Sunday, February 28, 2010

Hardtack revisited

As a culmination of our study of the Civil War (which the kids got really into), we watched some selected scenes from Glory, and I served hardtack.

Making Hardtack

I included the recipe in an earlier post, and as I researched further found that there are a few techniques necessary to the authenticity of this wartime snack. The basic recipe is 1/2 to 3/4 cup water to 3 cups of flour and "knead until your wrists are sore"--which mine were. One recipe even instructed not to wash your hands and allow the sweat from kneading the dough season the hardtack. Gross. I am proud to say that my hardtack was not that historically accurate. It took quite a while to get the dough to a "leather-like" consistency, and it was even harder to roll that tough dough out in a flat sheet. After baking the squares for an hour, the result was very hard, very thick, tasteless cracker. . . which was perfect.

The Reaction

The reaction to the hardtack was mixed: some tasted the stale white biscuit with great trepidation (and understandably so), others were curious, still others were just excited to have a snack of any kind. (The latter prove the theory that some middle schoolers will eat anything. I have found this to be true for boys and girls alike. This insatiable adolescent appetite knows no gender.) One student examined his hardtack carefully before venturing a taste. He knocked the snack against his desk, and judging from the sound of the two objects hitting one another and the fact that no crumbs resulted, I think the desk and the hardtack were equal in density and rigidity. Still funnier was the deep thud that came when some of hardtack hit the trash can.

Seriously skeptical


Wednesday, February 24, 2010


This year, Masterpiece Theater remade Jane's Austen's classic novel Emma. Given my love for the adaptation starring Gwyneth Paltrow and my love for Masterpiece Theater, I was intrigued to see what this new adaptation would hold. As usual, my expectations were surpassed. In fact, I was even inspired to read the book.

As for the book, I could not put it down. As expected, Austen's writing style is so enchanting and pleasant that I enjoyed every part immensely. But I was surprised by how unlikeable the title character is even from the very first page. Emma is rich, spoiled, and a know-it-all. "The real evils indeed of Emma's situation were the power of having rather too much of her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself: these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her enjoyments. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her" (page 3). Emma is blinded by selfishness and arrogance, and her immaturity would be unbearable in the hands of a less capable writer. Emma actually reminds me a little of a middle school girl: totally self-absorbed and frivolous and wholly unaware that this is a problem. Thankfully Emma's respect for a very reasonable man, Mr. Knightley, and his unwillingness to let her get away with being selfish and frivolous leads her to true transformation and growth in the end. Mr. Knightley's rebuke and his famous line ("It was badly done indeed!") are perfectly timely and to the point. It took the voice of reason in the form of Mr. Knightley to shake Emma out of her self-absorption and teach her compassion for others. This is a beautifully internal coming of age story. The recent adaptation perfectly captures the character of Emma, who you simultaneously do not like yet are rooting for. I have told people that the real Emma is actually much less like Gwyneth Paltrow and much more like Alicia Silverstone in Clueless.

The movie also captures the unpleasantness of all the unpleasant characters like the slimy Mr. Elton and his chatty, pretentious wife. I also loved the movie's portrayal of Mr. Woodhouse, Emma's father. Since he was not a major character in the past adaptation, I had no idea how funny and rich a character he was. Mr. Woodhouse is paranoid about his own failing health so he projects those health concerns on to others. For example, because wedding cake gives him indigestion, he stands by the wedding cake at the Taylor's wedding and tries to convince people not to eat it and tells his doctor that he tried to talk the family out of having cake at the wedding--hilarious! The only complaint I have was that I think that Miss Bates was not as awkward as she could have been.

Overall, the new Masterpiece adaptation and the book, Emma, are definitely worth your time. I give them both a 9 out of 10.

Middle School Humor

Middle school students get a bad rap for their sense of humor or lack thereof. While I am not amused by most of the stupid things that my students think are hilarious, there are moments when they do/say some very funny things. Other times, I am amused that they think this stuff is actually funny. I honestly believe that junior high is a very unique time when children are developing a real sense of humor, and at that time, they seem to have a sense of humor that only people between ages of 12 and 14 share. Here is a recent collection of a few of the funnier things my middle school-ers have said/done.

Joke 1
Q: What type of animal should you never play cards with?
A: A cheetah

Below is a list of homework assignments that a student left on the board for his classmates. Notice that there is homework in absolutely every subject including PE, music, and art. This was really hilarious!

Joke 2
Q: What has two banks and no money?
A: A river

Today the girls put their jackets on backwards when they went outside to play. They were amazed at how fashion-forward they could be. Then they put their hoods over their faces while they were swinging. The effect was apparently pretty scary and fun since they started screaming.

Joke 3 (My personal favorite)
Q: What does a grammarian call Santa's little helpers?
A: Subordinate Clauses

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


As the consummate literature dork, there are few things that I enjoy more than a good Jane Austen movie especially on an evening when I am feeling particularly independent and girly simultaneously. Being in such a mood for a good literary adaptation and period piece, tonight I watch Persuasion, a somewhat recent adaptation of Jane Austen's novel done by Masterpiece Theater. Having forgotten that I had seen this movie before, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Persuasion has a more "old school" masterpiece feel in that it has very artsy, European stylings complete with lots of hand-held cameras. While I am usually not a fan of the steady-cam and it is certainly overused in this movie, an argument can be made for the effectiveness of this camerawork in this particular movie. Persuasion tells the story of Anne Elliot, a sensible and quiet 27 year old who seems to be quickly on her way to spinsterhood. Anne's family is selfish, obsessed with money and social status, and Anne is often forgotten and gets the raw end of most deals. In the very beginning of the story, the audience discovers that Anne was once in love with a handsome, upcoming naval captain, but with war on the horizon and the couple's youth and lack of financial stability and social standing, Anne was persuaded by her godmother and family to turn down Captain Wentworth's proposal. The couple is unexpectedly reunited eight years later, and the latent romantic tension explodes. Persuasion is really all about growing up, and Anne learning what is best for her and whose advise to take and whose to ignore. It is a very introspective story and, in many ways, a psychological romance. In that sense, the hand-held camera helps the viewer get into Anne's head and truly understand her. I particularly liked the few moments that Anne looked directly into the camera. The poignancy of her look gave a sense of real connection with the audience. Persuasion is certainly not the best of the recent Masterpiece Theaters (it does not hold a candle to Emma, but more on that later), but if you are in the mood for a good female period piece, it is quite enjoyable.

I give it an 8 out of 10.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Phone Call

Recently we have been studying poetry in my eighth grade literature class, and I for one (and I may be the only one) am really enjoying it. We have read all kinds of dark Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allan Poe poems and a few light and fun ones too. Today we read John Donne's Holy Sonnet X--one of my all time favorites. I introduced the poem by talking about a particular literary device called apostrophe--not the punctuation mark but a direct address to an inanimate object or absent being. This entire poem is an apostrophe where the speaker directly addresses Death. We had a wonderful discussion about the poem for almost 45 minutes. The students were surprised that we could spend that long discussing just 14 lines of verse. We discussed the strong Christian themes of resurrection and victory over the grave even though God, Jesus, and the Bible are never directly mentioned. One student observed that the tone of the poem was daring and almost defiant as the speaker challenges Death to try and defeat him. Towards the end of our discussion, my cell phone started vibrating. (Of course if I need to make a call from my classroom, I don't have service, but in the middle of class, my phone would start working.) One of my students astutely picked up on the faint buzzing sound in the back of the room, and raised his hand.

"Mrs. Freeman, you have a phone call. I think Death is calling you."


Holy Sonnet X
by John Donne

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so ;
For those, whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure, then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou'rt slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Gosford Park

In an effort to make grading over the weekend a little less painful, I decided to re-watch an old favorite, Gosford Park. Having not seen the movie in several years, I was excited to rediscover it and loved it even more. Even the music was better than I remembered. Gosford Park is truly a beautiful movie chalk full of amazing actors with sets and costumes that are mesmerizing.

The basic storyline centers around an English manor house full for the weekend for a hunting party. An unexpected murder takes all by surprise, and the plots takes some beautifully unexpected turns--especially at the very end. Well, that is what happens, but the movie is really about life "above stairs" versus life "below stairs." While it is fascinating to see the guests navigate the nuances of the intricate levels aristocracy, but it is even more interesting to see the interactions of the servants living and working downstairs and the way they engage with their employers. The contrast of these two coexisting worlds is so intriguing.

I give this movie an almost perfect score--9.5. The movie's weakest link is Ryan Phillippe as the American posing as a Scottish valet. But now that I think about it, his overacting and seeming obliviousness actually kind of work for his character as the arrogant and clueless American. The pace of Gosford Park is very slow, so if you are going to watch it, make sure you are in the mood just to sit back and enjoy a well-written script, a remarkable ensemble cast, and some beautiful cinematography . I highly recommend it.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Eraser Arsenal

One of the things that I never expected having to deal with as a teacher was weaponry, but these are not your average weapons. These weapons are the product of creativity and distraction among middle schoolers. Their weapon of choice? Eraser bits. I find them everywhere: on the floor, stashed in the corners of desks, in the halls, in pockets, under cabinets--EVERYWHERE! These little eraser bullets, as I so lovingly call them, are the bane of my existence. I hate them. All my students know that there are few things in this world that bother more than eraser bullets. I don't know what it is exactly that gets under my skin about this seemingly innocent pastime. I think it is that these eraser bits are a reminder of how creative and resourceful these young minds can be when they want to be. My students can invent elaborate and creative games and entirely new forms of weaponry and ammunition using just the materials in their pockets and desks; and yet when they encounter a semi-challenging assignment, it is all complaining and excuses. If they applied just a fraction of this creativity and resourcefulness to their school work, my job would be so much easier. But until then, I decided to collect all the eraser bullets and other shrapnel that I find to keep as artifacts and documentation of this battle of school supplies. I have collected quite the arsenal.