Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Spot the Pollinator

We see these butterflies often in the summer, and I notice that many people mistakenly refer to them as monarchs when they see them from a distance. While we may get a few western monarchs here in British Columbia, these are definitely not. The "tail" of the butterfly marks it as a swallowtail butterfly, and this one is a fairly common one here, the tiger swallowtail butterfly.

This particular butterfly enjoyed drinking nectar from my flowers for some time. We were able to get quite close to this one, and were able to watch it elongate its proboscis into flowers several times. It was absolutely fascinating.

Spot The PollinatorI am linking up with The Green Bean Chronicles who is hosting the Spot the Pollinator segment. Pop on over and visit her.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Now Is The Time

I have avoided sharing my thoughts about the dispute between the British Columbia Teachers Federation and the B.C. provincial government on this blog. After all, this is a blog about my journey to an environmentally conscious life. What does a labour dispute have to do with the environment? Instead, as my Facebook friends will attest, I have been rabidly sharing my thoughts, relevant articles, photos from the picket lines, and news updates on the bargaining process. This issue is near and dear to my heart as a parent, a teacher and a member of society.

So Why Am I Writing About The BCTF Dispute On An Environmental Blog?

Yes, this is a blog about being green, but without leaders to educate and inspire me to become more green, I wouldn't care as much about the environment and work toward making a difference. It is because of teachers, be they our parents or grandparents, community leaders or public school teachers, that we learn and become better people. Without an education that encouraged critical thinking, I wouldn't have the skill set to question what I know, research, and change my thinking. Without teachers I would not be inspired to care about our food system and creating food security by growing a backyard organic garden. Without school I would not have a platform for promoting a green perspective beyond my own children.

On the picket line with my colleagues.
After deliberation, I have decided to use this blog as a vehicle to share my thoughts in more depth than social media platforms allow. With smart phones, Facebook, and Twitter, we are skimming and reading headlines and sound bites about the dispute, which has reduced it, at least in the general public's eyes, to a "he said, she said" back and forth media battle. This dispute, however, requires that people take the time to become informed about what the classroom reality looks like, what's really at stake for the future of education, and really the future of our society.

It is Time To Become Informed Instead of Just Being Opinionated

On the picket line, June, 2014
I could go on and share the history of the current dispute, the 2002 illegal stripping of our contract (after being promised that the government would honour negotiated contracts), the designation of education as an essential service to limit BCTF job actions, the elimination of hundreds of specialist teacher positions, the underfunding of education overall, the court rulings in teachers' favour, and government partial lockout of teachers (with ensuing 10% wage deduction). I could cite numerous articles outlining the numbers involved in the cuts and what it would cost in today's dollars to reinstate that funding. But I know that people tune out when statistics and numbers are thrown at them, and numbers can be used to justify anything, depending on how they are used. Instead I'd like to share a little of my teaching experience to shed some light on the impact of the government decisions and cuts.

Public Schooling Pre 2002 Contract Stripping

For the first ten years of my career I worked largely as a specialist teacher, supporting students who required learning assistance, as well as English language learners (formerly ESL, now ELL). I loved my job because I had the opportunity to develop one on one relationships with the students I supported. Their successes were my successes, and their setbacks filled my heart with sadness. I took post graduate courses (beyond my two bachelor degrees) at university in the summers to deepen my knowledge of current research around learning and strategies to support these students.

One of my responsibilities was to work with late primary students (grades 2 and 3) who were struggling to read. After identification by the classroom teacher, and informal testing, students were referred to an early literacy program in which I worked one on one with students for 40 minutes per day, five days per week for a whole school term. The program was a huge success, and those students who had slight learning delays left the program beaming with pride when they could finally read. It was one of the most rewarding experiences I have had in my 18 years of teaching. Those students could now keep up with their classmates and succeed. Perhaps they would continue to require some support occasionally throughout their schooling, or not, but they all had a new confidence in themselves as learners. Those rare students who were not successful were referred to formal testing to determine if they met the criteria for a ministry category that would bring funding to the school to support them.

At the rally for education, June 19th, 2014

Public Schools In The Post 2002 World

Fast forward to today. I am now an intermediate teacher in an elementary school. In a typical classroom each year I will have 3-5 students who work at least 2 grade levels below their classmates because of learning delays or difficulties. They will have to wait years to receive the appropriate testing that will ensure they can get funding for the support they so desperately need now. Of course I support them in the classroom, but it will be me on my own, with no learning assistance (my classroom receives 2 - 40 minute blocks of learning assistance support per week, that is all. I will have a minimum of 10-15 students with an ELL designation (therefore receiving funding and support), which doesn't include those students who have received their five years funding, but still require support because their language learning masked other learning issues (no funding, no support). I will have a handful of students with behaviour issues, and some severe enough to require an Individual Education Plan (IEP) to document the ways I need to support them, but unless they are a safety concern for themselves or others, they will receive no support. Often there is cross over with other issues, such as the students with behaviour concerns because of an undiagnosed learning difficulty, an emotional issue that comes out in their behaviour, or attention and focusing issues (sometimes ADHD / ADD).

A Typical Classroom Today, By The Numbers

On average, a classroom in my school district will have this profile *

  • 3-5 students below grade level - no funding, minimal to no support
  • 10-15 (conservative estimate) with ELL designation - funding and support for 5 years
  • 3 behaviour issues that disrupt the classroom - no funding, minimal to no support
  • 1-2 students with emotional concerns that affect their learning and well-being - may receive support
  • 3-4 students working above grade level who require additional resources and lessons to be adapted for complexity and depth, minimal to no support
  • 2 special needs student (such as Autism, profound intellectual delays, behaviour/safety concerns) - funding but usually only part time support as it is shifted to those red flag students with safety concerns who must have full time support in the classroom

* Some of my colleagues would argue that I have presented conservative numbers for a typical classroom.

The rally for education, June 19th, 2014
The days of special programs in the public school such as the one in which I participated for early literacy intervention no longer exist. Those young students who struggle to read will always struggle to read, unless their parents can afford private tutoring for them. As they get older, the learning gap increases as the content demands increase. In the upper grades they are required to read information books, websites and articles and use complex skills such as scanning for specific details, summarising the main idea, and understanding text features, just to name a few. Their knowledge gap widens as well, because they cannot understand the content. By the time they get to high school they are unhappy because school is hard and they are not successful. These students are at risk for depression, dangerous behaviours such as substance abuse, and dropping out of school. Often, but not always, these students come from economically disadvantaged families who cannot seek the support their children need. Never mind the students who just don't reach their full potential because they didn't get the help they needed at a crucial stage in their learning.

The government's Learning Improvement Fund (LIF), their answer to the pre 2002 education funding,  clearly isn't working. They quote how much the BCTF proposal would cost in today's dollars and say that this money doesn't exist, and they do not want to have any teacher input on how funds are used in the schools because they want to be "flexible" in how support is provided. The court system has told them that they have acted illegally, and that they have not negotiated in good faith. Yet they continually tell the public that they put families first, that they want a deal with teachers and they are willing to be reasonable.

What Future Do You Want For Our Province?

Students in the public school system are being short-changed and if parents are able to, they are filling in the gaps and subsidising an education they have already supported with their tax dollars. As a teacher I have been subsidising the public school system, that I happily support as a tax payer, by using my salary to buy resources for the classroom (easily hundreds of dollars per year), as well as the numerous pay deductions since 2002 for job actions (and now partial lockout and 10% pay reduction) to raise the public's awareness of what is being done to public education. Teachers have been at the forefront of spreading the word about what we see as a gross injustice to our children, for which we have been branded militants, making our grave concerns easy to dismiss. But why is there no money for education? The provincial government has reduced corporate taxes under the guise of creating jobs. They are off-loading education onto individuals and I believe this is the gradual privatisation of education and corporate sponsorship that we can see happening south of the border.

It Is Time To Stand Up

At the BCTF rally at Canada Place, June 19th, 2014
It is time for everyone in society, parents, grandparents, as well as people with no family members in the public school system, to take up the torch and lead with teachers. Every time someone states, "I understand what the issues are, but what about how our kids are missing out at the end of the year," or "Yes, what the government did was wrong but there's no money," they are cutting down our cause. This is what the government wants you to do. They want to divide us to justify their cuts and imposed legislation. This is not a militant union seeking political power, as the government would have you believe. This is about teachers, who are living the reality day in, day out, trying to shout from the mountain tops that this is an injustice for our children, and therefore for society.

Please do not let them create a two-tiered system where the wealthy can put their children in private schools (which are also supported by tax payers) or pay for private tutoring, and the rest of us have to accept a sub par education because "there just isn't money".

Tell the government that our children, and the future of our society, is more important than a new stadium roof, increased pay for MLAs or redecorated legislature offices.

I'm doing more than my part, now it is time for you, too.

Spring Garden Harvest

Here is a selection of my spring garden harvest in photos:

Kale is my number one favourite plant to grow. My
neighbours gave me some of their rhubarb. 

Leafy lettuce, deer's tongue lettuce, radishes, celery.

We have enjoyed many colourful salads this spring.

Mustard greens have a wonderful tangy taste

When mustard greens are cooked their mild mustard
flavour is enhanced. I love cooking them in coconut oil,
garlic and balsamic reduction. Recipe here.

This is the first time I've grown turnips in the spring. I had
to harvest some early because powdery mildew began
early this year. 

My chives were so big they looked like green onions! 

The strawberries did very well this year and they came in early.


My bok choy did not do as well as I'd hoped because the
soil was a little nitrogen deficient. They were slow to
grow, then bolted early. I managed to salvage some.

I had the same issue with my spinach. One raised bed
did well, but the other bolted quickly.

We sautéed the spinach in butter, garlic and wine and served
over homemade pasta. 

And the queen of my spring garden: garlic scapes! My
daughter likes eating them raw, but my favourite way to
prepare is to make pesto. 

DIY vs. Chemistry

Image source
Whenever a movement becomes popular there will be people who espouse that way of life without full understanding, and there will be the push back and criticism from others. Such is the case with living a green life and trying to avoid toxic ingredients.

Can We Trust Commercial Products?

One way people try to be more eco-minded is with household cleaners and personal care products. Without a chemistry degree and knowledge of how chemical compounds react and affect the human body, I find it difficult to know the difference between greenwashing products that throw around buzz words like "natural" and "eco", and truly non-toxic products. I am a diligent product ingredient reader, but I may not know what sodium chloride, laurel glucoside, sodium laureth sulfate, ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane are. They may or may not have toxic effects on humans, but I cannot trust that they are safe, or assume that they are dangerous, if they are listed in product ingredients.

In case you are wondering, sodium chloride (salt) and laurel glucoside (a surfactant from coconut oil and sugar) are fine, but ethylene oxide, sodium laureth sulfate and 1,4-dioxane, which can be found in soaps, are not fine. But I did not know this without doing some reading because I only studied chemistry until grade ten. How many people do this before they go shopping and grab dish soap or shampoo off the shelves? I am, therefore, electing to learn how to make my own products rather than reading about each and every ingredient in the commercial ingredients I purchase.

Is the Eco Movement Uninformed About Basic Chemistry?

The pushback is coming in the form of "science defenders" who feel the need to point out chemicals are not bad, and that everything is made of chemicals. If we make our own cleaning products from vinegar, salt, or baking soda we are idiots because these too are just chemicals. Chemicals and chemical compounds are natural because they are a part of everything and naturally occurring. How silly of people to make natural cleaners that are really just chemical compounds.

Continue reading at The Green Phone Booth>>>

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Sauteed Mustard Greens in Balsamic Reduction

Last year I bought some variety vegetable seed packs from West Coast Seeds that included some plants that I had not tried growing, and mustard seeds was one of them. They turned out to be the hit of the season. The young leaves had a very mild flavour with barely a hint of mustard, and we use them in green salads. As they grow, or if they are cooked, the mustard flavour becomes more pronounced.

I enjoy growing different varieties of greens that are not usually found in the grocery store. I think so many people do not like eating greens because they are used to bland flavours or they think they have to be eaten raw in a salad.

My favourite way to prepare mustard greens is to sauté them in coconut oil, garlic and balsamic reduction. Garlic and coconut oil is delicious, and the mild tang of the mustard combined with with sweetness of the balsamic vinegar is perfect. When I make this, as either a side dish or to go over rice or pasta, my husband and oldest daughter are happy.

I have found the trick to sautéing the greens is to heat up the pan then turn to a medium low heat, and turn them rapidly in the pan so they do not scorch or get soggy.

Mustard greens fresh from my garden

  • mustard greens, cleaned, dried and cut into large-ish pieces
  • 1 tablespoon of coconut oil
  • 2-3 garlic cloves (or more to taste), minced
  • pinch of salt, optional (I prefer pink Himalayan salt)
  • a drizzle of balsamic vinegar reduction

Balsamic reduction isn't difficult to make from scratch but I love these
infused reductions made by a local chef.  We first found them at a farmer's
market but they are now sold at the local grocery store. 


  • heat the pan (I prefer cast iron pans) then turn down to medium low
  • melt the coconut oil, add the garlic and salt (optional) and cook until beginning to brown
  • add the mustard greens
  • turn the greens with tongs rapidly, ensuring that all of the greens are lightly cooked and not soggy or burnt

  • take the pan off the heat
  • drizzle the balsamic reduction and turn the greens again to coat

  • serve over rice, pasta or quinoa, or as a side dish

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Spot the Pollinator

Everyone is hearing about the importance of pollinators to the world's food systems in the media these days, and the threats to their existence. Most people think about honey bees when they hear pollinators, but there are many other insects who contribute to the pollination of flowers. Along with honey bees, there are hundreds of bees native to North America who carry out the important task of pollination. My lawn is full of digger bees and I am trying to help nurture some mason bees in my backyard. But other insects carry out the act of pollination as well, such as flies, butterflies, moths and beetles.

Are Wasps Pollinators?

One pollinator that most people are unhappy to see are wasps. Yes, they can be aggressive, particularly as the summer comes to an end, when they are grumpy and their food supplies begin to dwindle. Until I spent more time in gardens observing the insects that visit and populate the plants I didn't realize that wasps visit flowers. They may accidentally pollinate when they are hunting their prey in flowers, but it turns out they also drink nectar!

But Aren't Wasps The "Bad Guys"?

I have long been terrified of wasps. I was stung repeatedly, in fact dozens of times at once, when I was a young child and inadvertently disturbed a large wasp nest. As I have become more passionate about organic gardening, however, I have come to appreciate the wasp. The mere sight of them can cause people to scream and run away. But they are an important part of the ecosystem. They are carnivores who hunt for pest insects that may eat our plants. They are everywhere, and as the summer wears on their numbers increase, so if you can't beat them, join them, so to speak. I have even been able to get close enough to some to take their photos, something that I consider quite brave because of wasps' renowned aggression.

Of course I still get frustrated with wasps in the dog days of summer when they swarm around us as we eat our dinner outside. But I have a new appreciation of this much maligned insect.

Spot The Pollinator 

My spot the pollinator photo is a bald faced hornet, taken on my raspberries.

I am linking up with The Green Bean Chronicles who is hosting the Spot the Pollinator segment. Pop on over and visit her.

Friday, 6 June 2014

{this moment}

{this moment} - Inspired by Amanda Soule at SouleMama
"A Friday ritual. A single photo - no words - capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, extraordinary moment. A moment I want to pause, savor and remember. If you're inspired to do the same, leave a link to your 'moment' in the comments."

How To Play In Nature for Kids Of All Ages

For the month of May I participated in the David Suzuki Foundation 30 x 30 Nature Challenge, along with Eco Novice and Eco Yogini. I value time in nature, not just because it is good for my health, but also because I enjoy the sensory experience of being outside. I enjoy observing the insects as they go about their business. I find it relaxing to listen to the wind rustling the leaves, and I have been known to fall asleep to the sounds in the Mama-Do-Nothing-Chair. And to me there is no better smell than the wet soil after a rain storm.

Now that the challenge is over, I am looking for a variety of ways to continue to spend time in nature. Play is important for children, but I believe that everyone should play. Time in nature provides so many opportunities to play beyond they typical nature walks and hide and seek.

Here are some ideas for nature play that will get everyone, young or old, interested.

Continue reading at The Green Phone Booth>>>

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Week Four: 30 x 30 Nature Challenge

For the month of May I participated in the David Suzuki Foundation 30 x 30 Nature Challenge to spend 30 minutes in nature for 30 days. I posted each week on my progress and shared photos of my experiences outdoors.

To get caught up on my month and my reflections each week:

I'm a little late posting photos from my final week and sharing my thoughts on the challenge. I've had a stressful few weeks at work and have experienced a great deal of negativity. The 30x30 Challenge has been the bright spot in my month because it has helped to motivate me to get outside when I might have chosen to sit on the couch. 

Highlights of the 30 x 30 Challenge:
  • My time outdoors is evident on my face. I'm already sun kissed and all that extra vitamin D feels good. If I've had a bad day even just a few minutes outdoors can turn it around for me. 
  • I'm more connected with my daughters because when I'm outside they follow me out, and when they're outside it helps to get me out too. We've gone on multiple family bike rides, hung out at the beach and gone on nature walks.
  • My oldest daughter is becoming a real preteen and often prefers alone time in her room. I've been "kicking" her outside, which in turn has made me realize that I can take what I'm doing and sit outside doing it as well. I've done some marking, edited photos on my iPad, worked on a knitting project, read a book and had a nap in my backyard, with the sounds of the birds and wind in the trees helping me to de-stress.
  • I managed to check everything off my list for the month: lots of family walks and bike rides, using our foot power to get to school when possible, using my bike to do daily errands, keeping up with daily gardening tasks and trying geocaching for the first time. 

Some downsides to the 30 x 30 Nature Challenge (as if there are real downsides to spending time in nature!):
  • While the garden is beautiful, the inside of my home is a disaster. I am currently looking at seven baskets of unfolded laundry that soon will be eight baskets. There is grass all over the downstairs floor from so much foot traffic going in and out the back door. And those dishes all over the counter are not going to clean themselves. 
  • My crafty projects have really taken a back seat this month. My one little word for the year is make, and I have a long list of craft and DIY projects to do. I am about an hour away from finishing knitting a pair of ankle socks, but by the time I sit down in the evening I'm too tired to pick up the needles.
  • My blogging has also been neglected. I've tried to keep up with posting about my progress with the 30 x 30 Challenge but many of the DIY projects I'd hoped to write about are not done.
  • I'm also behind on my work. Granted the last couple of weeks I haven't been able to do any work from home (thank you BC government), but I have huge pile of marking that is calling my name.

Here's my fourth week in photos:

I chose the rainiest day so far to try geocaching for the first time. My girls
were displeased and acted like the water was burning their flesh.

All that changed when we found it! These happy campers
were so enthusiastic they wanted to look for another
geocache right away. This will be on my summer
bucket list for sure!

Again lots of bike riding this week. We all rode my oldest
to her gymnastics class and continued along the dyke.

We paused at this pier along the Fraser River to watch
people fishing and the tugboats chugging along.

My youngest had a preschool field trip to the Richmond Nature Park.
They pretended to be honey bees looking for flowers. Then they observed
nature with a magnifying glass.

After the class trip was over we stuck around for our
own quiet walk in the park. So serene.

Of course I spent hours and hours in my vegetable garden. Things are really
starting to come up and we've already enjoyed many meals, and lots of
impromptu snacks from the garden beds. 

A quiet moment in my backyard, trying to get caught up with my
crafty projects, and feeling grateful for the many buzzing pollinators,
humming birds, dragonflies and chickadees I viewed while sitting here.

There's nothing like coming home from a busy day to a cooked meal
and a backyard campfire. It's so meditative to stare at a fire.

My pride and joy, and where I can be found most days. We've had many
family meals from the garden already. So excited for summer!

I'm not one for resolutions and challenges, but this one really appealed to me. I knew that I would find it easy to fit in 30 minutes outside a day, even if it only meant going out to weed and water in my backyard garden. I spent much more than 30 minutes many days each week, and we have had such beautiful weather this month that I was able to spend most of each weekend outside. 

I hope to continue my own little 30x30 challenge for the upcoming summer months. I'm home for July and August with my girls so I know we will be adding lots of outdoor adventures to our weekly agenda, but it is the daily time outside that I want to keep up. Tonight I am exhausted. I have a kitchen to clean and kids to put to bed so I'm sitting on the couch for a few minutes to work on this post after driving my daughter to her gymnastics class. Because dinner was a bit later than usual we didn't have time to ride our bikes to the class. Now I should be out on the back patio soaking up the last rays of the sun and watching what my girls like to call the dragonfly ballet as they swoop around catching flying insects. And now that I'm on the couch, I'm not motivated to get up. I know that there are days like this, and I know that tomorrow I have plans to be outside, so I am not concerned, yet. 

Did you participate in the 30 x 30 Nature Challenge? Do you feel like you get enough nature time each week? 

Follow my fellow Green Phone Boothers who also participated this month: