Eco-Friendly Classroom Ideas

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We’ve done so much in our home to be eco-friendly – we installed a bidet, use washcloths in our kitchen rather than paper towels, cut down on our mini fridges (sorry, hubby, the one in the basement for band practice had to go!), bought more natural products and invested in ones that have less packaging, bought more items in bulk, use handkerchiefs more than tissues (not as gross as you would think) – the list goes on. But I suddenly realized that my paper product – and plastic product – consumption at school was nothing like what I was attempting to do at home. My room was filled with plastic storage, hundreds of copies were made – and thrown away – each week, I had filing cabinets stuffed with papers I don’t use… the guilt set in. Every other part of my life was filled with trying to do the sustainable, green, and healthy thing, yet why couldn’t I do it at work?

A lot of it comes down to standards – it’s standard and okay to make copies every day, to use color ink on your bulletin boards, to have filing cabinets bursting with lesson plans, ideas, projects, student files, and more. But I want to challenge that standard.

Just because it’s always been done that way doesn’t make it right, or what YOU have to do.

This being said, we all have to approach our journey towards earth-happy practices in our own time and at our own pace and scope. If you don’t do these things in your room, that doesn’t make you a bad or evil person. If the progress you make today is to just be more aware of it when you walk into your classroom on Monday, then that’s progress that shouldn’t be ignored or belittled. If you are inspired to dump your filing cabinets in the recycling bins this summer and switch to Google Forms for tests and lesson plans, then all the power to you!

Here are some of my goals and accomplishments, so far, at achieving a more earth-thoughtful classroom:

1. Make fewer copies.

I have 420-some students, and that makes for a LOT of copies. And if we do a semi-school wide activity, like program evaluations or end of the year summaries, that means so much paper and ink consumption. And let’s be honest, where do those copies end up after they get used? While I’d love to think these worksheets get cherished, we all know they end up trashed at home.

img_17111.jpgTherefore, a lot of this comes down to a more critical examination of my lessons – do I need to have ten worksheets where my 3rd graders practiced writing sixteenth notes, or do I just need them to practice writing sixteenth notes? As much as I can, I’m going to make one set of 25 copies and place them in plastic sleeves for use with dry erase markers. The students still do the worksheet practice, but I don’t have 75 copies of these being made for 3 classes every year. Now, I have a clean, class set that gets filed every year.

I recently purchased these sheet protectors from Amazon – we used them for a write-the-room activity before break where my 2nd-5th graders had to find flashcards that a little leprechaun friend hid around the room. Each grade level practiced their own rhythm sets – but for my 300 students using this activity, I only had 25 copies made.

 

2. Reuse as much as possible.

When I make manipulatives, I try to make them sturdy and long-lasting to get as much out of them as possible. I believe firmly in the power of the laminator and the use of cardstock – the heavier paper and lamination helps turn my projects into long-lasting and strong work. Beat charts and card games that I printed and laminated my first month of teaching are still going strong three years in. Write-the-room cards, scavenger hunt pages, exit tickets, you name it – make one set, laminate, and reuse!

3. Plan smarter and slimmer.

There are some times in your career when scripting lessons is important – first year of teaching, observations, new lessons. But do you need to write your script out for every lesson every day? If you’re like me, you go through 7 lessons a day, 1-2 times a week. If I printed each lesson on it’s own piece of paper, that’s close to 420 pages per year. Let’s round that to 500, allowing for extra paper for your program prep. With 500 sheets of paper in a ream, that 6% of a tree. Multiply that over 5 years, and you’ve used 30% of a tree. Over a 25-year career? One and a half trees of paper. No, thank you!

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I threw together a simpler lesson plan for myself with smaller boxes to abbreviate my lessons and had them printed so that 4 grade levels would be on one sheet – 2 on the front, 2 on the back. What used to take 7 pages of print now takes 1.5 – cutting my paper consumption down by nearly 80%. Teachers Pay Teachers has piles of lesson plan templates – go explore!

Alternatively, you could go all digital – I investigated the idea of an online lesson planning software or even just using Google Docs to type my lessons and transfer them to my iPad’s Google Drive. Explore, and see what’s best for you – I’m still a tactile person that wants to write my lessons by hand, so the smaller lesson plan is working best for me right now.

4. Go digital as often as possible.

In addition to the idea of digital lessons, what about switching your tests and quizzes to a digital version? If you’re not feeling super tech-savvy with using Google Forms to take musical tests with adding pictures of melodic or rhythmic patterns, you can at least start with a performance evaluation that is digital. I made this for my 1st graders, and I was shocked at how easy it was for them to sit down at one of my iPads and take it while we watched our video performance after the program. I set up my 5 classroom iPads at my desk and had five students at a time come over and take the test – they were done within 1-2 minutes and only had to type in their name. This eliminated 450-some performance evaluation copies each year – and each year I read through them and then trash them, so why continue to throw away resources when I can have all the responses digitized, interpreted, and stored on Google?

Visit Google forms to build and experiment, or click here to visit my 1st grade performance assessment.

5. Re-examine student portfolios.

When I first started teaching I wanted to keep track of everything my students did on paper in their very own folders. I had visions of beautiful, crips folders containing their work throughout the year that would awe and wow parents when it was sent home…ha. This dream instead resulted in bulging and overflowing crates of folders that we would forget to keep updated. I didn’t use worksheets as often as I thought I would, so our portfolios weren’t very impressive. So why do I still have them? There’s nothing wrong with sending any of their work immediately home or hanging it in the hallway to show off to their classmates, and it will make the few paper copies they will use that much more special knowing they will be featured.

6. Switch to all natural cleaners and get rid of hand sanitizer.

Not only does the antibacterial sanitizer not truly kill all the germs (why do doctors wash their hands rather than just use sanitizer spray?), they are very bad for the beneficial bacteria in your body. Your body needs certain kinds of bacteria to fight off the bad bacteria (illness, autoimmune diseases, cancer), and antibacterial products don’t discriminate. Encourage your students to wash their hands rather than just rub down with sanitizer.

7. PURGE the unnecessary.

I’ve done so much work to clean and purge every single year I’ve been teaching. Early on, I was making the mistake of printing everything I thought looked fun or interesting…only to have it stack up in my file cabinets. I spent some time during conferences going through and sorting my cabinets, pulling them apart and recycling everything I hadn’t touched in at least two years. While the damage has already been done by having printed the copies, I can start to eliminate the practice to print automatically and second-guess where and how I’m going to store the random worksheet or newest poster I found.

By taking time to purge your classroom of unnecessary supplies, broken instruments, old and outdated curriculum, resources that are falling apart, missing game pieces, broken CDs, and more, you can also start to take away the need to buy more plastic storage containers or sorting bins. Use only what you need – it declutters your classroom and your mind, keeps your dollars in your pocket, and reduces the amount of petroleum products that are living and breathing in your room. There’s nothing that says your desk can’t still be untidy time to time, but you’d be surprised at how calm you’ll feel knowing what’s truly inside your deepest cabinets and hiding under your shelves and knowing that those items are there for a reason and that they have a purpose.

High or Low

It’s cool and drizzly today – it’s easy to feel introspective and calm on a day where nature is sleepy. Today, I found a quote that resonated with me – as I grow older and meet new people and situations throughout my life and career, it’s sometimes excruciatingly hard to stay centered and strong and to be the better person in our encounters. If I’m always following the rules and being kind, I don’t feel like I can – or have the chance to – win. Bad things can happen to good people, and that is just not fair – I work too hard at being a kind person to have karma occasionally backhand me.

Sometimes, this feeling can just be fixed with a hug or a good glass of wine. But sometimes, you just need Michelle Obama to back you up. 


Today, I choose joy. 

Natural Bug Repellants

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This week was my spring break, and we managed to find a day off together where we spent all day outside. We grilled pizza for lunch and cooked a beef stew all afternoon – and when we pulled it off the fire, it was the most delicious and savory stew we have ever tasted. Better yet, we had made it from scratch in our own kitchen, with grass-fed and humanely-raised beef, and with vegetables we already had in our pantry and in our fridge. What an amazing day!

This spring is shaping up to be a beautiful time of year – the flowers are blooming, trees budding, birds calling, nature is waking up. Oh, and don’t forget the bugs – they’re waking up, too! (Cue exasperated sigh…)

Now, in every ecosystem and environment, everyone has a vital role. From the bacteria in the soil to the leaves decaying to the bee pollinating clover to the rabbit in the vegetable garden all the way up to the humans and big predators, we all have our own role and we must be allowed to play it. What’s unfortunate is that this line of reasoning includes the bugs as being important and critical to the cycle. (Cue another exasperated sigh.)

Now, I respect the role of nature and the different roles that are played by every step of the ladder, but that doesn’t mean I want them to carry out that job on my skin or on my patio. So how do we discourage the bugs from visiting without killing the bugs, or my gut flora?

I started investigating more natural ways to create repellants and kept turning to my collection of essential oils – my husband and mother-in-law have been showering me lots of delicious oils for Christmas and my collection is always growing. I like the natural effect that aromatherapy has on improving a variety of ailments, from mood to headaches to congestion and more. Their pungent qualities make them excellent for all things bug repellant, too!

So this week, I set out to develop two new items that will join us on the patio in the coming months: candles and bug spray.

Part 1: Candles

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I’ve heard that a lot of citronella candles are only so effective because they don’t contain true citronella oil – they just contain a chemical that smells like citronella and not the real stuff. So I set out to make citronella candles with the actual citronella essential oil!

First, I gathered my materials…

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  • soy wax (paraffin wax is made from either coal, petroleum, or oil by-products, so I stayed away from that!)
  • candle wicks
  • jars for candles (Mason jars are thicker and therefore less likely to break with heat)
  • essential oils – in addition to citronella, I bought lemongrass and used the grapefruit I already had in my collection
    • Citronella is excellent at repelling most flying pests, but grapefruit is an added tick protector and lemongrass is also helpful for mosquitoes and flies

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And the items needed for assembly…

  • Double boiler or DIY double boiler (glass or steel bowl in a saucepan with boiling water)
  • Spatula to stir melting wax (avoid plastic because of high heat)
  • Hot glue gun to glue wicks to bottom of jar
  • Pencil or chopstick to prop up wick while cooling

All in all, this candle-making was quick, easy, and surprisingly not messy – all my materials and bowls cleaned up quickly because I washed them while everything was still in liquid form – no scrubbing and scratching away hardened wax!

My bowl was small, so I made enough for one candle and then repeated the process for a second.

Using a make-shift double boiler, (steel bowl over a pot filled with boiling water), I melted down approximately 4 cups of wax (equals approximately 1 to 1 1/4 cup of melted wax) and added about 3-4 drops of essential oils for each cup of wax.

While the wax was melting, I used my hot glue gun to glue the wicks to the bottom of my jars. I sat the jars next to the pot on the stove so they would stay a little warmer – you don’t want to risk them cracking when introducing hot wax to cool glass.

When the wax was all the way cooled, I poured it carefully into my first jar, using a piece of wax paper to catch any spills (that way, I could throw any wax spills away rather than scrub my counter to within an inch of its life.)

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Then, I repeated the process for jar number 2. For each, I propped up the wicks with a chopstick or pencil to keep them from leaning to the edge of the candle. It wasn’t perfectly straight, but they’ll burn fairly straight, so that’s all that matters!

Leave them to cool overnight, and you’ll wake up to scent-a-licious and beautiful candles the next morning! For all new candles, I’ve heard the recommendation that the first time you burn them you should let the wick burn long enough to melt the top layer of wax so that the wick can soak up a little and “remember” for the next burning.

 

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Part 2: Bug Spray

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If candles were easy, then homemade bug spray is the equivalent of eating Girl Scout cookies – easy, fun, and over way too quickly. This recipe was a mixture of the same essential oils from my candles but with the added witch hazel to act as a sterilizing agent (keeps bacteria from growing in the bottle).

In a dark spray bottle, mix the following:

  • 2 oz. distilled water
  • 1.5 oz witch hazel
  • 30 drops of citronella essential oil
  • 25 drops of grapefruit essential oil
  • 15 drops of lemongrass essential oil

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Keep in a dark and cool location, and break out in times of outdoor frolicking. Shake before use, as the oils and water will separate.

I’m looking forward to trying both of these products on our patio with our new patio set – I hope they will be as successful for you as I am sure they will be for me!

It’s Time for a Sale!

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As some of you may know, I have a small-but-growing Teachers Pay Teachers store for which I’ve spent quite a bit of time building products. I’ve been recently updating some of my older files and adding a bunch of composition worksheets, since composing and improvising is something I’m really striving to include more of in my own classroom. To say thank you for my supporters, I’ve decided to throw a 15% off sale, Thursday 3/23 through Sunday 3/26! 

Here is a preview of some of my new and updated items, including some sugary-sweet peeps for Easter!

 

Sourdough – Bread that Heals Your Gut

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For a variety of reasons, so many people are turning from breads and grains, from gluten concerns to worries about gut health and even the fattening ability of carbs. There is a stigma about bread, and now it’s almost unfashionable to order the sandwich rather than the lettuce wrap. Upset stomach? Cut out the bread. Can’t lose weight? Bye, wheat.

Now, I’m not denying that there are legitimate health reasons (Celiac’s and the lot) that are preventing many from partaking in fresh-baked pastries and loaves. But what on earth happened to our grain and breads that took a food staple of the world and reduce it to a side dish that sickens more and more of our population?

With the introduction of commercially-made breads and preservatives we’ve seen a significant decrease in the quality of nutrients and health benefits to breads. Whole wheats and protein-rich grains used to provide substance and serious amounts of nutrients and vitamins. The migration from whole wheat breads made with natural, wild yeast has taken us away from natural and the helpful bacteria that is allowed to flourish in leavened breads.

Unless you live under a box, you’ve probably heard all about the good bacteria for your gut that we should all endeavor to consume on a daily basis. One of the easiest – and nature’s oldest – ways to increase your intake of prebiotics and probiotics is by consuming more fermented foods. Nature has been giving humans fermented foods long before we knew how good they were for us – foods like pickles, sauerkraut, beer & wine, sourdough breads, yogurt, kimchi, miso soup, cider, vinegar, it goes on! We’re just now learning about how important consuming these products, and other fermented products, really are – keeping your gut flora thriving can help you fight obesity, prevent diseases (even auto-immune diseases), prevent depression, and squeeze out extra vitamins and nutrients from our food. (Why didn’t we know this before? The good bacteria dies as soon as it leaves our gut, so it’s not been easy to study…)

Things like too many antibiotics, chlorine, highly-processed or unnatural foods, antibacterial soaps and cleaning products, and even stress knock out the good bacteria. The challenge becomes trying to find ways to promote gut happiness on a regular basis – and why not turn to bread?

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Sourdough, when made from a starter and allowed to naturally ferment, can be a fantastic way to integrate healthy bacteria into our system. It’s also a super easy bread to make – my sourdough starter contained 2 ingredients: flour and water. My sourdough bread took very little kneading and contained 4 ingredients: a little sourdough starter, flour, water, and salt.

But what’s the secret to unlocking the healthiness, in all of those simple ingredients? Time. 

 

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Given the proper time, your flour and water reacts with wild yeast that is naturally-occurring all around to begin to sour – to ferment. This fermentation unlocks previously-unattainable nutrients, introduces lactic acid bacteria (good gut bacteria), and begins to pre-digest the gluten – and apparently some gluten-sensitive people can even eat sourdough without issue. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg – and let’s not forget the delicious taste of sourdough on sandwiches and as a dip for soups, plus how you can transform your sourdough starter into recipes for pretzels, rolls, bagels, you name it!

This past week, I sat down to try my hand at a sourdough starter and my first loaf of sourdough bread. I’ve struggled with adequately kneading bread in the past – while the flavors in my breads have been adequate, they’ve always turned out very dense and heavy. While this version probably still needed a few more passes at kneading, I finally felt successful at producing a tasty and fluffier loaf!

I used two different recipes for my sourdough – one for a starter, and one for an actual recipe. I by-passed using a kitchen scale for the starter but it turned out to be very helpful (and almost downright necessary) for following the correct amounts in the sourdough bread recipe. Thanks to around 5 minutes every day for a week and then a little bit of prep work on the dough, we feasted on some delicious sourdough for breakfast this morning, served up with some tasty farm-fresh eggs and homemade blackberry jam. YUM!

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Here is the recipe I used to make my own sourdough starter – once made, your sourdough lives in your refrigerator and is “fed” with a little flour and water on occasion. 

 

And here is the recipe I used to make my delicious sourdough bread.

 

 

 

 

I hope you enjoy your sourdough – and you happy gut – as much as we are! Best of luck with your baking!

 

 

Garden Journaling

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Gardening can bring such joy and satisfaction in any scale, from a window sill of flowers to hundreds and hundreds of square feet of vegetables and legumes on a farm. The tricky part is how long gardeners go in between seeing their crops again – by the time I’ve harvested the last of my bell peppers in September and transferring seedlings to the garden in the following May, I’ve gone nearly eight months without active handling and care of the peppers. How often did I fertilize them last year? Which variety died in a surprise frost? What were last year’s growing patterns season changes? Or, for that matter, what if I wanted to resurrect a crop from several years ago – how do I keep track of when we planted and began to harvest?

Last year I created an excel file for the end of the season, and we did our best to sit down and try to remember when things sprouted, how many we planted, what varieties performed and how… What frustrated me was that I didn’t actively journal and keep track of our fertilizing patterns and season changes to know how everything performed and how early we saw harvests. However, I am too lazy to journal pages of detailed accounts of every day and it’s important to me to have a quick and easy reference point for last year’s accounts. This season, it was important to find something quick, convenient, and light.

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My in-laws purchased this beautiful calendar for us for Christmas – it’s made by the Farmer’s Almanac company and is illustrated with beautiful plants and gardening tips, as well as the moon cycles. I decided to hang it on my fridge – and then I realized that my new journal was staring me in the face! Why not document – and even plan – our gardening work in a calendar that is always in arm’s reach and is easy to store for next year?

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In February I sat down with our seed packets and counted out the number of weeks we wanted them to have inside under our growing light before transferring outside in the beginning of May (our last frost tends to hit mid-April). Counting back from our estimated transfer date, I wrote in when we should anticipate planting each of our plants – tomatoes and peppers early, followed by cucumbers and squash at the end of March to give everything a solid foundation. I also used this calendar to record how often I was fertilizing plants inside as well as outside – I try to keep a regular schedule with our feedings, but it’s hard to remember when we fertilize months apart!

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It’s also important for us to note when there are big seasonal changes that might impact how things are progressing outside. We had a sudden snow mid-March after a bunch of the plants had begun to bud, including our potted blueberry, which made us nervous about their success. We have also seen record high temperatures and early warmth, which has sped up growth and blooming – it was only a week before our mid-April wedding that plants actually began to shift towards green last year, while this year our lilacs are already budding and the pear trees cloaked in white flowers.

 

I’m convinced that this calendar will be a great way to easily and quickly document yields, harvest times, season changes, transplant dates, and all within a slim and streamlined medium – not to mention the lovely illustrations.

 

Generosity

Time for a shout-out – one of the school parents contacted me this weekend and asked if we would be interested in any old canning supplies. Thinking it would be a small box of assorted jars and lids, I went ahead and said yes, but when I showed up at Ambre’s house I was floored! She and her husband greeted us with boxes and boxes of goodies!

All in all, we came home with 49 jars, a grocery sack stuffed with canning lids, an awesome sifter/sieve for jellies and sauces, and a pressure cooker! It’s old school – sorry, vintage 🙂 – but now we can process low-acid foods and vegetables along with our normal veggies but at a much faster rate. It was such an amazing and thoughtful donation to our homestead – THANK YOU! (And we’ll bring you canned goodies this fall!)

Part 2: Feeling Irish with Potatoes

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Yep, you read that right. Today is the first day of spring, and it’s 81 degrees out. We’ve had an abnormally-toasty weekend, and the plants are loving it! The average temperatures in March are usually in the 50s and we tend to experience our last frost date in mid-April, but we might be lucky this year. We had a couple of bad cold snaps last week, but we’ve been unseasonably warm for a couple of weeks now, so we decided to jump in and plant our potatoes and onions this weekend. We’ve typically gone by the idea that we should start onions and potatoes as soon as the ground is warm enough to work, but I also love the fun saying that you should plant potatoes on St. Patrick’s Day.

 

 

Last week, I wrote about how we were gearing up for growing and waiting out those last few cold nights to venture out and plant potatoes for St. Patrick’s Day – and the warmth this weekend meant it was finally time!

We like to start with seed potatoes, and I like to let mine sit for a while to really encourage the eye growth and start the development process. When they look sprouted and begin to get a little shriveled and I go ahead and cut mine, usually in half, but enough so that each piece has its own growth.

 

In the past, I’ve had good luck with a modified-raised bed for potatoes where they can grow up rather than out, so we headed out to our city’s compost pile to collect supplies. We’re really lucky that our city not only collects compost but also provides the finished compost back to city residents at no cost – there’s a small fee if you want it by the truckload, but otherwise everyone is welcome to come load up pots and containers.

The finished compost is beautiful – warm, rich, light in your hands, and deeply nutritious. We filled 6-8 pots, which was more than enough for my potato pile.

Back at home, I took a small roll of 12″ tall chicken wire and used it to create a ring that would be the home for my potatoes for the next six months or so. To keep all the dirt from spilling out of the chicken wire, I lined it with some old newspaper from the garage.

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In addition to the compost, I used some old peat moss that we needed to get rid of, and I think it’ll help to have a little extra water retention in a raised and isolated “container.”

I put down a layer of 2-3 inches of dirt and then laid down my first layer of tubers, keeping 4-5 inches in between them for room to grow. I added another dirt layer of 4 inches or so and put down another layer of potato cuttings, trying to offset them as best as I could remember so they wouldn’t run into each other as they grow up through the soil. All in all, my 8 potatoes (16 cuttings) ended up in three growing layers.

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Up next, the onions! When we weren’t grilling and hanging out on our patio with Evan’s best friend, Cole, we were sowing rows of onions in the garden. We are planning on trying to grow the onions intermixed with tomatoes and peppers rather than give them their own dedicated patch – they can make great companion plants for peppers and tomatoes and help them fight off disease and pests. I am a little nervous about the tomatoes blocking their sunlight, but I’m excited to find a new way to use as much space of our tiny patch as we can. Intensive gardening methods can help you get so much more yield out of your square foot than traditional gardening methods (think rows and lots of empty soil between plants), and so far we’ve enjoyed reaping the benefits.

I picked up a big bag of baby onion bulbs a couple of weeks ago, though I’m kicking myself because I forgot to count how many we planted! I’m guessing that we put close to a hundred in the ground… (Thanks, Cole!)

This beautiful weather and the lack of freezing – or even frost – forecasted in the next week meant it was time for some of my indoor plants to soak up some sunshine. They rejoined the patio after a cold winter indoors and basked happily with us in the warm rays – a pixie grape vine we rescued from a garden center clearance sale (no longer the sad stick – now blossoming and growing strong!), cilantro seedlings, some rose of sharon seedlings I propagated last fall, St. John’s Wort, and a new growth of lilies of the valley (the bed & breakfast at which we were married let us take a few as a wedding keepsake).

 

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Spring has sprung, and it is a beautiful time of year to spend outside.

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Feeling Irish with Potatoes

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! I’ve heard an old wives’ tale that says you should plant potatoes on St. Patrick’s Day to harvest by July 4th. Last year, we planted our potatoes on St. Patty’s Day in a raised bed of sorts and I think we might do the same this year to combat the tough clay soil. Here’s a peek at last year’s beautiful potato plants – Evan always says that if we were to pick only one plant to sow that he would pick potatoes because of their beautiful and soft leaves!

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Sourdough Starter

I’ve made a sourdough starter from scratch – just flour, water, and some time on top of the fridge collecting “wild” yeast. Looks like I’ll have a starter to make some sourdough this weekend! Today was day 4 of “ripening” and the smell was incredible – I’ve heard friends reference the sour smell of naturally-fermenting foods, but this took the cake. How is it possible for something to smell so sour and yet so healthy and organic all at once?

 

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Day 3 of my sourdough starter. 

I gathered my sourdough starter recipe from Emma Christensen at Kitchn – the starter takes 5 days to “ripen” and requires daily feeding with flour and water. I can’t wait to see how it tastes this weekend – anyone have any favorite recipes for sourdough bread?