Tag Archives: creativity

Slice of Life: Maker Space

Oat and Maple Bread

My kitchen is a maker space. If you have been reading my blog for a while or know me in person, you might know I make soap. I haven’t made it as often over the last year—mostly just for my family and me. One of the beautiful things about making something like soap yourself is that you can control everything that goes into it. I also make lotion, and if you knew how cheap and easy it is to make, you’d never buy expensive lotion at the store again.

Over the last six months or so, my new favorite thing to make is bread. I have long been intimidated by baking bread because I have zero skills coaxing recipes that need special attention. I can’t do kneading or rolling things out (don’t ask me about my attempts at pie crust). I ran into a great no-knead recipe, and I was sold. I’ve been baking bread ever since, and nothing beats homemade bread. The picture above is my flour mixture and oats for an oatmeal maple bread that happens to be my favorite one to bake… and eat.

So why am I writing about this on my education blog?

I’m on winter break, which means I have time to bake Christmas cookies and bread and whatever else strikes my fancy. Teaching is such an exhausting profession. When I come home from work, most of the time all I want to do is read. I try not to bring work home.  And honestly, I try not to give a lot of pointless homework. Preparation for class in the form of reading and writing is pretty much the extent. Occasionally, students study for quizzes in my class. Over the two weeks that they are on vacation, I have asked them to read what they choose. I have explicitly told them not to work on revising their essays. The only work I want them to do for me is to read… and to read what they want to read. Maybe they’ll make a few things, too, with the time they have. I hope they do.

My friend Jared says in his Statement of Teaching Philosophy that if you “ask [his] sophomores ‘How many of you are painters?’ there might be a few hands raised in a class.” On the other hand, he adds, if you ask young children the same question “a swarm of hands would shoot into the air proudly and enthusiastically.” So what gives? As Jared asks, “What happens between Kindergarten and 10th grade? Where do all the painters go?”

We all need an artistic outlet. I never felt like a very confident artist. I have been a pretty good musician (though very out of practice). For the past five years or so making soap and then learning to bake have been artistic outlets for me. With all the buzz in education about maker spaces, one thing we seem to forget is that elementary school classrooms are tremendous maker spaces, or at least mine was. We need to figure out how to give students the time and the space to continue to be creative. My answer to Jared’s question is that over time, we devalue creative projects in school. I know English teachers, for example, who think I waste time with creative writing in my classes. I don’t care what they think because I feel in my gut that they are wrong.

A good case in point: my last AP Lit class right before winter break. I didn’t have high hopes. They meet at the very end of the day. Some of the students likely wouldn’t be there or would leave early as the dorms closed at 5:00. We would wrap up our short unit on Love and Relationships after a great discussion about “Brokeback Mountain” the previous day. But I pulled out a great lesson idea from writer Jason Reynolds from NCTE 2016. I gave students Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138 and asked them to rewrite it in the idiom of their choice. To sweeten the deal, I brought them homemade gingerbread using Emily Dickinson’s own recipe. Wishing I had Jason Reynolds’s mentor text from that session, I plunged ahead anyway. I wrote with the students (I chose 1980’s Valley Girl slang). One student asked, “Is it okay if I cuss in my poem?” I grimaced and said, “Sure.” Another student asked, “Is it okay if I curse a lot?” Why not? In for a penny…

With around 20 minutes left, the students said it was time for everyone to share. We had poems in the voices of a robot, a pirate, a resident of Southie, and a more modern take. Honestly, I knew they understood it perfectly when I overheard one student reading the first line to another: “When bae swears that she ain’t lying…”

I asked the students what they got out of the exercise, and one student said, “I understood the poem a lot better because I had to in order to rewrite it.” No, she wasn’t a paid shill, I promise.

The students were still in the room at 3:30 at the end of the period. I practically had to kick them out. On Friday right before break. In senior year, no less. I couldn’t believe it. We had a lot of fun creating together that day.

I often say that we make time for the things we value. I am asked a lot how I have time to read, to bake, to make soap, to do creative activities with students when there is just so much to cover. We can’t “cover” it all, folks. Students will not learn everything we think is worth knowing in our classrooms, and that’s okay because if we stopped to think about it, we’d realize we didn’t learn everything worth knowing in a single class or even in ten classes, or maybe not even in a class at all. But if we value creativity, we need to make time to create, to allow our classrooms to be maker spaces.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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What I Make

Autumn Fig Harvest SoapSomething many visitors to this blog might not know about me is that I make soap. I have been making soap for almost four years now. One of the reasons I started is that I fell in love with the homemade soap sold at my local farmer’s market back when I lived in Georgia. I did some research, thinking that once we moved to Massachusetts, I might take it up as a hobby. I looked at websites, saved money for supplies, and read books. I made my first batch of soap within a few weeks of moving. I didn’t want to start a new hobby as we were attempting to move, especially as it would mean packing those supplies I had purchased. It seemed better to do research and wait until we moved.

Over time, I learned to develop my own recipes for soaps, and I’ve learned my own techniques for design. It has become a creative outlet—a form of art. It’s conveniently a useful art, as well, but not any less creative for all of that.

In the years since I started making soap, I have had some spectacular failures. The first time I made soap using coffee, I forgot one of my oils, so my soap had too much lye in it, and it was not usable. There are ways you can salvage batches like that, but I didn’t want to because my design had been ruined. The first time I used honey and goat milk together in soap, my soap overheated and had very interesting-looking caves running through it.

Honey and Goat MilkFragrances can sometimes be difficult to work with. Sometimes they contain ingredients that cause soap to darken (which is cosmetic, but some people don’t like the way it looks). This is usually because of a high content of vanillin, but other ingredients can discolor soap.

Cedar & SaffronSome fragrances speed up the exothermic chemical reaction between oils and lye that results in soap, making it difficult to work with the soap batter. This problem is known as speeding up trace (when it’s mild) or seizing (when it’s severe). Soap batter is a mixture of oils and/or fats and lye. “Trace” is a term given to soap batter when it’s thick enough to leave little traces or trails on the soap batter.  You can just see it if you look at this image of soap batter.

Soap at TraceOnce a soap reaches “trace,” it’s ready to pour into the mold. If a fragrance causes a soap to reach trace faster, it might be more difficult to pour into a mold because it’s thicker. This can sometimes leave gaps or holes in the bars, but is usually not a problem aside from cosmetic issues. I do work with some fragrances that cause my soap batter to thicken more quickly, so I have learned to compensate for this issue by mixing the oils and lye at a lower temperature and/or not mixing them as long as I typically might.

Lilac SoapYou can see the holes caused by soap made with a fragrance that thickened up really quickly. I had to glop it into the mold, and it left holes like the ones near the bottom of the bar. After I learned how to work with difficult fragrances, I learned produce soaps like this one, even with fragrances that thickened the soap batter.

Hobbit's GardenNo holes or gaps!

I have only had soap batches “seize” on me a few times, and it’s always been because the fragrance caused it. Seized soap starts to solidify before you can even get it into a mold, and it often heats up at the same time. If a fragrance causes my soap to seize, I just don’t use it ever again because you can’t really work around that issue. The best you can do is glop the soap in a mold and hope it doesn’t look too terrible, but it nearly always does.

Soap in the MoldI have learned to enjoy the process of making soap. It’s calming. I usually listen to audio books while I work. I love experimenting with different colors, designs, and scents. I like trying things like infusing my soaping oils with herbs, like chamomile and calendula.

I have developed a favorite recipe that makes a really nice lather. It’s a go-to recipe for me, but I still try different combinations of oils sometimes. The fun, for me, is discovering something new—a design technique I have never tried, or a color combination that looks gorgeous. I have learned a great deal about art through making soap.

I’ve also learned resilience in the face of failure. It took me several tries to make a good goat milk soap. Working with milk in soap is hard for beginners. It also took me several tries to learn how to make swirls in my soap. This was my first successful swirl.

Coconut Lime VerbenaI’ve also learned the value of experimentation. I have ruined some batches of soap, resulting in loss of materials, but each time I had problems, I learned from them, and learning what NOT to do next time is probably more valuable than doing everything right the first time every time. It’s disappointing to have a ruined batch of soap, but I always learn from it when it happens. And it still occasionally happens.

I’ve learned a great deal about chemistry, too. I never took organic chemistry, and I had a great deal of trouble with chemistry in high school. I understand a lot more at least about the kind of chemistry involved in making soap, and it is fascinating to learn about. One of the reasons I took up this hobby in the first place is that I love to learn. I have tried my hand at many crafts over the years—making candles, cross stitching, crocheting, knitting (still learning that one), scrapbooking—and none of them has captured my imagination or given me the same kind of artistic gratification that making soap has done. I’ve also made friends that only know me through my love of this hobby—most of them fellow soapmakers.

We should all find some artistic outlet that fulfills us, teaches us, and allows us opportunities for expressing ourselves.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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