Monday, October 1, 2012

First Grade Homework and Chicken Chili Verde: The Dilemma of the Overachiever

Last week, my son came home with his long-anticipated first homework assignments. I'd been hearing parents talk about homework for two years already, and was dreading this transition for all of us. Luckily, I. seemed to take it all in stride, and sat down on the first day immediately after he arrived home from school, and set about doing his homework. (He doesn't know enough yet to complain about it, I guess.)

I debated for a bit whether I hang out with him to help, or if it would be more helpful for me to keep his sister occupied in another room. I finally came down on the side of peacekeeping, and left I. to his own devices in the kitchen.

About half an hour later, I peeked in, and was surprised to see him still plugging away at the spelling worksheet I'd left him with. Words are his strength: he reads two levels ahead of his grade, and can write fairly well for his age, though his spelling is definitely ... creative, at best. One glance over his shoulder, though, revealed why: instead of writing the words twice, as the directions stated, he'd written each word multiple times, filling the page as he went, and getting a little more sloppy with each iteration.

I bit my lip. Should I rebuke him for not following the teacher's directions? Or cheer him on for going above and beyond what the assignment required? What would the teacher be looking for? And what would she think of me, the parent who was supposed to be supervising?

Yes, I was totally overthinking first grade homework.

I decided to first congratulate him on his ambition, then point out how the writing suffered when he was getting tired of the assignment and tell him it was OK to take a break, and then ask him if/how he thought it might have been different if he'd followed the directions. I'm not sure if covering all of the bases was the way to go, but the incident made me realize just how often we're given directions that place limits on our own creativity or industry. I know that children need structure, but it would have been just as easy for the directions to say "write the words at least two times." Or "write the words two, three, or four times."

Because these children, the ones given limits, are the ones that turn into the college students who used to ask me, "how long does that paper have to be?" and who are stymied by the answer, "as long as it takes to make your point."

That's one thing I love about cooking. You start with a recipe, and maybe you follow it the first time. But once you're comfortable with the ingredients, with the process, you start to take liberties with it. You get creative. You end up with something completely different. The best recipes actually encourage that experimentation, rather than stifling it.

What do you think? Have you ever been given a structure that actually limited your creativity? And do you think that there are ways to give people structure that makes them more creative?

Chicken Chili Verde
The original for this recipe, located at Grubarazzi, is fabulous. But I like my small variations, and the original also inspired me to make a similar green sauce with the first roasted ingredients that turned out to be excellent as a base for chicken/white bean and spinach enchiladas. Somehow, I am embarrassed to admit that I completely missed taking a picture of both dishes, which sort of suggests how they were devoured here.  (Luckily, there is a picture at Grubarazzi.  Go salivate there.)  I would recommend making double the amount of green sauce, and saving some for a future experiment of your own.

1 large red onion, peeled and quartered
7 garlic cloves
2 green bell peppers, cut lengthwise
2 jalapenos, cut lengthwise and seeded
15 tomatillos, husked, cut in half
Pinch of salt
Drizzle of olive oil

3 pounds skinless boneless chicken thighs, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
5 tablespoons stone ground corn meal
Pinch of salt, oregano, cumin, and pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 cups canned low-salt chicken broth
5 cups frozen corn kernels, thawed
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 avocado, thinly sliced (for garnish)

Preheat the oven to 450. Place onions, garlic, bell peppers, jalapenos, and tomatillos on a large baking sheet in a single layer, cut side down. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Roast for at least 20 minutes, or until caramelized. Remove and allow to cool, about 10 minutes. Transfer the roasted vegetables to the blender, and blend until smooth. Set aside.

In a large bowl combine corn meal, salt, pepper, oregano and cumin. Toss the chicken in this mixture until coated.

Heat olive oil in a large heavy pot over medium-high heat. Add half of chicken to pot and sauté until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a bowl. Repeat browning process with remaining chicken. Return all of the chicken (including its juices) to the stock pot. Add blended vegetables, chicken broth, corn, oregano, chili powder, cumin, paprika and cinnamon to pot. Bring liquid to boil. Reduce heat and simmer until mixture thickens and flavors blend, stirring occasionally, about 2 hours. Season with salt throughout the cooking process to taste.

Mix cilantro into chili. Garnish with slice avocado (or your garnish of choice) and serve.
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  1. I think you handled the homework issues really well. Your son is lucky to have your guideance and as a teacher I wish more of my students had that kind of support at home. Good luck with all the homework assignments to come!

  2. Oh my - the first homework assignment. I could also see myself over thinking that! In my opinion you handled it beautifully.

  3. I think you handled it perfectly! Your little guy shows a lot of initiative! (Although I have to admit that I don't quite understand the purpose of making 6-year-olds copy out spelling words. I know that this is typical homework for a lot of little kids, but the teacher in me can't help but wonder why. But I digress.) And I know exactly what you mean about your students. I teach adults and ask them to write about something. And some of them will actually ask me how many sentences they have to write.

  4. I think that your handling of his first homework was picture perfect. Good for you!

    I absolutely agree about limiting creativity, and have the same problem with my students and page limits.

  5. Agree with others that your handling of the situation was inspired. One of the harder parts of parenting for me is seeing some of to I put it, "less-desired" qualities come through in my children...I can see the struggles certain traits may lead to in the future (i.e. perfectionism) & its very hard to sit back and embrace them being themselves.

  6. Yes: you handled that situation really well, I totally agree.

    Also, I am starved after seeing that picture and recipe ;)


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