Before I say anything else, I just want to thank you all so much for your kind words about my engagement! You guys are the best.
This whole ‘getting married’ thing means there’s also a whole ‘moving to Raleigh’ thing I’ve got to attend to. I’ve already been hired at a wonderful school and I know I’ll be telling you all about that before too long, but right now, I have to process leaving Woodlawn.
Woodlawn is the school where I’ve worked for the past 5 years and one of the most important places in the world to me. There are so many things I could say about this small school — things about its innovative curriculum, its beautiful historic campus, its kind-hearted students, its brilliant teachers. But all of that feels too big. I have to piece this out and say it the way I know how to say it: I’ll tell you some stories.
My first year at Woodlawn in 2008 was a crash course in doing things differently. I’m a very confident, driven, and admittedly controlling person. I know how I want to do things, I do them that way, and usually I’m proud of how they turn out. I like to sum it up by saying that I’m effective. When I got to Woodlawn, though, it was a different cup of tea than I was used to. The teachers collaborated and integrated in a way I’d never imagined was possible. They were at least as effective if not more effective than I was. They were creating projects and units that were overwhelmingly creative and brilliant.
I made one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and one that taught me a valuable life lesson: I swallowed all of my pride, sat back, and listened. I took my cues from their courage and innovation. I tossed some of my ideas that weren’t right for my new environment. I accepted some of their ideas despite my territorial urge to do things my own way. As a result, that year changed my teaching philosophy. I’ve never looked back. Indeed, I’d say one of the tenets of my philosophy these days is humility, because I realize that a fantastic teacher can always learn from other fantastic teachers.
Overhauling my teaching was only one of many adventures that first year. Another was the cranes. Each year the 7th graders hear the story of Sadako, a young girl who died from leukemia after the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Japan during World War II. Sadako spent her last months trying to fold 1,000 origami cranes and wishing for peace. In her honor, my students each year try to reach that ambitious goal as well. I teach them how to fold and they dutifully bring in excess paper: newspaper, old wrapping paper, origami paper.
That first year, they were so excited about the task. They folded huge cranes: one student, Morgan, folded a crane at least a foot in length out of metallic wrapping paper. They folded tiny cranes: the boys seemed to be having a contest to see who could fold the most microscopic crane out of a corner of a post-it note. They folded during any free time at school. They folded at home and came in with bags full of angular little birds. They folded with parents and siblings and friends. Surprisingly, we didn’t make it to 1,000 that year (my third year at Woodlawn, a group shot all the way to 1,300), but we made it close.
What we did accomplish, though, was threading every single crane onto strands of like colors. We hung the garlands all across the room: first the reds, then oranges, yellows, greens, blues, indigoes, violets. One corner held all the others: whites, blacks, browns. When you walked in the door, there was a gorgeous rainbow of flight. We were all a little surprised by how lovely it was.
We enjoyed it immensely until the fire marshall made us take it down. Our cranes sat in the corner for awhile before a student took them home to hang in her room (don’t tell the fire marshall.)
That first year was also the year I told the kids to get on their “ready to learn” caps (my version of the “thinking cap,” I guess? I didn’t think too much about it). I added that they might also need their “be quiet in class” caps. My 6th grader, Abigail, came in the next day with these:
I also remember my first Woodlawn students making liberal use of the cushions I’d bought for their writing workshops. I called them my “floor-sitters” because they’d never sit at a table when they could snag a space on the carpet with a cushion or two.
My first taste of Woodlawn Day was also in 2008. We teachers donned costumes and led the students through tours of the old Stinson plantation house, 19th century games, square dancing, gardening, and of course, 19th century popsicles (don’t think too hard about that one).
Like our beautiful crane rainbow, all good things must come to an end. That first year did, and I remember the odd, unexpected sadness I felt that June as I realized my time with my students was over. Now, as my time at Woodlawn draws to a close, the sadness isn’t unexpected at all. But it is laced with a lot of sweetness, and a lot of wonderful memories. I hope I gave even half as much to my students and my school as they gave to me.
* * *
There’ll be more Woodlawn stories to come this summer as I prepare for my move. There’s so much more to tell. In the meantime, here’s some cake! Mike picked out the flavors for this weekend’s dessert and, no surprise, they involved lots of chocolate and coconut. This cake is basically a Texas Sheet Cake scaled down to fit in a skillet. It’s wonderful all by itself, but topping it with a huge mountain of coconut pastry cream and fluffy whipped cream takes it right over the edge. As always, I recommend diving into this dessert straight out of the skillet!
One year ago: Crispy Baked Sweet Potato Fries with Basil Salt and Lemon Garlic Dipping Sauce
Two years ago: Blueberry Cream Cheese Almond Braid
Three years ago: Santa Fe Breakfast Bake
Gooey Chocolate Coconut Cream Skillet Cake
Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking, based on the ubiquitous and absolutely delicious Texas Sheet Cake, with coconut cream from Zoë Bakes
Yield: 4-6 servings
This cake is like you took heaven, put it in a skillet, and added coconut cream. It’s also tremendously fun to eat straight out of the cast iron. What a great treat to pull out for your family after dinner.
1 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
2 tablespoons cocoa
3-4 tablespoons milk (as needed for consistency)
1/2 cup pecans, chopped
2 cups powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Coconut Cream Filling Ingredients:
1/2 of a 14-ounce can unsweetened coconut milk
3/8 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch kosher salt
2 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon corn starch
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/2 cup sweetened coconut flakes
1/4 cup whipping cream
extra whipping cream
toasted coconut (optional)
Make coconut cream: Heat the coconut milk, sugar, salt and vanilla in a medium saucepan over medium heat. In a bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and corn starch. Add 1/4 cup of the hot cream slowly to the yolks, whisking as you add. Then pour the yolk mixture into the pot of hot cream and whisk. Continue to whisk with heat on medium-high for 3 more minutes. The mixture will turn thick and bubble. You need to continue to whisk for the full 3 minutes or the pastry cream will separate once it is cool. After the 3 minutes, whisk in the butter. Add the coconut flakes. Pour into a shallow dish to cool.
Cover with plastic wrap pressed right against the pastry cream. This will prevent a thick skin from forming on the surface. Refrigerate for at least an hour or freeze for 30 minutes. Once it is cold, stir the pastry cream to loosen. Whip the 1/4 cup cream to medium peaks. Stir in a third of the whipped cream to the pastry cream to lighten. Fold in the remaining cream until the pastry cream is nice and light. Chill until ready to use.
Make the cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. In a large bowl, whisk flour, baking soda, sugar, and salt together and set aside.
In a 10-inch cast iron skillet, bring the butter, vegetable oil, cocoa powder, and water to a boil. Remove it from the heat and whisk in the dry ingredients well. Mix in the buttermilk, egg, and vanilla. Bake the skillet cake at 350 degrees F for about 15-20 minutes or until a toothpick comes out with just a few moist crumbs.
Make the frosting: While the cake starts to cool, bring the butter, cocoa, and milk to a boil in a medium saucepan. Remove them from heat and add the icing sugar, nuts, and vanilla. Stir to combine. Pour over the warm cake, spread with a spatula. Let the cake cool completely. While it cools, whip excess cream to stiff peaks. Toast some coconut on a sheet pan at 350 degrees F, tossing often, for about 5 minutes. Once the cake is cool, scoop out a hollow in the middle of the cake (chef gets to eat the excess cake, of course!) and pour in the coconut pastry cream. Top with whipped cream and toasted coconut. Serve immediately (as you know, I like to eat it straight from the skillet!)
P.S. You know I had to create an animated gif: