Drugs Are Illegal. Reform’s Scary. Coffee Fixes the World.

Screen Shot 2014-02-18 at 4.45.17 PMI want to have coffee with a friend. We struggle to squeeze it in.

“How about two Fridays from now?” Why can’t we get our calendars to stop fighting so we can drink coffee? Eventually, one calendar wins. Coffee arrives.

What starts as coffee with a good friend ends as vision. Always does. Soon, note pads, pens, Macs, iPhones and iPads clutter the table, pushing our freakishly healthy foods aside.

Usually when two or more teachers are in the room, venting begins. Bitching even. Everyone opens the valve a little. My husband doesn’t understand this. He wonders why teachers bitch. He hates it. He won’t go to “teacher things.”

“It’s not bitching,” I explain, “It’s ‘looking for solutions.'” Sure, there are People Who Bitch. They’re the ones speaking negatively about others–students, colleagues, and leadership. When good teachers gather, it’s not bitching. It’s seeking answers for real problems. When the fixes are out of reach, there’s frustration. Especially when frustration takes good people down.

“I’ll never go back into the classroom,” I hear it more and more. “I can’t do all this testing and stuff.” People go into leadership, guidance, or whatever because, they say, they’re “done with the classroom.” Others–good people–jump into those roles to save the world, finding windmills to fight on that side of the fence, too.

“This isn’t for me. I’m no good. Didn’t realize it would be this way–I wanted to change lives, not tabulate test scores.” That was roughly the quote I got from someone leaving the profession–literally, box in hand. Midyear.

Good teachers fear tests and evals. Sure, accountability’s in every profession. Can we do it better though? I heard Steve Blank talk at last year’s Business Innovation Factory conference. “Fire the idea, not the person,” he said.

Steve Blank is a pretty smart guy. As one of Forbes Magazine’s “30 Most Influential People in Tech,” he’s not only written textbooks on how startups should be created and grown, he even changed the way the National Science Foundation spends money to align with the systems of successful entrepreneurs–systems he invented.

Anyone who changes the way government spends money has the ear of this lowly teacher.

His thoughts were simple. Sometimes you need to fire the idea, not the person, he said. Run the numbers without blame. Then fix the problems.

Getting rid of judgment helps people be objective and take risks. Risks produce results. Taking risks in education can get a person low scores, though, so there’s fear.

Fear about things real or imagined shuts good people down.

Fear does not produce vision.

Fear is conquered by vision.

Vision, luckily, is found in a cup of coffee with a friend. It pours out our hearts into the vortices swirling throughout the mugs into reality. All the little things mixing and colliding in the swirls…that’s the vision. Every sip, gulp, cup waiting for a sip–vision. Leaving the cup on the counter to go cold is missing the possibilities–so easy to do when rushing around. Steam goes uncaptured into the universe. Vision lost.

But sitting with my friend, vision pushes aside inconsequential girl talk. It says things like, “Sounds like you might consider,” and “That happens to me. I’ve tried…” or “I notice you write a lot about this, but I’d really like to read it if you wrote this…” or “I’d buy that idea…”

Every single time I meet Vision Friend, I leave with a dozen working plans. On a good day, I have pages of notes. On a crazy day, we’ve got blogs, businesses, books, and concepts racing around the room trying to get to the finish line first so we might convert them to reality.

Vision conquers fear. And accountability defeats complacency. Inaction. Inertia. This is why vision needs company. It needs someone to say, “Hey, you told me you were going to….how’s that going?”

Otherwise, we’re tempted to “forget” we promised to do something, and vision dies. Vision often requires courage, support, and the swirly things in a cup of coffee to produce results. Follow-through. Reality.

I know vision’s in the room when my heart leaps just a bit and the notepad comes out. The more I surround myself with friends who make my heart leap just a bit and pages fill on notepad, the better I become. I want to be better. And I want to make other people feel that they are better for having known me.

It’s a simple goal. One I hope I can meet. I think I can, if I have just one more cup of coffee…with my good friend.

Notes: 

My “vision” friend, Alicia, blogs here: WriteSolutions under the tag “Student Learning Is No Accident.”

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Buy Donuts: Kids Hate Flaxseed Muffins

Screen Shot 2014-02-15 at 8.00.16 PMAs it happens, I was too lazy to make flaxseed muffins.

Our advisory has breakfast on Fridays. We take turns bringing in “food,” a.k.a donuts. I make jokes that there’s no police academy nearby, eat healthy food. I promise vats of scotch-oats or flaxseed muffins when it’s my turn. But, as adults wearing many hats are wont to do, I got lazy. I sat on my organic food-loving behind. I didn’t make flaxseed muffins.

I decided I to give my customers what they want. Donuts.

Screen Shot 2014-02-15 at 7.58.18 PM“A dozen donuts, please, and a large coffee.” Donut man disappeared to bake each of the 12 donuts I requested. Or perhaps he had to finish growing and grinding the wheat. The man behind me in line began to shift his weight and the woman behind him looked at her watch. Twice. Because the person behind the counter moves just a little bit faster when you look twice.

I felt bad. There are days I’m the one checking the watch twice and the person in front of me, who seems to have a simple order, is ordering 27 different things all specially crafted and custom grown.

I shouldn’t go out for coffee when I’m running late. It’s the universe telling me to be patient. Or drink less coffee. Or leave earlier. Or to stop being a jerk.

But I use it as exercise in meditation and peace. As Donut Man mixed the batter for my last donut, I began to feel guilty. Both about feeding my students crap, and for holding up the great American workforce.

“Sorry to be that idiot ordering eighty-five things when you’re running late for work.” The woman looked up. I explained. “I’m getting my class donuts. I wanted to bake them flaxseed muffins. Healthier.”

She smiled–said how good those muffins would’ve been and kids need more people who care. I didn’t think I cared very much, feeding them processed flour and sugar before six other people had to teach them. I thanked her anyway.

“I remember those years,” she told me. “My daughter’s a teacher now. I remember the only time we knew what was going on with each other was during family dinner. We stopped everything. No phones. We had dinner and asked how each other’s day was. Too many families have to rush, work, and kids pop things in microwave. That’s why they eat poorly.”

I was about to say that they eat poorly because they have teachers who feed them donuts, but now I’m feeling guiltier that I don’t have enough sit down family dinners than I am about the donuts. We used to sit down to dinner together, too, with no phones. Cell phones weren’t invented, and no friends would dare call during The Dinner Hour. But then high school came and everyone went their own way for activities.

By then, microwaves had been invented. And so we, too, popped something in. Had I known how cutting edge we were, both on the microwave front and in destroying the family dinner, I might’ve been proud. Instead, I turned out to be an adult who taught kids it was okay to have donuts for breakfast.

Instead of caving to the guilt, I finished my conversation, thanked Donut Guy for the donuts and coffee thoughtfully prepared, and wished watch lady a great Friday. I was glad for the pleasant conversation. I left with a smile, entered my car with a smile, and entered class–with a smile. And donuts. It was nice connecting in the middle of the pre-work rush.

Sometimes all we need is a connection. A smile that says, “I’m glad you’re here” instead of rushing around in life. It makes a difference. Connecting is the magic that holds the universe together. Sometimes I forget–whether it’s a family dinner, a group of kids grateful for someone who cared enough to pollute them with donuts, or a smile in the coffee line, but it’s the critical glue. Without glue, things fall apart.

[images: cakechooser.com and nurturing-nutrition.com]

I’ll Never Be Beautiful

Screen Shot 2014-02-12 at 5.39.36 AMI’m looking at everyone’s profile pictures. They’re all rock stars with awesome pictures–pictures of hair blowing in slow-mo, light hitting unblemished faces in just the right way. Pictures of scaling Mount Everest. Pictures of scuba diving, standing in front of race cars, meeting Clint Eastwood…

My picture, for years, was me on a rock wall with Declan. I didn’t have a rock star picture, so I picked a picture of a Screen Shot 2014-02-12 at 5.45.50 AMrock instead. One that looked intentional, like I left my rock star picture at home because I was cool.  It was far enough away to hide my imperfections–slightly bigger than a spec, yet not big enough to pick me out of a police lineup. Certainly not big enough to see that don’t photograph well. That I wasn’t beautiful.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m okay with average. I have redeeming qualities even if my picture isn’t beautiful. Even if I don’t radiate “superstar.” I’m an okay human being. A human being, however, who really did need a better profile picture.

“Please send a professional head shot…” I guess The Rock didn’t work. Try hard to look passable at least, professional at best if supermodel’s off the table. I picked a happy day. I smiled at my iPhone. Click. Done.

It’s me. And it’s real.

The other day, my students hijacked my class for their Genius Hour project. It’s a Design Your Own Project that connects their passions with a spirit of entrepreneurship and a quest to save the world. These students transformed a buzzword–bullying– into a multimedia presentation that gave me goosebumps. At the end, I thought, “How can we let what another says define us? Why am I not “beautiful?” Because someone told me in high school? Because they nicknamed me ‘Ultragorgon’ after our unit on Greek mythology, wrote it in my yearbook, weren’t nice, and a quarter century later I like myself just fine but the idea that I could be beautiful never crossed my mind? Why does a fifteen-year old girl feel like a slut because someone said she was on Facebook or Twitter? Why would a kid shut down in the face of taunting rather than say “I’m awesome,” and walk on by? Transcend? Why would a teen say, “My life has no value? I want to die.”

Teens say adults say, “Don’t worry about it, ignore them.” Then we, the adults, go about our real adult business, stressing because people aren’t nice to us, office politics stabs us in the back, or the clerk at the grocery store gave us The Eye. And that sets the tone for our day. But that’s different. We are in the real world where life really matters.

Head Shot for BioI tell the teens they’re amazing, and I’m sorry that every individual in the universe doesn’t always agree, but they have this group of friends right here, now, and they must first love themselves regardless of what the world thinks. They must learn to deal with “crappy people.” They must know they are great.

These are important lessons to preach. And even more important to practice. After watching their presentation, I decided I’m pretty darned good at the preaching part, but the practice…I’ll improve.

Oh, and by the way, I really like my picture. It is, indeed, beautiful.

Death of the Five-Paragraph Essay

Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 10.17.21 PMThey looked at me. “How long’s this gotta be?” It was the midterm essay.

“As long as it takes to be informative. And interesting–don’t put me to sleep…I only write zeroes when I’m asleep.” Actually, it’s a puddle of drool.

“How many paragraphs?” We train them to write paragraphs and fill in circle tests. I hate the five-paragraph essay. What if I need six? Or forty-two? Or one? I have a piece of Russian literature that has a twelve-paged paragraph, so no one better ask the followup “How long’s a paragraph?”

Yet someone does. I walk over to some boxes and open one. It contains a five-foot blank scroll. I hold up the scroll. “About this long. Want to read?”

One kid comes up. “Miss, it’s empty!”

“It is. There is no secret ingredient.” When Lao Tsu’s busy, I quote Kung Fu Panda.

“Here’s the thing. I write a lot. I know a lot of big words. If I use all my big words in a paragraph will you read it?”

“No,” said one engaged listener, “It’ll suck.”

“Great feedback.” Never ask kids. They’ll tell you. “Well, I used to research academic material…things only five people in the world cared about. When we met, we’d high-five each other and have a good old time…But nobody read my stuff. Ever. Now, I write differently. From the heart. No showing off. No big words without a reason. No extra paragraphs. I even use…sentence fragments. And you know what? People read it. What’s that tell you?”

“Writers suck?”

“No. It tells you that if you want people to read your stuff, you have to write for them in a way they want to read. Who goes online and reads five-paragraph essays?” No hands. “Then why are you writing them?”  I assure them there will be consequences if they say I said never to write five-paragraph essays.

“The point is, write for your audience. I learned the hard way. I took a beating learning this. Just do it. Write what you love in a way you’d want to read.” Everyone decides that the prompts are, in fact, halfway decent, and they get started. I put away the scroll.

I hear a kid mumble how he hates f-ing five-paragraph essays. I tell him to find some better f-words for his piece before I find a hundred or two for him to incorporate.

They write. And they don’t look that miserable after all.

Appreciation of Appreciation

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 7.18.36 AMLast night was our second parent night. I feel honored when families take the time to come see me. Anyone drives a couple of towns to pay respects to a child’s education is someone for whom I’m very grateful. Many can’t come–parents who work or care for others, or have to put little, little children to bed. I try not to bring Declan to night events. It’s tempting disaster taking him out that late in the evening–I appreciate brave parents who bring little children even more. It’s a real effort.

It’s why schools have to make every event for families productive–not just five minutes of face time that could better be served with Face Time, but events that build the community and climate of the school. At our school, we’re starting to get more and more of these types of events–things that generate buzz and bring everyone together. Schools that do this well report amazing things. I don’t know what the stats are in terms of test scores and such but the climate and happiness factor increase exponentially–the weight is taken off the parent, the school, and the student–it’s shared equally. A three-legged stool never falls. A pogo stick does.

“Before I go,” said one mom, “I just wanted to take the time to thank you. Elementary teachers receive a lot of appreciation. High school teachers do not. I really appreciate what you do.” She handed me a gift card for coffee with a fancy sticky note that expressed her sincere appreciation. I was so touched–she was right. This appreciation will Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 7.19.18 AMwarm my soul long after the duration of the coffee. Gifts are not part of the high school culture, so much so, I nearly ruined my son’s gift giving experience by not preparing to give gifts in his elementary school.

In high schools, we don’t always take the time to properly express appreciation. I have one colleague who makes it part of an exercise for students to write thank you cards to any teacher they want. I get some of these cards, and feel like I’m winning the lottery. We should make appreciation a measured data point on standardized tests. If appreciation was a test score, I bet we would put it right the curricula. Truth is, we could all use a bit more practice on this one.  I think of the times I’ve failed to appreciate my family, colleagues, friends, or even the hard work I do myself. If it were measured on my evaluation, I’d learn to get it right.

One day, I read this James Altucher post, where he discusses how he saved the global economy with chocolate. I’ll admit, that’s a tall order. I had doubts. Turns out, he stood outside the stock market exchange giving out chocolate during the market crash. There was a decided lack of morale during that period where everyone wondered if financial life as they knew it would end–I remember it well, because I was wondering the same thing, just far away, so I he didn’t give me a chocolate bar.

I decided I’d steal the idea with very little attribution. I distributed Hershey bars on the Ides of March–the day a person is most likely to be stabbed in the back by someone–life, a good friend, The Man. Could chocolate raise morale in education–the field with the highest burnout rate in the nation? It did. I saw people I didn’t even know I still worked with. I reconnected. We smiled. I got hugs. Turns out it’s not about chocolate or coffee–I’d have felt the same glow in my soul if that mom said what she said and handed me a post it note alone. Or even nothing. It’s about appreciation. Gratitude. Taking the time to recognize the work, life, humanness of the person on the other side of the conversation rather than rushing through the paces in an overloaded day so we can go home, get some sleep, and rush through tomorrow.

It’s not easy. But it needs to be said once in a while. I really appreciate the parents who entrust me with their kids–even if it’s just because we all need a break from our own. I appreciate the chance to make a difference in a single life, or in education in general. I appreciate that somehow, somewhere in the universe, there’s someone doing something great in life, and that I got a chance to be a part of it. And I appreciate those who did it for me.

Most of all, I appreciate my family and friends who put up with this, because a teacher’s work, no matter what the pundits say, is never done.

 

For the Love of Money

Laundering money

Laundering money

My kid loves money. He loves money more than the federal government does. He walks around playing with his money. Talking to it, putting it in containers and carrying it with him. Last night he was watching movies with his money–he sat on top of it in a laundry basket so he “could be close to it.”  I try to take it away but he finds it.

He puts his money in a satchel slings it over his back, walking around like a robber baron. The other day I walked in on him stacking his dollars and throwing them in the air. “Wheeeee!!!! I’m RICH!”

“What does ‘rich’ mean, Declan?” He looked at me. Surely she isn’t that stupid…

“It means I have more money than you. And I can buy anything I want on Amazon.” Good answer.

“Well, being rich means you have what you need.” I said. “That you have a family who loves you and feeds you good food, and you’re healthy and happy.”

“That’s not rich, Mommy. That’s just silly. I love you, Mommy.” He continued restacking and throwing dollars. “Wheeeee!!!!!” I left to make dinner.

I’ve never had this relationship with money. I’ve rolled money, counted money, saved it like a miser, and taken it to the bank. I’ve prayed over money, hoping it would multiply so I could afford groceries. I’ve used it to pay bills. I’ve even given it away to others who were praying over their money. I’ve never thrown it into the air.

I don’t know whether I should take the money away at night and deposit in the bank by Screen Shot 2014-02-02 at 6.07.07 AMforce. He doesn’t have a bank account yet anyway–when I went, they asked me for eighteen documents and a blood sample for the FBI to crosscheck against potential terrorists and money launderers. There was that dollar I picked out of his pants in the wash, and he is a terror at home…

“Ain’t nobody got time for this…” I put his money in my account and went home. He needs his own account so he can save all his pennies for a college he ultimately won’t be able to afford.

He cries when I suggest it. He tells me he loves his money. I say that if he brings his money to the bank, they’ll give him more money.

I explain compound interest, but the fact that the “more money” will also be in the bank is too much. He says no. He needs to be with his cash. Money flowing in wire cables isn’t his thing. He’s lobbying for the gold standard.

Like the government, I take his money a bit at a time when he’s not looking. It’s not good Screen Shot 2014-02-02 at 6.08.13 AMfor the Dyson. If he notices, I’ll tell him I paid his taxes. Last time I suggested the government needed their share, he picked up a broom. Shay’s Rebellion Part II.

For now, I let him play with his money. In about a year or two, I’ll roll it up and buy a penny stock or let him start his first company. We’ll see how he does. I think he has a nice career ahead of him. Better to start thinking about what his money can do for him now, rather than throwing it in the air.  That way, he’ll be two decades ahead of his peers, and he won’t have to worry about whether he can afford college. It’ll be a moot point.

And maybe then he’ll let me buy anything I want on Amazon. We shall see.

[images: carolynedger.com, 123rf.com, thankthesun.com, and blog.creditkarma.com]

I’m Terrible…by the Numbers

I woke from a nightmare. I was taking standardized tests. I bombed. I’m glad it was a dream.

It’s standardized test season, a time that strikes more fear in the hearts of schools than a life-sized poster of the Bieber mug shot. Everyone’s defined by these numbers. The media has a frenzy like Discovery Channel’s Shark Week.

We say we want schools to succeed but it’s completely untrue. Let’s be honest. We want to see blood. It’s a proven fact that Americans produce, consume, and enjoy more bad news than ever. My friend designed a blog dedicated to good news in education. She doesn’t have as many readers as a news story about drama, destruction, and gore. It’s what America wants. 

So, just to prove pundits wrong, teachers spend our valuable time compiling numbers to show our students are learning. I’ve spent an entire year this year logging numbers in spreadsheets. My husband laughs at me and calls me a bean counter. I’m a historian. I’d rather tell you the history of beans than count them–I’m not very good at that.

Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 6.08.26 AMAnyway, numbers can prove anything, depending on what we want them to show. 

I recently read this TechCrunch article where Facebook and Princeton duke it out using big words and math nobody can understand. Princeton intellects prove Facebook’s about to die and Facebook retaliates by showing on graphs and charts that in five years, Princeton will have no students. And it’s all “good” math.

What it shows is this–I should stop worrying about all these numbers that affect my life and start graphing. Do it in color to boot. In my first job, I prepared diagrams for arbitrations. This was before cool computer programs, so I’d sit down with rulers and colored pencils. Nobody else used colored pencils. I rarely, if ever, lost an arbitration. The key to life is colored pencils. When people see pretty things on paper, they are always predisposed to nod and say, “Yeah…” and agree. I have to make my numbers look pretty. And use colors in my graphs. 

Incidentally, this is why I spend so much time teaching my students to detect bias. 

I wish our educational system wasn’t based on testing and numbers. It’s hard to look at a student and say “Well… you look like an 85….Yes, you, indeed are a 92.” I’ve had smart students miss midterms and had to give them zeroes, as if that one grade made all the difference in their success. It does to the grade book, however. 

So, back to my nightmare. I have taken every standardized test alive. I sort of enjoy them because I didn’t grow up with video games. SATs were the nerd way of beating our friends. I enjoyed the idea that someone out there was trying to defeat me and I had to stop them. Nerd “video” games.

But I fell asleep on section three every time. The silence. The lack of communication. It was like meditation with multiple choice questions. Trivia questions. I fought sleep…then…out cold, drooling. But I always scored well. I wondered what I’d have scored if I stayed awake. 

The point is, test numbers aren’t a solid measure any more than Facebook or Princeton’s predictions. I don’t like basing graduation or teacher careers on them.

If the numbers don’t prove much to me, what does, you ask.

Vision. Creativity. The ability to work and stick with a problem until it’s solved–the recognition that learning has changed and that students have the power to blow things out of the water and follow their passions. All I do is connect it to success. I’m the guide, not Alex Trebec.  If students have those three things they are well on the road to amazing. 

In my dream, I failed the standardized test. In real life, if every adult out there took these standardized tests, I think the media would have fun. It’d show I’ve forgotten all the trivia that once made me great. Made me able to defeat tests even while half asleep. I bet we all have, but we’re still successful. I am. I do a lot, and I like the person I’ve become. 

But if you give me that test, the numbers will show you I suck. 

So today, I pause for a moment to tell students how awesome they are. “You are not defined by the numbers. You are defined by you. Do the work. Stop at nothing to keep learning things you are passionate about–for your whole entire life. Be great…No, don’t be great. Be amazing. Regardless of what the numbers told you you’d become.” 

 

 

[image: valdosta.edu]