My Season of Obnoxious

Screen Shot 2013-06-29 at 8.44.06 AMToday’s Saturday. Dates and times are irrelevant to me for the next seven weeks until school starts. This is the time of year when you hate me. The time of year when I call you randomly, email you at all times, and disturb you at work. You get annoyed. “I’m working! Don’t you have something to do?”

Nope. Don’t you know teachers never have something to do after 2PM, or during vacations and summer?

This is the glorious time of the year when I don’t yet have my schedule so I can’t possibly think about what I’d like to do next year. I can’t make goals, I can’t write curriculum, and I can’t obsess about the lessons I’d like to plan to reach my students better. I am forced to have fun.

That gives me plenty of time to bother you. You know you love it. Really. It makes you feel important. Deep in your mind, you’re convinced teachers don’t do anything most of the year and work a seven hour day.  It’s why you secretly want to go into teaching–there will be plenty of spots soon, trust me–we’ll take you. Especially if you are good at math and those multiple choice tests.

This summer, I am doing the following, which should give you a break from me: 

Gardening: I want to get off the grid and eat out of my own garden. But the cabbage worms are beating me to the produce, and they’re gross, so I don’t think I’ll be eating as much cauliflower as I want. I still have about eight weeks of Swiss Chard to cook and a ton of weeds to pull. That should keep me busy, but if I have time, I’ll call you during your important business meeting.

Learnist: Next year, I will get rid of my textbooks, whatever they are destined to be, almost entirely. When I know what I’m teaching, I’ll create and locate a ton more boards on Learnist to accomplish this, but one thing I’ll be doing differently is collaborating more. You’ll probably start to see me writing articles about using Learnist to crowdsource; about not “recreating the wheel.” I often think I work too hard when I could be sharing the load better. This sounds deep and prophetic, but truthfully, it’s pretty selfish. I really want to save myself some time, so I can bother you during the school year as well. Perhaps you have a presentation due or a deal to negotiate–that’s when I’ll Skype in or send a really long email. It’s the least I can do.

Developing a better plan for tech in my classroom: I did well this year with Learnist, my class blog, and Twitter, but in the next year two, I plan to do even better. I didn’t tweet enough on the @braincountry handle with the students, although we did tweet the debates and election. They wanted to tweet more. I can do better with my class blog. I want the students to do more writing, and the parents to see and comment on what students are doing. I will figure out a way to do this from Day One to make lessons more relevant and engaged, and save me time to–you guessed it–bother you.

Fitness: I’ve enjoy yoga and running, and am ditching The Boy to get back to my fun at  Fitness is never a burden for me, it’s fun and often meditative. I can Screen Shot 2013-06-29 at 8.48.35 AMuse this addiction to give you a break when the other time-saving innovations give me an excess of time to insert annoyances into yours. I’ll try to recognize your righteous indignation and kickbox or run for an hour or so. That should give you enough time to pack up and move to a nation I can’t spell.

Don’t worry…it won’t be too long before I’ll know what I’m teaching and start focusing on that instead of calling you while you’re trying to be productive so you can avoid being outsourced.  My writing and other projects will fill up my time to give you a breather, and the last week of August–when I return to teach–is coming before you know it.

By then, you should hear the crickets chirp in your email. But until that time, it’s really nice bothering you again.


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Electricity and First-World Conveniences

$187.74. The electricity bill. That’s pretty high.

“Did you miss a payment?” Rusty asked.

“No. I overpaid.” I pay random amounts and usually end up months ahead. Why? I don’t know. Bill ADHD. I try to get ahead of the months I know will be higher. This is one of those freaky post-recession financial behaviors I still do, even though I’m blessed to be paying my bills and eating food on a regular basis now. Vegetable gardening is the other freaky-post-recession behavior. But that’s kind of fun.

I analyzed the bill. Usually I don’t–it’s sort of like looking at a scale. No one really wants to know the truth. Ever. The truth is better left ignored.

Sure enough, $87 for the electricity itself and $90 for distribution. And some random fees and taxes because the bill wasn’t quite high enough. That makes sense. But fifty percent of the bill seems an awful high fee for “distribution.” I think they hired a drug dealer to do this job and then jacked the fees accordingly.

I thought understanding my Verizon bill was tough. The Verizon bill makes me jump up and down on the phone getting transferred to “sister companies” all over the world who tell me “You need the business department,” or “Sorry, that’s the Internet division.” I jump up and down faster, even though they can’t see this gesture of frustration and say “I just want to pay you!” in four different languages until I finally give up and keep my money just a little bit longer.

But the electric bill is testing the limits of my education. We should use that for the high-stakes graduation requirement. All students who understand it completely graduate. We’d save a lot of standardized testing money and the rainforest trees used for making diploma stock would live to see another day.

I want someone to put a big number on one piece of paper and say, “Listen, moron. Here’s your bill. You’re living in the 21st century. You have lights. Internet. A refrigerator that keeps your food from killing you. Shut up and pay. It costs a lot. Empty your checkbook and resume your regularly scheduled first-world behavior.” I want a bill that can be tweeted to me, “$187.74. Pay or lose your air conditioning.”

electricity billI don’t really need six itemized lines that require me to take classes in nuclear obfuscation. What is a “LIHEAP Enhancement Charge?” or the $11.01 I’m being charged for “Energy Efficiency Programs?” $11 a month to teach someone to turn off a lightbulb? There’s a “transmission charge,” a “transition charge,” and a “distribution charge.” Are they bringing electricity to me three separate times?

According to the paragraph on the side, I have the right to dispute, and there is an “explanation of billing terms available.” But I’m smart. I Googled LIHEAP. The acronym reminded me of “lie a heap,” which sounds like a political term, so I was intrigued. Turns out, it’s “Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.”  I support that. State law, I researched, says that it may not be more than ten dollars per year. Mine is eighty-three cents. It seems they broke down my ten dollars into thoughtful installments, but in the end, I am charged over ten times more more to contribute to training people in the fine art of turning off lightbulbs than I donate to helping people in need. Maybe more people need to learn to turn off lightbulbs.

If I flip the bill over, there’s a helpful graph. It shows how I barely used any electricity before, and in June I used half a power plant. I filed that under “happiness” budget, not “utilities” though, because my husband hates summer. June is when the A/C wars begin. He puts the air conditioning as cold as he can get away with and I change it as soon as he turns around. He tells me to put on a sweater. When I was younger, my dad used to say “Put on a sweater” all winter. I’m traumatized. I’m an adult. I refuse to do that now–especially during the summer. We have an ongoing scientific discussion. Rusty says that because I change the temperature when I’m uncomfortably cold and he’s not home, all the molecules in the house must recool, which ultimately costs more money. Therefore, the bill is $187.74. I’m sure he’s right. But I’m cold. I’ll give an extra few bucks under a line item they should list on the bill “molecule recooling comfort fee.” Or the “marriage preservation tax.” Either of those would be fine by me.

So, I paid the bill. And found the remote control to the stand-up air conditioner and turned it up a few degrees, because my sweater is in the bedroom and everyone’s asleep. I don’t want to wake them. I’m rather enjoying the peace and quiet.

Bills paid, I’m going to go make some more hot coffee while I wait for the room to warm up.



School’s Out: Will My Grammar Return?

Screen Shot 2013-06-26 at 11.09.37 PMSchool’s out for summer. But will my grammar return?  Will I be left with words and phrases like “conversating,” “presentating” and whatever you call the verb tense that includes “be gettin’?” Will I recognize that nouns and verbs combine to make complete sentences, and will I continue to acknowledge people with affirmations like “aiiight,” and “s’up” always nodding up, never down…

Grammar’s an important part of my life. I write. I articulate. I appreciate crisp, clean sentences and the proper Oxford comma. But has teaching high school ruined my grammar…or can I credit this problem to Silicon Valley? Not sure. I deal with high school students who are busy trying to out-cool each other with the number of non-achievements they can rack up–the dreaded anthem of mediocrity, “I’m passing,” or worse “I’m only failing four subjects,” followed by a slew of misspelled congratulatory texts from friends. HIgh school students ruined my ability to formulate a grammatically correct idea.

I’m honored to work with the Silicon Valley group–they are certainly geniuses and have knowledge of grammar, but they lack time. “We get a lot of email.” Yeah, I thought, “What’s your point?” “A lot” isn’t like my childhood pen pal return stack…it’s a lot. My friend Heather coined the phrase, “Heather’s inbox…where words go to die.” Okay, it’s a lot. I (not so) quickly learned to ping, text, email and communicate the shortest way possible–grammar be damned. Thanks to Silicon Valley these posts are 50x shorter…no longer lauded by fans of Tolstoy but appreciated by you. Thanks be to the Golden Gate Bridge, I even think in sentence fragments these days. As if my brain needed to be more scattered.

So, I’m trying to decide which group at the polar extreme destroyed my grammar more efficiently. The high school group doesn’t know any better, and certainly doesn’t care. When I point out some travesty of the English language, nine times out of ten I’ll get “Huh?”  Silicon Valley certainly knows the back and front end of Warner’s English Grammar and Composition but spends too much time coding, pitching, or creating companies to note grammatical conventions– a classic case of American exceptionalism, and for good reason. But grammar is grammar–on either side of the divide.

Screen Shot 2013-06-26 at 11.12.11 PMTeaching high school ruined my speech and spelling in the short side of a year. Silicon Valley beat the complete sentences out of me in no more than two months. I clearly remember the first sentence fragment I employed in a blog post. It gave me as much anxiety as my first “ain’t” in teaching. Heart palpitations. Literally. But today, I alternate both with double and triple negatives quite freely and without compunction.

And you know what? It feels really, really good. When some kid asks me who’s presentating next and I say, “Not sure. Let’s conversate about that in a minute,” I’m okay. When I look at something I wrote a year or two ago that looks like Herman Melville’s whale died on my desktop, I smile at my linguistic liberation.

Once a while, I use proper grammar, just to practice, just so I can sit in a restaurant with two forks should the need arise. But other than that… I’m free. And freedom…is a good thing.


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The Zucchini Phantom

crazygardenMy garden is out of control. I disobeyed seed recommendations in all regards. I planted too early, spaced insufficiently, and failed to thin. My peas look like an invasive species about to strangle the town. I lost ten pounds eating only vegetables from the garden so I could fit down the crowded rows to pick the vegetables. They are hiding monsters waiting to attack.

Vegetables grew from the compost. Tomatoes, pumpkins, I think, a squash. I let many stay. “Poop veggies.” They are from the compost. Someone told me once when life gives you crap you’ve got to turn it into something good. This is proof that I can. I wonder how tomatoes that have traveled through the digestive track exiting through the rectal cavity of an animal will taste when compared to the ones that came from Al’s Greenhouse or the seed packets.

Oh…do you want some tomatoes? They’re almost ready.

I brought some kale to a friend across town. I gave a box of salad greens to my mom, but before long, this garden will be barfing so much produce a small vegetarian nation won’t be able to keep up. That’s exactly what I want. It’s my little corner of obsessiveness.

Some of the reason for this obsession is because I really like to eat well. A small part is because I’m insane. Clinically. No one can eat this much stuff. The garden’s huge.  I didn’t even think I’d be able to fill up this garden, but it’s full and I need more space. Next year, I’ll bust it out another ten feet while no one’s looking. Don’t tell my husband. This place will be a farm before he knows it. He might be suspicious if he sees a goat mowing his lawn in something other than the perfect rows he prefers.

“No, those aren’t goats and chickens. That’s wildlife from the reservoir. I can’t remove them because they’re endangered.”

Actually, I don’t think I want goats and chickens. I want to be the zucchini phantom–the person who leaves extra produce on your doorstep or on the front seat of your car and says, “Hey, want some (insert seasonal veggie taking over the world here).” That’s my goal. I want to be my own CSA. I want to make you eat so many vegetables you hate the entire food group for life. I might even put some recipes together for you.

I’ve been eating greens for a solid month now. Curried, brazed, creamed, fresh…a million ways. Sadly, the spinach is about gone–I’ll have to curry something else. There’s still plenty of kale and Swiss chard–the greens that send children running for the hills. I see the tomatoes and peppers coming out of hiding, and my zucchini is peeking out of the blossoms. The ten or so rows of corn aren’t ready yet, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be eating more beets than a Russian hiding from Stalin at the dacha. And yet again, I’m not sure why I planted radishes, because I don’t eat them. They’ve gone to seed. I think I plant them because they come up first. Sometimes the fastest isn’t the most useful, just like in life. Yet we still gravitate toward them anyway…Just because we hate to see empty space and we assume that things that get done quickly must have something to offer.

This garden is getting ready to bust at the seams.  If you’re not a food-freak veggie loving left-wing weirdo, now would be a great time to hide from me.

I’m getting the produce baskets ready, and there just might be one…for you.


Education Should Emulate McDonald’s

Screen Shot 2013-06-21 at 2.02.57 PMIt’s been the best of years, it’s been the worst of years.

I had great students, but this was the year I wanted to quit teaching and go work at McDonald’s again. I felt standardized, burdened with paperwork, and completely beat up by the media and society. It was tough feeling like one of the people who singlehandedly–intentionally–sabotaged American education. Like I personally slowed down the Race to the Top so Finland could  pass me like Usain Bolt.

I love teaching, but the pull to go back to the Golden Arches was great.  I worked at McDonald’s in high school. I was a good employee. I was respectful, I smiled at customers. I told them to have a nice day. Though I don’t eat meat and I didn’t like smelling like grease even after I showered, I learned a lot of things–learning is important to me. Here’s what working in one of the world’s largest franchises taught me:

People like their burger the same way. There’s a reason that the burger is the burger, and a great amount of effort goes into standardizing that so that we can predict the burger’s quality, temp, size, and features. America likes predictability. They don’t like when you throw surprises at them.

Standardizing things isn’t easy for me, but I could see the McPoint. A smile and a burger. Easy enough. I think differently on occasion. McD’s let me be different–sort of. I was the only vegetarian working there. They didn’t discriminate. If you’re going to be an outlier, that’s a rough place to try it. But if you’re creative, even in the midst of standardization, you can survive. During my lunch break, I’d go to the Big Mac toaster in the back, take a bun, flip it inside-out, commandeer a slice or two of cheese, and put the sandwich with the flipped bun into the toaster, and press it down. It’s a piece of equipment that, until now, you never knew existed. I made myself many marvelous manifestations of grilled cheese–with onions, pickles, tomatoes–whatever non-meat items I could find. That was two decades before “Chopped” and “Iron Chef.” I could’ve been a contender.

I learned, though, that while we sometimes crave standardization–it’s easy, and we can guess the results–one size does not fit all, even at the world’s most regulated chain in the world. Although I don’t eat fast food, I marvel at the operation–it’s marketing heaven. You think McDonald’s is standardized, and in many respects, you’re right, but if you look deeper, one of the largest and most successful franchises on the planet adapts constantly. It doesn’t simply stamp out burgers and call it a day. It has regional nuances for customer preferences–a McD’s in the Southwest isn’t the same from one in historical New England, India, or Russia, international menu offerings that reflect cultural food tastes, and when society changes, the largest recognizable food franchise in the world changes, too. They even respond to trends in food followed by sustainability food freaks like me.

They change as a result of customer demand. They now have organic and fair trade offerings. Newman’s Own! That’s a big deal. They listened to food freaks like me. Education can listen to all the parties, too.  Even though we have to measure, assess, and figure out the best way to improve education nationally, we might emulate the World’s Most Successful Franchise in a couple of ways:

1. Pivot. It’s an overused word in the tech sector, but underused in education. I think it’s time we adopt some business vocabulary and behavior. We don’t have to be cold, hard, uberefficiencymongers, but we can consider honest feedback from all stakeholders–parents, students, businesses, higher education, educators, and educational leaders.  That’s the hybrid group that should revolutionize education. Together we can identify areas of opportunity, and create the freedom to change direction when necessary. Communication and innovation are foundations for success. 

2. Customize. Really take a look at the clientele. For me, it’s my students and their families. I often ask “What do you think?” My end of the year survey gave me areas where I exceeded student expectations and suggestions for next year that I will incorporate and write about so they can see their feedback in action.  A good professional should be able to anticipate needs or simply ask “How can I help you today?”

3. Listen and Be Flexible. Sometimes I have to say the following, “What would you like me to do for you given that we have these goals?” It’s a powerful statement. It gives over the control of the class to the student. Not a lot of people are comfortable giving over control. When I do that, more often than not, the students grade themselves more critically, pick and design activities that were more challenging than any I’d have designed, and go way above and beyond my expectations. All I had to do is listen and be flexible. Flexibility is the key. The greatest innovations happen in flexible environments where creative people are not afraid to fail. We’re not there yet. But we could be if we study the greatest corporate and educational successes out there and steal the ideas that make them great. I’ll steal like an art thief to create an ed utopia. 

I bet I’ll field a couple critical questions in comparing public education to McDonald’s–especially given my status as a vegetarian food freak, but I can’t help the analogy. America loves burgers.

I want America to love public education, too.


High School Failure? Here’s Your Speech

Screen Shot 2013-06-19 at 2.04.39 PMYesterday was graduation. It’s a big day. For some, it was the first graduation in their family. Even for those who have seen a few, it’s a big, big deal. Parties, high-fives, discussion of the future…nothing beats graduation week. If teachers were in business, this’d be our product release, complete with the festivities, press-releases, and a feeling of relief.

But there’s another side to this story. This is the week that I sit with the people who didn’t make it. Sometimes it’s expected, and sometimes it’s a shock. There are a number of reasons. Family problems, children born, perhaps a good old-fashioned lack of effort. One or two will repeat senior year. One or two will leave us and drop out, never having finished. Gone into the haze to find their path. Or not. It remains to be seen…

There’s no speech for them. No accolades. No encouragement beyond the conversation we have. Just a folded up cap and gown retrieved from guidance that won’t make it out of the bag. This speech is for them:

To the Almost Class of 2013: 

You didn’t make it. I’m heartbroken. I truly am. I was one of the first to see you come into this school. We talked about your dreams. This week, I watched and listened you wiped your tears, and watched as your friends crossed the stage.  Some of you saw this coming, and others were shocked. You imagined this day for years. You had families fly in from out of town. In the end, you walked away from the school with that cap and gown you wouldn’t need, and I, too, wanted to cry.

Know this:

You are not a failure.  

LIfe throws punches. Sometimes pretty hard. When we can, we deflect, when we’re taken off guard, we take one square in the face. At times, it’s our fault, but sometimes the world really does conspire against us and we can’t keep our head above the chin-up bar. And we get hit.

We fail.

That’s when we find out what’s truly inside.

What’s your next move? When the world sets low expectations for you, do you believe or achieve? If you fall seven times, do you get up eight, or do you stay in the spot where you fell?

People will judge you. They’ll put you in a box.  “Failure is a detour, not a dead-end street.” said author and motivator Zig Ziglar. He wasn’t a failure. He was a pretty big success.

“My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.” President Abraham Lincoln served during what might be said was one of the most difficult presidencies ever, crafting strategies that saved the union.

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than successful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated failures. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” President Calvin Coolidge didn’t speak much–they called him “Silent Cal.” But what he said here mattered.

“I’ve come to believe that all my past failure and frustration were actually laying the foundation for the understandings that have created the new level of living I now enjoy.” Success and Life Coach Anthony Robbins grew up in an abusive home, overcame amazing challenges, and became one of the leading motivators in the world. He literally gets people to walk across fire.

“It is best to have failure happen early in life. It wakes up the Phoenix bird in you so you rise from the ashes,” American Actor Anne Baxter reminded us, and educator Rodger Babson stated, “It is wise to keep in mind that neither success nor failure is ever final.”

You are not a failure, even if you have failed. You are not a failure if you stop, analyze the situation, and make your plan to get it done. Break it down and do a little something every day that contributes to “great.” Then do more.

You may walk through these doors again–may you return better than when you left. Go, and be great. When you come back, do so with stories, companies, great jobs, adventures and families, having accomplished things no one ever thought you’d do. You are not a failure. You’re a success starting today.

And never forget this: success is the best payback of all.


Getting the Bird

Screen Shot 2013-06-18 at 8.56.06 AMI’m giving an exam. There’s a lot of human suffering–the kind that makes a kid have to go to the bathroom. One girl left to accomplish this task.

“Miss, there’s a bird.”

“Someone gave you the bird?” This is urban education, man. Toughen up.

“No. A bird.” Sure enough, there was a beautiful little bird flitting around the hallway, trying in vain to get out the window. It wasn’t going far, so intent at looking at the view outside, yet stuck in place by a pane of glass. Kinda reminded me of myself at times. I had to help.

I got a large plastic chip bowl–the kind of thing that clutters my classroom that I keep meaning to toss but I think, “hate to waste, maybe it’ll have some use.” Finally. It’s day had come. A colleague walked down the hall, seeing the bird and the chip bowl. “We should call maintenance.” I wasn’t sure how someone who fixes everything that breaks for me (my heroes) and who also bestowed upon my neighbor the Coveted Key To The Bathroom had any more training in bird catching than I did.

“No.” I said. “I got this.” My colleague went to prevent my class from cheating on my exam–a moot point, because they probably finished in the time it took me to get the chip bowl anyway.

Slowly, I snuck up on the little bird. He slipped over to the left, then the right, but not out of reach, and he never left the glass. It seemed to me that if a large, purple chip bowl was coming for me, I’d fly to the ceiling. Maybe he didn’t know that chip bowls and humans can’t fly. He was so intent–staring ahead, banging his head against the very thing that was hurting him–trapping him–holding him back and keeping him from being free. I stood still for a moment, and then slowly…put the bowl behind him a foot away.

“I know I can get out it in a minute…if I just…keep…at it.” So intent at breaking through…bang, bang, bang.

I put the chip bowl down on the glass. For just a moment bird did not move.

“Sorry, little bird…” I’d trapped his foot under the bowl. I picked up the bowl, just a millimeter, releasing his foot. The bird flittered inside. Bang…bang…bang… I had caught the bird. I’ve never caught a bird before. I’ve been given the bird, and once or twice I returned the favor, but I never caught one.

I realized something.

I was stuck.

“Hey!” I called out to my colleague. “I’m stuck. Dump a box and bring me a large piece of cardboard.” The clutter in my room was really starting to pay off. He came back with the bucket I use to clean out my fish tank.

“Not a bucket! Cardboard. I’m going to slip the cardboard under the bowl and make a lid. Then, I’ll take the bird outside.” He came back with someone’s posterboard. Sorry, to whoever’s project that was, but it served a higher purpose. Probably got you an A to begin with, but it saved a life as well.

I took the bird outside.

I released it. Such a simple act. I smiled. I watched the bird fly away. I hope his little foot doesn’t hurt too much.

How many times do we just…keep…at it. How many times do we bang our head against the glass, the wall, anything really, and keep ourselves from getting where we need to be? Probably more than we’re willing to admit.

Thank you, little bird, for the lesson. I hope I’ve helped. If I can ask just one thing in return–can you please tell your friends not to poop on my car? I’d appreciate it.

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