way to increase chewiness, let me know.
I look forward to my vacations, really I do. I often work for part of the summer, giving professional development workshops to groups of teachers or teaching summer sections of grad seminars. Last summer I taught a gruelling schedule, which left me only a few non-consecutive weeks of vacation. I swore that this summer I'd do it differently. I'll be teaching a writing workshop the first two weeks of July, but then it's six weeks of pure, straight vacation until the beginning of September. What am I going to do with that stretch of unplanned time? I'm sure I'll think of something -- besides working on my brownie recipe, that is.
Almost Perfect Brownies
Makes a lot -- at least 50 brownies, depending on how you cut them.
8 oz. unsweetened chocolate
8 oz. butter
1 generous tsp. vanilla extract (Madagascar preferred)
2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup light brown sugar (Muscovado preferred)
2/3 cup mixed molasses and wildflower honey
2 cups unsifted flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 tsp. salt
8 oz. walnuts, coarsely chopped
Adjust a rack one-third up from the bottom of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees F. Cover the outside of a 15 by 10 inch jelly roll pan with aluminum foil, shaping the foil to the outside of the pan. Then lift the shaped foil off the pan and tuck it inside the pan, fitting it to the inner dimensions. Butter the foil generously.
Measure the flour before sifting, then sift it together with the salt and cocoa and set aside. Melt the chocolate and butter in a large saucepan, stirring until smooth. Remove from the heat. Add the sugars, molasses/honey mixture and vanilla. Stir well. Beat the eggs lightly in a separate bowl, and stir them into the mixture. Don't beat or overmix; stir just to combine ingredients. Fold in the flour/cocoa/salt, and then stir in the walnuts. Turn the mixture into the prepared pan and spread to make a smooth layer; the pan will be quite full.
Bake for 40 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean but not dry. Start testing them at 30 minutes, since ovens vary.
Cool in the pan for 30 minutes. Then cover with a large rack or cookie sheet and invert. Remove the pan and the foil. Cover with a large rack and invert again, leaving the cake right side up to cool thoroughly. Cut into bars when completely cool. These are better after a day or so, when the chocolate flavor has had a chance to "bloom". Store in the refrigerator to enhance chewiness.