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.

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.)

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.

Be Present

be present.Life moves at much too fast a pace. I’d prefer things move a little slower. My dad turns 72 today. I can still remember his surprise 40th birthday party like it happened yesterday. In a few weeks, Evelyn will turn 7. How can that be? Wasn’t her birth just a few minutes ago? The older I get the faster time flies. How is it possible I’m going to be 44 years old next month?

I had a bit of a scare this past weekend. Late Saturday night, I received word that one of my closest friends was in the hospital in Nashville battling a dangerous infection. I hardly slept that night. I kept waking up checking my phone for updates on his condition. Worry overcame me. Throughout the day Sunday, I couldn’t stop thinking about him. Sure, I was praying for him, but I needed to do more. I needed to be present with him at the hospital. I couldn’t do anything for him medically, but I could be present. Fortunately, my wife realized this and suggested I drive over as soon as she got home from work Monday afternoon. I did and I’m glad I went. There is power in being present with the people you love.

My friend is better. He went home from the hospital yesterday. He’ll still be recovering for a little while, but he’s going to be okay. I didn’t do anything to help his situation. I didn’t do anything tangible. We talked and laughed. We remembered past days. I walked with him to get some testing done. I listened. We hung out in silence some, too. And yet, being present with him and his wife mattered. We don’t have nearly enough time together. We need to make time to be together more often.

Life is full of busyness and distractions. My family life gets filled with appointments, practices, ballgames, daily commutes, and making sure everyone has done his homework and washed behind his ears. It’s easy to get caught up in good things that aren’t the best things. The same can be said of my school life, too. It’s easy to get caught up in school assemblies, report cards, committee work, daily schedules, and workplace politics. Add social media, email, RSS feeds, etc. to the mix, and it becomes easy for me to miss what matters most. I need to be present–fully engaged with the people who matter to me.

A few weeks ago, I posted my professional development goal for 2014-2015. I’m excited about that goal, but it isn’t the most important goal I’m working on. My greatest goal, and perhaps the most challenging one for me, is to be present fully with those I love. Whether spending time with my wife, my children, my friends, my students, or my colleagues, I want to be present physically, mentally, and emotionally with them. I want to cherish our moments together.

A while back I gave notice to notifications on my phone, but somehow they’ve managed to creep back in to my life. I’m taking care of that problem today. I’ll continue to engage in online spaces. Those relationships matter to me, too. Some of my best friendships started online, but I’m going to be intentional about being present where I am—both in person and online. And I’d appreciate your holding me accountable for it, too. Time flies by. I want to make the most of each moment.

Yesterday Alex Couros shared a video of three German students surprising a homeless guy. The video really resonated with me as I watched how they chose to be present with this man. The video is worth watching.

How will you be present today?

Some Kind of Supreme – July/August 2013

Blackberry Supreme from Jerry's Snow Cones by ilovememphis. Used with permission.
Blackberry Supreme from Jerry’s Snow Cones by ilovememphis. Used with permission.

July and August have been wonderful and hectic. In July, I tried to focus on family and resting, but I spent all of August in the craziness that is the start of school. We have 4 kids, and Debbie and I are both teachers. This year there are four different school schedules and calendars to coordinate, and I am the family’s Chief Transportation Officer (primary taxi driver). In addition to that, my school and classroom were renovated over the summer. Woohoo! But I wasn’t able to get into my classroom until the week I started in-service. That’s a little later than I typically prefer to get started. Also, we made some adjustments to the daily schedule and our approach to reading at school, and I started training for my first marathon. (Hello 4:30 AM alarms.) All of these changes are good, but they’ve left me feeling a little scrambled, and I’d prefer to be more sunny-side up!

Unfortunately, something had to give, and I decided I just couldn’t give time to this blog over the past few weeks. I’m hoping to write more in September, but for now, let me share with you some “supreme” posts from my PLN that resonated with me over the past couple of months.

Best Advice – The Habits of Happiness from Leo Babauta

“I make a lot of lists — it’s one of my favorite habits — but this list seemed to have a magical power. It was a list of the things I was grateful for. Amazingly, there were a lot of things on the list, from things about my wife, kids, relatives, and friends, to things about my job, about nature around me, about my life.”

Most Honest – My Biggest Failure as a Teacher by Justin Stortz

“I wish I could tell you that we had an emotional heart-to-heart in the hallway that repaired our fractured relationship. I wish I could tell you that he began respecting me for the rest of the year. I wish I could tell you that he finished the year with a bang. But I can’t.”

Most Relatable – My PLN Saved My Teaching Career via John Spencer

“I know that some people market a PLN as a great place to go for ideas. And maybe it is for some people. Maybe a PLN is what you make of it. Maybe it’s a place where you offer what you can and you get what you need.”

Best Question/Reflection – What if the Temptation to Be Impressive is Keeping Us From Connecting? by Don Miller

“But tell me one flaw. I mean quietly over a beer, you know, just admit you cry while watching Oprah or you sometimes struggle with porn or you’re jealous of your boss and suddenly there’s a bit of velcro on your soul and we can connect. I’m not sure why it happens except maybe it helps me believe I’m not alone, that I’m flawed and you’re flawed and we are in this thing together.”

Most Useful – Making Thinking Visible with Technology from Clif Mims

“When connected with the visible thinking routines word clouds, digital posters, videos, podcasts, slideshows, digital sketches, online concept maps, cartoon strips, timelines, and much more can be used to help students provide evidence of their thinking and understanding. With a bit of strategic planning it’s possible for teachers to integrate the curriculum, use of technology to promote thinking and learning, digital citizenship, and 21st century skills into a single activity built around a thinking routine.”

Best Quote – “Try to be kinder.” ~ George Saunders (courtesy of Larry Ferlazzo)

Post I Want Every Educator to Read – Recess and Movement Breaks Are Needs… NOT Rewards by Chris Wejr

“The challenge for teachers and staff is to determine an appropriate balance of movement, noise, and quiet, calm time.  My concern is that we confuse our needs with student needs and sometimes observe behaviors as a choice to act out and misbehave rather than a message of what their bodies need.”

Most Disturbing (creative and funny) – My Innovative Underpants by Bill Ferriter

“Not wanting to surrender my place among the social elite, I toughed it out in boxers for the better part of a painful decade.  I wasn’t happy about it, but tightie-whities weren’t going to win me any friends and I knew it.”

Best List – How to Raise Good Geeks from Kevin Makice

“Being called a geek used to be an insult, but we all know it as a badge of honor and a label we willingly self-apply. Especially given the challenges of institutional education, fostering geekiness is often an intentional choice to get out of the way of our innate joy of learning.”

Most Amen-able – The Greatest Gift by Dean Shareski

“Routine is great if you choose it. Autonomy over time is part of what makes us human. Freedom is priceless.”

On My Nightstand – R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, and Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students 

What I’m Reading Aloud at School – Ingrid Law’s Savvy, Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan, and Gordon Korman’s No More Dead Dogs

My Most Popular Post for July-August 2013 – 10 Sticky Things From ISTE 2013

“Don’t get me wrong. Reading and writing is valuable me. Project-based learning is powerful. Class discussions are insightful. Simulations can drive home a point, and I still benefit from the occasional lecture, too. But I find walking and talking truly transformative. I had several walk and talk ”sessions” at ISTE, and they were some of my favorite learning experiences. I’m trying to figure out how to merge more of them into my learning now that I’m home.”

What about you? What have you read that’s resonating with you? What’s happening on your blog?

Some Kind of Supreme – June 2013

Blackberry Supreme from Jerry's Snow Cones by Kerry Crawford. Used with permission.

June has been a busy month. School hasn’t been in session, but teaching and learning has occupied a significant amount of my time. During the first two weeks of the June, Alice and I prepared and offered a Classrooms of Understanding workshop at the Martin Institute Summer Conference. I spent the next week helping with Camp Read-a-lot at PDS. Then, I immediately flew to San Antonio for ISTE 2013. (I’ll write more about ISTE later as I’m still working on my reflection.) My regular reading (especially my RSS feeds) has suffered a little due to all the busyness and I’m still several days behind where I’d like to be. Nevertheless, several posts and articles resonated with me and have been on my mind. So, here are the supremes for June 2013:

The Post I Most Want All My Colleagues to Read – Chris Wejr’s Is a School Awards Ceremony the BEST We Can Do?

“I believe we need to honour and highlight achievements and student learning but I wonder… is an awards ceremony that recognizes only a select few, and is often held a few days before our students leave, the BEST we can do?”

Best Share – Justin Stortz’s Hearts and Seasons

“The music of this year is fading. The laughter is turning into echoes, and the voices are growing distant. I’ll close the blinds and turn off the lights one last time. And I’ll count myself blessed for being able to teach and learn from this very special girl.”

Best Slide – Bill Ferriter’s The Only Math That Ever Really Mattered

Slide_MaththatREALLYMattered

The Ignite Talk I Most Wish I Could’ve Heard at ISTE – Jackie Gerstein’s Education 3.0: Altering Round Peg in Round Hole Education

“Education 3.0 is a constructivist, heutagogical approach to teaching and learning.  The teachers, learners, networks, connections, media, resources, tools create a a unique entity that has the potential to meet individual learners’, educators’, and even societal needs.  Education 3.0 recognizes that each educator’s and student’s journey is unique, personalized, and self-determined.”

Most Thought-provoking – Mark W. Schaefer’s The End of An Analog Life

“But there is still something chilling and profound about being the last of my kind who will ever have to throw his life away forever … piece by lovely, tattered, beautiful piece.”

Most Amen-able (and Best Post Title) – Justin Stortz’s (yes, again) I Would Choose for a Student to Fail

“If I had to choose, I will always choose for a student to find joy in reading, even if it meant failing a test. I care about the student more than the score.”

Best Reflection – John Spencer’s It Takes Time

“Sometimes I get frustrated that I’m coming up on a decade and I’m still making huge mistakes. I feel like I should be closer to my utopian dreams. And yet, just like learning to play an instrument or writing a novel, the journey takes time and has pockets of boredom and frustration.”

Bravest – Bill Ferriter’s (yep, again) Is Standardized Testing Changing Me for the Worse?

” Collaboration with colleagues has helped me to become the teacher that I am today.  My best instructional practices were polished with — and by — intellectually generous peers.  But I’m more than a little convinced that my “me first” thinking is nothing short of an inevitable by-product of working in a state that has decided that competition between teachers for contract protections is a good idea.”

Best Reminder – Leo Babauta’s A Secret to Dad Greatness

“This daily practice, of appreciating their love for you, will make your life better. It will help you be the role model they need, because someone who appreciates the love of others is a beacon of gratitude and humility and mindfulness.”

On My Nightstand – Grant Lichtman’s The Falconer: What We Wish We Had Learned in SchoolRon Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students, and Chris Lynch’s Inexcusable

My Most Popular Post in June 2013 – My Summer Reading List – 2013

“This year, I am more realistic. I have picked three professional learning books and four young adult novels, but I’m also planning to use the audio versions of a couple of the books to keep me company this summer while I train for the my first marathon, run errands, chauffeur my kids, mow my yard, and complete other daddy chores.”

What about you? What have you read recently that’s resonated with you? What’s happening on your blog?

July 3 Update – I mistakenly left out:

Funniest Post – Barbara Madden’s A Little Progress Is Still Progress, Right?

“You see, Southerners love us some prepositions. Dogs lie up under porches, children run on over to the neighbor’s house, and folks live right down over yonder.”

Some Kind of Supreme – May 2013

Blackberry Supreme from Jerry's Snow Cones by Kerry Crawford. Used with permission.
Blackberry Supreme from Jerry’s Snow Cones by Kerry Crawford. Used with permission.

The month of May has been, well, crazy. Not only have I been trying to wrap up the school year, but I’ve also been taking care of a few family issues that have arisen. Things are better now, but I just couldn’t give blogging much attention for the past few weeks. I also had to taper much of my reading. It was THAT kind of crazy. However, there were still several articles and posts that resonated with me this past month, and I’d like to jump back into my blogging schedule by sharing them. I should be back to my regular postings on Monday. I have a couple of posts that I want to add to my “Diving into PBL” series and I’d like to write a reflection on the year and a letter to this year’s graduating class, a group I have grown to dearly love.

Anyway, here are my supremes for May 2013:

Most Needed – Marc Chernoff’s 8 Ways You Are Driving Yourself Crazy (technically from April, but this is my blog…)

“Rather than compete against others, work with them on a common goal.  Use your combined insights and talents to achieve what none of you can alone.  Real personal growth and learning occurs through relationships, when the competitive spirit is replaced with a collaborative one.”

Most Relatable – John Spencer’s I’m Sorry

“As I drove home, I lost it again, though this time it was in the form of tears. I felt like the worst teacher in the world. I felt like my students deserved better. I weeped over the thought that after ten years, a chatty group could still set me off.”

Best “It’s Not the Critic Who Counts” Post – Seth Godin’s The Critic Stumbles

“For me, the opinion of any single critic is becoming less and less meaningful as I choose what to view or engage with. And the aggregate opinion of masses of anonymous critics merely tells me that the product or content is (or isn’t) mass-friendly. I’m far more moved by the insistent recommendation of a credible, raving fan than I am the snide whispering of some people who just didn’t get it.”

Most Amen-able – Pernille Ripp’s What These Kids Don’t Know

“What all my kids don’t know is that I do it for them, every single day, no matter how little sleep I got, no matter what standards are pressing on me.  Every day I come to school to teach for them, every day I cannot wait to get here to be with them.  That’s what these kids don’t know.”

Best Affirmation (for a 6th grade reading teacher) – Holly Korbey’s Why Reading Aloud to Older Children Is Valuable

“‘The first reason to read aloud to older kids is to consider the fact that a child’s reading level doesn’t catch up to his listening level until about the eighth grade,’ said Trelease, referring to a 1984 study performed by Dr. Thomas G. Sticht showing that kids can understand books that are too hard to decode themselves if they are read aloud. ‘You have to hear it before you can speak it, and you have to speak it before you can read it. Reading at this level happens through the ear.'”

Truest – Jenny Orr’s Testing Causes Apathy

“A significant portion of their time at school is spent taking tests. State-mandated tests. District-mandated tests. Grade-level tests. Classroom tests. I would guess my daughter takes a couple of tests each week, on average. She’s nine.”

Most Honest – Justin Stortz’s Why Depression Sucks

“He told me that if someone had a physical illness that we would give them medicine. So, if someone had a mental illness, why wouldn’t we give them medicine too? I’m no more capable of thinking my way to a cure for depression than someone with the flu can think themselves healthy.”

Best Share – David Truss’ Lessons on Living Life

“Two days ago Zach Sobiech died. He was 18. It was expected.”

Best Reminder – Terry Heick’s Why The Best Teachers Change Their Minds

Best Parenting Op-Ed – Eli J. Finkel and Grainne M. Fitzsimons’ When Helping Hurts

“… our help has to be responsive to the recipient’s circumstances: it must balance their need for support with their need for competence. We should restrain our urge to help unless the recipient truly needs it, and even then, we should calibrate it to complement rather than substitute for the recipient’s efforts.”

Best Survival Tips – Brett & Kate McKay’s How to Survive a Tornado

“And if you’re a new arrival to the Midwest or Southeast, tornado survival 101 is something you should definitely take the time to learn. Also, just because you don’t live in a tornado-prone part of the country doesn’t mean this bit of lifesaving know-how doesn’t apply to you; tornados have occurred in all 50 states, and you never know when one might touch down on a 14,000-foot mountain or come roaring through the Big Apple.”

Best Leadership Tip – Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman’s I’m the Boss! Why Should I Care If You Like Me?

“You can be more likeable. Identify two of the actions from the list above that would most help you in your current situation. A great way to start would be to ask for feedback and ask team members to identify which activities would have the most value to them. Make a plan, identifying some specific steps you will take to improve, and then stick to it. Ask others for feedback on your progress.”

Best Blogging Tip – Joseph Adediji’s How Safe is Your Blog from Hackers?

“Your blog security should be a top priority to you and I can assure you that this is quite easy to do, but most of the time we neglect and overlook some of those minor security loopholes that can cost us the loss of a lifetime work (our blog).”

Most Addictive Games – GeoGuesser and Traveler IQ Challenge

On My Nightstand Still – Amber McRee Turner’s Sway (really want to get back to this one), Parker Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy, Grant Lichtman’s The Falconer: What We Wish We Had Learned in School

Through the Speakers in My Van – This month the boys and I have spent most of our ride time listening to The Listener’s Bible (specifically, the book of Numbers), The Coffee House, and Stax 50th: 50th Anniversary Celebration

My Most Popular Post in May 2013 – Diving Into Project-based Learning: Feedback Friends

“I needed a partner, someone with whom I could collaborate and troubleshoot. I also needed an extra set of eyes and hands. I didn’t feel I couldn’t give a group my full attention because I was so busy trying to make sure everyone was on task. Unfortunately, Alice was teaching the fifth grade at the time. Even though Alice was willing to listen and make suggestions, she couldn’t offer first-hand observations about what was happening in my room. She simply wasn’t there, and I needed someone who was.”

What about you? What have you read recently that’s left its mark on you? What’s happening on your blog?

New Feature: Some Kind of Supreme – April 2013

Blackberry Supreme from Jerry's Snow Cones by ilovememphis. Used with permission.
Blackberry Supreme from Jerry’s Snow Cones by Kerry Crawford. Used with permission.

Once upon a time, I used Diigo (my favorite social bookmarking tool) to publish a feature I called “In Retro Cite” on my “A Retrospective Saunter” blog. (Notice what I did there?) The goal of the In Retro Cite posts was to share links that might be valuable and worthwhile to colleagues, readers, and friends. I spend a fair chunk of time following and reading blogs, and some of my favorite bloggers offer this type of content. I usually find some great stories, resources, and reflections among these posts.

I discontinued “In Retro Cite” when I moved my retrospection to a self-hosted site, but I still believe  there’s value in sharing the best of what I’m reading and what’s influencing me. Therefore, I am beginning a new monthly feature “Some Kind of Supreme” named after my favorite frozen treat, the blackberry supreme from Jerry’s Snow Cones. (You really ought to try it.) The goal is to share some blog recommendations and posts that have truly resonated with me. For now, I plan to publish the supremes on the last day of each month. We’ll see how this goes and how it evolves.

Here’s my supremes for April 2013:

Favorite April Fool’s Gag – YouTube’s ready to select a winner

Best Reporting – Marc Perrusquia, The Commercial Appeal’s Leading Up to Six : 01

Six : 01

Most Amen-able – Chris Lehmann’s Teach Kindness

“So much of the current overarching structure of high school is fundamentally individualistic, isolating and solipsistic. What’s incredible is that most teachers went into the profession because on some fundamental level, they care about kids. And without a doubt, individual teachers in schools all over the world inspire students with their acts of kindness despite being in a system that discourages rather than encourages kindness as an institutional value.

That has to change.”

Coolest Math-related Site: Numberphile (h/t Doug Peterson)

Saddest – Gerald J. Conti’s Resignation Letter as shared by Valerie Strauss

“After writing all of this I realize that I am not leaving my profession, in truth, it has left me. It no longer exists. I feel as though I have played some game halfway through its fourth quarter, a timeout has been called, my teammates’ hands have all been tied, the goal posts moved, all previously scored points and honors expunged and all of the rules altered.”

Most Inspiring – Chris Wejr’s Share Who You Are, Let People In

“We need to be comfortable with sharing more of our personal side – the moments of joy, sadness, success and challenge.  As a principal, there is nothing I love more that hanging out, playing and chatting with the students every recess and lunch. I get to share a little bit of who I am and I get to see a little more about who they are.”

Biggest “Huh?! What?” – Venture Beat’s Why Your 8-year-old Should Be Coding

“‘Kids will have computing everywhere. Doctors will be using computing to make decisions. Jobs will require more technology. … The new jobs that will be created won’t be just programming jobs. But can you think about organizing data? Information and computation is coming to every field.'”

Best Writing Advice – Kristin Hohenadel’s Say It Out Loud: How David Sedaris Makes His Writing Better at Co.Create

“Sedaris says that he has usually rewritten a story about eight times before he tries it in front of an audience, where he ends up reading it and making tweaks up to 40 times before it is published. What he learns during those readings accounts for about 20% of the changes he makes in his text.”

What I Most Wish I’d Written – Nicholas Provenzano’s I Am Not the Enemy

“I am the person that forfeits personal time to ensure students have extra time. I am the person who provides a shoulder to cry on when nobody is around. I am the person who smiles when everyone else is frowning. I am the sunshine in a world of darkness for many.”

Most Likely to Become a Poster in Our Classroom – Todd Finley’s Why Do We Have to Write Today

“Because writing is critical to every discipline. • To understand author’s craft. • To make “text-to-world” connections. • To use metaphors to understand. • To predict the future, like George Orwell. • To map the psyche, like Freud. • To fill dark skies with cherry blossoms, like Matsuo Basho. • To leave love notes on the fridge. • Because poets scare fascists. • To be immortal.”

Best Reminder – Marko Saric’s Don’t Fear the Negative Comments

“A bigger worry than having negative comments is having no people checking out what you are doing and no feedback at all. If people are taking their time to be talking about you in the first place you are doing something right so see that as a positive thing.”

Favorite Post to Parents – Sarah Brooks’ Parents: A Word about Instagram

“They know exactly – to the digit – how many followers they have (and who they follow that isn’t following them back). They get their feelings hurt when the popular kids “like” the pictures above and below theirs on the Instagram newsfeed, but not their picture. They delete pictures of themselves when they don’t get as many likes as they were hoping for. They don’t get invited to parties, but see all the fun they missed out on in every photo posted from it. They post ugly pictures of their friends to get revenge for some heinous act they committed (like saying Louis is their favorite One Direction member).”

Best Question – John Spencer’s What About Solitude?

“Why don’t students enjoy being mentally alone? Is this something schools should be fostering? Are we not exposing kids to enough silence? Or is this silent wandering something that only some people need?”

Hitting Home the Hardest – George Ambler’s Busyness is Killing Leadership (h/t Rich Kiker)

“You become busy when you mistake activity for productivity, when you mistake efficiency for effectiveness and when you mistake more for better. You become busy when you ask ‘What’s next?’ rather then stopping to consider ‘Why this?'”

Most Encouraging – Shelley Wright’s Beta: The Courage to Fail & Change

“I think all teachers must have times when they’re faced with the decision to continue on the safe road that they know, or radically depart on a way that they believe to be better, but the specific route and outcomes are unknown. At least I’ve been faced with this decision. And in all honesty, sometimes I’ve chosen the former, and sometimes the latter. Although for the last five months, I’ve consistently chosen the latter, and they have been the most challenging and fulfilling five months of my career.”

Best Parenting Advice – Leo Babauta’s Flowing with the Stresses of Kids (or anyone else)

“We don’t get angry at the wind for blowing, and yet the blowing does affect us. Let the actions of your kid be the wind blowing — you just need to find an appropriate response, rather than being stressed that this phenomenon is happening.”

Truest – Jose Vilson’s Resolve

“Do they not understand how well I want them to do on this thing? What am I saying? Do I even care about this stupid test? Is it really a measure of what they’ve learned this year or what they wanted them to learn and not learn? What if they were only one digit off? Do they have to conform to the state’s thinking to be good students? Good learners? Good people?”

Must Read for This “Dada” – Katrina Schwartz’s Giving Good Praise to Girls: What Messages Stick

“Dweck understands it isn’t easy to praise process and emphasize the fun in challenging situations. Kids like direct praise, but to Dweck lauding achievement is like feeding them junk food – it’s bad for them.”

On My Nightstand – Amber McRee Turner’s Sway, Susan Cain’s Quiet, and Parker Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy

Through the Speakers in My Van – This month the boys and I have listened to Ingrid Law’s Savvy and Scumble, and we recently started Magyk, the first book in Angie Sage’s Septimus Heap series.

My Most Popular Post in April 2013 – Diving Into Project-based Learning: Designing the Rubric

“I wasn’t completely comfortable with the wording of the rubric even as I shared it with the students, but we needed to get started. Together as a class, we discussed the rubric in detail, but I still worried that the boys’ understanding of the rubric was very different from mine. Nevertheless, this iteration of the rubric would serve as our guide.”

What about you? What have you read recently that’s left its mark on you? What’s happening on your blog?

Asking For Help

Asking For HelpHe’d surpassed his frustration level. I was working with another group when I glanced over and noticed his head in his hands. He was desperately trying to cover his red face and the tears streaming down his cheeks. We only had a few minutes left in class, and he had been diligently working to map out his group’s reading plan for the next few weeks.

I’d provided a sample plan. We had twice discussed how he could pattern his group’s plan after the sample I’d given them. And yet, he was still confused and couldn’t seem to make it work. His partners weren’t helping much. He had enthusiastically taken the lead on developing the plan, and they had let him do it. Why wouldn’t they? He’s a hard-working student–an extremely “high flyer” in a room full of soaring stars. Having him in their group all but insures they will all do well. However, at this point he’d reached his limit. He couldn’t figure it out and was certainly not going to finish it before the class ended. Crushed and falling apart, he slumped in his seat.

I quickly made my way over to him and threw my arm around him. “Let’s take a walk together,” I stated as I instructed the class to tidy the room before leaving.

When we reached the small office next door, I said, “Talk to me. What’s wrong?”

“I can’t figure it out. I tried and tried, but it doesn’t make sense, and they were counting on me. . . and not really helping,” he admitted.

“Okay,” I said. “Don’t worry about the plan. I’ll be happy to help with it. It is really confusing the first time you do it, and I’m sure the example could have been clearer. We will figure it out, okay?”

“Okay.” He relaxed and immediately appeared relieved.

“Can I ask you something though?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Did you get the other guys’ attention, tell them you were having trouble, and ask them to help you figure it out?”

“No,”

“Aren’t they part of your group, too?”

“Yes.”

“Isn’t that what partners are for–to help us learn?”

“I guess so,” he reluctantly admitted.

“You have so much to offer your group. You work hard in class and strive to think deeply about our books. And I also appreciate that you want to lead your group, but leading isn’t always doing it yourself, right? Leading is inviting other people to help carry out a task and helping them do their best, too, right?”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

“You know asking for help is okay, right?”

“Well. . . I guess so.” He bowed his head as if ashamed to admit he might need help occasionally.

“I know how you feel. It’s a lesson I’m still trying to learn, too.”

#MCHunter Day 5: World Peace and Sui Generis

On Friday morning the students’ energy level was high. They could sense that they were close to winning the game and achieving world peace, but they still had a long way to go. They had 6 crises left to solve in addition to needing to out the saboteur and avoid the debt crisis in several nations. Yet, they knew they were close. As the children planned and negotiated, we teachers watched for the game to speed up (Does the deadline propel learning?), for further team development, and for the students’ reflective awareness of what they have learned. John did a skillful job keeping them focused, but most students didn’t require his help. They understood what they needed to do and believed they could do it. They could achieve world peace.

As the game played on, John reminded the students of the obstacles remaining in their way, and during negotiations the students continued overcoming hurdles. They recognized how much they needed one another, and altruism surfaced in all of them. They lay aside their differences. They exposed the saboteur. They were generous to one another. They did what we so often cannot do. They declared peace. Everybody won.

In reflecting on her learning, one student admitted, “I’m smarter than I thought I was.” Another confessed, “I learned that by working together, we can do anything,” while a fellow participant added, “I learned the value of negotiation rather than fighting.” Several kids gained an awareness not only of their own potential for evil (“I can be mean.”) but also their capacity for good. They loved playing the game. When asked what they would want their teachers to know about the experience, one boy responded, “That this (game) is fun and really makes you learn a lot.” Their reflections were moving.

During our afternoon debriefing with John and Jamie, we discussed the learning of the game and identified the following outcomes:

  • “flow”
  • collective success
  • critical and creative thinking skills
  • process and intention focus
  • real world relevance and knowledge
  • resourcefulness
  • engagement
  • confidence

Using some tools and inspiration from John and Jamie, we spent the rest of the afternoon considering the concept of sui generis, a Latin expression meaning “of its own, creator of its own kind,” and working with each other and our curriculums to create our own “games.” Through the reflective process and sharing of the week, we identified the things keeping us from reaching our potential as teachers and collectively attempted to address those problems. Then, we were given the time and tools to begin reinventing how we will take new risks and teach our students. As Jamie explained to me, the week was about renewal, reflection, and risk-taking, and I really appreciated how my colleagues opened their hearts, made themselves vulnerable, and worked together to discover and create unique learning opportunities for our students. As my colleagues shared their ideas, I was inspired by my colleagues creativity in re-imagining their curriculums.

I am immensely grateful to John Hunter and Jamie Baker for facilitating the Master Class and to PDS for allowing my to attend. I am also thankful for my colleagues–my friends–and all they shared this week. I look forward to hearing more about the changes they are bringing to their teaching and to their students.