Blame Someone Else Today!

It’s ten o’clock. I’ve put the boy to bed. I’ve cuddled. I’ve kissed and hugged. I’ve discussed the meaning of life. Now, I’m sitting with my tea and a book.

Stomp, stomp, stomp. A little face appears in the threshold.

“Can someone help me with the blankets?”

“No. Go to bed.” I should be able to sit down once or twice a year without “Help me, get this, MOMMY, MOMMY I NEED WATERRRRR!!” I just watched a survival show. They got chucked in the woods naked. I’m here to tell you not one person died from not having water for 8-12 hours.


“But I need help. The blankets are wrong.”  It’s the same game every night. It’s either food, water, blankets, or a monster…anything to get out of bed. It’s better for all parties involved if I get up because if my husband gets up again, life as Declan knows it will end.

Screen Shot 2013-07-14 at 6.55.10 AMI walk down the hall into The Room, which has been ransacked. This explains the problem with the blankets. I check around. Nothing critical has been stolen–the matchbox cars, cardboard scraps, corner-eaten board books, the nearly moldy half-apple on the nightstand. And heaven forbid, the dinosaur collection. All present and accounted for. No criminal in site. We’re safe for the moment. But I am not happy.

“WHAT happened HERE?” I inquire.

Declan stares right into my eyes. “Alvin did it.”

Alvin the Chipmunk. The imaginary friend. Declan memorizes movies. The chipmunk movie left us with six imaginary friends, Alvin being the most nefarious. Alvin is responsible for all mischief in the house. He comes with us on all road trips. He walks beside us in the store. People watch us while Declan discusses the meaning of life with Alvin and disciplines him when necessary.

This got me to thinking. I need an imaginary friend. Hmm….. Who could it be… That’s it!!  Screen Shot 2013-07-14 at 6.56.46 AMMr. Green Jeans. Mr. Green Jeans can help me around the house and with the garden. And when I fail to get something right, I can blame him.

“I didn’t leave the door open. It was Mr. Green Jeans.”

“Mr. Green Jeans didn’t get around to cleaning the kitchen. And he messed up my dresser, too.

“My teacher evaluation data isn’t finished because Mr. Green Jeans didn’t finish the pile of correcting. He was responsible for the graphs. I was supposed to be teaching.”

“Mr. Green Jeans burned your dinner, here’s a salad instead.”

I think it will work. I think of all the times I threatened to bring Alvin to the ASPCA.  I should have been thanking him instead. Because now, I will have Mr. Green Jeans to help me explain away the chaos that is my life.

I went running yesterday. I pushed by a tangle of vines growing from a stone wall, when all of a sudden I saw something dead on the side of the road. A chipmunk. Squashed.

Alvin? God, I hoped not. I still hadn’t thanked him for Mr. Green Jeans. I went home frightened, and said nothing. Declan was in the yard.

“Have you seen Alvin?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. There was a living, scurrying chipmunk five feet away from us under a tree, digging up a nut and watching us both.

“Phew. There he is,” I said.

“That’s not Alvin,” Declan replied. “That’s….” the chipmunk sprung away, “Leapster. He jumps high.” I’m sorry. They all look alike to me. Sort of like freshmen trying to dress goth when the school year begins.

With a nod, Leapster ran off into the woods, making the promise he’d be back later that day to make sure Alvin to destroyed something.

It was a promise he kept, as I found torn up egg cartons and a million boxes littering my dining room. Alvin was making a maze.

I turned to the figure at my left. “Mr. Green Jeans,” I said. “Go clean the cellar. It’s horrific.”

“I’m not doing it,” he replied, standing firm. “Alvin made the mess!”  My own imaginary character revolting and shifting the blame. That’s not the way it’s supposed to work!

In either case, blaming people is an important part of American culture. Put this effective strategy to work for you today. Do it now–go mess something up and blame the nearest person. You’ll feel great immediately. It’s a tactic that works every time. It works in law, government, education, corporate America, business, banking… Why not follow suit? Once you get the hang of it, do it at least once a day. It’s fun. Then take the extra time you have in not remedying the situation and…

You guessed it…

Enjoy just one more cup of coffee.  On me.

And Alvin, I suppose, too.

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Honesty Is Such A Lonely Word

Screen Shot 2013-05-26 at 8.05.00 AM“Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.” –Thomas Jefferson

I was reading a message from a friend who wants to improve his product.  I said I’d give my honest opinion. The other day, I looked at a website. I said, “Looks good–news features are solid, a little intellectual for the topic, it’s clean, designs okay.”  It seemed like there was a disconnect I couldn’t put my finger on though.

“Really?” said my friend, “You’re the only one who likes it.” Well, then, either I’m stupid or a renegade. Either could be true.

“Who’s your market?” He told me. The market wasn’t me–it was my students. I knew exactly what needed to be done. I was honest.

Honesty’s tough to get. When you have people who will be honest, it’s gold. Not simply honesty–you can get that anywhere… “Do you think I look fat?” “Yeah, actually, I saw a picture of a cow and thought of you…” “If there’s a dumber person in the universe, I haven’t met him.” Not that kind of honesty–honesty with love.

Honesty’s no good unless it comes from place in the heart and soul that makes you want to be a better human being, even while you’re having the tough conversations.

I’ve learned volumes about honesly. I was setting up this blog. None of the names worked. My friend Kamal, the author, was helping–he’s plays the “no BS card” well, so he often gets veto power somewhere in the process. It goes like this:

“I was thinking of doing…”

“No, that won’t work.”

“Oh.” Repeat convo ten times. I used to get frustrated–nearly gave up on this blog.

If you’re not going to do this right, don’t bother doing it. Quit right now!” Doesn’t get much more straightforward than that. I set up a template under cover of darkness, so I wouldn’t be caught and told “no.” I’d get it running and surprise him. Truth was, my ego was bruised. Didn’t want to hear “no” again. Even if he was right.

“Is that you following me on WordPress?” How did he catch me? “You can’t call it that. “Wittischism?” That’s no good.”

Too clever. You can’t use words no one knows. NO ONE can spell that. Don’t use double letters. Short as possible. Try again.

The arrows flew. I hung my head and slunk away. Eventually, I succeeded. I love where I am today. Honesty with love…it’s magic.

Anyone can be a critic. But “honesty with love” means you want that person to succeed. “What do you really think of this?” When I am open to that conversation, I leave the table a much better person. My work is better. I am better. I am excited to improve. It’s game changing.

We are trying to do this in education. We’re not there yet. We’re in a very destructive place. We’ve set up a system intended to open the doors to feedback and dialogue, but made it so high-stakes and data-oriented, that it’s become “subjective honesty with fear” instead of “honesty with love.”

This year, I was afraid–terrified. Bad evals based on rubric checkboxes, coming up short on goals I wasn’t quite sure how to design…I was depressed. My husband told me I needed professional help. And that I was forbidden to talk about education at home anymore. Instead of getting help, I planted vegetables. There’s no copay involved and I can eat them.

The Right Kind of Feedback Matters

The Right Kind of Feedback Matters

We can solve issues in education by using “feedback with love.” Include the voice of the students, and do the hardest thing of all–set our own egos aside, and be willing to really listen and handle the truth.

When I look at someone’s manuscript, blog, or product, I know if I say, “Yeah, it’s good,” and it’s not, they suffer down the road–their product won’t be useful and it won’t sell. All because I didn’t want to hurt their feelings. That’s how it must be in education–groups of straightforward people inspiring each other to greatness. Right now, I do this with EdCamps and Twitter chats like #satchat and #edchatri,  We can do better. The technology’s there.

If we get this right in education, the paradigm shifts. Recognize everyone’s talent and promote feedback by taking away certification-ending fear. Everyone needs growth and we’re all experts in Our Thing. Put the politics aside and say, “It would be helpful if you’d…” or “Let’s try…” Game changing.

Can we think outside the box on this one?

Can we think outside the box on this one?

When fear, not love, is present, we shrivel up. Instead of seeking out others to exchange ideas, we sink further into our shell. It’s what’s happening now. It’s a place we don’t want to be.

Education needs “honesty with love.”  I asked my friend to tell me how he knows he’s a good doctor. People still get sick and injured. He’s the best. He knows. Even without a rubric.

Here’s the key: Hire good people. Treat them like they’re gold. As a business owner, this is critical. Because of this, we saw growth off the charts in one of the worst economies. We trust our stars to do their jobs with integrity and enthusiasm. The results don’t lie.

Loosening up the reins isn’t easy, but it’s the highest form of leadership. Nothing makes me work harder than when a visionary high-fives me. Nothing stifles my spirit more than micromanagement and fear. Let’s get out of the fear zone and into the vision zone in every area of our lives. It makes all the difference.

I can do better. We can do better, with a lot less effort–using honestly, openness, and feedback with love. Our results won’t lie either.


Building Bridges Instead of Burning Them–EdTechRI

Shawn and HeatherI was teaching a unit that was boring. But it’s in the curriculum so I had no choice. I tried to chug it down and get on to something better. I gave the test. They bombed.  I don’t even like tests–In a few years, I bet we won’t even need tests–they’ll wear a Yankee Hat that will suck out their collective knowledge and send me a report.  I won’t even have to teach them because there will be an app for that too. Oh, how much money the tax payer will save!

All these apps are very cool–it’s what I’m trying to do–get these things into the classroom.  But sometimes looking around at the old and the new in classrooms makes me wonder if I’ll ever get to the Yankee Hat stage.

Yesterday, all that faded into the background. I was in the middle of an event designed to change the world. An event filled with rock stars, creating rock star vision. It was the EdTechRI Shark Tank Smackdown. Actually, I think there was a better name than that, but it was really the culmination of a year or so of work where we sat down and got key players together at the table to discuss the issues faced by educators and entrepreneurs system-wide. The bottom line, educators and entrepreneurs need a constant dialogue. By opening the lines of communication, we solve problems and get those solutions where they need to be most–to the teachers and the students who need them.

Last night’s event was beautiful. It was sponsored by the Highlander Institute, which brings blended learning (teachers using tech and traditional methods) and EdTech accelerator Socratic Labs, (they help ed tech startups develop so they can be successful) and housed at the very classy Rhode Island Foundation, which supports pretty much every good mission in the state.

photoThis event was special for me. When I started my tech journey approximately one year ago, simply by making a few Learnist boards and beginning to use them in my classroom, I never imagined it would end in my involvement with Learnist, EdTechRI, and the EdUnderground–in getting to work with some of the world’s best and brightest in the field of teaching and educational technology–in seeing both sides come together.

It seemed there was a disconnect–education on one side, and entrepreneurs on the other. School systems didn’t always get the best technology, and entrepreneurs certainly wanted to build it, but they sometimes lacked access to the feedback they needed from the classroom end. Teachers would say, “Oh, you’re a vendor.” Vendors sell stuff. Entrepreneurs and visionaries create stuff. Totally different. We don’t have vendors. We have visionaries creating critical solutions with cutting-edge technology.

In getting the sides together, Rhode Island is solving problems in education.  Some of the best platforms in the world need one or two simple tweaks to rock the education world. Teachers give that feedback. I’ve seen this first hand. It’s magic.  By getting the educators and the entrepreneurs together, we eliminate about seven layers of bureaucracy. We have the tough conversations we need to have about our commitment to engaging students and making education real–and better. By involving visionaries, creating bridges and partnerships with the best and brightest the teaching and technology worlds have to offer, everyone wins.

I looked around the room, and saw the picture.  My friend Heather Gilchrist, who mentors startups and has personally yanked me off a cliff on my own entrepreneurial journey. Shawn Rubin, who, though he doesn’t know it yet, is pretty much the face of EdTech in Rhode Island and will be on the forefront of this momentum nationally. My EdUnderground friends and antagonists. A room full of startups and entrepreneurs in various stages of development pitching their creations to smiling teachers and educational leaders, all  tweeting feedback on the board. A food spread that reminded me of classy seminars when I was in Corporate America. People laughing and having a good time. Business cards exchanging, entrepreneurs and teachers lighting up when they found the right match to discuss needs and solutions, and in general magic in the air.

And I got to come along for the ride.

To be continued…


If the Music Won’t Die, Neither Will I

Screen Shot 2013-05-12 at 10.03.34 PMHaven’t run in a while–it seemed like a great day to get back. 80 degrees in Rhode Island. Sun. When I got home from work, the world was happy and everyone doing his thing–the perfect time for sneaking off for a pre-grilling workout. But…the iPod was on red. Deep red. Would ten a minute charge be enough? I need tunes–ten minute charge. Exit stage left.  I needed the run. I needed the music–the same three playlists that I listen to every run… helps my meditation, and helps keep me from running backwards. I always mean to change the playlist but never do. Sort of like half the tasks we all have hanging like fruit waiting to be picked from a tree that just hangs and never gets eaten.

The music lasted–It lasted and lasted till the end of the several mile run. It was like the Maccabees and Hanukkah in iTunes land–the music should have gone a tenth of a mile, but it lasted all five miles.  A miracle even if it wasn’t oil lasting eight days.

I ran and ran and ran–too far for a first day back. I lack moderation. The music played. That made me want to run some more. I did.

The iPod on red. Music played. I ran. The iPod had more in it than I thought.

Sometimes, we have more in us than we think.

I consider this year–a very good year. A year of transformation. New job, new business, new voice. Getting things done. Quite amazing. Every time I thought I had nothing more to give, I survived. I made things happen. I became a better person.  Exhilarating.

I ran and ran and ran and the music never stopped. Each time I thought it would, it continued.

I remembered a lesson from Chinese medicine. I studied for a few years, never achieving mastery, but I learned some life lessons. There was a point on a meridian, not far from the knee, called zu san li. It translates to “three more miles.” When stimulated, it helps invigorate the patient. It was useful in constructing the Great Wall–legend has it that by using this point to treat exhausted workers, foremen could get three more miles of work out of them before they keeled over and died.

Pushing and pushing can be a bad thing–sometimes we go three more miles and burn out.

But it can also be the thing that makes all the difference, taking us exactly where we need to go–through the wall, over the hump, and in the place where we need to be. To the glory.

So, I ran until I knew it was really time to turn around–a few miles too late. I headed back. I waited for the music to cease. It never did. I picked up the pace. I listened more. I sprinted the last half mile.

The music never stopped. It made it to the end.  Sort of how it always seems to work out that way in life.

Sloooowwww Down! And Do Not Delete

Screen Shot 2013-05-08 at 6.14.27 AM“No!!” I said as I watched my finger click “Don’t save.”

I was multitasking–talking, thinking, and typing, laptop balanced on my knee. My finger headed for the wrong square. Microsoft Word gave me the a courtesy reminder.

“Are you SURE you want to push the left-hand button, you absolute idiot, given the fact that you’ve transcribed each conversation, pre-written three articles, and put down all your ideas in this one Word document which you haven’t named or saved all day? ARE YOU QUITE CERTAIN YOU WANT TO DELETE ‘DOCUMENT 1’?”

And yet my finger could not change course. It was a little like watching a horror movie, where I know the killer’s in the closet but can’t warn the hero. Click. Fear washed over my body. The document was gone.

“Why didn’t you write it in Google Docs?” said Helpful Friend. The network isn’t reliable at school, usually frozen while Google “searches for the network.” I’ve been programmed to use other things. But thank you for the tip–maybe next time suggest that I save my docs every four days or so.

I’d have issued the “sucks to be you” look if this had been a student.

I was at EdCamp Boston. That’s what EdCamps do–generate eighty ideas at a time. EdCamps are “unconferences.” People get together and share ideas. They present what they want, they move around, when things interest them, and they fall into a million conversations at once–this is just the type of thing a multitasking-probably ADHD-individual loves. I did my thing–I started a discussion about blogging in the classroom, showed how I use Learnist, Twitter and my blog to engage students, but really what I went to do was steal ideas.  “So, does anyone else out there do this? What do you suggest?” It’s a beautiful thing.

I took all my ideas, and typed them neatly into a million-paged document, entitled “Document 1.”

I met some great educators. I went to my favorite presentation of the day, “How to be a badass teacher” which discussed how to maintain a positive outlook in the face of educational challenges, how to give oneself permission to move on to bigger and better things, and how to take back the climate and culture of a school. The discussion was crammed with innovative teachers in a small space in the Microsoft facilities second floor lounge–teachers sprawled on chairs, carpets, corners… all taking notes. “Document 1” was filling rapidly.

“What do I do? I think differently and every time I come up with an innovation, I get put down,” said one teacher.

“We can’t seem to make any changes at my school,” said another.

“All the teachers at my school are old and cranky. And they hang out in the teacher’s lounge.” Everyone nodded.

“How do we create good mentoring situations so new teachers don’t get assaulted by well-meaning but cranky teachers?”  That question got a great answer. I typed it into Document 1.

“Let’s consider that these teachers have a lot of experience,” person suggested. “Maybe they’ve become tired. Been beaten down by the system. Really want to help you not experience the same thing,” he continued, “How do we get these nuggets of information from these experienced educators? Reinvigorate them? Approach them correctly to recognize their experience?” This was a critical comment for me.  I’ll admit I get frustrated–by the roadblocks–testing, standardization, data, data, data…

It’s important to have these conversations. To laugh. To brainstorm. To connect.

I learned so much. I typed away, I quoted, I reflected, introduced, exchanged business cards, ate a sandwich, made a Learnist board, wrote article outlines.

Then pressed delete.

Time to slow down. Pause. Think. Reflect. Consider. Do…not…delete.

All is not lost. The ideas sunk in. And maybe I shouldn’t have been typing all day in Document 1 anyway. It’s important, sometimes, to savor the experience of creating. “Experiences are everything,” says my good friend constantly.  Like when I used to do a lot of photography and spent more time hiding behind the lens than living. It’s like that.

Slow down. Breathe. Consider. Don’t push the button too fast. You’ll miss the essence of what’s behind it all. Life will pass you by.

Pulling Weeds

Screen Shot 2013-05-04 at 5.47.58 AMI’m pulling weeds in the garden and planting new flowers.  The garden is full. It’s huge. Truth be told, it could have been a little bigger–I’d have filled it. A million things poke through the soil–some in rows, more in random places where I stuffed them when I ran out of room–overzealousness. I can’t wait for things to grow–I plant more daily.

I am installing marigolds along the fence, one by one, a million of them–the best defense against rabbits, I’m told. I dig holes, and stuff flowers in holes. Dig more, shove more in the ground. A line is forming.  Shovel and flower hovering, next flower ready… Two leaves rise up from the back of the hole.

“Hey!” they say, “What’s the big idea?”

“Sorry. Just planting the marigolds. Didn’t mean to disturb.”

“Well, watch yourself! You just planted here last week. I’m trying to grow. Do you MIND?”

“True,” I tell the zinnia seedling, and pat the dirt back around her.  “I forgot. I’ll try to remember.” I stuff the marigold row an inch forward and leave the zinnia be.

Screen Shot 2013-05-04 at 5.48.31 AMI get so excited watching new life pop up and grow, that I don’t wait for things to take root. I plant on top of plants, I accidentally rip things up, mistake things for weeds…never really knowing if the first plant was growing the way it should.  Sort of reminds me of school.

We have all these measures, initiatives, and changes–some are necessary, but others  never really get a chance to take root, because there’s always another thing to plant, hole to dig, things to disturb. Sometimes, we just need to wait–if we do, beautiful seedlings will emerge. If we encourage them, remain steadfast and patient, and allow them to be nurtured by the sun, they will flower. It is magic.

In management and business, it takes time to assess the effectiveness of change. There are mathematical equations for this. I’ve worked for corporations that made major change upon major change, putting the organization in chaos, never really knowing which initiative drove business. In education, it often feels the same way. Sometimes we demand effectiveness immediately–it’s important. We behave as if there’s a pedagogical magic wand putting us back at the top of the mountain for all the world to see. “If we just do this…we’ll be number one. In every category. Again.” That causes chaos. It pulls the zinnias out by the roots. They never get their chance to flower.

Change takes time. Assessing change requires patience. Growth cannot be rushed. It’s science. Nature. Cyclical. To expect anything other than what is truth in nature to be true in education would be absurd.

Wait for the growth.

Wait for the growth.

Sorry, little zinnia. Thank you for the reminder. I won’t disturb you with a big flashy marigold just because it has a big orange swirly flower right now. Honestly, marigolds smell terrible. They’re a bit ostentatious. I’ll wait for you to bloom–it’ll be spectacular. Even if it does take a little bit longer.



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The boy slept on the desk. I woke him again. I wasn’t that boring. Maybe I was–am I qualified to make that determination? That was a minute of his life he would never get back. I asked him after class.

“Was I that boring?”

“No, Miss, I had to work.” He worked in his family business–a restaurant–until one or two o’clock in the morning most nights outside of soccer season.  We agreed that he would do his classwork on weekends.

Another girl was failing. She was absent all the time. She never came after school to make up her work. “Redo that test with me,” I said.

“I can’t stay after school. I’m not allowed.” She had to babysit. Her mom worked multiple shifts. Food and rent were important. We got up early and met in the mornings. Some days she stayed home. She emailed me. I sent her work.

Another boy disappeared for months at time. His family moved for work–migrants. I gave him an assignment to be done on the road, not really sure if he’d return.

Still another paid the rent for his whole family–as a sophomore. The parents couldn’t. He was told, “You can’t work that much. It’s now allowed.” Sometimes life doesn’t give us nice  choices. I bet he learned more about life than if he learned my questions one through three.

I have had emancipated students, young parents, students shouldering the family finances, students who were undocumented and hiding. One student couldn’t go back to see his mom before she died of cancer in their country–months before graduation. Another was the caretaker for her terminally ill mother. She put off college for her family. One year, I gave my September Survey, “What do you do for fun?” A freshman girl answered, “Not much–I play with my son.”

It’s easy to be judgmental–to look at the problems students face as they strive to make it through high school and into the world. Honestly, we all have problems, kid. Someday your boss will fire you if you don’t get the work done. But I’m here to help. Not to cram my material down your throat, because truth is–standards be damned–that might not be the biggest mountain you climb today. Just getting to the sunset might be the goal.

What’s the right approach? How can I serve you?

How can I make sure that even though you have nearly insurmountable issues,  you understand you can control the outcome? We all face mountains in our own way. You determine what you need to be successful and you make it happen with your grit and tenacity. You use these insurmountable issues to make yourself a better person; a better adult. Sometimes they become a blessing, a benefit to you in the future rather than something that kept you down. Realize that you have the skills, the dedication, and the desire to succeed. How can I give you that guarantee?

Judgmentalism. “She can’t stay home to translate.” “It’s illegal for him work that late.” “Going to your country for vacation for three weeks at Christmas is not an excused absence.” “How can they have kids so young?”

Families often fight to survive. Somewhere in between, that kid tries to do your math, my critical questions, and read a text that doesn’t seem to apply to his crisis. Sometimes they do it just because they like me. Then it’s up to me to provide the justification. The value.  In the midst of all this chaos–where each day crumbles into a survival mechanism in the outside world…I teach that education is the only lifelong friend–that no matter where you are,  education makes you better, equalizes the playing field. Education is not just the stuff in the books. The desire to learn more and the curiosity to refuse to let the flame extinguish is the single factor that gets you ahead.

Education must be flexible, personalized, and human–I say this even as I watch class plan after class plan be filled with standardized tests, post tests, high-stakes tests and entire credit classes that prepare students for tests.

Each student who comes through my door again and again is a hero. Especially the ones facing challenges so big they’d cripple adults. Yet they come, and they bring it every day, and they smile.  Someday soon, they will be great–no, they already are. Someday soon, they will be monumental. The biggest success. More successful than me.

That…is why…I teach.