Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Green Collar Economy Review and Giveaway

A book review from The Conscious Shopper

Yesterday, Van Jones' bestselling book, The Green Collar Economy, came out in paperback. This was hands down my favorite non-fiction book of all the books I've read in the past year (and I read a lot), so to celebrate its paperback release, I'm offering to give away a copy of The Green Collar Economy to one lucky reader of The Green Phone Booth. To be entered, simply leave a comment on this post. I'll announce the randomly selected winner on my post next Wednesday.

And to whet your reading appetite, here's my review of this book from my personal blog.

The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems
by Van Jones

Rating: *****

Van Jones proposes that establishing a strong green collar economy is the solution for both the climate change crisis and the economic crisis. His subject is timely as the economy continues to stagnate, prices continue to rise, and the effects of climate change become more and more evident. Ironically, Jones notes in his afterword that when he first began writing the book, "very few people had heard the term 'green collar job'," but by the time the book was published, it was a political buzzword.

I've been seeing this book mentioned all over the Internet, and at first I thought, "That is not a book that would interest me." I figured it would be a heavy read full of economic jargon (read: boring). I don't know why I had that impression because I was completely wrong. Just shy of 200 pages, this book is brisk and pleasant, but at the same time, thought-provoking and inspirational.

Jones proposes that to revive the collapsing economy, the government should establish a Green New Deal by building up the green collar jobs sector in energy, food, waste, water, and transportation. He details how investment in each category would lead to thousands of jobs in technology and labor, and as an added benefit, we would save the planet. Some examples:
  • A group in Milwaukee has come up with a way "to retrofit practically every building in the city to save money and put lots of people to work...Property owners or renters (with landlords' cooperation) receive an audit listing all conservation measures that can be paid for out of energy savings in a given period. They repay the cost of the measures via their utility bill."
  • "The first turbine on Native lands was installed in early 2003 on the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Reservation in South Dakota. It produces enough clean electricity to power over two hundred homes...Rosebud alone aims to produce 50 megawatts by 2010."
  • LaDonna Redmond turned her backyard in Chicago into an urban farm. Neighbors got involved, "one thing led to another, and today the Redmonds' organization, the Institute for Community Resource Development, secures empty lots from the city, oversees a whole network of lots-turned gardens, manages a farmers market, provides technical support and nutritional education, and is planning the opening of a retail store."
  • "A nonprofit in Baltimore called Second Chance launched its architectural salvage and deconstruction services in 2003. Over the next four years, the company grew quickly, filling a 120,000-square foot warehouse space and engaging more than 50 employees - three deconstruction crews and a retail store crew."
The most inspiring chapter for me was Jones' analysis of the division between the environmental movement and the social justice movement. He asserts that the two sides need to come together, creating a powerful forward-looking group that would be able to solve both environmental and social problems. Environmentalists would benefit from the grassroots growth, and workers in social justice would benefit from the establishment of green jobs. He used the term "environmental justice activists," which is not a term I've heard before but perfectly describes the type of activist-thinking that I'm drawn to.

My only criticism of this book is that it focused so much on how the government (rather than the average joe) can build up the green jobs sector, boost the economy, and solve the climate crisis. Jones' ideas would make a great handbook for President Obama, Governor Bev Perdue, or Mayor Meeker, but they are less useful for the average person, like me, for example. I kept waiting for him to say, "If you want to see this kind of change in your area, you should..." Write letters to my congressman? Lobby my mayor? Establish my own non-profit? Go door to door handing out copies of The Green Collar Economy? Or just keep doing what I've been doing...

Overall, this was a great book, and I strongly recommend that you read it. And then maybe mail a copy to your mayor.

Update: The winner of the Green Collar Economy giveaway is: Suzannah! Please email your address to consciousshopperblog [at] gmail [dot] com, and I'll ship that right out to you!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Arugula for One, Arugula for All

From the bean of Green Bean.

It wasn't yet noon but the sun was bearing down on the Northern California peninsula. Indian summer, we always called it. Hot days ripening tomatoes with a frenetic madness that no home canner could hope to keep up with. Cool nights, wilting the pumpkin leaves and soothing the newly planted pea seedlings.

I tried not to think of the temperature, of how hot it might get today and, instead, ducked under the next green awning. Sapphira's stall. We talked kids, weather, gardens. I picked out some lettuce, peppers and cauliflower. Cucumbers, cucumbers? I found a box nestled between the potatoes and greens. At $3 a pound, though, and cucumber relish on my mind, I couldn't justify them. Her heirloom tomatoes were on sale. $2 a pound. Beautiful orange, red and purple. I ogled them but with a bursting front yard garden, I didn't exactly need more tomatoes. Except . . . here were "softies", or so she'd labeled them. $1 a pound. I cradled a slightly mushy San Marzano in my hand. I smelled pasta sauce for dinner. With a bag full of soft tomatoes, I loaded my market cart.

"Wait," Sapphira called out, "will you take some onions or some kale?" Then she grinned. "Cilantro?" Waving the green bunch toward me, I accepted. Who with a yard, and now a cart, full of tomatoes, would turn away cilantro. Nothing and I do mean nothing tastes better than homemade salsa.

I thanked her and marched on. I passed the organic apple farmer as we'd just gotten four bags of ultra local apples off of Freecycle. Strawberries were at the peak of their season. I loaded up with a half flat - and thanked the vendor when she knocked $2 off my total, just for being a regular. I planned to pull out the dehyrdator this afternoon for January strawberries in my granola.

Toward the end of the market was another favorite organic farmer. Nunez Farms. I did still want to make cucumber relish, I thought, and decided to take a peek. Their cucumbers were only $1 a pound. They soon found a home in my market cart, amidst greens and berries and a jar of honey.

I had parked on the other side of the bakery. In the past, I had savored their loaves of Levian and sourdough. At $5 a loaf and with Artisan Bread in 5 Mintues a Day in my back pocket (or on my shelf at least), though, I was so done with purchased bread. I'd recently invested in bulk flour and could knock out a beautiful loaf of bread for well under a buck. Still, I paused when passing the pastries. The french bakers with their charming French accents could keep their goodies - but I might steal an idea or two for this weekend's breakfast.

I packed my bags in the trunk and counted my cash. I'd spent less than half of what I used to spend when I locavored on autopilot. As I shifted the car into drive, I thought about my grand total . . . and about an article I'd recently read on the new White House farmers' market.

Many laud Michelle Obama for the efforts she's made - from planting an organic garden on the White House lawn to opening the new farmers' market with a brimming market basket. Many laud. But many others giggle over the sludge fertilizer that will prevent her garden from every being "certified organic" or point, in contempt, to the price of arugula at the farmers' market she frequented. These are the same folks who think of the real food movement as elitist and of farmers' markets as the playground of the wealthy.

I've got to say that I don't understand these claims. I also don't understand people who buy arugula for $20 a pound but that's another post. In my mind, the Slow Food movement has nothing to do with being wealthy or well educated or whatever. It's all about getting back in touch with who we once were, with who our grandparents' were and who we want our children to be. It's about making a house a home and a kitchen something other than a decoration. It's about getting our hands dirty and our souls clean. And it's about bringing families together at meal time, about passing on skills, and building up the bank account.

If you think that eating local is too pricey, I've got some fruit leather and a list of lessons learned for you:

1) Eat in Season: Load up at the peak of the season and, at farmers' markets, at the end of the day. Preserve what you can by canning, dehydrating and freezing. The paltry few greenhouse grown tomatoes that you'll find in May will cost you dearly. Wait until tomatoes are bursting out of everyone's ears to put up your pasta sauce for a cold February night.

2) Be Loyal: Find a few favored vendors and stick with them. I prefer to buy organic - though I'm not picky about it being certified. I find a few folks I like and buy from them regularly. I buy at their best prices and, because I'm a regular, I usually get extra goodies thrown in or dollars knocked off my total.

3) Spot a Bargain: Keep your eyes open for produce sales, peruse the bin of bruised apples, overripe peaches or Sapphira's softies. That's what you will use for jam, sauce, pie or fruit leather. Leave the pretty produce for eating straight out of the crisper.

4) Be a Freeloader: Every year, for the past three years, I've visited a seventy year old apple tree in September. It doesn't belong to me. Or even anyone I've ever met. Rather, it resides on the property of a generous but busy soul who hangs out on the same mothers' club message board as me. She answered my call for apples years ago and we've been produce partners every since. Sadly, her tree didn't produce much this year. That left me hungry for the plethora of apple desserts, apple breads, apple butter, apple sauce and such that I've gotten used to this time of year. So hungry that I posted on Freecycle, "Wanted: Apples". Not only did I end up with $70 worth of free apples, but they were grown far more locally than any apple to grace, even, my local's farmers' market. Another alternative - though I'm usually too chicken - is to knock on doors of folks with front yard fruit trees. You know the kind. The lonely apples lolling around the front grass of the persimmons smattered across the sidewalk. Ask if they mind if you pick their fruit and offer some canned yummies in return.

5) Get Dirty: Find out what grows in your area and clear a sunny space in our yard or place a pot in a warm spot on the balcony. Growing from seed is cheapest but even nursery starts beat the pants off, price-wise, any produce you'll find, be it in a chain grocery store or a farmers' market. Getting dirty is not limited to the garden, though. Dust off those hands and start kneading . . . or not, if you make no-knead bread. Experiment. Don't be afraid to try new things all the while remembering what actually worked.

6) Make Friends: I've written before about my snack swap group. A group of friends make homemade goods from healthy, often local and/or organic ingredients, and we swap them so that lunch packing and snacking is easy, good for us, and, minus all the packaging, good for the landfills. Friends are good for more than just muffins, though. A friend of a friend recently set up a homegrown produce swap on Hyperlocavore. Her goal? To recruit 10 local home gardeners and have us fruit and veggie self-sufficient within a couple of years. If that's a little too organized for you, just give your extra home grown produce to your friends and find out what happens. Just this summer, I've been gifted with zucchini, peppers, acorn squash, green beans, and tomatoes - all by recipients of my tomatoes and basil. Is it payback? Maybe. More than likely, those people recognized in me someone who appreciates fresh food grown with love.

7) Get Your Cook On: Pick up seasonal recipes - from farmers, friends, blogs. Find what your family likes and make it again and again. But be willing to eat what's in the fridge. Learn (or Google) what can be substituted for what. Then channel your great grandmother and go.

8) Make It a Habit: A few years ago, I shopped at Safeway like the rest of the country. I gradually made the transition to farmers markets and then started supplementing with homegrown - mine, my neighbor's, my friend's. Just recently, we've almost stopped eating out completely. At first, I longed for the local taqueria or a plate of pasta made by someone with an Italian last name. The more we eat this way, though, the more of a habit it is. And the more the savings builds up. Perusing the checking account statement last month, my husband and I marveled at how much money we've saved by making and growing our own. It's a salary or, in this neck of the woods, a mortgage. Quite a lot either way.

So get out there. Embrace the Real Food movement for all the delicious, local and low cost wonderfulness that it is. Arugula for one, arugula for all.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Michael Pollan

Bleatings from EnviRambo.

The sell-out crowd cheered and clapped as he walked on stage... and clapped and clapped and clapped. The audience clapped so long, I think he blushed.

Author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food, The Botany of Desire, and the upcoming Omnivore's Dilemma for Kids, Michael Pollan is the authority on eating for personal health and the health of the planet. And, he is a very funny man.

He brought with him a bag full of "food" from the local supermarket.
  • Froot Loops - now with fiber
  • Pop Tarts - with blue filling and purple frosting
  • Go-Gurt - yogurt tubes
  • Wonder bread - whole grain white bread
  • Twinkies - need I say more?
Taken out of their normal context of the grocery store, have you ever stopped to think just how weird this stuff is? Sugar-laden circles in every color of the rainbow, which now carry an industry-derived Smart Choice Program label - despite the fact that Froot Loops are 44% sugar. How is that a "Smart Choice"? According to one board member, "It's better for you than donuts." And then there are Pop Tarts... frosting for breakfast. Mmm... nutritious. Bread, bread is food, right? Have you ever read the ingredient list on a packaged loaf of bread? Wonder bread consists of 23 ingredients! Last I knew bread contained 4 ingredients: flour, water, yeast and salt. 5 if you are feeding your yeast sugar. But, that is it. What the hell are the other 18?

It's practically spinach.

What ever happened to eating oh, say a carrot? No label needed to tell you that it is nutritious or, talking toucan to persuade you to eat it. Perhaps that is part of the problem. Throughout his presentation, Michael Pollan delivered simple rules to follow to guide your food choices.

Would your great-grandmother recognize it as food?
Yogurt you slurp from a tube, I think not.

Will it rot?
Food is/was alive. It is meant to die and rot. Little yellow-spongy cakes that remain so after two years are probably not something you want to ingest. If it can sit around for so long without insects and rodents even touching it, do you really want to eat it? What is in that stuff? Look for an expiration date. He admitted a flaw with this rule. Manufacturers have gotten wise to this and now include freshness dates on most products. Which brings to the last rule he left us with and the one that resonated with me the most:

Do not eat anything you saw advertised on television.
Simple enough. That effectively eliminates nearly every processed food product out there.

I do not need to preach to the choir here. Just use common sense. If it came from the ground = good. If it came out of a box = bad. If it came out of a technicolor box with any cartoon character emblazoned on the front and claims to now contain fiber, whole grain, calcium, vitamin D, omega-3, antioxidants, no trans-fat, or any other such buzz word of the moment = put the box down and run for the produce section!

In the end, he received a standing ovation and I immediately rushed the stage for an autograph. It was like a rock concert for foodies. Although when he threw the Twinkies from the stage, there were no battles in the crowd to catch them. I say, rock on Michael Pollan... rock on!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Handmade for the Holidays

The Conscious Shopper aspires to be a crafter extraordinaire.

Inspired by Kellie's post about thinking ahead for Christmas and Crunchy Chicken's "Buy Hand for the Holidays" challenge, I've been on the lookout for patterns for handmade gifts, and I wanted to share a few of my favorites with you.
  • Another tried and true creative inspirer is SouleMama. Any of these projects from her new book, Handmade Home, would make terrific gifts.
  • I love the Purl Bee - especially anything in the Molly's Sketchbook section. I also like these crocheted linen grocery totes. I've been wanting some of those - why not make my own! (Oh yeah, I'm supposed to be looking for Christmas gifts...)
  • This Notebook-&-Pencil Holder from One Red Robin would make a great gift for your favorite writer/artist. I've also been thinking of modifying a pattern like this to make utensil kits for picnics and eating out.
  • These school bags from Make It Do are probably a little more work than some of the other projects, but they're oh-so-adorable.
  • This fiesta bath mitt in combination with a bar of soap would make a lovely gift.
If none of these suggestions inspires your crafty side, I recommend subscribing to They glean the best handmade projects from around the web.

Have you found any great handmade ideas for the holidays?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

A day on the farm...

Musings from the Greenhabilitator...

Today I'm taking a cue from Green Bean, who enjoyed the sound of silence earlier this week. At the moment, I'm actually enjoying the sounds of sleepy little feet waking up and pitter-pattering around on the wood floors; and the tick-tick-tick of our heater which I finally turned on when our indoor temperature hit 61 degrees this week.

It's been a crazy-busy week and today I plan to enjoy a silent car that will be sitting in the driveway all day and a silent mind that isn't worried about deadlines or appointments or a list of things that must be accomplished.

We've already had our first snow here in Colorado this week, which made me realize that we have no hat, gloves, or scarf for our newly adopted little girl. I love that our thinking has changed so much over the past few years that I never once thought "Crap, I'm going to have to break the Compact to get some snow gear."

Instead I put a call out on Freecycle where I got two offers, hit the local thrift store where I found gloves and a scarf for $0.50 each, and dug into my fabric stash to make a few things from some fleece I already had.

Today, instead of working, rushing around taking kids to/from school, running errands, grocery shopping, or doing anything else we feel obligated to do, we'll be working on the farm (aka at our house) doing the things we'd rather be doing like getting the garden and greenhouse ready for fall, doing a little sewing, and repairing the "bear proof" trash bin (which apparently needs to be made from kryptonite).

Its a little ironic to me that, a few years ago, I would have looked at this list, grunted, and thought "Why do we have all these chores we have to do???" Now I see it as part of a lifestyle. Maintaining our garden and greenhouse allow us to grow some of the food we'd normally buy. The sewing projects (snack bags and sandwich wraps for the kids) give me some creative time to myself and help us avoid disposable plastic bags. And, rather than running out to buy a newly manufactured, expensive, bear-proof trash can, rebuilding our trash corral gives Mr. Greenhabilitator a reason to act all manly and play with his power tools. Rrrrrrr....

Hope you're all enjoying a wonderful weekend!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Raising Chickens in the Suburbs

A big thanks to blogging buddy JAM for sharing her advice for getting chickens. I, Green Bean, am getting chickens this month and am therefore hanging on every word!

When Green Bean announced that she was getting backyard chickens, I was so excited for her! I couldn't wait to share with her all the things I've learned over the last two years since I got my chickens. I don't have my own blog, although I do post occasionally at The Blogging Bookworm, so when I offered my advice in the comments, Green Bean asked me to do a guest post on raising chickens. For those that don't know my online self, I am a stay-at-home mom of two girls, ages 15 and 10, living in a suburb just outside Boston, and over the last five years or so, have taken a lot of steps towards sustainability. I line dry my clothes about 90% of the time, we have a garden which provides a good amount of produce, we get a CSA share for the rest, I don't use my car most days, etc. So, two years ago, when a friend asked me if I wanted to raise hens (her first tip - always say hens, not chickens!) for eggs, and for their wonderful poop compost, I said sure, without really thinking about it. I'm still glad I said yes, although there was a bit more to it than I initially realized!

The first step is to get some hens. There are two ways to do this. The most common is to get some baby chicks and raise them to maturity. The second way is to buy pullets (hens that are ready to lay eggs). It is pretty hard to find somewhere to buy pullets, unless you know of a farm that raises them that might have extras. Baby chicks are much easier to come by. You can buy them from a hatchery, like
McMurray Hatchery, or My Pet Chicken. Sometimes you have to buy them in lots of 25 (since they are shipped in a cardboard box as one day old chicks who don't need food or water for a few days after birth, but do need a lot of chicks together to provide enough body heat to stay warm) and sometimes you can get them in smaller numbers (shipped with heat packs). It is cheaper per chick to buy them in a larger lot, so if you have friends that you can go in with, that's probably the lowest cost way to do it. You can buy all girls, or take an unsexed batch. Most towns don't allow roosters, and they make enough noise that you probably don't want them even if they are allowed. The main reason for wanting a rooster (and one would be enough!) is if you want to be able to raise more chicks from your own flock. I got my chicks from a local farm that sold them for $4 each since I didn't have anyone to share a larger number with. What type of chick to buy? There are many kinds out there - some bred for egg laying, some for meat, and some dual purpose ones to be good for both. Most people who want backyard chickens want them for eggs, so look for good layers. Some do better in different climates, some are noisier than others, some you will like the look of more than others. If you're ordering them, you can choose whatever you want. If you get them from a farm, like I did, you get what they have, and usually it's just fine. You will need at least 2, since they are flock animals and need each other for company. I would recommend at least 3 in case one dies (which they do occasionally).

When you first get the chicks, all they need is a cardboard box with some pine shavings or shredded paper for bedding, and a bowl with water, and one with chick starter. This self-waterer is handy because it's harder for the chickens to poop in (notice I didn't say impossible!) and only needs to be refilled every other day or so. You can buy chick starter (and all sorts of feeding and water setups) at an agricultural supply store. If you don't have one nearby (I was surprised to find there was one a town away that I never knew existed, and there's lots more about a 45 min drive outside of Boston) you can get these things through the internet as well. You also want to suspend a warming bulb above the box. You can use one made for this purpose - often found at hardware stores, or pet stores (for reptiles), or you can use a regular incandescent bulb (not fluorescent - the reason they are energy efficient is that there is not a lot of energy wasted as heat, which is what you need here!) Every few days you can raise the bulb so that there is less heat on the chicks - they quickly get used to room temperature. You also want to put a screen or some chicken wire on top to keep interested pets from going after them, and to stop them from flying out. While they can't fly as babies, they will be able to take impressive hops pretty soon! About the time you are sick of the dust they create in your house, it's time to move them outdoors. We were lucky that we have a garden shed in our backyard that I was able to empty and use as a coop.

If you don't have a structure already, you will need to buy or make one. You can buy coops on the internet, at agricultural supply stores, or you can buy a winterized dog house, or make something that will work for you. Chickens don't need a lot of space - they are flock animals and like to snuggle. They do need someplace to roost (as high as you can get it). In warmer climates, they can roost on a broom handle, in cold climates they need something like a 2x4 so that when they sit on it, they tuck their feet under their bodies so their feet don't freeze. I nailed up a few 2x4s at different heights. Turns out they only use the highest one, so I would only put one in next time! Some chickens can't fly very well though, so make sure they can make it up to their roost. They also need a box to nest in, but they don't need this until they are about 18 weeks old. I made a box about 1 ft x 1 ft with sides about 16 inches high (they like privacy to lay an egg - wouldn't you!?!?!) out of scrap lumber.

They will need bedding on the floor to poop on
and to roll around in (dust baths are how they keep clean). When I started out, I bought bags of pine shavings at the ag store, but it is dusty, the cost adds up, and it takes a long time to compost. Now I shred all of my non-glossy paper and use paper shreds. The hens like it fine, and it composts much more quickly. I have read in my latest gardening book that paper has a better C:N ratio for compost than wood shavings, so it makes better compost.

The chickens also need some way to get outside and back in again. I built a run for my hens out of 2x4s and poultry fencing (slightly more sturdy and larger holes than chicken wire) from the hardware store. I have 5 hens, so I made my run 6 ft by 8 ft, and 6 ft high (since I wanted to be able to stand up in it). My shed has a window in it, so I keep that open, and I built the run up against the shed, so they can go in and out through the window. I built a ramp for them from the window to the ground out of scrap wood, but as they very soon can fly very well, I didn't need to do this. If you have hens that can't fly especially well (silkies or part silkies), you would need to make sure they can get in and out where they need to. My run is enclosed on the top for better predator protection, since we live near a pond and I've seen hawks flying around. There are pros and cons to enclosing the top - it is better for predators, but traps leaves and sticks, and also can get piled high with snow, which I have to rake off in the winter. I have put two broom handles in the poultry fencing across the corners to give the hens someplace to roost while they're outside.

My startup costs (including the chicks, food, shavings, wood and hardware and fencing, and straw for outside) came to $300. If I could have found enough wood for free by asking friends and neighbors for extra 2x4s, and not bought the shavings or straw, I could have saved about $60. The straw was to spread over the ground in the outside run. After I bought a few bales of straw I realized that leaves would work just as well, and I had an endless supply of them for free! So last fall I raked up all my leaves into a pile by the shed, instead of putting them out for the landscape waste, and every time I needed new bedding I would rake the old stuff into the compost and spread a fresh layer of leaves. (Again, leaves make better compost than straw, or so my gardening book says!)

If you have a fenced yard and not too many predators, you can let the chickens roam in your backyard. They will forage and eat weeds and bugs, although they'll also eat your vegetable garden unless you fence that off from them. Chickens do what we all wish our kids would do - they get up bright and early, and they put themselves to bed quietly at about 6:30, so they are pretty safe from predators that go out at night, although you have to decide the risks and benefits to having them more or less fenced off for yourself and your neighborhood.
Once the chicks have an outside space prepared for them, you can start bringing them in their box outside for a few hours to get used to cooler air. Within a few days, you can let them live outside. They quickly become very hardy and they survive easily during the coldest winters, even when they're young. I was very worried about my chicks the first winter, but then I recalled the Little House books and how all the animals survived The Long Winter, which was definitely worse than our weather! I do keep a fluorescent bulb on a timer during the winter to encourage more laying (hens lay based on the amount of daylight) but you don't need that until they are about 18 weeks old. Once they've finished the bag of chick starter, they are ready for chick grower, the next type of feed. They eat that until they are 18 weeks, and then you can give them layer feed. Layer feed comes in mash or pellets - the pellets are less easily spilled and therefore cheaper to use, but if your store is out of pellets sometime, mash is fine. I made a feeder out of a cat litter bucket (drill some holes in the sides near the bottom) so that I can keep a good amount of pellets handy without letting them eat it all at once. Hens also love to eat all sorts of kitchen and garden scraps. We keep a plastic bowl in the kitchen, and anything that we don't want to eat that the chickens will goes in there. Apple cores, corn cobs, carrot tops, leftover macaroni and cheese, a half a fishstick (chickens are omnivores so you can give them small amounts of meat - the main thing is to only put out what they'll eat or the leftovers will attract other animals). They love the ends of bread especially. In the winter, they need more food to keep warm, so they eat all of our scraps and some pellet food, but in the summer they mostly eat scraps (I have the pellet food there for them, but it takes a lot longer for them to need a refill.) We also give them all of the weeds from the garden, and the plants after we pull them. Sometimes they eat them, sometimes they just move them around, but they love having something to do and everything composts so much faster once it's been in the chicken run. My mom saves her salad scraps, corn cobs, and bread ends for me - she hates to waste so she's very glad they go to good use. If you mow your lawn you can put the grass clippings in there and it will be both bedding and food. The more vegetation the hens eat, the brighter yellow the yolks are and better tasting their eggs.

Speaking of eggs, that's the reason we all want hens! I've read that pullets should start laying at 18 weeks, but mine didn't lay until 22-24 weeks. After weeks of checking the nesting box daily (line that with the same paper shreds you use for the bedding - they are very tidy and will never poop in the nesting box) it's so exciting to go out and find an egg. Usually within a few days all of the chickens start to lay. Their first eggs are small, but within a few weeks they are up to their normal size. Of our five hens, we have one that lays enormous eggs, one that lays small eggs, and three that lay medium eggs. They are also all different colors (one green, one white, and three brown, but different shades and levels of glossiness) so it is easy to see who has laid that day and who hasn't. When you read up on it, you find that hens lay every 26 hours, but only during daylight. So, if a hen lays at 8 am, the next day they'll lay at 10, then at noon, etc. If their time for laying is after dusk, then they'll skip that day and lay early the next day. The best laying hens lay for six or seven days in a row before having a skip day. My hens average 3 to 5 days before a skip day. We joke that they are union chickens since they seem to lay between 7 am and 3 pm, and if they haven't laid by then, they're off duty until the next day. The eggs are delicious, better than store bought, and I've read that that homegrown eggs have more nutrients as well. One caveat is that fresh eggs don't peel very well when hard-boiled, so use your oldest eggs for that!

What to do with all those eggshells? Give them back to the chickens!They need the calcium, and they don't compost well anyway if you put them straight in the compost bin. I give mine a quick wash to get the slippery whites out, then stick them on my windowsill for a day. The next day, they're nice and dry and I can just crumble them into the chicken bowl. They eat them, which gives them enough calcium to make more eggs. I also bought a bag of calcium chips at the ag store and leave those out in a bowl - they will eat as much or as little as they need, although they definitely seem to prefer their own eggshells. If an egg ever breaks in the nesting box, the hens will eat it to clean it up, but they really don't break eggs on purpose. That is called egg eating, and happens occasionally. If you do have an egg eater, you have to get rid of it, since it's pretty much impossible to stop, but I've never had one, and none of my friends with chickens have either, so the occasional broken and eaten egg is just an accidentally broken one. In the beginning, a hen will sometimes lay a shell-less egg. It is in a membrane, and is usually laid in the litter, not the nesting box, so somehow the hen knows that something isn't right about the egg. That's just a malfunction in the rather complicated process of creating an egg, and happens more when a hen is just starting to lay. Also sometimes you will get an egg with two yolks - affectionately called "double yolkers" in our house since the kids love finding one. Once every month or two, I shovel out the bedding from inside the coop, and the dirt/composted vegetation and scraps from the run, and put it in my compost bin. I have two bins, so that I can let one sit and compost while the other one gets filled up. Then, one is finished and we spread it on our garden and start on the other bin. Keeping two going at once has been a huge help in getting finished compost, otherwise the bottom would be good but I'd keep putting more on top. Then I spread fresh paper shreds and new leaves, and they have a nice clean area. Even though they do poop everywhere (you will want to keep a pair of shoes designated as "chicken shoes" that don't go inside - Crocs are ideal!) they don't really smell and it does not get offensive as long as you rake up the shreds frequently to help with the composting (a lot will compost before you even shovel it into the bin). In the heat of summer, things do attract flies, but I've never had problems with odor or attracting other animals.

I have been keeping track of my costs (startup, and the ongoing costs which are mostly just bags of feed and my annual permit) and figuring out my cost per dozen. When I first started, I had about $100 in costs after my initial startup costs (better food bowls, a few new chicks after 2 died, etc.) so our first dozen cost $407! Not quite cost effective! But by the time we were at the end of September (one full year of having them) we were down to $10.79 per dozen. They didn't lay much over the winter, because it's pretty cold and dark here in Boston, but after I put the light in the coop, that helped. Right now, pretty much two full years after getting the hens, we're at $6.41 per dozen. So really, it's still not quite cost effective - I can get organic, free range eggs at Whole Foods for about $4.50. But.... mine definitely taste better, and because we have chickens, we eat more eggs which means we eat less meat, and the cost of less meat is not factored into my calculations. We have an omelet night every few weeks when we've built up too many eggs, and I often will scramble a few for lunch. I am hopeful that by next summer, my per dozen cost will be below market value - as long as my chickens all stay healthy, I think it will be. Ongoing costs are very low. People in most areas of the country (warmer and longer days) will probably get a higher yield of eggs than I do, which will lower the costs as well.

One thing that was unexpected for me was the personalities of the hens. We have had a few that are very curious - if I'm in the coop raking up the bedding, they always come in to see what I'm doing, while the rest remain happily outside. There is one who clucks constantly - she seems like she's always complaining! When you go outside with the scraps (or snacks, as we call them), they cluck excitedly and cluster near the door, then they fight over the good stuff. They all cluck after they've laid an egg, and that can really vary as well. One or two strut their stuff and cluck loudly and clearly, as if to say "Look at that egg - can you believe I just laid that? Looks to me like the best egg ever!" Our littlest hen, Sydney, who lays the small, perfectly shaped buff colored eggs, has a scratchy cluck and she sits in the windowsill to let me know when she has laid. We really think of them as 5 individuals, not a group of hens.

What happens when a chicken gets sick, or dies, or turns out to be a rooster? Chickens can get colds like people do (the similarity of diseases is why bird flu was such a concern) and occasionally you will see a drippy beak and watery looking eyes. It is probably caught from a wild bird, but we do avoid giving the hens scraps from someone who is sick. We put those straight into the compost. We have had chickens who have colds get better, and we have had a few that died. Our town advised us to double bag a dead chicken and put it in the regular trash. If you end up with a rooster, either because you bought an unsexed run, or because one of your girls turned out not to be (they are guaranteed 98% or so, but apparently chicken sexing is quite a hard skill, and mistakes happen!) then you have to figure out what to do with it. You can kill it yourself, and either eat it or throw it away, or you can bring it to a live animal auction where people buy animals for food, or you can give it to someone who is willing to take it, to kill and eat themselves. It can be hard to find someone for this, although usually if you have any local farms they can put you in touch with people who will take unwanted birds. A lot of these farms offer "processing" classes so you can learn to do it yourself if you want to.
Overall, we've really loved having the hens. My kids learn about life and death with something that they care about, but not nearly as much as a family pet! They also learn about responsibility of taking care of animals, although I definitely do the bulk of the work. They like to take out food scraps and check for eggs, but I'm almost always the one to give them fresh water and shovel out the muck! While it can be hard to go out and give them hot water on really cold days (the hotter the water, the longer it takes to refreeze) they are a lot less work than a dog or cat. We go on vacation a lot, and we have found a few high schoolers that come in and do the chicken jobs as well as the cats and the mail. We have had no problems with that, and they certainly like the income! (Although to be fairer to my costs, I should probably include some of that vacation expense in the chicken accounting, and I haven't done that.) Truthfully, I'm disappointed that my eggs are still more expensive than supermarket eggs. I was really hoping to make this a cost saving venture as well as a fun experience. I've enjoyed them, but I'm not sure if I'll replace these hens as they die or stop laying. Maybe I will, if by the time that happens, my costs come down further. At this point, the only expense is feed and if I had to buy new chicks, so I probably would finally get in the black, even with new hens, so I'll have to think about it when the time comes. Let me know if there are any questions you have about raising backyard chickens, or if you're already doing it, if you have any other tips to share.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Recycled Sweaters: Wool Felt Projects

A big Booth welcome to the superhero from It's Not Easy Being Green. This green mom from the burbs will share her stories here monthly.

My grandmother, a child of the Great Depression, lived by the phrase: “Waste not, want not.” Her home was always fairly cluttered and her basement full of boxes and piles and a little more furniture than absolutely necessary.

My mother, a child of the Great Consumer Age (albeit a rebellious one), lives by the sage advice “When in doubt, get it out.” Her home is very lovely and clean and spare and organized, and what’s there belongs there, and what doesn’t belong there just isn’t around. She refuses to let her life be encumbered by more things than she actually needs and uses; the fewer the better. Avoid getting anything new if what’s here works; if it’s here and you’re not using it, give it to someone who will. (Which is how I got my wonderful little immersion blender!) She tried to pass those qualities on to me, but it seems I take more after Grandma. Somewhere I’m sure there’s a happy medium of conservation between the two approaches—each has its green advantages
Upon discovering the whole conservation thing, I’ve been able to embrace my packrat nature far more than ever before, because repurposing is in! So I hold onto stuff I might otherwise jettison, sometimes for years—but eventually a lot of it does get used.

Last winter a friend turned me on to the idea of felting wool. The principle here is this: Wool fibers have scales along them, and whenever they are exposed to really high temperatures they tighten and condense up and link more and more inextricably to other fibers around them, making a solid and un-ravel-able mass of fabric. Remember that really nice sweater that your mother/sister/spouse accidentally dried one day, that came out much smaller and much thicker than it went in? That’s wool felting (or "fulling," its more proper term) in operation.

It’s a much better idea to do this on purpose, though, than to accidentally have it happen to your favorite sweater. One way is to knit or crochet a garment in pure wool yarn, obviously making it much much bigger than you need it to be, and then to felt it down till it fits. (I have some really nice slippers a friend made for me this way.) I started making a cloche hat by this method, but me being me with the multiple jobs and two little kids thing, I never had time to finish it, so somewhere there’s a half-done mass of teal green yarn in a closet somewhere…

The other way to make wool felt items, the I-don’t-have-time-to-knit way, is to comb your own closets and pay a few visits to the local thrift store and gather a collection of sweaters made in at least 85% wool (the higher wool content the better!), felt them down, and use them to sew other garments.

How to Felt Wool
Basically, wash on hot, wash again on hot, dry on high heat, repeat if necessary. You know it’s “done” when, examining the fibers, you can’t see the knit pattern any more and it won’t unravel at all when cut.

It does get a little more nuanced than that, though. For one thing, it helps significantly to wash a couple of hardy clothing items in there as well, like a pair of jeans; the extra agitation annoys the wool more, I guess, and makes it clamp down harder and faster. Washing several sweaters at once is also helpful. (Caveat: be sure that you’re washing more or less like colors with like colors—remember, felting wool is not the only thing that happens when you put clothing in hot water! Don’t throw your significant other’s light blue jeans in with six bright red wool sweaters unless your significant other is someone who would not have gender-stereotype issues with wearing lavender pants!)

One site suggests putting each wool garment to be felted into a zippered pillowcase; I haven’t tried this yet, but it sounds like a great idea—every time I’ve felted wool before, the amount of damp wool fuzz that liberally coats the inside of the machine and all its filters is unbelievable. I’ve also occasionally had problems with the sweaters snagging on things and developing little holes before they have time to felt down, something that’s fix-able if you discover it early but impossible if you don’t see it till after the felting is done. So I’ll definitely try this advice next time.

Repeat the wash. In theory, this won't always be necessary, but I've always needed to.

Dry on high heat. (Empty your dryer’s lint filter before and after!) (More fragile wool garments should probably skip this step and try to do all the felting via the washing machine.)
You should now have a few thick shrunken sweaters with almost no hint of the original knit visible. If they aren’t small and thick enough, go through the whole process again, twice more if necessary.

What to make out of felted wool?

The possibilities here are (practically) endless.

You can make a patchwork blanket, using effectively the same set of instructions I gave on my own blog for making a jeans quilt –with this one you may be able to get away with not even backing it, just binding the edges with blanket binding or even long strips of leftover sweater felt from the cuffs or waist. (To the left is sort of the beginnings of one I'm working on. I think it needs some red or something, though... )

Speaking of those ribbed parts at the wrists and waist: not all sweaters felt the same way here for some reason; sometimes they shrink nicely and keep their ribbed-ness, but other times they stretch out wider. For the ones that do well, a sweater can make for a really easy mittens-and-hat set using these built-in finished edges.

The easiest way to do this is to place your hand (or a hand comparable to the size of the one you’re making the mittens for) on a piece of paper or cardboard and trace around it to make a mitten-shaped pattern about ¾ of an inch around your hand on all sides. Cut this pattern out and place it over the sweater sleeve with the cuff where you want the wrist cuff of the mitten to be. (Make sure the seam of the sweater sleeve is all the way to the “thumb” side.) I’d recommend making sure you have plenty of cuff; don’t make these too short. Trace the pattern out of the sweater and cut the mitten shape out of each sleeve; put the mitten pieces of each side right-sides together and sew all the way around. You don’t need much of a seam allowance for these; I usually sew them fairly close to the edges. I’ve even seen them done wrong sides together with the seam left visible on the outside and/or embellished with pretty yarn sewing. (For this you might err on the smaller side when cutting the fabric.)

These mittens work well, but the out-to-the-side thumb thing is uncomfortable for some people, depending on your hand shape. Another mitten pattern that puts the thumb more centrally located (but requires more sewing!) can be found here.

If you used the sleeves to make mittens, you can use the body of the sweater and its waist-ribbing to make a matching hat. There are hat pattern options all over the place—I still highly recommend my go-to free software of choice from Wild Ginger, their Wild things accessory pattern software, which has patterns for hats and bags and anything you can think of. A relatively easy alternative can be found here. Also, patterns that work for fleece fabric tend to do very well with felted wool; see this, and this (use the ribbing to form the bottom strip), and this... And if you do your own Google searches, you’ll probably find lots more I haven’t checked out yet.

As with the recycled denim projects, the beauty of all these is that once you get started, it’s easy to see a whole bunch of possibilities—when your sunglasses case mysteriously disappears, instead of running out to the store to get another one (or letting them rattle around in your purse and get scratched up, which is probably what I would do, which is why I never spend more than $8.99 on sunglasses), you’ll remember the scraps from that felted sweater and whip a unique and cute case up in 20 minutes. (10, if you have the right color thread in your sewing machine already and don’t need to clear off your work surface.)

Another nice effect you can get if you are feeling really crafty: buy a skein or two of 100% wool yarn (or unravel part of another not-yet-felted wool sweater to reclaim the yarn) and embroider on your wool sweater before you felt it—either specific things like flowers or stars, or just random crazy patterns. Then when you felt it, the embroidery becomes part and parcel of the felt itself.

Here are some ideas just to get you started:

There are some really nice projects in Sweater Surgery: How to Make New Things Out Of Old Sweaters, available at—she has good felting instructions in there too, but her projects go beyond felt into some really cool territory.

So...Since it's the time of year for a lot of people when we're going through all those bins (or bags or random piles or closets that haven't seen the light of day since April) of fall and winter clothes that have been sitting in the closet since spring, and finding what's likely to actually be worn this winter and what is not...if you find any old, out of date, beat up, or too-small wool sweaters, go to town!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Car Talk

The Conscious Shopper thinks too much about fuel efficiency.

My sister always told me when we were kids that I "think too much." This time, she's right.

On Monday as I was doing my weekly bread baking, one side of my brain was thinking, "1/2 c. oil, 1/2 c. honey, 6 cups flour..." while the other side of my brain was doing mental math. In fact, for the past few weeks, every time it can get a spare minute, my brain starts calculating ways to solve a problem that's been really bugging me.

Here is my problem:

Yes, folks, we are a minivan family.

We are also a one-car family, and in the past, I might have argued that the fact that we only drive one vehicle balances out the fact that it is a minivan. But that argument was based on the assumption that our minivan was achieving its optimum gas mileage. It's not.

A 2004 Honda Odyssey should be getting 16 mpg in the city and 21 mpg on the highway, 18 or 19 mpg on average. Last month, our lovely vehicle got 14 mpg.

If I'm so concerned about my car's gas mileage, shouldn't I trade it in for a hybrid or at least a more fuel efficient car? Shouldn't I be using more public transportation? Shouldn't I get a bike or walk more? My brain has been feverishly working out answers to those questions, and here's what I've come up with:

:: Should we trade it in? If I had realized my car was getting such poor gas mileage, I might have taken a closer look at Cash for Clunkers. As it is, considering gas prices and the amount we owe on our loan, it just doesn't make financial sense to trade it in.

:: Should we use public transportation? Raleigh's transit consists of a very meager bus system. The fare is only $1 per person per trip, which sounds reasonable. But even with as poor gas mileage as my car is getting, I can't think of any destinations where it would make more financial sense to load my family onto the bus rather than into the car. Even if I only had to pay for myself, it would only be cost effective to ride the bus if I had to pay for parking, was traveling a very long distance, or didn't have a car at all. That really stinks!

:: Should I get a bike? Should I walk more? I've looked at every option, and I keep coming up with the same conclusions. If it's less than a mile, we're already walking there. If it's more than a mile but less than five miles, my four-year-old's legs can't handle it. I could get a double stroller or a bike with a trailer, but the number of miles and amount of money we'd save is so negligible, that it doesn't balance out the loss of time. Where we're really racking up the miles and losing money is on the longer trips, and I have to have a car for those.

Maybe you have a better solution (I'd love to have one of those "Why didn't I think of that?" moments), but for now, here's the conclusion I've come to...

Because of the size of my family and our financial situation, we're stuck with the minivan, but that doesn't mean we're stuck with the gas mileage. I don't know why our mpg is so far below what it should be, but for now here's what I can try:
  • Keep the tires inflated.
  • Periodically clean the air filter.
  • Never, ever idle.
  • Use cruise control whenever possible.
  • Plan trips better so we make fewer out-of-the-way trips to stores.
Short of becoming social recluses, this is the best we can do right now. But if gas prices shoot up to $4 again, you may see me revisiting the question. Or maybe by then we'll have had a financial windfall and I'll be driving my Tesla. A girl can dream, right?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Sound of Silence

From the bean of Green Bean.

Photo courtesy of Sweet Eventide.

Today is Tuesday. The first day of fall and my day to post. But I don't have much to say today. You see, I am too busy listening.

Listening to the tired tick of the timer as apple crisp bakes in the oven;

To the determined buzz of bees in the last blossoms of summer;

To the peppered questions of a four year old learning to sew;

And to the meticulous reading of a six year old.

To the chortle of jam jars bubbling on the stove;

To the swish of a paint brush turning the finished chicken coop barn red;

To the gossip of the busy squirrel in the tree overhead;

And to the quiet click of knitting needles making the first handmade gift for the holidays.

I apologize, dear reader, for leaving you with the sound of silence. Sometimes, though, I find it better to listen than to speak. What are you be listening to?

Monday, September 21, 2009

PDeA and what you can do about it.

Bleatings from EnviRambo.

So just what is PDeA, you ask? Some new chemical on our cookware that causes cancer? No. A hormone disrupter that leaches from plastic food storage containers we use? No. Oh, I got it... A growth hormone in our food that we do not know the future side-effects of? Nope, wrong again.

I am talking about Public Displays of eco-Affection.

photo credit © Andreas Pollok / Getty Images

Have you bore witness to this calamity? It all started with those damn tree huggers. Have you ever tried to hug a tree? They are scratchy. Then they stopped shaving... and bathing. Thank goodness hygiene has made a comeback. I mean really, how much water does a good soak in the shower use? It is not like there is a shortage of it. The stuff falls from the sky! Oh, and a friend of a friend whose cousin's uncle's aunt's (twice removed) neighbor stayed at a former long-hair's house once... she said they had this crazy-metal-archaic-torture-device looking thing in the shower. Well, she was too afraid to ask what it was, but when she got home she googled it and it is something called a "Safety Razor?", can you imagine?

I even heard there are some people that go out in public without deodorant on! I know, I know. Ghastly! But get this, they use... baking soda! Oh, that just makes me laugh. Don't they know that stuff is for cooking? Next thing you know, people will be washing their hair with vinegar. Ha! But, I digress.

What was I talking about again? Oh, right.... PDeA. Ooh, just the thought makes me shudder. It is getting a bit out of control, don't you think? I mean, people are running rampant in the streets carrying their own bags! They are everywhere! The mall, the convenience store, chain stores, big-box stores, hardware stores, even Wal-Mart. You know something has gone awry in the world when one of the biggest environmental abusers is now encouraging people to openly bring their own bags. Whew, once marketing gets a hold of this it will be all the rage. And DO NOT even get me started on the grocery stores! Never have I seen such PDeA! That kind of behavior is fine for the Farmers' Market, but the Supermarket? Come on people, have you no shame?

Keep it up and there will be no plastic bags left for me to pick up my dog poop. Then there are all these people running around on bicycles. They want whole lanes dedicated to them so they can "ride safely". Huh... just get out of the way! Don't you know roads are made for cars. Not bikes. Geesh. Don't think I am getting on one of those things! I am content to pedal the stationary bike at my gym where I can sit and watch TV or stare at the wall while listening to my iPod, thank you very much. Or, take one of those spin classes. That is the way cycling should be... behind closed doors and out of harm's way.

Some of the worst offenders are these people running around with their own water bottle strapped to their hip. First cell phones, then iPods, now reusable water bottles? One of these things is not like the other... one of these things just doesn't belong. Yeah, Klean Kanteen I think they are called? Aww... isn't that cute. What are you, a Boyscout? Who else walks around with a canteen? Is that really necessary? I mean, they sell perfectly good water in bottles everywhere. Hello?!? Why just the other day I saw someone ask to have their smoothie put into one of these. Oh wait, that was me. Shh... don't tell. What do they think this is, the gas station? It is not like they are going to get a discount for refilling their own mug. Isn't part of what you pay for, the cafe providing you a cup?

Next thing you know people will be co-mingled dishes from home with perfectly good to-go containers. When I was a waitress we used to joke about people hiding their own container in their purse to take a little extra from the buffet. Now they are whipping them out in plain sight - for all to see! - demanding their leftovers be transported in them. Hey, that is what I will use to pick up my dog poop... all those unused doggy bags restaurants will have! Brilliant!

In fact, I went to this dinner the other night... Harvest Dinner, they call it. The invite said I had to bring my own plate and eating utensils! The nerve! True story, no lie. No really, I wouldn't shit you... you're my favorite turd.

You host a party and cannot provide the plates? Okay, so you don't want to do dishes. I get it. I hate doing dishes too. Have you ever heard of a paper plate? They are wonderful! You use them once and throw them away. No mess!

There are even whole festivals dedicated to this nonsense! One day (in April right?) set aside for "loving Mother Earth", recycling, sitting in the dark, blah blah blah, and all that other feel good hippie mumbo jumbo. Cripes, they act like it is a national holiday or something. Oh wait, it is! Damn you tree huggers!

I guess what I am trying to say here people, is that there seems to be a bit of an epidemic on our hands. We are living in unprecedented times. If you do not put a stop to this madness, who will?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Superhero Secrets Sunday

A little linky love from the Greenhabilitator...

Pleeeeeeease forgive me for getting this post up so late today. Even a Superhero gets tied up sometimes. Lucky for me, I was tied up with family enjoying a beautiful Colorado weekend!

Last week I had the opportunity to remove my mommy hat and put on my dancin' shoes when I joined the Mile High Mamas at the lovely Warwick Hotel in Denver for a blogger get-together. There was yummy food, a wine tasting, some great prize give-aways and, best of all, the opportunity to meet the authors of some of the fabulous blogs that I read. I thought you might like to meet them too!

There I am on the end (left my cape at home that night!) with Amy, Heather, Nicole, Melissa, Julie and Alison, who are also known as:
  • Amy = Crunchy Domestic Goddess - If you haven't joined Amy's Ditch the Disposables Challenge for 2009, go do it now! She had almost 150 participants in the challenge last year and is aiming for 200 this year.
  • Heather = A Mama's Blog - Heather, who beat thyroid cancer earlier this year, felt the event was a catharsis that helped her shift from cancer patient to cancer survivor. Not only is she that, but I found her to also be a pretty cool chick.
  • Nicole = Feeding Time at the Zoo - I'm so glad that I got to meet Nicole. Her zoo house sounds a lot like mine, only she finds the time to cook, take amazing photographs, and blog eloquently about it all.
  • Melissa = NatureDeva - I hadn't seen Melissa's blog before either, but am loving it now. She is a Reiki Master, Nutrition Consultant and Herbalist whose blog is very insightful and packed full of excellent information. I'm looking forward to learning from her backyard chicken adventure!
  • Julie = Terminal Verbosity - You may remember Julie from her old/other blog Chez Artz. She's also my partner in crime for the Colorado APLS group. Julie is so full of life and energy and wit. It was great to finally meet her in person. She's a wonderful writer, Master Gardener, and knows just about everything about canning and preserving food.
  • Alison = Green Me - Alison writes about food, vegan cooking, being a mom, and just all things green. She's also started Conundrum Cupcakery where makes vegan cupcakes. Yum!
I also got to meet Gabrielle Blair of Design Mom and Kirtsy. I have to admit, after following her blog for so long, I felt like I was meeting a celebrity! Gabrielle showcases, well, just about everything with beautiful design on her blog. But even more than pretty things, I love reading about her family. I don't know how she does all of these amazing things while raising 5 adorable kids. She's definitely a supermom herself.

I think that blogging and social networking online come easily because I can stop and think about what to say. Meeting all these folks in person definitely took me out of my comfort zone, but I'm so glad that I went and can't wait for the next event!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Ray of Hope in Education

Musings from the Greenhabilitator...

I don't mean to brag, but my husband is a pretty fly guy.

After college, he was in sales for years and was pretty successful at it. He made decent money, but he was miserable. Then he went back to school for his true love, which is teaching. He got his teaching degree, then his Master's in Education and has been teaching in inner-city schools ever since. Yeah, no hope of ever paying off those student loans!

It's not that he can't get a job at a "good" school, he's just never tried. I guess he's the Mr. Kotter of our generation -- he goes where he feels he's needed most. Usually that's a flailing school with low test scores, a high percentage of free or reduced lunches, and a high ESL population.

Between having three kids of my own, a teacher for a husband, and moderating the School & Learning boards on iVillage, I find myself thinking or talking about education for a huge portion of my day, every day. Unfortunately one of the most common themes is how our education system is failing our children.

I really look at the education system the same way I look at other systems or institutions in our country. Take employment, for example. Generations ago, a person would work for the same company for 20 years. We don't do this anymore and, as a result, companies have changed the way they attract employees, hire, the benefits and incentives they provide, and so on. Our needs have changed, and employment has changed to meet those needs.

Education is no different. The face of our student population in the US is different than it was 100 years ago. The way children are raised today is different. Their family make up, the social and emotional issues they deal with, the pressures they face, their financial statuses -- everything -- is different. So why are we still teaching the same way? Education must evolve into what we need it to be today if we want our children to be successful.

I can only imagine how frustrated my husband and other teachers feel when they can see a broken system, or a better way to do things, but still have to conform. And I was so happy to know that someone else "gets it" when I read Dwight D. Jones' article For education reform to occur, we must actually re-form education in a local paper yesterday. Jones is the Commissioner of Education with the Colorado Department of Education so, if it's important for anyone to "get it", it's definitely him!

In the article, Jones quotes Arthur Levine, who is the former President of Columbia University's Teachers College, in saying that today's system is like an assembly line:
"...all students [are put] through a common process tied to the clock. Children progress based on the amount of time they spend being taught in a classroom, with all students required to master the same body of knowledge in the same period of time. Given what we know today, this approach no longer makes sense."
Can I get an "Amen"?

He goes on to talk about Adams School District 50 where who else but my very fly hubby teaches. His school, Metz Elementary, was the pilot school for a new teaching style last year. Hubby calls it "standards based" and the school uses a "leveling" system rather than grades. So he may teach a Level 4 Math class, which has 3rd, 4th and 5th graders in it. As each child masters a standard, they able to progress to the next level, regardless of what grade they are in. Jones explains it (much more eloquently!) like this:
"In District 50, students progress not by the amount of time they've spent in a seat, but by their demonstration of competency in coursework. The district has defined precisely what students should know and be able to do from one level to the next in all subjects. Expectations are consistent from classroom to classroom, school to school. Teachers know exactly what to teach and what students are to learn, using a scoring guide to make sure students have "gotten it" before they move on.

Under their teacher's guidance, students track their own progress at their own pace, while receiving the time and help they need to master the content. In the elementary schools, teachers group students by performance, not age, for reading, writing and math. Middle school students are grouped similarly for language arts, math, science and social studies."
So, theoretically, a student could buzz through many levels of a subject he's strong in, but go slower in his weaker subjects. A student who is advanced could graduate years early. One who needs more assistance can go at his own pace and progress through the levels as he masters them.

I just can't tell you how happy I am - as a parent, as someone interested in education, and as someone concerned about the future of our country - to see this being implemented. District 50 is going into this full of steam, with the training, support and knowledge of experts around the country and the dedication of its staff and administration. I hope they'll pave the way for more education "re-formation" around the country.

Now if I could just get them to start recycling. Baby steps...


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