For a Bad Time, Invite Me

Screen Shot 2014-02-13 at 6.35.40 AMThey call it “The Curse.” Kids started begging me not to attend their games. Me! Their one fan. We didn’t get a lot of fans in those days because we’re regional and we didn’t win.

“Casey! You’re cursed. Don’t come, it’s a big game.” I began to test “The Curse” with baseball games. I’d pass by. Dropped ball. I’d stay home. Victory. I’d hide behind a tree. Triple play–other team. I’d stay away, home runs.

The Curse applied to basketball, too. Ever the skeptic, I tested it again. Sure enough, if I went, more turnovers than an Italian bakery. I collected more and more data–as anyone in education knows, the more data the better. Sadly, my scientific study proved The Curse real.

Little did I know The Curse extends to other things, like trips and events. Invite me–your event will be canceled, postponed or a disaster. The Curse controls weather, too. Hurricanes and snowstorms may seem like acts of God, but if I’m on your roster, they’re not. They’re The Curse. One event figured this out and said, “Sorry, stay home.” They’re lucky they caught it in time. Their event was global. If I’d gone for real, world peace would’ve been off the table for good.

Today I was supposed to participate in an awesome event, so the National Weather Service predicted several feet of snow in a radius of 1000 yards around my car. The event’s 35 minutes from me if I speed and seven days away if every Rhode Islander suddenly gets their bread, milk, and Dunkin Donuts coffee in the storm. Rhode Islanders can’t drive on a good day, let alone snow.

The event is called Choose2Matter. The point is this: Kids think school sucks. School sucks because it “doesn’t matter.” I surveyed about 50 of my students both before and after listening to parts of Seth Godin’s and Sir Ken Robinson’s TEDx. Exactly two told me “School’s awesome. Especially this class.” My future Yes Men. The rest wanted something more from their education. They wanted “it to connect–to matter.” They cited “Genius Hour” as the thing that “made it real.” Genius Hour’s based on Google’s concept that downtime makes for productive ideas. Creativity generates value. Employees get 20% of their time to work on whatever they want–provided it could potentially benefit Google. Gmail was created this way.

Good idea! I squashed five days of work into four and cleared the slate on Fridays. They’re actually doing 20% more work–not Google’s intent. But heck, I’m in education. I can bastardize anything I want as long as I mix in some math.

Kids love it. Much more than I thought. They work outside of class. “We can use this in real life!” Kids doing extra work? For no additional credit? Hmmm… Could be onto something here.

“Hey, Kid! Why wait four years before you make your ideas real?” Showing students they have the power to convert knowledge to action–that’s magic.

School matters when we make it matter. Choose2Matter asks this, “What breaks your heart?” Kids solve those problems. When kids matter, they’ll change the world.

Turns out, adults will, too. We want to feel we’re not replaceable cogs, easily retrofit with the next guy down the road. When we matter, we transform things, too.

“There aren’t many history jobs out there these days…You’re lucky to have one,” someone said to me.

I should’ve replied, “You’re wrong. There’s only one of me out there these days…They’re lucky to have me.” Maybe if I’d said stuff like that earlier in life, I could have converted “The Curse” into “Magic.”

That’s what I want for my kids.

Still, there’s no denying the weather. The event’s postponed. I’ll be teaching tomorrow, so I can’t go. I’m disappointed. Anytime kids stay up praying there won’t be a snow day, a snow day’s a sad thing. Don’t worry, guys, you still matter. You’ll matter tomorrow, the show must go on.

Here’s the secret–you’ll matter for the rest of your life, too. Maybe a little snow makes everyone all the more determined to make a difference when the work starts tomorrow? Maybe it’s not a curse after all.

Maybe–just maybe–it’s the start of magic.




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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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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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.


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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Write Less. Be Right More. A Top 10 List.

Screen Shot 2013-04-16 at 8.27.18 PMEverywhere I go, there’s a top ten list. “Top 10 Ways to Make Your Sneakers Smell Fresh,” “Top 10 Ways to Declutter.” As an stodgy history writer, I decried the top ten list for the longest time.  Now I write them.

“What? People have such short attention spans they can’t even read a paragraph?” I’d say in my former life, imaging historian James McPherson’s Civil War epic as a top ten.

I was wrong about brevity. Completely wrong. I stand beaten down and corrected. I now strive for brevity and clarity. I’m honored by your reading this, and do not want you to suffer, ever. “If you need a priest, get a priest,” said my friend who got me into this mess.  He advised me never to torture my reader. I love that line–a real writer’s slap in the face.

As I stood between several worlds, each with a different writing style and view on the quantity and quality of the written world, I transformed. The worlds of research, teaching, and Corporate America overuse words. The world of tech does not. Once I stopped having cold sweats encountering sentence fragments, I liked the world of tech; it became freeing. Zen.

Brevity has value. There is a reason six people in the world want to read anything historians write.  Historians are too obscure–and too darned long.  This year, I’ve taken a lesson from the tech people. I try to be brief, interesting, fun, and informative. I hope I have been succeeding.

Here, in honor of my 100th post, I’ll make my recompense complete by employing the Top 10 list, sharing some of my favorite posts about life, happiness, education–things that matter to me.

Failing at Music–Succeeding at Life, Part Two: This is a story of how I fell flat on my face in college.

A Formal Apology to Henri Matisse: I apologize to a dead artist for being so ignorant as to disrespect his work.

The Frankenstorm of the Century–Storm Prep, Rhode Island Style: Rhode Islanders are crazy. This proves it.

Teach Like a Soviet: In order to navigate the education system, I ask “How would a Soviet do this?”

What Is That Moment Where I Change Someone’s LIfe Forever?: We never know how we affect the lives of others. Sometimes we never find out. But that moment has the potential to exist every day.

Don’t Ban Dodgeball: Ban Life: Society’s propensity to restrict everything is silly. Beyond silly; it has crossed the line into stupid.

Carrying People through the Sand: Lifting each other up makes a difference–may we never fail to see the significance of our actions even to those our lives touch in slight measure.

Crumpled Paper Airplanes: Taking My Own Advice: Declan crumples airplanes. I tell him we must try in life without being afraid which turns out to be a giant hypocritical moment in parenting.

Separating Out the Geniuses: Traditional education values one kind of genius. Everyone is a genius. It would be great if schools would notice this.

Loser for Life: Tales of a Girl without Klout: In the beginning of this journey, I discovered the concept that Silicon Valley could, indeed, brand me a loser. Mathematically.

I am deeply honored have enough content to make this list, and even more honored that you read my stories. Nothing is more meaningful to me than the relationships I have made through writing. I am grateful I kept my promise to create–I’ve made friends, and my life has changed direction forever. Friends are the treasure we receive if we open our heart and mind to the experience; experiences are what make up the essence of life. I thank you, not only for reading, but becoming part of that essence, teaching me so much this year, and inspiring me to strive to improve each day.