The Necessity (& Trials) of Teaching Cultural Texts in a Small Town

DISCLAIMER: THERE ARE AFFILIATE LINKS IN THIS POST. THIS MEANS THAT AT NO COST TO YOU, I WILL RECEIVE A SMALL COMMISSION IF YOU PURCHASE THROUGH MY LINK. I WILL ONLY EVER PROMOTE THE PRODUCTS AND SERVICES THAT I TRUST AND 100% RECOMMEND.

 

I wouldn’t trade teaching in a rural, small-town district for all the money in the world.

I’ve taught in several districts during my teaching career and there is nothing that quite matches the compassion of students who grow up in a small town. Their hearts are big, even if their parents’ pocketbooks may not be.

The majority of my students live in absolute poverty and the story behind most of their lives brings me to tears each time I hear them. I couldn’t single-handedly fix the brokenness of their lives, but rather than dwell on that kind of hopeless thought, I decided to give these kids something that their small town couldn’t. World culture.

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I can promise you, the first time I introduced a cultural novel to my English 12 class, I was met with an onslaught of insensitive and culturally crude remarks from a few of my more rowdy pupils. These students had NEVER been asked to read a novel set somewhere like the Middle East. They had grown up hearing negative remarks about anyone from the Middle East, stemming from the aftermath of the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. Yes, I know that was a while ago, but mindsets are very set in a small town where ideas tend to lay stagnant with very few opportunities to change them. Yet I knew that culturally-aware kids became culturally-tolerant adults, so I continued pushing forward.

Everyday, I addressed any sort of comments that came up and flipped them in to teachable moments. I would correct the child’s remark and launch into a conversation about where such ideas stem from and how they are SO incorrect. At first, my students grumbled because the very ideology they had grown up with was being challenged.

I remained persistent in course-correcting them, and I noticed the remarks and slights ceased entirely. I exposed the students to a wide variety of non-fiction texts, video clips from YouTube, and gave them a basic but profound foundation on the culture found in these countries that we were about to read about in our class novels. Slowly, their comments turned into questions and I knew they were ready to begin.

I taught novels such as The Kite Runner by Khalid Hosseini, Life of Pi by Yann Martel and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. They soaked up the narratives, explored the character’s inner trials and tribulations and often would come into my room before class to exclaim over what had happened to a favorite character of theirs. On the surface, I was teaching novels set in a different location but what I was REALLY teaching was compassion, empathy and a deep-set understanding for those who are not exactly like them.

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It was not always easy to gain support from the parents of my students either. I was once confronted by a parent who requested that I teach something more to the interest of their child, something they could use once they had graduated. When I asked what the parent would suggest, they mentioned reading articles on dirt bikes or mechanics since that was what their child was mostly interested in. The crazy thing is, I UNDERSTOOD where the parent was coming from. I understood that their child was more interested in motors and going fast, and that was definitely what they would do after high school. But these novels weren’t just assigned reading-they weren’t meant to just be “interesting”. They were skill building. They were explorations into cultures that these students may never get the opportunity to explore on their own or in person. If no one opened their eyes to the beauty of cultures in other countries, would these students spend the rest of their lives in fear of cultures other than their own?

I had to justify using these texts in my classroom several times to my administration, and in the end IT WAS WORTH IT. It was worth every single meeting explaining the purpose behind the novels, every single eye-roll from a student when I would announce a foreign author’s name, every single angry parent-email demanding to know why their child was reading non-fiction that taught them the founding principles of a different religion prevalent in a culture.

Why? Because my students were transformed. They weren’t making those same insensitive comments they did when they first were introduced to new cultures. I had given them one small opening to a new perspective on life in different parts of the world, and so many of my students flourished after that.

As the years have flown by, I have gained the trust and admiration of the community and I don’t receive those angry phone calls, upset emails or demands for meetings with the administration. The changed thinking of many small town students speaks for itself – all through choosing to teach them even ONE cultural novel that widens their understanding of what it means to be human.

Here’s to making the world a little bit more tolerant of each other, one cohort of small-town minds at a time.

The Genius Educator TeacherPayTeachers Resources for Cultural Units

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Why I Teach Graphic Novels In My Classroom

I grew up during a time where reading the Sunday comics was considered a quick pass time, but most definitely not considered reading. My family raised me on the belief that reading was sitting with a book and absorbing multiple chapters, not a quick read through something with PICTURES. Pictures were for elementary students and didn’t give me the same benefits that reading something substantially larger would provide.

Well, after nearly 30 years on this Earth, I’m here to respectfully disagree. Here’s why:

Graphic Novels Require More Thought and Creativity Than a Traditional Novel 

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Before I can introduce a graphic novel to a student, even my most advanced student, I always find myself having to teach them the technique of reading this type of medium. We teachers spend so much time showing students how to read paragraphs, articles and traditional novels yet the structure of a graphic novel is a foreign country to their brains.

Students must be taught about frames, panels and how something like the color scheme affects the tone. Dialogue and narrative are represented in different ways, and students must learn how to pick each one out. In between each panel is something called the “gutter”, or the gap between two panels where action occurs that the student’s imagination has to create without words or images to aid them. In traditional novels, these small moments are often detailed to them. Reading graphic novels is actually working more parts of their creative brain – and it offers a slightly different experience to each child since humans experience every day reading based on their OWN previous experiences.

Students will also need to recognize how the artist dresses each character in some familiar clothing, or continues to keep the same hair, facial features, significant detail to represent one character! This is the only way, unless the dialogue addresses the character in EVERY panel, that the student will know which character is present. There is a LOT of imagination and creativity that goes into reading a graphic novel, that students do not experience in such fullness from a traditional novel.

Graphic Novels Make Harder Concepts Available to Struggling Readers

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Kids that do not enjoy reading because they struggle to sound out words, comprehend what they read or have attention issues will suddenly have an avenue into more difficult concepts. Graphic novels offer these students an image-dense, text-light approach to understanding concepts such as theme, tone, characterization, etc that they may be missing due to their reluctance to engage with traditional texts. Graphic novels are a GREAT building block to catch struggling readers up to their grade-level peers while you continue to work with them on traditional reading strategies.

Let’s be honest – we do not care HOW they get to that Aha Moment… we just want them all to enjoy reading and learning. We want them to know that they are capable of this material, and are intelligent, just like their peers, DESPITE their struggles.

Graphic Novels Are Engaging So Kids Want to Finish Them

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This ties back in with your struggling readers. You know the kid, you may even have one or ten in your classes. The student who seemed to fall more and more behind each year until they finally felt like such a failure that they started to give up on trying to keep up with their peers. It was easier to just shrug and act like they didn’t WANT to finish the assigned reading rather than continue to struggle and fail. Yikes.

Graphic novels are illustrated by some of the most talented artists in the world. Some are black and white, some brilliantly colored in every hue imaginable. Some graphic novels feature characters bursting out of their frames, others have one page with over 40 different panels all with a different image and piece to the puzzle. Bottom line – they’re stinking INTERESTING! They aren’t just letters on a white page, but letters mixed with cool images that get the kids imagining their own stories. They’re easier to absorb because they don’t feel like work, but rather like something they are reading just for fun.

Graphic Novels Often Make Kids Think Harder Than a Traditional Novel

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One co-worker of mine scoffed at lunch one day when I mentioned that I would be teaching MAUS Part I to my 8th grade class. “See how well these students do on the state exams by learning about reading COMICS”, they further commented. I smiled at our district librarian, who winked at me. Later that day, I brought the graphic novel to my co-worker and asked that they take the time tonight to skim through Chapter One. The next day, my co-worker handed me back the book and said, “Do they have one of these for the Civil War Era?” Success!

Graphic novels are NOT easier to read than a traditional novel… if you are teaching students how to read them properly. Sure, a student could skim the images quickly and say they are finished but upon a quick test we would find that they did not pick up much information. A student who soaks up the information from each panel and knits them together in their brain is actually working harder than a student reading the same text written traditionally. Simply because, the student reading the graphic novel has to pick up on subtle cues from color, structure, dialogue, narrative, panel placement, and more in order to make sense of the story.

Scott McCloud has the BEST book for teaching YOU how to read a graphic novel called Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, which you can then use to teach your kids how to read one! He breaks all aspects of a graphic novel down into bite-size amounts, so even if you’ve never even looked at the Funnies in the Sunday Paper, you’ll feel comfortable with teaching them to a room full of excited kids.

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This is my own copy – as you can tell, it is WELL loved and ear-marked because it is a goldmine of information.

Graphic Novels Offer a New Perspective on A Character, Without It Being a Movie 

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I tell my students one thing when they first meet me – if we read a book in this class, and there is a good movie interpretation of it, we will watch that movie. They get so happy, as if I am giving them a gift when really, I am exposing them to the important themes in a more absorbable way (no text comprehension required), and letting them experience how a film director interpreted the plot compared to how they did. So often, kids watch the film version of a book and I hear, “But that’s not how I pictured THAT character, at all!” and it always makes me smile. Bingo! Made ya think.

Graphic novels can be much the same. Some years I will have a student fly through a novel we are reading together in class. They are lightyears ahead of their peers, comprehension comes easily, and they simply are tortured to drag along at the pace of the class. When I am able, a student who admits to reading ahead (even though I often discourage this to try to keep us all together), I will give them the graphic novel version to read. Their brain lights up as they watch scenes unfold in ways that they did not imagine, or they notice details they missed during their first read. Essentially, they are doing a second read of the information (shhh, don’t tell them) that is allowing their brain to focus less on content and more on technique! WHY did the author make this character act in this way? Ohhh… now that I’ve read the whole novel, this all makes sense. Graphic novels aren’t just for struggling readers – they can be an extension activity for your advanced students as well.

Now, I’m not saying the ONLY texts you should teach in your classroom are graphic novels…but I hope this article gives you some encouragement and courage to maybe, in the future, give it a try.

I teach MAUS Part I to my 8th graders (disclaimer: you will need to provide background information on World War II and the Holocaust because most of this age group has VERY little knowledge on these topics) and it is SO much fun. I know… very odd to describe teaching about the Holocaust as “fun”.

Art Spiegelman, author of MAUS, illustrates his characters as animals in a purposeful way of creating metaphor! The Jewish characters are rats, since the Jews were treated as vermin, the Nazis are drawn as cats since cats are the natural predators of rats, etc. This allows a serious topic (the Holocaust) to become accessible to students while teaching them about metaphor. Win-win for the English Teacher. I offer a creative and thought-provoking study guide for Part I of MAUS on my TpT store for the educator who wants to leap in with both feet and get started with using this graphic novel.

 

Using Paint Strips to Teach Connotation

Connotation: an idea or feeling that a word invokes in addition to its literal or primary meaning, according to Google. Connotation, to me, answers the question, “How deeply does this word make me feel a certain emotion? The word “bad” has a negative connotation to it, yet so does the word “devastating”. Yet, English teachers can’t deny that the negative feeling associated with the word “devastating” is magnified in comparison to the word “bad”. This is what teaching connotation is all about.

Understanding connotation is a multi-step process that most students will not grasp with a basic PowerPoint and worksheet. I know…I tried that avenue. I failed. Thankfully, these students were vocal about my dismal failure because it pushed me as an educator to think outside the box for a way to truly reach them with this topic that is ESSENTIAL to creating inventive and thoughtful writers.

Step One: Teach Students About Synonyms

You cannot skip this step. Students must know what a synonym is and often do not (or they need a refresher). Practice using a simple word that everyone in the room knows. I use the word “bad” in my own practice lesson. Students will need to brainstorm to come up with synonyms of the word “bad” and write them down.

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This is the scaffolded version of my Connotation Sunburst Worksheet

Step Two: Teach Students About Levels of Connotation of a Group of Synonyms

Next, students must begin the process of understanding that the connotative meaning of a word has to do with the feeling that is associated with that word. Explain to students that the word “good” has a positive connotation, or feeling, associated with it, while the word “bad” has a negative connotation associated with it. As a group, or in pairs, students should come up with another example of two words that have opposing connotations, or feelings associated with their meaning.

Step Three: Rank Group of Synonyms According to Connotation

Students should rank each synonym that they previously found. I choose to have students rank the words on a plain worksheet the first round, mainly to get them used to the process without any color or further directions. They then must explain their ranking choice in writing. Students LOVE to try to say, “Well, this one just seems more negative!” but I do not let such a lackadaisical explanation slide. Prompt them to use the other synonyms in their explanation, and push them beyond basic answers.

Step Four: Repeat Finding Synonyms with a New Word – Then Rank Using Paint Strips

I always teach this lesson in two rounds. The first round is wonderful for students to practice their rankings, explanations and to work with the teacher and their classmates as a sounding board for their ideas. It’s very energetic, and they get the opportunity to hear their classmates logic as well as the teacher’s.

The second round, give the students a new word that they may be working with in their unit lessons. I provide a vocabulary word that they have been learning. Then, have them find synonyms for their vocabulary word in small groups, this time limiting the voices that are guiding their answers.

Then, students will rank the connotative meaning of these synonyms independently using the paint strips to guide them. Pick up paint strips from a hardware store, or use the ones in my TpT resource and have students rank the words (words with a more positive connotation should be written in the lighter hues, while words with a more negative connotation should be written in the darker hues). Then, have the students explain their reasoning for their ranking either on the backs of the paint strips or on a separate sheet of paper.

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Paint Strips Ranking Worksheet

Note: It is difficult to write on real paint strips with pen or pencil. Permanent Markers work fine.

Step Five: Teach Students to Critically Consider Word Choice in a Sentence

From here, you may choose where to lead students. I use a worksheet where students place the synonyms they came up with for “bad” into the same sentence and answer questions about sentence meaning. Another great further practice would be to teach students about author’s purpose. Then, provide students with an author’s purpose and have them alter words in a pre-written paragraph to meet the specified purpose. This is higher-level thinking that will challenge even your most excelled students.

If you want to use the worksheets and handouts that I have found to be effective in my classroom, you may download my Connotation Lesson from TpT.

Don’t make my mistake. Don’t assume that students know how to slow down and think critically about how a word is appropriate for the context of a sentence. These students are learning and growing in a world where getting information out quickly is highly valued. Word choice takes a back seat to slang, text talk and who can speak the quickest. Slowing down to consider their purpose for writing or speaking is a skill that must be taught to this generation. Teach it with patience and care, and understand that this may not come easily to many of them. Yet, it is so critical for them to have this skill in the future, simply because so much stems from being able to speak and write with purpose in mind.

I hope this helps guide some of you to reach even more of your students this year!

Time Saving Hacks For The Overwhelmed Teacher

Teaching can be wonderful, teaching can be transformative, and teaching can be down-right overwhelming. The duties and responsibilities placed on the shoulders of a teacher are rivaled by very few other professions. Add in teacher guilt and it’s a perfect recipe for pulling 50-70 hour weeks in a desperate attempt to keep the classroom operating. Educators did not choose this profession to then face years of feeling like they’re drowning to meet expectations. Steps can be taken to get rid of the underlying stream of stress that comes with teaching- these tried and true hacks may just help save your sanity and give you more of a teacher-life balance.

The most common complaint that surfaces from teachers in forums focuses around the concept of time, more specifically, around the lack of time that teachers have available to complete the tasks that are required of them. Legally, districts are only required to provide one lunch period and one prep period per work day. It is a common complaint that this is not enough time for planning, printing off necessary work, grading student work, providing constructive feedback on writing, entering in grades to keep the Student Portal updated, creating teacher lessons and materials, updating classroom bulletin boards, contacting parents about celebrations/concerns, etc. I found myself frequently working through my lunch period, gulping down my lunch just so that I didn’t have to take home as much work to grade that night. I truly felt like a zombie and knew that it was time to figure out some ways to get more of a balance between my real-life and my teacher-life.

Does this sound like you? Are these your concerns too? If so, I have figured out a few time-saving hacks in the past few years that have truly and honestly given me my lunch period back (most of the time).

Common Mistake: Grading Student Work As It Is Turned In

When I was a new teacher, I used to grade homework assignments, test/quizzes and essays whenever the students turned them in to me. In my eyes, I was SAVING time for future me because I was grading the paper now. In reality, I was slowing my grading process down entirely by forcing my brain to grade a paper on characterization that was turned in, then switching gears to grading a few papers turned in about irony, etc. I was exhausted within a few months.

Time-Saving Hack #1: Batch Work Being Graded

“Batching” work means to collect all of a certain assignment BEFORE beginning the grading process. You are essentially streamlining the grading process, and will shave minutes if not eventual hours off of your time spent grading. Your brain can get into a rhythm when it is grading multiple copies of the same assignment, thus eradicating the need to think for a few seconds about each question’s answer before determining its appropriate level of correctness.

Of course, students who turn in work late can’t be avoided, so those assignments will need to be graded when turned in (unless you can wait for all assignments, if the students do not need immediate feedback).

Batching tasks in general is a huge time saver, and something you may already be doing intuitively. When there are papers to be sent to the office, wait until you have everything around that needs to be done in the main office (worksheets to be copied, that book you need to return to a co-worker, study guides already printed to the office, etc). Your time is so valuable, make sure each trip you make is purposeful. You may find yourself feeling less frazzled, less anxious and more present just by getting several tasks done at once.

Common Mistake: Thinking You’ll Remember To Do It Later

I used to have a good memory… before I became the teacher/counselor/cheerleader/second-mom/disciplinarian/coach to over one hundred students a day. On a daily basis, teachers make more split second decisions than most doctors, and are keeping track of multiple levels of data merely by observing behaviors of students. Your to-do list? DEFINITELY not going to be most prominent in your memory space.

Time-Saving Hack #2: Keep a Daily To-Do List For the Week

Print off a weekly to-do list that breaks down each day. Teachers who groan at list-makers, stop. Go print one off. This is not “just one more thing to do”, this will actually aid with time-saving hack #1. Each morning I get to school with enough time before my first period class begins to write out the tasks I have to accomplish for the day, tasks I can push off until the following afternoon, and tasks that need to be completed sometime before Friday at 3:30 PM.

I keep this paper on my desk all week long, crossing out each task completed and jotting down more as ideas come to me. When I get an idea for a neat project I’d love to do (you know, when I get time) I write it out on the back of the paper. Sometimes I DO get to that project over the weekend, and sometimes I file it away for a later date. Either way, I’m not losing the ideas that are always popping into my head because if they are not written down, I can never guarantee they will re-emerge into my brain.

If you don’t want to search for a weekly to-do list or create your own, borrow mine. It’s simple, it’s fun, and it is easy-to-use. Oh, and it’s free.

Common Mistake: Not Having a Set Place For Students to Turn In Work

There are so many different ways of collecting papers from students. Some teachers have been taught to ask students to pass their papers to the front of the room, some teachers collect work from the desk as students are working on something else, other teachers have no system and sometimes ask students to hand their work directly to them. Now, if those systems are working for you and you love them, then you just keep on keepin’ on! However, I have found that I lose papers those ways, I spend too much time shuffling papers around instead of starting the lesson, and I just toss them somewhere on my desk to dig through later. Recipe…for…disaster.

Time-Saving Hack #3: Create a Set Turn-In Location

I purchased cheap paper bins that are each labelled according to grade level and class period. I train my students during the first two weeks of school that any and all assignments need to be placed into the bin. I give them small tasks and they practice placing the work in the bin without me even telling them it is practice. I make a point to refuse to take any paper from a student during those first few weeks, and instead gently ask, “Where do we turn in papers for this class?” which is immediately met with a giggle and feet headed towards the Homework Bins.

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Example of Homework Bins

You will need to create a clear and calm expectation that turning in work is to be done in a timely manner and quietly. Any student during the initial learning period and at any time later in the year who turns in work, then chats with a neighbor, is loud and obnoxious etc you must immediately ask them to stop, go collect their paper, return to their seat, and try again. Yes, this will eat up precious classroom minutes… but will pay off in the long run. Remain patient throughout, and keep a neutral face. If you are calm as you teach them this process, they will learn that it isn’t something that can get a reaction out of you and should just be done well.

This system saves time in a few ways:

  1. Students are more certain of expectations for completed work and feel confident enough to walk in after school, in between classes, etc and place their work in the correct bin without having to interrupt me.
  2. The teacher does not have to shuffle/organize papers right then and there, but may immediately begin prepping the next part of the lesson while students return to their seats.
  3. You do not lose papers in the mass struggle of papers that may be accumulating on your desk.
  4. You have an enormous amount of control over where papers are and can strongly counter any student who tries to claim that you, the teacher, lost their paper when in reality… they never completed nor turned the paper in. Consider having a set slot near your desk that you place papers to be returned to students (one slot per class period), that way there is very little room for error.

Common Mistake: You Grade Everything

I think this may have been (and sometimes still is) my greatest downfall as an English teacher. I saw where my students were lacking and I felt that I needed to place a specific, numerical grade on every single assignment I gave. I also felt I had to leave feedback on every paper I returned to them, and so I spent most nights curled up on the couch making notes and helpful tips that students glanced over and then filed away without any further thought. OUCH.

Time-Saving Hack #4: Only Grade What Needs Constructive Feedback

First, take a good hard look at everything you are assigning. Is each one necessary? What is its purpose? If you are assigning it as work to keep the students busy for the class period, but the work itself is not super helpful in achieving the skill you want them to eventually be proficient in, then you have some changes to make. For your sanity, more so than anything else.

Keep assignments that have worked well for this cohort of student. Keep assignments that kids year after year seem to LOVE to complete, and assignments that tend to give the most kids “Aha! Moments”. Then, take an objective eye to the rest and nix assignments that you can admittedly say are not pulling their weight.

Then, gather the assignments that you deemed were valuable for your teaching and organize them into three piles: assignments that need to have written feedback, assignments that need a numerical grade and assignments that need a check-plus, check or check-minus grade. If you’re unsure of the purpose of the latter, it is to let students know where their work fell in terms of quality without you having to assign a specific grade or write feedback. I give these grades to papers that we will all go over in class together, and we discuss why some responses landed in each category. Students learn how to improve their work without taking a hit with a poor numerical grade.

  1. Assignments that need to have written feedback: paragraphs, essay drafts, planning sheets, short responses.
  2. Assignments that need a numerical grade: tests & quizzes, essay final drafts (use a rubric to avoid having to write further extended feedback), study guides.
  3. Assignments that need a check-plus, check or check-minus grade: journal writes, grammar practice, initial worksheets on new skills, background knowledge charts, class work.

This will save (especially English teachers) a LOT of time in grading papers. Oh, so much time.

Common Mistake: You Print Things Off Only As You Need Them

Your first years of teaching may feel like treading water in the Atlantic Ocean – you can barely keep your head above the waves. One mistake teachers make is to only print off worksheets the day before or even the morning of the day that they are going to use them. This puts them in constant prep mode, where they can’t really relax and focus in on the their teaching as they are thinking about what materials they need to print off for the next day.

Time-Saving Hack #5: Print Off Most (If Not All) Materials You Need For The Week At One Time

Admittedly, this ties back into batching your tasks in the first time-saving hack, yet this one is important enough to earn its own header. I plan for my week ahead on Sundays, you may choose a different day according to your schedule. On that day, make a list of materials that you absolutely will need for that week’s lessons. This includes Bell-Ringers, worksheets, homework assignments, Exit Slips, handouts… everything. Make a point of getting to school a bit earlier than everyone else and before you do anything else, get your copies made for the week. Paperclip them into piles according to grade level or class, and keep them somewhere organized by day. Now, you’ve just freed up (at least) one prep period standing in line at the copier, and probably made your week a little bit more blissful.

Here’s to you finding more time for the things your heart truly loves, and investing less time on silly tasks that drain your creative brain.

If you’re looking for a great organizational hack for managing absent work, read my article on a Stress-Free System for Absent Students.

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Absent Work Bins

Christmas Gluten-Free… and Easy

DISCLAIMER: THERE ARE AFFILIATE LINKS IN THIS POST. THIS MEANS THAT AT NO COST TO YOU, I WILL RECEIVE A SMALL COMMISSION IF YOU PURCHASE THROUGH MY LINK. I WILL ONLY EVER PROMOTE THE PRODUCTS AND SERVICES THAT I TRUST AND 100% RECOMMEND.

Guest Writer: Colleen Cavagna-

Since finding out this spring that I have a gluten intolerance, I have been slowly going through each holiday realizing, with shock and frustration, all the things that I can no longer eat during the holidays. Now, I could have wallowed in self-pity and made everyone around me feel terrible about my new eating regimen but, since I am not the Grinch and not one to miss out on my favorite foods during the holidays, I did my research.

I have happily been trying out gluten-free (GF) versions of the dishes and treats I really don’t want to miss out on and if your diet is also gluten-free OR if you have guests that are gluten-free, I have done all the work for you on how to have a Merry Christmas for everyone. For tips that focus on the main feast, head over to my earlier post that explains how to make the perfect GF gravy, stuffing and other dishes!

Now on to the topic close to most of our hearts… desserts.

  1. Cream Puff Cake

During the cold weather, I think back to my youth when my father and mother made cream puffs. We would drag ourselves into the house from sledding with frozen fingers and toes to be greeted with cream puffs and hot chocolate, mmmm. Well, making cream puffs with GF flour that tastes like I remember wasn’t something I considered possible – until I tried a recipe called Custard Cake. With my first taste, my tongue said, “Whoa, cream puffs,” while my eyes said, “Wait, this doesn’t look anything like cream puffs, what’s up?” Frankly I didn’t care, I just kept eating. I had to fight off my husband for the last piece.

Follow the directions exactly, and you can enjoy this GF dessert that everyone will delight over. This recipe came from Nicole’s Gluten on a Shoestring blog.

Cream Puffs
Ingredients:
3/4 cup All Purpose Gluten Free Flour
1/4 tsp Xanthan Gum 
2 Tbsp cornstarch
4 eggs,  at room temperature, separated
1 Tbsp lemon juice
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 Tbsp vanilla
9 Tbsp butter, melted and cooled
2 cups warm milk (about 95°F)
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting

Directions:

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 8×8 baking pan and set aside. In bowl, mix flour, xanthan gum (omit if your blend already contains it), and cornstarch.
  • In stand mixer, whisk egg whites and lemon juice on medium-high speed until frothy. Add half of sugar and continue to beat until stiff peaks form (about 2 minutes). Transfer egg white mixture to another bowl and add yolks to the mixer bowl with the rest of the sugar and vanilla until combined.
  • Add the melted butter to the yolk mixture and beat well. Then add the flour mixture and the warm milk to the bowl in three parts each until just combined. The mixture will be very thin (watery). Add the beaten egg whites to the batter in three parts as well, whisking GENTLY to combine after each addition. The batter should be light and fluffy. Pour into the prepared pan and place in center of preheated oven. Bake until the top of the cake is lightly golden brown and springs back when pressed gently in the center (about 1 hour and 5 mins to 15 minutes, depending upon your oven).
  • The cake will shrink up when removed from the oven and cools. Dust lightly with confectioner’s sugar before serving or top with a pudding then dust with confectioners’ sugar, or top with fruit or a fruit mixture or, or, or, the possibilities are endless!
  1. Frosted Sugar Cookies

Christmas just isn’t Christmas without frosted sugar cookies. Big fluffy Santa’s, snowmen, stars; my mouth is watering just thinking about them. Well, fear not, you can still have your sugar cookie Christmas fix with this recipe. These ones are soft and thick with your favorite frosting!  Celeste at Life After Wheat provided this wonderful recipe.

Sugar Cookies

Ingredients:
¾ cup shortening (I used butter)
1 cup sugar
1 egg
½ Tbsp vanilla
1 cup prepared vanilla pudding
4 cups All-Purpose Gluten-Free Flour
1 tsp Xanthan Gum
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt

Directions:

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream shortening (or butter) and sugar together for 1 minute. Add egg and vanilla; mix until smooth.
  • Add pudding and mix on medium until blended. Add remaining ingredients and mix for 1 minute. Dough should be just slightly sticky. If it’s too thick/crumbly, add additional pudding or milk 1 Tablespoon at a time until you have the right consistency.
  • You can wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate up to 4 days at this point, or proceed to baking. Roll dough out to desired thickness (I did about 1/4″) on a surface that is lightly dusted with gluten free flour and cut into desired shapes.
  • Arrange cookies on cookie sheet lined with parchment paper 1 inch apart and bake 8-10 minutes until they appear set and the bottom edges are just barely (just barely!) starting to turn a golden brown.
  • Let cool on cookie sheet a few minutes before removing to a cooling rack. Frost with your favorite frosting and decorate as you like.
  1. Jam Thumb Print Cookies

This means Christmas! They taste so good with your homemade jam and rolled in nuts. I wanted them to taste as close to the gluten version as possible, so I just modified the recipe I have been using for years with delicious results!

Jam ThumbprintsIngredients:
½ cup butter
¼ cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
½ tsp salt
1 ¼  All-Purpose Gluten-Free Flour
½ tsp Xanthan Gum
½ – 1 cup chopped nuts

Directions:

  • Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Cream butter, sugar, and 1 whole egg and 1 yolk (set aside the white for rolling the cookies).
  • In a bowl, combine flour, salt, xanthan gum (only add this if your flour does not already include it.)
  • Add vanilla to creamed butter, sugar and eggs – mix. Then add flour mixture. Dough should be slightly sticky. Add more flour as needed to get to right consistency.
  • Put dough in refrigerator for 1 hour or overnight if you don’t have time right now.
    Shape dough into balls, roll in whisked egg white, then roll in chopped nuts (I use pecans, but you can use whatever nuts you like best).
  • Place on a parchment lined cookie sheet. Press your thumb in the middle of the dough ball to make a nice deep indent. Maintain a ridge at the edge of the cookies so that the jam does not come out.
  • Bake 8 minutes, remove from oven and add enough jelly to each cookie to fill the indent, return to the oven and bake an additional 13 – 15 minutes or until dough is cooked.
  • Allow to cool and then enjoy.

Obviously, there are plenty more desserts we all like for Christmas, but this will give you a place to start for your gluten-free guests (or yourself) that your gluten guests won’t even realize are gluten-free!

If you want to bake a pie, see my Thanksgiving post for a GREAT pie crust recipe to make your pies GF too. January is my time for baking bread (well all of winter really) – before I become gluten-free – so perhaps my next article will tackle that tricky topic. Enjoy yourselves and have a very Merry Christmas.

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