Archive of ‘Mrs. McGriff’ category

Enjoy Strawberry Jam Tonight



I’m taking part in the weekly Slice of Life Challenge sponsored by  Two Writing Teachers, where teachers write and share each Tuesday. Join in yourself or head over to check out what’s happening with other slicers. If you’re taking part in the SOL, leave a link to your post. I’d love to read it.


June brings strawberries to southern Indiana–red, ripe, lucious berries that beg to be savored.  Every day or two, we stroll to the raised bed in our back yard to pick a quart or two or three of starwberrries.  Even though we love them, there are only so many berries we can eat before they start to go bad.  Our favorite way to preserve them to enjoy through the rest of the year is to make strawberry jam.  Now I could go out and buy a package of commercial pectin to make our jam, but I prefer the art of using the natural fruit pectin and sugar to make jam.  It takes a little more time and stirring, but it’s really not that hard.

Find guidance:

The Ball Blue Book has everything you need to know.

The Ball Blue Book has everything you need to know.

If you have never made jam or canned fruits and vegetables, you will want to find someone or something to help you do it safely.  We started by using the Ball Blue Book years ago.  It has directions and recipes for canning (and freezing) almost everything.  You can also contact your local agricultural extension office for the latest information on food safety.  I grew up helping my mom make jam.  I remember her sealing the jars with paraffin.  No one every got sick from that jam and jelly, but today food safety experts recommend a water bath canning method for preserving jams and jellies.


Gather jam ingredients and prepare the strawberries:

The recipe I use for strawberry jam is simple:

  • 2 quarts strawberries, hulled and crushed, and
  • 6 cups sugar.

That’s it.  If you can’t walk out into your own backyard to pick strawberries, use the freshest strawberries you can find.  Visit a pick it yourself farm or your local farmer’s market.  When strawberries are in season in your area, even the grocery stores are more likely to have fresh strawberries, though they will have sat longer than those picked just that morning.

To prepare the strawberries,

  1. Rinse off any dirt.
  2. Then cut off the stems and cut the strawberries in halves or quarters.  I’ve never tried one of the specialized strawberry hullers.  A paring knife works well.
  3. Mash the strawberries.  I use a potato masher to smush the berries in the bottom of a quart, glass measuring cup.  You could also use a food mill.
Just add strawberries and sugar!

Just add strawberries and sugar!

Gather canning supplies:

Don’t panic.  Many of these supplies you may have in your kitchen already.  Most are inexpensive, too.

  • Water bath canner:  I use the smaller size since I can jam in 1 cup jars.  The rack keeps the jars off the bottom and makes it easy to take the jars in and out of boiling water.  If you don’t have a canner and don’t want to buy one, you can use a large stock pot.  Just make sure it is deep enough for water to completely cover the jars.  You will also need some sort of metal rack to keep the jars off the bottom of the pot.  It might be easier to ask around and borrow one!
  • Canning jars with lids and rings:  Definitely use real canning jars because the glass is strong enough to take the heat.  If you reuse jars that held commercial products, the glass might break during canning.  That’s a mess (and a potential hazard) you don’t want to clean up. Canning jars can be reused year after year.  So can the rings.  You will need to buy new lids to ensure an airtight seal.
  • Small pot to boil lids:  The lids have to be boiled to sterilize them and to help improve the seal.
  • Funnel and ladel:  These are to put the jam into the jars.
  • Tongs:  You can even buy a magnetic lid lifter to help get the lids out of the hot water without burning your fingers.  I find that putting the lids in by alternating them upside down and right side up prevents them from sticking together most of the time.  Then I can just use a simple pair of tongs to get them out.
  • Jar lifter:  How else will you take the hot jars out the boiling water?
  • Hot pads, towels or paper bags, or boards:  Everything is hot, so you will need to protect all your working surfaces from the heat.  We set the jam pot on a large cutting board and then fill the jars on paper bags (which can be thrown away afterwards).  You could also use cloth towels.  You will also need to set the hot jars on a protected surface to cool.  Don’t set hot jars to cool on a cold stone countertop.  You could crack the jars.
Canning supplies aren't too scary!

Canning supplies aren’t too scary!

Now that you have everything out, you are ready to start cooking the strawberry jam!  Take a deep breath.  The biggest skill needed is stirring!

  1. Put washed canning jars into water bath canner and fill with water.  The water should cover the jars by an inch or so.  Cover with the lid and bring to a boil to sterilize the jars.  Once the water boils, you can then turn off the eye of the stove.  The water and jars will remain hot while the jam cooks.
  2. Put the lids in a small pot and cover with water.  Bring to a boil to sterilize.  Just like with the jars, you can turn off the eye and put a lid on the pot to keep lids hot.  It doesn’t take very long to bring this amount of water to a boil, so you can wait to do it while cooking down the jam.
  3. Combine crushed strawberries and sugar in a large stockpot.  One with a thick bottom will help prevent burning.  You will want to use a large pot because the jam will splatter as it boils.  I use a large wooden spoon to stir.

    Keep stirring!

    Keep stirring!

  4. Bring to a boil over medium heat.  Stir until the sugar dissolves.  Keep stirring occasionally as it comes to a boil.
  5. Once the strawberry and sugar mixture comes to a boil, keep it boiling rapidly.  Keep stirring.  How long do you boil and stir?  That’s the secret to the art of jam making.  The recipe  in the Ball Blue Book suggests about 40 minutes, but my jam never takes that long to be ready.  Once the color turns to a dark, rich red (after about 30 minutes), I drip some jam on a plate.  Once it cools a little, I check the consistency by running a finger through it.  The jam will set up firmer as it cools, so err on the runny side unless you like your jam to be thick enough to cut.
  6. Remove jam from heat.  Grab a jar out of the water bath canner and pour out the water.
  7. Place the funnel on the mouth of the jar and use the ladel to fill the jar with jam.  Fill the jar until there is a half inch of space between the top of the jam and the rim of the jar.  Continue filling jars until you run out of jam.  Most water bath canners can hold seven jars.  If I fill more than seven jars, I put the extra jam in a jar to be enjoyed immediately!  The extra jar can be stored in the refrigerator.
  8. Take a wet paper towel and carefully wipe clean the rim of each jar.  If there is any jam (or anything else) on the rim of the jar, the lids will not seal.
  9. Take a lid out of the hot water and place rubber side down on top of the jar.
  10. Take a ring and screw it down over the lid.  Use a tight fit, but don’t overtighten the rings.
  11. Return jars to the water bath canner and lower into the water.
  12. Bring water back to a boil and boil for 10 minutes.  You will need to boil longer if you are at a higher altitude.
  13. Remove jars from canner and let cool.  For best results, place jars in a location without drafts.
  14. Once jars have completely cooled (the next day), check that the lids sealed.  The lids should not move or flex when you press down on them.  If any jars did not seal, store them in the refrigerator.


Enjoy the jam!

Enjoy the jam!

Summer, Slow Down



I’m taking part in the weekly Slice of Life Challenge sponsored by  Two Writing Teachers, where teachers write and share each Tuesday. Join in yourself or head over to check out what’s happening with other slicers. If you’re taking part in the SOL, leave a link to your post. I’d love to read it.

For the past several summers (and other school breaks), I have looked forward to diving headfirst into stacks of books with the #bookaday challenge thrown out by Donalyn Miller.  I don’t always succeed in reading a book every day of evert break from school, but I loved devouring a sea of words in book after book.

This summer, though, I find myself wanting to stay longer with the books I read. I finished Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys several days ago, but I’m not ready to let her story go.  I want to visit longer with Josie and wander the streets of the French Quarter with her as she schemes to find a way out of the past that haunts her.

I still have stacks and boxes of books that are waiting for me to read them (not to mention the unread books on my Kindle and the audio books I am downloading weekly from Sync YA).  I currently have a large enough supply of unread books that I could read a book a day for the rest of the summer and not run out.

DSC05492But I also find myself wanting to be open to books that come into my life serendipitously.  Just the other weekend, a former pastor brought a book for me as his contribution to our cookout.  I didn’t even know Wendell Berry wrote short stories, but now a collection of them waits in my purse for me to dip into its pages.

I also want to explore books that make me think, and I want time to reflect on and absorb their words, even write in response to them.  I have been wanting to read books by Barbara Taylor Brown that reflect on faith, especially her newest book Learning to Walk in the Dark.  I even feel an urge to revisit Thoreau–maybe while I’m out hiking or camping.

I know after the pressure of this past teaching year, I need to slow down.  #Bookaday is not a competition where others will put me down for not meeting that goal, but I put the pressure on myself.  I want to savor the words I read and write this summer instead of rushing through them.  Books will be my companions as I wend my way through this summer.  So will my pen and notebook as I reflect on where I’ve been and where I may be headed.

May Books Read

58) The Lost Boy by Greg Ruth – a spooky mystery with a secret world filled with fantastical creatures in graphic novel format

59) Touch and Go by Lisa Gardner  - a detective story donated by one of my students’ parents.  I enjoyed the mystery but it’s not a good fit for a 7th grade classroom library.

60) Asylum by Madeleine Roux – Not my cup of tea (It will probably give me nightmares), but students who love scary stories will enjoy this one.

61)  **House of Purple Cedar by Tim Tingle – Such lyrical writing in this story of cruelty, forgiveness, and redemption

62) **The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde – I couldn’t help myself.  When a friend returned it, I just had to revisit some of my favorite scenes and found myself wandering through all the pages again.

63) *Imperfect Spiral by Debby Levy – a touching story of friendship and loss

64) **A Northern Light by Jennifer Donelly – luscious prose wraps this story of daring to reach for your dreams

65) The Tulip Eaters by Antoinette van Heugen – a modern mystery with roots in World War II Amsterdam

66) **Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys – amazing story of strength and courage

67)  *Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell – very thought provoking–and not at all what I was expecting.

A read a lot of very different books this month–many of them outside my comfort zone.  I enjoyed the stretch in my reading diet.  I starred my favorites.

What were your favorite reads from the month of May?

Asylum by Madeleine Roux

imageDaniel Crawford has always been a bit of a loner, not fitting in at his high school, but now that he is at a summer program for gifted students on a college campus, he hopes to make friends at last.  Things are looking up when he meets Abbi and Jordan.

Since the regular dorms are undergoing renovations, the summer students are staying in Brookline, a former psychiatric hospital with a dark and secret past.  Dan and his new friends explore the twisting tunnels and dusty rooms underneath Brookline, and in so doing, stir up ghosts that do not want to rest in peace.

Asylum (Harper 2013) by Madeleine Roux is the kind of book that gives me nightmares, but I know I will have students who will enjoy it.  If you like the kinds of movies where you want to scream at the main characters for entering into the deserted house or dark woods where the killer is lurking, you will enjoy the fear these pages dredge up.  It’s not too gory, but the mind games and bizarre occurrences are chilling.

Week at a Glance: May 12 – 16



  • Analyze the parts of a book review.

Daily Grammar Practice Week  26 (Monday – parts of speech).  Present book talks.  While you are listening to your classmates share about their books, add books to your Someday Books list.
Homework: Read a book of your choice for 15-30 minutes.



  • Present book talks.

Daily Grammar Practice Week 26 (Tuesday – sentence parts).  Present book talks.  While you are listening to your classmates share about their books, add books to your Someday Books list.
Homework: Read a book of your choice for 15-30 minutes.



  • Create a reading and writing plan for the summer.

Daily Grammar Practice Week 26 (Wednesday – clauses, sentence type and purpose). Here are some ways you can share what you are reading and writing over the summer:  visit my blog, join middle school group at GoodRead, create your own blog.  Write a blog post that describes how you will continue to share what you are reading and writing over the summer.  What are five books that you are interested in reading?
Homework: Read a book of your choice for 15 -30 minutes.



  • Complete Language Arts Post Test.

Daily Grammar Practice Week 26 (Thursday – Correct capitalization and punctuation). Complete Language Arts Post Test.  Yes, it’s for a grade.



  • Set reading goals for the week.
  • Complete DGP Post Test.

Daily Grammar Practice Week 26 (Friday – Sentence diagramming).    Fill out the reading goal slip with the title and author of your book and write down what page you begin on.  Read for 10 minutes and write down what page you end on.  Subtract the beginning page from the ending page to find out how many pages you read in 10 minutes.  Multiply that number by 6 to discover how many pages you should be able to read in 1 hour.  Double that answer to find out how many pages you should be able to read in 2 hours.  That is your reading goal for the week.  If you finish or switch to a book that has a very different reading rate, you will need to redo your goal and let me know the new one. After you finish your reading, tell your partner what you read today.  If you can’t remember anything you read, you are reading too fast.  Complete DGP Post Test.
Homework:  Read 15-30 minutes in a book of your choice.

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

imageOver the last couple of years, I have had quite a few books connected with the Civil Rights movement come across my TBR pile.  Most of them have been excellent, and I have learned something from all of them, whether I was reading historical fiction or historical accounts.  Rita Williams Garcia introduced me to yet another aspect of those years that I knew next-to-nothing about in her novel One Crazy Summer (Scholastic 2010).

Delphine leads her younger sisters, Vonetta and Fern, to visit the mother who left them.  They fly across the country to Oakland, California, for the summer of 1968, to get to know the mysterious Cecile.  Even once they are living in her house, Cecile remains a mystery, but Delphine is not stubborn and bossy for nothing.  She will do whatever it takes to protect her sisters and get answers from Cecile.  She might even learn something about herself  along the way.

Delphine’s first surprise (after Cecile kicks them out of the house for the day) is her encounter with the Black Panthers.  Behind the headlines she heard back in New York City, she discovers that the Black Panthers distribute food to hungry children in the neighborhood and run a day camp for kids at the Community Center.  Before she quite knows how it happens, Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern are practicing parts to perform in a demonstration at the community park.  Before the demonstration is over, will encounter even more surprises.

Williams-Garcia tackles some serious issues in this novel–racism, abandonment, and families–and she does it with wit and humor.  Delphine is an unforgettable character, who is much stronger than she realizes.  As she finds her voice, she discovers the power of poetry and the power of the people and the power of herself.

The Center of Everything by Linda Urban

imageBecause I have been hearing so many good things about Linda Urban’s books from my Nerdy Book Club friends, I knew I had to order The Center of Everything (Scholastic 2013) when I saw it in the book order.  I’m glad I did.  Urban has written a simply beautiful story about grief and family and friendship and second chances.

Ruby Pepperdine has lost the center of world when her grandmother, Gigi dies.  Ruby is haunted by the regret that she didn’t listen to Gigi while she has the chance.  Now she is desperate for one last chance to make things the way they are “supposed to” be.  Her last chance is if her wish will come true on Bunning Day–the community celebration where she will read her winning essay.

But along the way, Ruby’s world is spinning out of control.  She is fighting with her best friend Lucy.  She may have met a new friend, Nero, in the library, but she might mess up that friendship before it even begins.  Will she be able to set things right again?

This is not a book packed with action, but its pages are packed with feeling and lyrical prose.  This is the kind of book I would have snuck under my pillow to read after bedtime when I was in middle school.  It’s the kind of book I would have read again and again, wanting to be friends with Ruby and Lucy and Nero.  Now it is the kind of book I want to share with anyone who can’t quite find their place in the world.

April Books Read

47)  **Guitar Notes by Mary Amato — Music and friendship blossom in this clever story that starts with a shared practice room and notes left in a guitar

48) Finding the Heart of Nonfiction by Georgia Heard – Not only have I learned how to better teach and write nonfiction, I also find myself reading nonfiction more deeply.

49) The Batboy by Mike Lupica – A baseball fan gets his dream job–batboy for the Detroit Tigers–and learns that his heroes are not always heroic.

50) I Survived the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863 by Lauren Tarshis – View the chaos of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War through the eyes of an escaped slave who fell in with the Union Army

51) I Survived the Nazi Invasion by Lauren Tarshis – a Jewish boy and his sister flee theJewish ghetto and join up with Partisan fighters in the surrounding forest.

52) I Survived the Japanese Tsunami, 2011 by Lauren Tarshis – Billy and his family are visiting relatives in Japan when the earthquake and tsunami strike terror and devastation across the countryside.

53) This Is Not My Hat by John Klassen – I love this book!  According to our MS librarian, it is quite popular with a wide range of students, too.

54) Tiger, Tiger by Lynn Reid Banks – Friendship, an unrequited love, and of course, tigers come together in the Roman Circuses

55) One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia – Three sisters travel to California to meet the mother they don’t remember.  They discover so much more–poetry and Black Panthers and power to the people.

56) The Shack by William P. Young – a reread after a friend returned it

57) Darker Still by Leanna Renee Hieber – a Gothic romance along the lines of Dorian Gray

I read lots of good books–eleven to be exact–but my favorite has to be Guitar Notes.  What have been your favorite reads this month?

Tiger, Tiger by Lynne Reid Banks

imageLynne Reid Banks brings the streets and palaces and circuses of Ancient Rome to life with an unforgettable cast of characters in Tiger, Tiger (Laurel Leaf Books 2004).  Aurelia, The Emperor Caesar’s daughter leads a pampered, if lonely, life.  She is thrilled when her father gives her a young tiger cub for her birthday.  With the help of its trainer Julius, Aurelia learns to earn the tiger’s trust.  She also learns to trust Julius and welcomes his company as much as she does Boots.  Her only other companion is her young cousin Marcus, who wants to impress but often falls short.

Aurelia may be pampered, but she is tender-hearted.  She is horrified by the acts of the Circus, wanting nothing to hurt the amazing animals she sees there.  She is also strong-willed, even daring to speak her mind (with caution, of course) to her father, who has the ultimate authority of life and death over every citizen in Rome.  While Marcus comes across as spoiled and petulant, he is only acting his age–ten.  When he most wants to impress Aurelia, he suggests a prank that goes horribly wrong.  Boots escapes into the city of Rome.  Now Julius must pay with his life as he faces another tiger in the arena–the tiger named Brute.

The streets of Rome swirl with controversy and violence.  While Aurelia lives above the dirty streets, she is not immune to their controversy.  She is fascinated by the new sect of believers who call themselves Christians.  Even though she could have grown up as cold and cruel as her father, Aurelia is kind, especially to animals.  Since we experience the circus through her eyes, Banks tempers the excitement and blood lust of the crowds with the horror she experiences at its violence and death.  Tiger, Tiger would make a good introduction or companion to the study of Ancient Rome.

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

imageI was captivated by Willow’s voice from the first page of Counting by 7s (Scholastic 2013) until the very last page.  Willow is not your ordinary girl, and she won’t let you forget it.  First off, she’s brilliant, but not the teacher’s pet.  I suspect her teachers don’t get her.  She loves numbers and is fascinated by plants and medical conditions.  She also picks up other languages such as Vietnamese in her spare time.

She also does not fit in at her new middle school.  When she scores a perfect score on the state standardized test (after showing no aptitude for high ability to her teachers), the principal accuses her of cheating and refers her to Dell Duke, the school psychologist.  Outside of his office, Willow meets Mai, a chance encounter that will change all of their lives.

What do I love about this book?  Let me count the ways.  There’ll be seven since that is Willow’s favorite number.

1.  Connections:  Even when life seems random and cruel, connections bring people together.  Willow has a real talent for bringing people together, especially people who didn’t realize they needed each other.

2.  Voice:  Once you read what Willow has to say, you won’t be able to get her voice out of your heart.  She is true and honest and sees the world a bit differently–more brilliantly–than the rest of the world.

3.  Alternating points of view:  Willow is not the only teller of this story.  A third person narrator fills us in on the rest of the characters from pseudo-psychologist Dell Duke to Vietnamese nail salon owner Patty and generous taxi driver Jairo.

4.  Unforgettable characters:  Even the ones who rub you the wrong way at first–like Dell Duke and the angry Quang-ha–turn out to have a better side.  Mai is a loyal friend from the start, and Pattie opens her arms and home to a little girl.

5 .  Coincidences:  Is life random and cruel?  Is life random and lucky?  Maybe it’s all of these and none of these, but Willow experiences them all.

6.  Passion:  Willow gives everything to her interests.  She has mastered medical textbooks and would be glad to sit down with you to discuss any concerns you have.  She has created a garden oasis out of a desert–not just once, but twice.

7.  Family:  Whether it’s the family she’s lost or the new family she’s found, Willow comes home to people who love her for who she is.  Now if we could all be that lucky.

Holly Goldberg Sloan has crafted a brilliant story of love and loss, passion and friendship, tragedy and miracles.

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