How Quickly the Years Pass

I awoke at 2:37 AM. I know because I looked at the clock next to my bed. I heard the shower running in our bathroom, and Debbie was no longer lying beside me in bed. I stretched out my ankle like I always must after sitting or lying for a long time, then I went to the bathroom and poked my head inside the shower to ask Debbie if she was okay.

“I think my water has broken,” she said calmly. She’d been through this before three different times.

“What should I do?” I questioned.

“Go get dressed, pack your bag, grab the baby’s diaper bag, and get her dress and blanket.” My wife is always very patient with me.

I shot back into the bedroom, threw some clothes in a backpack, dressed, then changed clothes again before returning to the bathroom to ask Debbie if I should wear pants or shorts to the hospital. I was afraid it might be cold in the delivery room.

She replied, “It doesn’t matter, but you need to call Mom and Dad to come watch the boys while we go to the hospital.”

I dashed back to the bedroom, called my father-in-law, then continued scurrying about gathering belongings and throwing things in the mini-van. After a few minutes had passed, I noticed Debbie leaning against the van.

“If Mom and Dad don’t get here soon, we’re going to have to leave the boys alone.” Her voice was serious. Her look told me she was in a great deal of pain. I ran back into the house for one last item, and as I returned her parents had just arrived in the driveway.

I jumped in the driver’s seat, and Debbie climbed in the front seat next to me. I noticed she had placed a towel on the seat beneath her. I backed out of the garage and sped down the driveway. Debbie told me to call the hospital, so I dialed information for Germantown Methodist Hospital as I raced through our subdivision. From our door to Highway 70 is approximately one mile. When we reached the highway, Debbie told me I had to HURRY! I stepped on the gas, and we careened westward toward Germantown Parkway. I spoke to the hospital, and they told me they would be waiting at the door. At the light at Highway 70 and Germantown, I barely braked to make the turn, and Debbie was annoyed that I slowed at all.

Less than .10 mile down Germantown, Debbie informed me that we needed to change our plans. We weren’t going to make it to Germantown Methodist; we’d have to go to St. Francis-Bartlett instead. I again picked up the cell dialing 9-1-1. Then, I accelerated to approximately 90 MPH and turned on my hazard lights. There was only one other car on the road, and it was heading toward me. I knew it was a Bartlett police officer, but Debbie warned me not to slow down for ANYTHING! We were NOT GOING TO MAKE IT! The cop passed me, made an immediate U-turn, and chased me with lights flashing (I don’t know about the siren). I never slowed except to turn.

The 911 operator was less than helpful. (You don’t ever want to have an emergency in Memphis!) As I explained my wife was in labor, we were switching hospitals, and I was presently being chased by the Bartlett Police, the operator told me I’d have to call the hospital myself to let them know we were coming. There was nothing she could do to help me. I thanked her for not being at all helpful and promptly hung up the phone. MEMPHIS!

We slowed slightly to make a curve in the road, and then raced across the parking lot to the St. Francis-Bartlett Emergency Room entrance. I slammed the car in park and dashed through the hospital doors screaming, “Come help! Come help! My wife is in labor, and she’s having the baby now!”

Nobody moved. Apparently, husbands tend to overreact when their wives are in labor. Unfortunately, I wasn’t overreacting. What Debbie had failed to relay to me was that while we were racing to the hospital, the baby had crowned.

“HURRY!” I screamed. “She’s having the baby NOW! This is her FOURTH baby!”

Suddenly, everyone moved. Three or four nurses came running out to our mini-van. One was pushing a wheelchair. (Behind my van sat the Bartlett police officer. When he saw me enter the emergency room door, he patiently waited in his car. When I returned with medical staff in tow, I yelled to him that my wife was in labor. His only response was “Okay then, I’m gonna go.” He put his cruiser in reverse and was never heard from again.) A nurse instructed Debbie that she’d have to get in the wheelchair. My wife’s response was that she couldn’t–the baby was already crowning. The nurse told my wife that she had no choice, and they would look at her as soon as she got inside.

The nurses helped Debbie into the chair and wheeled her inside but not before getting the chair stuck on the door. They rolled her directly into triage. A nurse lifted up Debbie’s dress to see how far along she was and shrieked, “THE BABY”S COMING NOW!” (Duh!) They rolled her behind the first curtain, and the admittance attendant asked me to go with her to get Debbie checked in.

As the attendant and I made about five steps down the hallway, I heard a nurse scream, “OH, MY GOD! She hit the FLOOR!” I turned to see nurses scattering in every direction. One, in particular, had her hand covering her mouth as if she’d  just witnessed something awful. I raced back to see what had happened. I didn’t know whether Debbie had collapsed, the baby had been dropped, or a nurse had fainted. My heart leaped. It was 3:04 AM.

Reaching the curtain, I saw my daughter, purple and crying, on the floor in the corner of the room. Blood was everywhere. Debbie was crawling onto the gurney, and the nurses were frantically trying to move the wheelchair out of the way to get to the baby. I ran to the other side of the curtain and jumped over a trash can to try to get to Debbie’s bedside. I shouted, “Are they okay? Somebody, tell me they are okay!”

Nobody said anything. They were as panicked as I. They looked at me, and someone gave instructions for somebody to get me a chair, but I leaned against the wall and declined. I just wanted them to take care of Debbie and the baby.

The attendant, who had followed me back to the curtain, reached out, grabbed me by the arm, and said, “Dad, we have to get them admitted. Can you please come with me?” I reluctantly obeyed.

Within five minutes, Debbie’s paperwork was in motion. She and the baby were moved to room 228. The attendant asked me a few really important questions like: “Is Church of Christ still your religious preference?” and “Do you know if your insurance covers our hospital?” Meanwhile, I still needed to know whether the two most important women in my life were okay.

Soon, we’d finished. The attendant led me to Debbie’s and the baby’s room, and Debbie quickly reported that she was okay. The nurse was examining the baby who appeared to be undergoing her first tanning appointment. I asked the nurse if my little girl was okay, and she responded that as far as she could tell the baby was fine.

For the next 30 minutes, I bounced between Debbie’s bedside and the side of my tanning newborn. Debbie explained that when they tried to move her from the wheelchair to the gurney, the baby had entered the world by falling to the cold floor and sliding under the wheelchair into the corner. The umbilical cord had snapped. Apparently, my daughter is a natural break dancer. Over the next two hours, the baby was thoroughly poked and prodded, and Debbie finally delivered the placenta and was feeling much better. By all accounts, mother and child were doing just fine. In fact, one nurse mentioned they were perfect.

Debbie was ready for another shower. So as the grandmothers, who had just arrived, together with the nurse and my bride made their way to the shower, I sat in the window seat, held my daughter close to my chest, thanked God in my heart, and bawled like a big ol’ baby.

I’d love to say that in the middle of all the chaos I had the faith to immediately drop to my knees and pray, but I don’t have that kind of faith. My faith is more of a “do-what-you-can-as-best-as-you-can-and-trust-that-God-is-here-somewhere” kind of faith. Saint Peter wrote, “In this, you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith–of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by pure fire–may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory, and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” I have no idea why my heart and soul were put through the ringer during that little girl’s birth. However, as I hold her, I am trusting God will watch over her because I KNOW there’s no way I can. That’s already proven true.


I first wrote this post on August 22, 2007, following the events of August 21. I’ve shared it several times before, and I’m sure I’ll post it again. Today, Evelyn turns 10. I’m amazed at how quickly the years pass. Happy birthday, sweet girl! Your momma and I are pretty crazy about you!

Choose Your Friends Wisely (My 2017 PDS Commencement Speech)

choose your friends wiselyThe following script is from my commencement speech on choosing friends wisely that I delivered to my graduating 6th graders at Presbyterian Day School on Friday, May 26, 2017.

Mr. Hancock, Ms. Glenn, Mr. Fruitt, members of the board of trustees, colleagues, family and friends of our graduates, and boys of the Presbyterian Day School class of 2017,

I am honored and grateful for the privilege of speaking with you this morning. I’ve been struggling for weeks trying to decide what I want to say to you today. After all, today is an important day, and I felt pressured to deliver a speech that would impress even Kemp’s late great-grandmother. So with Nan-Nan in mind, I asked myself, “What parting words do I have for these boys? What can I say to inspire them and set them on a path to greater success? What should I tell them that they’ll always remember and hold dear to their hearts?”

I considered it. I wrote down a bunch of ideas and found some inspiring quotes to share, too. I watched several excellent commencement speeches trying to figure out what I might say to challenge and motivate you, but none of the topics seemed the right fit for you and me and what I believe you most need to hear today. So, I kept on deliberating.

As I was brainstorming, I reflected on my sixth-grade graduation–way back in 1983, and the wisdom shared on that glorious morning. And I remembered…well, nothing. In fact, I’m not one to forget things, but I can’t even remember who spoke to my class that day. Not only that but as I thought on my high school graduation in 1989, I couldn’t remember who gave that commencement address either. Nor could I recall the points he made that night.

So I guess the pressure is off, huh?

As I reflected on my elementary school graduation and the years that followed, I realized that it wasn’t long after sixth grade that everything started to change for me. Oh, I’m not referring to puberty, but yes, that happened, too. What shifted as I became a teenager was who my primary influences were. In elementary school, my parents and teachers mostly swayed my thoughts, feelings, and actions. However, in junior high, their hold gave way to the influences of my friends. Sure, my parents continued to be a significant part of my life. They still are. But as I look back now, I realize it was my friendships that shaped so many of my thoughts and decisions. I’m incredibly thankful I chose good friends. A large part of who I am today is because of their positive influence on me.

Boys, my message this morning is simple: choose your friends wisely. The man you’ll become is going to be strongly influenced by your choice of friends. You are starting a new chapter at a new school next year. Many things will change. Some of you will attend schools where everyone is new. Others will enter situations where you’ll feel as though you’re the only one. Regardless, it’ll be a new start for each of you, and you’ll have the opportunity to meet many new people and build new relationships. Choose wisely the people you invite into your close-knit circle of friends. Your good friends will have a vital role in what happens to you over the next ten years and beyond. As Proverbs 13:20 says, “He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.”

So, what makes a good friend?

First, a good friend is loyal. Through our seven virtues, you’ve learned that a true friend leaves no man behind. He should be there through the joy, the grief, your successes and your failures, and everything in between. Being there is important, but it’s more than just being present. A good friend should be trustworthy and willing to call you out gently when you’re in the wrong. And he should forgive you when you blow it and make of mess of things, too.

Melissa was my first girlfriend way back in the fifth grade. She was a cute and fiery redhead, and she liked sports. What more could an eleven-year-old want in his first crush, right? Things didn’t work out for us romantically that year, but we stayed close friends from middle school until today. As you guys know, my mom died when I was in the 6th grade, and I went through some tumultuous peaks and valleys as I worked through my grief over the next few years. Melissa had a front row seat to view much of my struggling, and sometimes she bore the brunt of my hurt and pain. Somehow, through it all, she never turned her back on me, and I’m thankful that her loyalty and her forgiveness has allowed us to remain friends for almost 40 years.

Find a friend like Melissa––someone true, who’ll stand by you to the end.  

Second, a good friend is kind. He’ll treat you with respect. He won’t put you down or do things deliberately to hurt you. He’ll help you see the good that’s in you and encourage you to be true to yourself.

Kelly is one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. Back in school, he was the guy that everyone wanted to have as their friend. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying he was Mr. Popularity. He wasn’t ever the life of the party, the best athlete, or the funniest guy in the room, but he probably was always the kindest. I can’t remember anyone ever talking badly about Kelly, but then…Kelly never said anything bad about anyone else either. He was always humble, thoughtful, and kind. I liked being around Kelly. Hanging around a bunch of guys can be exhausting with fellows picking on each other and trying to “one up” each other for laughs. It makes it tough to let your guard down and to be honest about who you are. I don’t ever remember feeling that way around Kelly. I never had to pretend around him. He wasn’t that kind of friend.

I hope you find a friend like Kelly––someone considerate, who you can be your genuine self around.  

Third, a good friend makes you want to be a better person. He’s not only someone you trust but also someone who brings out the best in you. His character is one you want to copy. He wants to do what’s right and inspires you to want to do right, too.

Kevin is one of my oldest and closest friends. Back in school, Kevin was known for being an excellent soccer player and for having a great sense of humor. Sometimes he’d do the most unexpected and hilarious things. But Kevin was also known as a hard worker, and he was very active in our church youth group. If our youth minister scheduled a service project like raking leaves or working at the community food pantry, it was a good bet Kevin would be there helping right in the middle of it all. Often, I’d join the work team just because Kevin was going and I liked hanging around him. Kevin was that guy. We don’t look like each other as much anymore. He’s still pretty skinny, and well, I still have all my hair. But back in high school, we had similar features and were often seen together. People would occasionally get us confused. I’d get called Kevin by mistake, but it never bothered me because Kevin was such a stand-up guy.

Find a friend like Kevin––someone who helps you become the very best you can.

Finally, a good friend prioritizes the friendship. All relationships require an investment of time, and a good friend makes himself available. Life through junior high and high school gets busy with school work, church activities, family obligations, sports competitions, extracurricular ventures, social commitments, community service, and yes, gentlemen, the pursuit of girls, too. A good friend should make time to hang out, to have fun, and to talk. If not, the friendship will never fully develop or will merely fall by the wayside.

Eric is a free spirit and a dreamer. He’s been a good friend to me through middle school, high school, college, and into our adulthood. One of the things I appreciate most about Eric is how he’s always demonstrated that our friendship matters to him. Eric was the friend who’d come over unexpectedly. He’d ask me to do something after school or to sit with him at lunch. In college, he’d frequently invite some guys and me to his room to play Tecmo Super Bowl or to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation with him. I’ve never wondered whether Eric wanted to be my friend because he’s always shown that our friendship matters. Even now, rarely a month goes by that I don’t receive a text from Eric checking in and asking when we are going to get together.

I wish for you to have a friend like Eric–someone who places great importance on having you as a companion.

That’s my challenge for you as you leave PDS, guys. Choose your friends wisely. Choose people who are loyal and individuals who are kind. Find friends who make you better and who think spending time with you is important. Choose wisely, my young friends. But maybe, before you start picking who you want to have as friends, reflect on what type of friend you already are. Then, choose to be the friend that you want to have. Be a wise friend, gentlemen, and choose your friends wisely. I love you.

Thank you.

Here’s the video of the entire commencement as PDS shared it on Facebook. My speech came after an excellent speech by one of my students. Kemp’s talk begins at the 29:00 mark. My speech follows at the 37:20 mark.

Book Review: Screenwise by Devorah Heitner (@DevorahHeitner)

Devorah HeitnerLet’s face it. Screens and devices are everywhere. At least they are in my home and my classroom. Between our 1:1 classrooms and the smartphones, tablets, laptops, desktops, and TVs we have at home, we are continuously plugged into the outside world. The connection to technology isn’t all bad, but it isn’t all good either.

As a parent, I struggle with how much screen time to allow my kids and with how much supervision and monitoring of their devices they need. I’ve not allowed certain video games in my house, and we have rules that limit the amount of time our kids can watch TV and play video games during the school week. We also require devices to be brought downstairs each night to be charged and so that the kids hopefully will get some sleep.

My wife and I have tried to be intentional in raising our children and teaching them to use technology wisely, but we still feel overwhelmed by many of the challenges of raising kids in an always-plugged-in world especially when we see other parents taking different approaches with our kids’ peers. After all, does our preteen need a smartphone? What if all of his friends have one? And how do we keep our nine-year-old safe when she’s playing games online? How do we teach our kids the relational skills they need to be successful adults when they are constantly on a device? And, how do we encourage our teenagers to use technology to create and learn and not mainly to consume and play?

After reading Devorah Heitner’s book Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World, I told my wife I wish I’d had the book several years ago. Heitner is the founder of Raising Digital Natives, a resource for parents and schools wanting to help children flourish in a digitally connected world. Heitner wants families to make technology work in whatever way matches our personal philosophies. I didn’t get the sense that she has a personal agenda about technology and the book will be useful for parents who embrace technology and those who distrust it. However, Heitner does express a strong belief in the potential of technology for our kids. While acknowledging and addressing the challenges of growing up in the digital age as shared with her through interviews with students, Heitner offers thoughtful and practical ways parents can mentor their children to have the relational and time management skills needed to become responsible digital citizens. She also does a great job of helping adults see how many of the problems kids face today are similar to those of earlier generations, but the use of today’s technology means these problems leave a lasting digital trail and have a greater chance of being amplified.

Over the course of the book, Heitner empowers parents to mentor their children in using technology appropriately. First, she provides a glimpse into some of the ways in which our children may be tech savvy but still lack wisdom. Then, Heitner offers a way for parents to assess our digital literacy and provides great questions to ask our children to deepen our understanding. She also encourages us to become “tech-positive parents” who embrace the opportunities for creativity, collaboration, and connection that technology allows. Becoming a technology mentor to our children is no small task, and I appreciate Heitner’s reminder that “empathy is the app” that helps us lead our children in ways that they will embrace our mentorship. Additionally, Heitner also provides chapters on how the digital age affects family life, friendship and dating, and school life for our kids.

Screenwise is a valuable tool for parents’ and educators’ who want to engage with young people and help them navigate using technology. I  liked the questions Heitner provides throughout each chapter. They made me reconsider my way approach to using social media and what I share about my kids. While I haven’t used them yet, each chapter also provided some excellent conversation starters to get kids talking and thinking about how they use technology. In fact, the book has so much useful information that I feel I should read it again and wouldn’t mind reading it together with a few other parents, as well.

Raising kids in this digital world is no easy task, and like it or not, the technology isn’t going to go away. It’s become a part of how we connect and communicate with each other both as adults and as teenagers. Heitner’s book is an excellent resource on the difficulties today’s parents meet when it comes to our children’s use of social media and digital tools. I recommend Screenwise to parents and educators needing a resource on ways to discuss these issues with their kids or wanting advice on guiding them into becoming good digital citizens.

This review was originally written for SAIS and can be found on their website. It has been slightly edited from the original because I can’t leave “well enough” alone.

Developing a Process to Improve

a process to improve

Last week I shared some goals and projects I’m in the process of working on for 2017. The problem with goals is that often when I look at what I need to do (losing 25 pounds), it looks impossible. I feel defeated before I even begin. My friend Bill Ferriter asks, “Is Goal Setting Pointless?” My gut response is “probably.”

In his post, Bill references a post by James Clear entitled “Forget About Setting Goals.” Clear suggests that instead of focusing on goals, we should commit to a process or a system, which will allow us to live in the moment and help us develop at the same time. As I consider the times I’ve grown or improved in my life, I must admit, Clear is on to something.

Pomodoros as the Process

I’ve written before about using the Pomodoro technique to accomplish some writing goals. I’ve decided to embrace that plan again to help me write and share more this year. I’m struggling to carve out the time to write each day.

That’s not to say I haven’t been writing. I’ve kept up with my Day One journal, where I collect a verse of the day, three things for which I am thankful, and my daily photo. However, I haven’t carved out the time to pause and write reflectively about my work or my personal life.

A New Plan

The Pomodoro technique should help. I want to commit 25 minutes each day to reflective writing. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I’ll reflect on my teaching. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, I’m going to write about my life. On Sundays, I’ll spend the time fleshing out some ideas a little further and working on the post I’ll share.

I’m still trying to figure out the best time and place for me to write. The school day is full of busyness and interruptions, so I’ll probably need to carve out time at home and just before I go to bed.

Needing a Nag

This past weekend I learned about Nagbot from a post on Lifehacker. Nagbot will send mean text messages to nag you about whatever you have committed to do. I’ve set up at Nagbot to harass me into writing a short reflection each day.

I also have added a writing task to my daily to-do list on Toodledo so that I will have an extra reminder.

What about you? What systems and processes do you use to help you develop and improve? What tools do you use to get things done?


2017 Goals & Projects Update

As of last night, I have accomplished the following toward my goals:

  • Weight – My weight is down a couple of pounds from the beginning of the year, and my BMI is now at 26.5.
  • Writing – My writing has been inconsistent. My Day One project is going great, but my reflective writing has struggled.
  • Daily Photo – I’m 16/16 on my 365 photo project at this point, but my kids are beginning to refer to me as “the paparazzi.”
  • Reading – Currently, I have read four books this year. My favorite read so far in 2017 is A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.
  • Spanish – I am on a 15-day streak of practicing my Spanish on Duolingo, and I’m 37% fluent. (There’s no way I’m that fluent.)

Goals and Projects for 2017

goals and projects for 2017I know. Everyone writes about goals and projects at the start of a new year, right? Considering I’m posting this on January 9th, I’m a little late getting on the “let’s talk about resolutions” bandwagon. The funny thing is I wasn’t planning to write anything or set any goals for the year. Last year was brutal, and by the middle of December, all I wanted was to hide and hibernate until sometime next spring. However, after the break from work and with a push from a few friends, I’m excited about the potential of 2017. With that in mind, I’ve embraced a few goals and projects for 2017, and experience tells me I’m more likely to succeed if I make my efforts public.

Two Goals

With encouragement from my friend A.J. Juliani, I’ve decided to return to this space. I have missed writing and spending more time reflecting and sharing openly. I’m a better teacher when I take my reflection to the next level and share it with others. I’m able to clarify what’s happening and how I think and feel about it.

For now, my plan will be to post each Monday. I’m writing daily in my leather-bound journal and my DayOne app, and I thought I’d polish something and post on Fridays or Saturdays. Instead, I’ve decided it’s better for me to have the weekend to clean up something to share. We’ll see how things go. However, sharing here isn’t the only thing I’m working on at the start of 2017.

In addition to writing more and sharing publicly, I’m working on tracking what I eat and drink. According to several different BMI calculators, my current BMI is around 27.2, so I need to drop a few pounds. I’m tracking my consumption on MyFitnessPal, and I’m using my Fitbit to motivate me to exercise more. I’ll occasionally post here for added accountability.

A Few Additional Projects

In addition to these goals, I’ve got a few other projects on which I’m working. First, I’m again attempting to capture a photo a day on Instagram. Perhaps this year I’ll make it past March. Second, I’ve set a goal of reading a book a week this year, and I’ll be logging my reading progress on Goodreads. (I’m halfway through my first book: Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life.) My third project is my “3 things I am thankful for today” records which I keep in my Day One app.

Thanks to this blog post from Bill Ferriter, my fourth project is writing more comments on blog posts. Right now I’m trying to write one good comment a day. I know that isn’t much, but it’s more than I have done in a while. I’m hoping it’ll help me reconnect with some of my fellow educators with whom I’ve connected through the years.

My last project for 2017 is working to learn Spanish through Duolingo. I’m only spending a few minutes a day on it, but I’m trying to be consistent.

I realize that I’m tackling way too much at one time and that I won’t keep up with all of this all year-long. Some of this will most likely fall by the wayside. Of these things, losing some weight to improve my BMI is primary. Unfortunately, it’s the least fun of all these goals and projects. Writing and sharing here is the second most important goal. The rest are ongoing projects that I hope to work on throughout the year.

What about you? Did you make any goals or resolutions for 2017? On what projects are working now?

Helping with Math Homework (When You Don’t Understand)

Math HomeworkThis post was originally written for and published on the Presbyterian Day School blog.

Generally speaking, my wife and I take a hands-off approach to our kids’ homework. We certainly want our four children to do well in school. We want to encourage and assist them along the way, but Debbie and I also want them to be independent and resourceful so we think it’s good for them to struggle sometimes. Therefore, when it comes to our kids’ homework, we avoid being too helpful and encourage them to figure things out on their own.

For the most part, this approach has served our family well. Our children usually complete their homework independently, and homework rarely results in any familial trauma–but not always. Occasionally, we have homework agony when one of our kids struggles with an assignment they just cannot understand–especially when the endeavor involves math. I’m an English language arts teacher. My wife teaches the visual arts. Neither of us feels particularly proficient when it comes to math.

Here are five things we do to help with math homework (we don’t even understand):

  1. Watch the teacher’s tutorial or read through the student’s notes with our child. Then, we ask our child to explain the lesson in his own words. I’m amazed how often this solves the problem as my child sees or hears something he missed during the initial instruction. Additionally, if my child can teach it to me, he’s most likely going to understand and remember it.
  2. Check out a different video tutorial. Sometimes my child just needs the concept to be explained in a different way than the way his teacher taught it. Fortunately, we live in a time when one can learn just about anything through the internet. Two places we’ve tried for math tutorials are PatrickJMT and Khan Academy. Both provide quality videos on many different math concepts.
  3. Plug the problem into an online computational problem solver. Both Wolfram Alpha and Discovery Education’s WebMath are immensely useful tools. They not only answer problems but also provide explanations so my child can see how the problem is solved and have another explanation of how to approach the question.
  4. Have my child phone a friend. In the wise words of The Beatles: “I get by with a little help from my friends.” Indeed I do and my kids do, too. Everybody needs help sometimes, and it’s important my kids learn how to ask their peers for help. (We’ve been known to ask grandparents, aunts, and uncles, too.) In college, I always made new friends and exchanged phone numbers with other students in my classes. Then, if I missed a class or needed homework help, I had friends I could call.
  5. Have my child email his teacher, ask his question, and move on. I have my child send the email in order to take ownership of his own learning. And believe it or not, I’ve found most teachers to be helpful, reasonable people. While they may not respond to the email immediately, they’ve always taken the time to help my child understand the concept with which he’s struggling. Then, we move on. If my child needs additional help, he’s responsible for talking with his teacher or joining the next help session.

Having made an attempt to do his best, my child can leave for school the next morning with looming questions about last night’s math homework. That’s perfectly okay. As parents, Debbie and I are less concerned that our kids get all the right answers and more concerned that they learn to ask questions, seek help, and find creative solutions when they struggle.

Lennon, John, and Paul McCartney. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Beatles. Capitol Records, 1967. Vinyl recording.

Embracing Wonder

More WonderFor the past few years, my students and I have begun the year with a See, Think, Wonder thinking routine exploring the classroom, making inferences about what we find there, and wondering about our learning in the year ahead. It’s a good first day activity to get students moving around, asking questions, and thinking visibly. The boys have always enjoyed it, and I’ve always left at the end of the first day feeling energized for the next. Nevertheless, I’m planning to abandon the lesson this year.

Two weeks ago I attended the Clark County Connected Conference in Jeffersonville, Indiana. As I reflected on the day, I realized I attended several great sessions, but Dean Shareski’s keynote “Whatever Happened to Joy?” resonated with me in a particularly powerful way. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. If you have time, you should watch it.

Near the end of his keynote, Dean shared several ways we can cultivate joy. I could certainly embrace more joy, so I’ve been revisiting my notes and experimenting with his methods. One way he suggested is simply to wonder. So, in the days leading up to a new school year I’m trying to cultivate my sense of wonder. I’m reading and researching. I’m taking the time to look at things closely, and as I sit here dreaming about a new year and looking at new class lists, I’m beginning to wonder about each boy. I wonder what he’s like, and I wonder what he likes. I wonder what he wonders–not about 6th grade reading, our classroom, or me. But, what does he wonder about life? About what is he curious? What puzzles him about the world? What inspires him and holds his interest? What does he most want to learn?

I’m not sure what the first day of school will look like. I have no brilliant lesson plan, and I haven’t figured out what we’ll do. But I want to start–on the very first day–uncovering and  embracing their wonder, and hopefully, together we can cultivate our sense of awe.

Dean shared the video below in his keynote, and I think I’ve watched it at least 15 times over the past two weeks. “We have a responsibility to awe.” Indeed.

Awe by Shots of Awe

Project-based Learning: Questions and Need-to-Knows

project-based learningA couple of months ago I had an email conversation with Mary Ann Stoll, an education and technology coordinator in Arizona. Mary Ann provides professional development for teachers on how to incorporate project-based learning. She had read through my “Diving into PBL” series and was interested in my reflections on using need-to-know lists to drive projects and in what scaffolding I used to help students with questioning. She wanted to know what I did differently the second year to improve our learning and research. Specifically, Mary Ann asked:

  • How do you guide the uninitiated student group to even start asking need-to-know questions? 
  • And then, how do you nudge them along until they’ve explored their knowledge, skill, and information gaps sufficiently?

Here’s a portion of my response to Mary Ann:

I always start from the first day using thinking routines to help my students learn to ask questions and show their thinking/understanding. Before we narrow our topic we use Question Starts to come up with list of questions we have about the larger concept. Our concept was human rights in the second year, and I started by simply introducing the Declaration of Human Rights, and discussing what we thought they meant. Then, the students generated open-ended questions they had about the individual rights. We use Question Sorts with those questions to eventually narrow our topic. Then, we drafted our driving question together. (I really had to steer them in this. In their previous PBL/design thinking challenges the question was not student-created.)

Once we had our driving question, we used Think-Puzzle-Explore to start developing our “Need to Knows.” The students worked in small groups to generate their T-P-Es, then we shared them to the larger group and wrote the best ones on our IdeaPaint wall. I transferred those to a Google Spreadsheet and shared it with the class giving certain students editing rights to help me track our learning on the spreadsheet. (This was a good idea, but I didn’t execute it well.) Those students could add new questions to the list, mark questions as answered, provide links to related articles, etc.

We used a Diigo group to curate our research, and I assigned students rotating roles (stolen from this Bill Ferriter handout) for what they had to do as we began reading and learning about our driving question. They had to bookmark, annotate (using a modified ladder of feedback), and share what they were reading and learning with the rest of the class in Diigo. Then, they had to perform their rotating roles to help us evaluate our research, clean it up, and make sure we were considering multiple perspectives. (I’m attaching a couple of images that hopefully will help this make sense.) We used SweetSearch as our starting place, and then I worked to find other resources to help them as we went.

Finally, I had students keep an individual Peel the Fruit Map that they updated every day so that I could track individual student’s understanding. We spent way more time on research the second year, and I felt my students had a much deeper understanding of the topic. That said, due to time restrictions, I finally just had to call an end to our research and move on to the how-do-we-share-what-we’ve-learned-and-do-something-about-this-issue phase.

The thinking routines and the social bookmarking roles really helped me provide the scaffolding my students and I needed. I had several teachers visit my classroom to watch how it worked, and I was really pleased with how the students responded. It was a HUGE improvement over year one.

Mary Ann found my response helpful but was still having difficulty visualizing the Peel the Fruit. She asked:

  • Do you happen to have a diagram of such a map?  Is it a general concept map or concentric circles?

I responded by sharing a few more ideas:

Understanding MapHere’s a PDF of a blank Understanding Map/Peel the Fruit and a better picture of a class one…During the last few minutes of class, I would stop the students and ask them to pull out their individual maps and add something to it—a question, an insight, a new discovery, etc. I’d collect them or walk around and glance over them to see where kids might be and who I might need to focus my attention towards. I also encouraged students to use post-its to add “their best thinking” to the class Understanding Map posted on the wall.

The map is set up to be a concept map, but we definitely felt the questions overlapped. I liked it because if a specific question wasn’t being addressed, I knew to push our thinking in that direction. For example, one class had a tough time considering other perspectives, so we took a day and did the Circle of Viewpoints and Step Inside routines.

Again, I mainly used the map to help me track our collective progress as well as see individual student’s progress. I found it a good accountability tool, too. (If someone’s map wasn’t filling up, I’d wonder how they were using their time.)

That’s what I did with my students, but I’d like to know what other teachers using project-based learning do. How do you teach students to ask good questions and develop their “need-to-knows”? How do you formatively assess individual and class understanding throughout the process? How do you monitor student research and know when it’s time to move on? If you have any ideas or experiences, I’d love to hear from you.

A Statement of Educational Philosophy

Philosophy of Education

Recently, I took some time to revisit my educational philosophy. I’ve written my philosophy a few times over the course of my career, and I find it interesting to note what has varied with each iteration. My beliefs have changed drastically over the course of my career, but my love for students and my passion for learning have remained steady. This “statement” is by no means perfect and continues to be a work in progress. Nevertheless, here is my recent thinking. 

Everyone should be a lifelong learner. The essence of life is learning. As I examine what I believe about education, I realize how much my educational philosophy has changed over the past 15 years. The constant in my career has been my need to reflect on my thinking, evaluate my own learning, and adjust my beliefs and my actions accordingly.

I used to think a teacher’s primary job was to know his content thoroughly and to present the material well, but now I think a teacher’s main role is to get to know his students, to uncover their understanding, and to help them demonstrate their learning well. Early in my career, I spent untold hours studying the content I needed to cover and preparing the presentations I would use in my teaching. These days, I devote the majority of my time to conferencing with my students individually and in small groups and to having them share their thinking visibly. While I appreciate teaching as an important part of the process, I believe learning should be the primary focus in classrooms and schools.

Learning is more than the process of gaining knowledge and skills. It requires constructing meaning and transferring understandings to new contexts; it includes meta-cognition and reflection. I believe learning should be active and passive, social and secluded. Activity, collaboration, and interaction should enhance and deepen understanding, but there must be time to process, read, write, and think quietly, too. I believe the most engaging and memorable learning arises from student-driven inquiry, where students ask questions, research ideas, evaluate answers, connect information, and share their learning. Project-based and problem-based learning develops the critical skills today’s students need to become deep thinkers and take ownership of their own learning.

My leadership stems from a passion to serve those around me and to help them become the best they can be. To serve them I listen carefully to hear their needs and concerns, I work with opposing people and polarizing ideas to find creative solutions and build consensus, and I strive to lead honestly and transparently building a common vision and a culture of care.

I know schools and classrooms must be places where all learners feel secure, valued, and able to take risks. Effective leadership focuses on the strengths of each individual to build relationships and develop leadership at every position within the learning community. As leaders empower teachers to take risks, teachers inspire students to grow into the creative entrepreneurs our society needs through the challenging, meaningful, purposeful, and engaging learning they experience.

My current philosophy of education consists of these ideas. Yet, as a landscape is changed by a river rolling through it, my philosophy will continue to be shaped and molded by future experiences, new discoveries, and further interactions with my community of learners. As a mentor once said, “We do not know where our train is going, but Someone knows.” I do not know what insight and changes the future holds for me, but the Teacher does—and that is enough for me.

I accomplished my goal…and it was awful.

resilienceI’ve confessed before how much I suck at running. It’s true. I’m really not being modest. I’m slow. It hurts. It’s discouraging. And yet, last month I ran a marathon. Okay, that sounds better than it actually was. It’s true I did complete the 26.2-mile distance, and people have been incredibly kind to pat me on the back and tell me how awesome I am to have finished it. And yet, I’m not happy with my accomplishment at all.

My race day was awful. In the weeks leading up to the race, my stomach didn’t play nicely. I tapered my runs. I took my supplements. I watched my diet and my hydration. I did everything I knew to do in anticipation of my race on December 6th, but I still found myself in my doctor’s office on the afternoon of December 5th watching as he shook his head and said, “Are you sure you want to do this?”

I did.

The first 15 miles of the race went well. I ran right along with my pacer. I cheered my fellow runners on. I thanked volunteers and hugged friends who’d come out to support our cause. I felt great. My energy level was good, and my spirits were high. I doing it. Mile 16 changed everything. At the end of 15, I stopped to go to the bathroom. My pacer ran ahead, but I wasn’t worried thought I could catch up with her. I never did.

Mile 16 was awful. My stomach started cramping, and my legs, feet, and lower back began to hurt. I had to stop for the bathroom again at the next water station. Honestly, if a friend hadn’t been there to encourage me to go on, I probably would have quit. I certainly felt like giving up. Miles 17-21 consisted of a little running, some walking, regular Porta-Potty stopping, and lots of grumbling. I expected to see my family at mile 19, but falling off pace meant missing their cheering faces, too. I trudged on.

I don’t remember much of the last five miles. I know I ran more than I walked, and I know every single step hurt. A lot. Thankfully, I didn’t have to stop at the toilets during the last few miles. There was nothing left in my system. I crossed the finish line in 5:42:48. I wasn’t happy or proud, but I was finished. I’d been looking forward to the race for months. I’d trained my body. I’d raised money for a great cause. I wanted to feel good about it all, but I didn’t. I just felt awful. Yes, I’d finished the marathon; I’d technically accomplished my goal. But, the experience didn’t met my expectations, and I’m a little sad and discouraged as a result.

Where does this leave me as a runner? I’m not sure yet, but I’m finding it tough to lace up my Brooks. What do you do when you’ve accomplished a goal, and it’s left you feeling bleh?